Scale of 1 to 10, how believable is the following?
Back in the 1970’s, the Colorado Springs Police Department hired its first African-American (as an officer, not as the help). Not long after being hired, Ron Stallworth (if you thought CSPD would hire a Black woman before a Black man, recall that while Black men are Black, we’re still men, so a society that values men over women would still show bias against Black women and in favor of Black men) saw an ad in the newspaper for the Ku Klux Klan, who were looking to increase their membership. I’m guessing members of everyone’s favorite cross-burning racist organization were doing some spring cleaning and noticed a surplus of white sheets in their stockroom. So instead of donating the sheets to the Red Cross or Goodwill, they figured to begin a recruitment drive. Given that monitoring and dismantling extremist groups was part of his job, Stallworth had an idea. He would infiltrate the KKK and learn all about the local chapter, gaining crucial information that would enable him to bring them down. Yeah, his idea hinged on him, a Black man, infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. By April 1979, he had not only joined the KKK, but he’d also pulled the wool over the eyes of the local KKK chapter and the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke.
Sounds like something out of The Onion, doesn’t it?
As preposterous as that sounds, it’s all true. Today, just shy of the 40th anniversary of Black Man Makes Fools Out of Local KKK Chapter, BlacKKKlansman debuts, further immortalizing Stallworth’s efforts. Starring John David Washington (son of Denzel Washington) and Adam Driver, the Spike Lee-directed film tells the story of Ron Stallworth’s successful bid to do that which most other African-Americans don’t even have on their fictional bucket lists, let alone their real ones.
By now, you’re likely aware that the current occupant of the White House is deeply racist, holding disgusting anti-Hispanic opinions and has no qualms referring to migrants as “animals” or publicly likening them to roaches.
By now you’ve heard of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy that treats all migrants from Central and South America as criminals.
You likely saw images of the cages inside a Texas warehouse nicknamed ‘Ursula’ , some of which house up to 20 children (no, not this miscaptioned photo).
You probably heard about the converted Walmart in Brownsville, Texas nicknamed ‘Casa Padre’, where upwards of 1,500 migrant children are housed (but we don’t need to worry much bc out of that number only a few dozen children have been ripped from their parents arms, the rest is comprised of teenage migrants who entered the U.S. alone, so it’s all good that *anyone*– let alone children–is housed in a detainment center)
You may have heard the desperate pleas and sobbing from children (some crying so hard that they have difficulty breathing, not that one of the border agents seems to give a rat’s ass) in the recent audio obtained by ProPublica.
You may have heard that there is considerable outrage over the zero tolerance policy, with criticism coming from all 5 living First Ladies (yes, even Melania Trump, not that Cheeto Hitler cares what his wife has to say) and even internationally.
You may have heard all of that and find yourself angered beyond all measure. Perhaps, like George Takei, you think of the racist U.S. policy that led to internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War 2.
Perhaps you are sitting there, feeling a burning desire to do SOMETHING to help resolve this crisis, but you have no idea what to do and you’re feeling utterly helpless. I know that feeling. Trust me, bc I’ve been there. I am there. But there are things we can do:
I remember the first time I was ever called a N*gg*r. My father was stationed on Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. I was between 13 and 15 years of age (it was before I had a car, but when I was officially a teenager), so everywhere I wanted to go, I had to bike it. Which was no problem for me. I loved being on my bicycle. One particular summer day, I decided to do something that, looking back, was pretty uncharacteristic of me. I was just starting to collect comic books (I wouldn’t start seriously doing so until I was 16, when I had a job and a vehicle) and I’d been to one of the local comic book stores a handful of times with my mother. The shop was a good 8-10 miles from the military base, so I thought to ride on up there and use my allowance to buy some comics. At that age, walking into a comic book store was, for me, like a kid who loves candy walking into a candy shop: paradise.
For the most part, I took side streets to get there, staying off the main roads bc traffic and well, I didn’t wear a helmet (i know, I know). At that age, I didn’t give much thought to the type of people I might encounter on my ride. Today, I know better. As I rode through one residential area, I passed a few kids playing outside in their front yard. There would have been no reason to take note of that, except for something I heard as I rode by. One of the kids, a young girl, said to her father “look dad, a n*gg*r”, as if I were some peculiar creature that she’d only read about in books or saw at the local zoo (by that point in the 20th century, Blacks and other Non-Black PoC were no longer dehumanizingly and humiliatingly put on display in human zoos, which really were a thing for hundreds of years).
Back then, I knew very little about racism and how pervasive it was. Nor did I know the history of that slur or how much power it had. Even still, I knew that the word was an insult directed at me and those like me. Given the casual way she uttered the word, I suspect she grew up around it, with family and friends using it regularly. Strangely enough, for all that I’ve lived in the Southern United States for most of my life, that instance was one of the few times I’ve heard the slur spoken by a living human (I qualify that bc I’ve heard the word on television and movies before).
I knew enough, however that I hated the word and never used it or any word derivative of it. In fact, for a very long time, I was opposed to anyone using it. Not just myself or any white person (that’s a given), but any Black or Non Black PoC.. To me, the continued use of a word so strongly tied to the subjugation and dehumanization of African-Americans could never not be a reminder of the inferior status many accord us bc of our skin color. I was also frequently befuddled when I heard a Black person use the word (or, more accurately ‘nigga’). I couldn’t understand why any Black person would use a term that was so obviously a degrading term. Perhaps if I’d had many Black friends, I could have asked them. That was one of the unfortunate aspects of growing up for me–I didn’t grow up steeped in African-American culture. So I didn’t have many Black friends. I suspect things might be different if my parents hadn’t chosen to leave Harlem when I was six months old (though I do understand why they made that choice).
In any case, my strong aversion to the word held fast for many years. That is, until my interest in social justice began to develop; when I first learned about reclaiming slurs. I heard how the LGBTQIA+ community had worked to reclaim ‘queer’ (which I think is one of the more successful efforts to remake a slur) and that ‘b*tch’ was the chosen self-descriptor for many women. Learning about reclaiming slurs made me soften my feelings toward the N-word. I still don’t like it, and hearing its use (in any form) brings a slight chill down my spine. But I’m no longer thoroughly opposed to hearing other Black folks use it (it is not, nor will it ever be ok for wyte folks to use it, and even though other PoC have been oppressed in our wyte supremacist society, it’s not cool for them to use either, bc it was never a term used to disempower them).
For all that I can understand the power in reclaiming slurs, I realize there are some who don’t “get” it, so maybe this will help:
This post discusses ableism and ableist terms. For the purposes of this post, the ableist terms are spelled out.
Ableism is NOT allowed on my wall.
It saddens me that over the years, I’ve had to repeat this several times. Worse still, I’ve lost friends (both in and out of the social justice community) bc it is more important for some folks to be able to use ableist language than it is for them to simply edit their comment (to be fair, that list of people is very small–less than 5; when asked, everyone else who has used such language has been willing to edit their comment). This, despite my friends list being comprised largely (though not exclusively) of many progressive minded individuals who are advocates of social justice. But then I remember that those of us who are social justice advocates and/or progressives were raised in the same bigoted, ableist society everyone else was. That makes us (yes, “us”, bc while I am a SJ advocate and progressive, I grew up in the same bigoted society as pretty much everyone else in the United States) prone to the same in-group thinking, the same human foibles, the same cognitive shortcuts, and the same resistance to modifying our language in recognition of splash damage as any other group. And certainly, many people long ago began the task of ridding themselves of bigoted language. I know a great many people who don’t used racial slurs (including anti-Black, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Asian ones, as well as others). I also know many people who don’t use gendered slurs. I think that’s commendable, bc it takes work to overcome years upon years of cultural indoctrination.
Our society is rife with far more than race or gender based bigoted thinking. Such bigotry neither begins nor ends with racist or gendered thinking. We live in a classist society that regularly discriminates against and oppresses poor people. We live in a body-shaming society that looooooooooves to hold fat people up as objects of contempt. And we love to shame others based on our perception of their intelligence.
People of Color (Black and non-Black) in the United States can (and many do) hold prejudicial or bigoted beliefs about white people. Whether it is right or wrong to do so (IMO, a strong argument could be made that it is reasonable for PoC, based on their treatment by white people, to hold anti-white prejudices), anyone with an understanding of history can see and fully empathize with why they might. Those prejudicial and bigoted beliefs only affect white people on an individual level. They do not have an impact on the rights possessed by white people. They do not have a collective effect on their economic, employment, or educational status.
In short, People of Color can be anti-white, but they cannot be racist against white people bc they lack the collective power to impose their prejudices on white folks as a racial category. Access to social, political, economic, and religious power is a fundamental component to the system of oppression known as racism (in the same way that access to such power is essential to sexism, which is why men do not experience sexism). Without that access to power, there can be no domination, oppression, or subjugation of white people by PoC.
But what if PoC could be racist? Imagine how different United States history would be if People of Color could be racist. We might see examples like the following:
On Monday, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery added two new, history making pieces. Against the backdrop of Black History Month, the Gallery unveiled the official portraits of the forty-fourth President of the United States, Barack Obama, and his wife, Michelle Obama. Commissioned by the Portrait Gallery, New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley and Baltimore-based portrait artist Amy Sherald were chosen by the former POTUS and FLOTUS to portray them. Wiley , well known for his large-scale portraits of African-Americans, was selected by President Obama, while Sherald, an artist who takes a conceptual approach to her work (rather than a photorealistic one), was selected by Michelle Obama.
A murderer is in the news again (one I’ll not mention the name of–he’ll be ‘murderous racist’ for this post). The white supremacist piece of shit who shot up the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 wants to replace his two court appointed attorneys. Why? MR apparently cannot trust them bc they are his “political and biological enemies“. It’s no surprise that said scumbag doesn’t want Alexandra Yates and Sapna Mirchandani (who are Jewish and Indian, respectively) to represent him. Hell, I’m going to hazard a guess that some part of both attorneys loathes the idea of representing him. Absent legal requirements, it’s difficult for me to believe that anyone–aside from people who share in MR’s bigoted beliefs (a list that includes the likes of the right-wing extremists speaking at the upcoming horribly misnamed “Free Speech Week” at Berkeley)–would want to work with, for, or in the defense of the man who killed Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson.
Hs plea for new representation was denied by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals:
“The court denies the motion for substitution of counsel on appeal.”
I found I was surprised by two things after reading his request:
1. I thought “did this asswipe on death row really just make a request for new lawyers? Seriously? Dude is lucky to have any representation at this point!” But as I thought about it, “white guy riding the conveyor belt to death row makes request” in a society that routinely and unfairly grants advantages and privileges to people based on their whiteness really isn’t that surprising. Since the dawn of our country, white folks (even before whiteness was created) have been catered to and coddled, with their hopes, dreams, and desires prioritized above all others.
2. For similar reasons, I was also surprised that the judges didn’t grant his request. We live in a country where a drunk driving, “affluenza” suffering kid can kill four people and get no jail time, where a judge can rule in favor of re-segregating a town in Alabama (even with the caveat, that shit is rage-inducing), and where a rapist who was caught in the middle of sexually assaulting a woman gets a six-month sentence in jail (which was reduced to three months bc he was on “good behavior”) bc the judge “weighed both sides” and decided rehabilitation was the best option (Rehab? In jail? In a country whose prison system is about punishment, not rehabilitation?.
Affluenza kid? That Alabama town? The rapist (and the judge presiding over the case)? Guess what race they all are. So yeah, i was a little surprised that MR’s request was denied.
One thing I wasn’t surprised about though?
Some of the comments I read from people reacting to the denial of MR’s plea. As happens so often in stories that involve extreme violence or behavior that is beyond the social norm, many people were quick to assert that mental illness was to blame for MR’s repugnant actions and beliefs.
I wish people would stop doing this. To get there, I invite people to consider what these words mean and what message they convey to others.
He’s mental” is the same as saying “there is something wrong with his cognitive abilities and that’s why he is a murderous racist”. Once you’ve intimated that mental illness or impairment is behind the actions and beliefs of a racist killer, you’ve opened the door to the notion that cognitive impairment is the root cause of racism and murder. Leaving aside the fact that playing armchair psychiatrist over the Internet is most definitely NOT the way a mental health diagnosis is determined, claiming that cognitive impairments cause racism (or lead to murderous acts) is deeply, massively fucked up.
It’s also factually incorrect.
First of all, there’s the splash damage done to people who suffer from cognitive impairments or whose cognitive abilities differ from the perceived societal norm. Drawing a direct link between cognitive ability and racism signals to others that “racism is caused by mental illness”. Likewise, drawing a direct link between cognitive ability and acts of murder tells others that cognitive impairment is the reason people murder others. We live in a society in which people with mental illness or disabilities face a high degree of social stigma and pervasive discrimination. The last thing that they need is for armchair psychiatrists to pile on prejudice by perpetuating harmful ideas. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens not only in discussions of MR, but in the comment section of every article I’ve read about mass shootings (curiously though, I’ve yet to see anyone claim that those who kill others in self-defense, in a time of war, or as a military combatant are mentally ill), and most pieces on racism that I’ve read.
Secondly, there are plenty of people who have cognitive impairments or mental illnesses who are not racists and not only have not committed a murder, but have had no desire to. Conversely, many people who are neither mentally impaired or ill have been racist (imagine someone trying to make a defense of the Confederate army with the claim “they couldn’t help but be white supremacist supporters of slavery. They were mentally ill.”) Some non-mentally ill, non-mentally impaired people have had murder in their heart and blood on their hands. Despite evidence that shows:
Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness
the belief that people with mental illnesses are violent is widespread.
As for racism…racism at the individual level (not structural or systemic racism) is learned. Murderous Racist not only grew up in the United States, a country that is driven by white supremacist ideology, he grew up in an area where that ideology was openly discussed. Celebrated, even. He was radicalized by spending time in areas that white supremacist rhetoric abounded. He soaked that shit up like a sponge. The harmful (and biologically incorrect) beliefs he holds about Blacks and Non-Black PoC are the result of him acquiring and retaining the wrong information. Not the result of something “wrong with his brain”.
Another way to think of it–you can unlearn racism. You cannot unlearn a cognitive impairment or deficiency.
I hope those making such comments can understand how incredibly wrong they are. Not just from a factual standpoint, but also in terms of the splash damage done to people who suffer from cognitive impairments or whose cognitive abilities differ from the perceived societal norm. Ableism is one of the many forms of bigotry that permeates society. It also cuts across political lines. It has become almost reflexive to associate the Right with every form of bigotry under the sun. It’s expected of social regressives to defend and uphold harmful beliefs about gender, race, sexuality, et al. Unfortunately, where left-leaning or progressive people can (in general) be counted upon to resist racism, sexism, or homophobia, far too many on the left side of the aisle are comfortable with ableism. We’re the side that is supposed to be more enlightened, more concerned with social issues, and focused on reducing inequities in society, so come on people, get with it: having a mental illness does not lead someone to commit murder and bigotry is not caused by cognitive impairment.
It’s 2014. After 23 years serving on the Latta, South Carolina Police Department, Crystal Moore found herself fired from her job. She had managed to work her way up to police chief and was the first woman police chief of Latta. During her time as Chief of Latta Police, she received numerous compliments and by all indications, performed her duties quite well. None of that mattered in the eyes of the CIty Council. Nope. She was fired for being a lesbian.
Earlier this year, Jameka Evans was forced to leave her job as a security guard at Georgia Regional Hospital bc, in addition to her refusal to dress in manner that conformed with stereotypical gender roles, she is a lesbian. She tried to sue her former employer. Both a lower court and the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against her.
More recently, Hollis Bulleit, daughter of Tom Bulleit–founder of Bulleit Bourbon–opened up about the circumstances that led to her departure from Diageo, one of the largest alcoholic beverage producers in the world, and owner of Bulleit Bourbon. In a series of Facebook posts, Hollis Bulleit, who is far from a stranger in the alcoholic beverage industry, revealed that she was pushed out of her job bc, drumroll…she’s gay (that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the homophobia she experienced over the 10 years since she came out to her family).
If you’re queer and you live in the United States, your job is not as secure as you think (here are 5 more people fired for their sexuality). Hell, not just your job–your home is not as secure as you think. Neither is your ability to partake of public services like restaurants or hotels. As of 2017, only 21 states (and D.C.) have statewide non-discrimination protections in place for LGB people (of that number, only 19 offer protections based on sexuality and gender identity). Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is very real and collectively, queer people suffer bc of that.
The discrimination we face begins at a young age. The social stigma faced by queer youth is enormous. Familial rejection. Rejection by religious organizations. Bullying in schools. Homelessness. Alone, any one of those challenges can be damn near insurmountable for many queer youth, but to have to face more than one? It can seem virtually impossible. And the stress such discrimination places upon queer youth can adversely affect their mental and physical health.
To my surprise (and probably many readers), we are not alone in our struggles. The stress we face. The oppression we endure. The discrimination dealt with. It’s not just we who have problems. There’s one group that seems to think they suffer as much as we do…that they face discrimination on par with the shit we have to put up with. Watch the following video, Not Alone (if you can stomach it without throwing anything at your computer or wailing so loudly that you shatter your screen and torment your pets), and see for yourself just how rough these people have it:
I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest area, but I’ve heard a great deal of praise for the region, especially Seattle. Aside from the weather (I’ve been told it’s quite a rainy region), it is apparently a great place to live. At least if you lean left. The city is viewed by many as a bastion of liberal progressivism where forward thinking people from all walks of life are welcome. Seattle is a ‘Welcoming City‘, where immigrants, refugees, and Muslims are accepted and embraced. It was voted one of the top 5 liberal cities in the country in 2014 and given that recreational marijuana is legal there, it’s not hard to understand why. Unlike the Southern U.S. where I dwell (and most of the country, for that matter), Seattle also has extensive public transit and [Hot Damn!] they were one of the first cities in the US to approve a $15/hour minimum wage. Anecdotally, I’ve been told the city is very friendly to transgender people, and with 9 top-rated HRC employers in Seattle, I can see why.
$15/hour, queer friendly businesses, and legal weed? Sounds good to me. There’s just one problem (well, there’s probably more, but for the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on just one). A problem that has existed in the Pacific Northwest dating back to its beginning. It’s a 500-lb. elephant in the room and is a blight on the liberal reputation of Seattle (as well as the greater Pacific Northwest). If you guessed racism, you are correct. To make matters worse, it appears as if many white liberals were tired of conservatives hogging the “I’m a racist asshole” Spotlight, and wanted their turn. It may surprise some to hear accusations of racism lobbed at liberals, but racial biases and prejudices are not limited solely to those on one end of the political spectrum. And while overt examples of individual race-based public or political* discrimination has diminished significantly** over the last half century or so, more subtle forms of racism, such as racial biases and prejudices, continue to thrive.
Such biases turned out to be quite at home among many of Seattle’s white liberals in the wake of a Black Lives Matter event last year. Conceived of by teachers across Seattle, the event–which was little more than teachers wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts to school–hurt the fragile sensibilities of many liberal parents leading to a White Whine backlash.
Across the United States, more than 800,000 people serve as local and state law enforcement officials (LEO). These LEOs are charged with upholding and enforcing the law, maintaining order, and providing general services. To carry out these duties, police officers possess certain powers, granted by the state. If the situation calls for it, police officers can frisk, detain, and arrest civilians, as well as seize property. In addition, depending upon the situation, police officers are empowered to use force to defend themselves or civilians (the amount of force extends along a spectrum from police presence through deadly force). Given the powers that police officers have, it is incumbent upon them to maintain a level of professionalism in the course of their duties and to wield their powers responsibly and ethically. Unfortunately, there are countless examples of cops engaging in a range of irresponsible, unethical, immoral, and/or illegal activities from bribery and unjustified arrests to illegal search and seizure and the use of excessive force. Here are five such examples: