“In the jewelry store, they lock the case when I walk in,” the young African American man wrote. “In the shoe store, they help the white man who walks in after me. In the shopping mall they follow me. . . . Black male: Guilty until proven innocent.”That is how E. J. Dionne begins this Washington Post column this morning The words were offered by Cory Booker, on May 6, 1992, in the Stanford University paper, in response to the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King beating in which despite the videotape showing the brutal beating, jurors from Ventura County refused to find the officers gulity. Booker pointed Dionne at those words when the two at down last week.
“I have lost control of my emotions,” he declared. “Rage, Frustration, Anguish, Despondency, Fatigue, Bitterness, Animosity, Exasperation, Sadness. Emotions once suppressed, emotions once channeled, now are let loose. Why?”
This is an interesting column to read. Booker, as the mayor of a decaying city, is more than familiar with crime, including black on black violence. He also understands that there are times when police must resort to using their weapons. He has held a dying young man in his arms, and he also knows that the best officers try to defuse situations where possible, something that as he observes Zimmerman had every chance to do given what he was told by the 911 dispatcher.
Then there is this:
Why, Booker wonders, do we have our famous conversations about race only “when things go terribly wrong”?I have some rather strong reactions to this column.
As we neared the end of our chat, he offered a thought you are more likely to hear from a preacher than a politician. “Fear is a toxic state of being,” Booker said. “You’ve got to lead with love.”
First, I am not in many ways a Cory Booker fan. I do not view him as a real progressive, and would much prefer someone like Rush Holt to be the next Senator from NJ. Especially on education, I am distressed that Booker follows the agenda of Democrats for Education Reform.
On the other hand, I acknowledge he has been a visible leaders of his city, that he is proactive as mayor, and that in all likelihood he will be the next Senator after the special election.
That is not why I had a strong reaction.
We had the President's remarks.
We now have these remarks by Booker.
It is not only that I am troubled by we only have these discussions "when things go terribly wrong" as Booker remarks. It is that for some reason we focus on the reactions of prominent African-Americans, whom we then seem to think need to also address the question of Black on Black violence.
There is more to Dionne's column, as well as more to Booker's 21 year old piece, both of which are worth reading (and Dionne provides the link to the latter).
There is also much more that confronts us all.
Shortly before graduation in 1963, several students in my class got caught with some relatively minor (by today's standards) vandalism. None of them were criminally charged. All were allowed to graduate. All turned into productive adults. Oh, and by the way, all were white.
Now imagine that it is today, that at least some of the perpetrators were Black. Would not with our approach to zero tolerance all have been charged criminally, those over 18 as adults (in those days all were considered minors under New York State criminal laws)?
Elsewhere today I was looking at a chart that says in 1971 we had much less than 300,000 Americans incarcerated. According to this Wikipedia article, in 2010 there were 70,792 juveniles in juvenile detention. The total number of Americans incarcerated at any moment is now well over 2 million, with almost another 5 million on probation or parole. We are now again incarcerating people for debt, which hardly leads towards repayment of the debt.
The massive increase in incarceration also parallels the increasing percentage of minority males, specifically African-Americans, who are incarcerate. We can talk about the so-called war on drugs being a major contributor, but certainly now we can see as the incarceration rate increased so did the existence of for-profit prisons. We have people in both the private and public sectors (in the latter case unions of corrections officers) advocating for longer prison sentences and more people to be incarcerated, because it represent a financial benefit to them.
But it is a financial drain on our society - in the cost of incarceration, in the lower earnings and spending (and thus lower taxes generated) by those who have previously been incarcerated.
We stop and frisk (NYC) and arrest (nationally) at far greater rates among African-Americans than we do whites, then some point to the arrest and incarceration figures to justify what are basically racist actions.
I said I had rather strong reactions to this column.
I want to know where are the voice of prominent white figures speaking out about the indignity and racism that is still ongoing? Yes, a John McCain may say we need to rethink Stand Your Ground laws, but I have not heard him say the Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly are wrong for the racial profiling being done by the NYPD. I do not see the media given amplification to prominent whites saying that is wrong that all Black males have to live in a certain amount of fear of how they will be perceived.
One reason the cops were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King is that the defense played the video over and over, desensitizing the jurors. I remember the impact upon first seeing it, as I remember the impact of Bill Bradley going to the Senate floor and driving home the impact of what is on that tape - each time he says "pow" he struck the podium with a pencil as if it were the blows from the police baton:
Just as we saw the missiles over Baghdad, or the murders in Tiananmen Square, so we saw the four police ofﬁcers beating Rodney King. It was clear cut. Fifty-six times in eighty-one seconds. Fifty-six times inI wonder if we as a society are getting desensitized to the discrimination imposed on minorities. We keep seeming to forget it. We have Members of the House and prominent figures in the media who can make racially insensitive and even outright racist remarks and not get prominently challenged on that.
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Booker said Fear is a toxic state of being. That is true of the fear on both sides of the incident that occurred in Sanford Florida - if we grant that Zimmerman was at least in part motivate by fear, and I acknowledge that his motivation was far more likely bias than fear, at least initially, because in his car he had no reason to personally fear Trayvon Martin, but Martin had every reason to fear him.
If we allow people to use violence to act upon their fears rather than seeking to avoid the confrontation and/or allow trained professionals (and those words do NOT apply to all who wear law enforcement unifors), then we rapidly descend to a Hobbesian world, where the life of man will soon be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. If we descent to the level that many more people will begin carrying firearms and be willing to use them so quickly, not only will there be many more deaths in the direct confrontation, but there will also be when bystanders are shot, because people operating on adrenaline and/or fear are not the most accurate shots, even if they are trained marksmen.
There is never NOT a time to have the conversation about race.
We can start with having that conversation with ourselves, particularly those of us who benefit from our status of whiteness and of privilege.
Parents of black males should not feel obligated to teach their children to be subservient, and police should not be acting in a way to demean and diminish the personhood of anyone they confront.
If the solution to fear is evermore militarization, then we are rapidly losing credibility as a democracy and becoming a police state, a totalitarian state - that applies to stop and frisk, that applies to NSA data collection, that applies to allowing corporations to use the instruments of power against economic and political opponents.
Fear is a toxic state of being. It dehumanizes both the person against whom we direct that fear and it dehumanizes us.
This is MY reaction to reading the Dionne.
It is written in the context of ALL I have read and heard relevant to the verdict and the events leading up to it, as far back as when I first heard about the case.
It is written in the context of having lived through a time when overt discrimination and racism was built into law in much of the country.
It is written in the context of seeing how what was written into law directly is now being accomplished indirectly.
It is written in the context of knowing how much racial healing this country still desperately needs.
It is MY reaction.
It is not all of my reaction, but this will suffice for now.
Booker also says You've got to lead with love.
For myself, I have to find a way to allow my capability to love to outweigh both my fear and my anger, no matter how righteous the latter might be.
Dionne ends his column with this paragraph:
The dignity and grace of Trayvon Martin’s family should inspire us all to keep our eyes on the future. We should not blind ourselves either to the persistence of racism or to our triumphs in pushing it back. That is the message of Booker’s old column, and it harmonizes with the candid words from our first black president. We have come a long way and have a long way to go.Our journey is far from complete. We seem to have fallen off the path, and/or taken a wrong turn.
We the need the conversation that can redirect us. Yes, we need the conversation.
We also need the action that comes from honesty, not from rationalization of our fears and our insecurity.