The Land Where Hurt People Hurt More People
A couple weeks ago at a weekly service held every Friday near Penn’s campus, Penn’s University Chaplain and Vice President of Social Equity and Community, Chaz Howard, read from that day’s Equal Justice Initiative (from Bryan Stevenson) calendar entry. Every Friday at noon, Chaz reads that day in history from EJI and then there is a discussion with all those that wish to contribute attending the service. On April 29, the reading was about Rodney King’s trial. Damn, that brought back a lot of memories. On March 2, 1991, when Rodney King was beaten for nearly fifteen minutes by four officers while over a dozen more officers watched, I was a sophomore in high school. I was an awkward and quiet kid, like many teenage boys, but had found some kinship and refuge through basketball. I was a tall, white kid from an upper middle-class family, living in a mostly white, upper middle-class neighborhood. Basketball being my pathway to “finding myself” led me to become friends with many Black and brown teenagers who didn’t live in a neighborhood like mine. We hooped and became friends and consequently: I was in their houses and in their neighborhoods; I ate meals at their houses and slept over; I went to the corner store and around the neighborhoods while we weren’t playing, all the while a curiosity to behold, 6’6” and startingly pale in the Miami sun. I had exposure to the lives of people not many white, straight males have in this country. Despite that exposure, I was not any more prepared for the decision in the Rodney King trial that was announced April 29, 1992. Three of the four officers on trial were acquitted. The jury could not agree on a verdict for the fourth officer. I was shaken, the wind sucked out of me. My friends were mostly angry and uniformly unsurprised. I was stunned. THERE WAS A VIDEO!
Since then, I have learned so much more about the history of racial injustice and white supremacy in this country. Now, when there are events like the beating of Rodney King by four officers while over a dozen other officers watch and no officers are found criminally culpable, I am angered AND unsurprised.
The days and weeks since this service, I have continually thought about how that time affected me so much as a kid and about America today, thirty years after that court decision. The discussion at these services always helps me. Chaz has a way of speaking to people, me included, that makes you want to be better. He hears my frustration and anger and gives it its due rumination, while making sure to follow up by injecting me with some needed hope and, most importantly, the will and strength to stay in the struggle.
Here’s the thing, I am a white, straight man. This country, its constitution, it is set up, written for me and those that look like me. Increasingly, I believe that so much of our “divisiveness” comes down to those who are welcoming of a truly multi-racial, pluralistic democracy (or at least claim to, King, Malcolm X, and Baldwin have all spoken about the harm that the white liberal/moderate can cause), and those who do not welcome it. For me, so much of what ignites the division comes back to the racial hierarchy, the Caste that Wilkerson refers to in her book. I believe more and more that it is all connected to white supremacy and grievance, all of it: health care, abortion, immigration, education, housing, defense spending, police reform, voting laws, Shelby, gerrymandering, Electoral College, hanging chads, voter suppression, free speech, cancel culture, SJW, bleeding heart, PC, book banning, CRT, Don’t Say Gay, bathrooms, trans people’s existence, race card, gender roles, identity politics, don’t talk about politics, tax cuts for the rich, trickle down, Elon Musk wanting to control Twitter, less government, less regulation, other people’s children, NIMBY, Citizen’s United, dark money, Tucker Carlson, GRT, gun regulation, Heller, opioids, homelessness, climate, COVID. All of it. I see racial injustice and our need to maintain, or get back to (as if it’s still not in place), a way of life predicated on the hierarchy (white supremacy) we have always had. I believe it is why people who were originally not included in whiteness eventually were welcomed: Irish, Italians, Catholics, etc. It is why people who are considered white but socio-economically have more in common with many people of color vote so often against their best interests. “Entitlements”, “social justice”, regulation, and “welfare” would benefit them but that might mean losing their position in our caste system.
I try to go to these services every Friday that I’m able. It is good for my soul. I can rant for a second and Chaz can allow me a moment for my bluster, and then bring me back with hope and the will to fight. As I said before, the thing is, I am white. Chaz is black.
There was a video that featured Kimberly Jones after the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (so many names). It was during the debate in the media about was it protests or riots or looting. At the end of the speech, Kimberly Jones says, “You broke the contract, not us” and then finishes with “and you’re lucky that what Black people want is equality and not revenge.” What group of people have ever demonstrated so much belief in an unfulfilled promise and unrealized potential of anything as much as Black people have in the United States of America? Time and time again, they have been excluded, diminished, enslaved, murdered, raped, dismissed, robbed, red-lined, patronized, belittled, held back, impoverished, pillaged, bamboozled, used, beaten, commanded, ignored, and have not taken up arms against the Union en masse, the way the south did, not once have they given and sought revenge. I’m sure some would argue, that is only because they are a minority. We are in an age of minority rule now! We have gerrymandered, suppressed, ECed, court stacked, not represented (DC, Puerto Rico) our way to minority rule and non-governing. All the while, largely, Black people have continued to believe that this country could become what it has promised to be, a more perfect union where all men are created equal…Perhaps THAT is actual Patriotism. The thing is, I am white. Kimberly Jones is black.
Last week, Chaz changed his service up, he read the entire lyrics (well not the curse words) to The Heart Part 5 by Kendrick Lamar that announced the release of his newest album. The lyrics are so layered, spit so quickly that only by reading it several times can you even begin to extract the depth of his words. This is a thoughtful, talented, genius of a man. Winner of a Pulitzer. On the album, he wrestles with so many things, it is truly awesome, but in The Heart Part 5, he keeps returning to the culture, what is considered the culture, the good and the bad, different points of view. “As I get a little older, I realize life is perspective.” It is hard to get it out of your head once you hear it, once you read it, once you watch the video. The man is special, and he is sharing his gift with us so that we might benefit. This man of 34 from Compton, who grew up on welfare and Section 8 housing, to get straight As in high school, speaks to suffering and struggles of life but the hope too. I can relate personally with some of what he says and I can empathize with other things. The thing is, I am white. Kendrick Lamar is black.
This weekend, there was a bunch of mass shootings in quick succession (maybe there always are in this country, these just received some media attention). One of those shootings was an 18-year-old white man, who drove 2 hours to a neighborhood that is primarily Black in Buffalo, NY, so that he could shoot as many Black people as he could with his semi-automatic (modified to be fully automatic) rifle, AR-15 style like most mass shooters (just like the well-regulated militias mentioned in the 2nd Amendment). Like most mass shooters, this teenager bought his gun legally, despite a psychological evaluation after menacing threats he made. He is an avowed white supremacist and posted about his white supremacy, his disdain for non-white people, his adherence to an iteration of the age’s old replacement theory (now no longer discussed only at the fringes but fully part of right-wing media and the Republican party) and his desire to kill non-whites. He modified the gun so that might be able to hunt and shoot even more people. Yet, he was easily able pass a cursory background check and purchase a weapon of war. The killer was captured alive. I am angered but unsurprised. I am also heartbroken…again.
This past week, I read a thread by Michael Harriot about The Boston Vigilance Committee, Charles Turner Torrey, and William Lloyd Garrison. It is long but I will try to surmise it by saying that Harriot is making a point about white allyship. Charles Turner Torrey founded the Boston Vigilance Committee, an abolitionist group which existed in the mid-1800s to assist escaped slaves avoid being returned to slavery. William Lloyd Garrison was also part of the abolitionist movement at the time and is much better known. Torrey and Garrison did not see eye to eye because Garrison felt Torrey was too radical. As Harriot says, Garrison was not in it if the going got tough, whereas Torrey saw things through to his imprisonment, ultimately dying in prison. He concludes that most white allies give up when the going gets tough and that Black people are not surprised by this, they in fact expect it. He also makes the point that Torrey, who was in the fight to the end, has largely been lost to history, while Garrison is perhaps the best-known white abolitionist. The thing is, I am white. Michael Harriot is black.
Here is my point. It is easy to march one summer, only to stand by idly as nothing significant changes and forget what all the fuss was about. It is easy to renounce a self-avowed white supremacist shooter but not call out the people and systems that allowed that to happen, more-so, were complicit. It is harder to say it is all connected and continue to call out the white supremacy (and the misogyny and the homophobia) when it: affects my position (or my kid’s) in the hierarchy/in the caste (forced integration of schools for instance); when it is drowned out by the always evolving iterations of the same tropes, dressed up in the newest palatable language (like Lee Atwater said) to allow for some plausible deniability; and being told by friends, “you talk about race too much!.” I hear Chaz, Kimberly Jones, Kendrick Lamar, and Michael Harriot (and King, Malcolm X, and Baldwin) urging me to be more than an ally, “I want you.” More than that though, Black people cannot do it, ending white supremacy is white people’s burden. Ending white supremacy requires our work, as white people.
The reading this Friday from EJI was about The Freedom Riders who traveled in buses through the south to champion desegregation. In 1961, a bus of multi-racial passengers made their way from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, testing the strength of Supreme Court decisions that forbade discrimination in interstate passenger travel along the way. The group encountered violence in South Carolina. The violence escalated as the group reached Anniston, AL. Led by a Ku Klux Klan Leader, an armed mob attacked the bus. Despite warnings of violence, the local police did not show up until after. The police escorted the group out of the city and into another mob, which surrounded the bus and attempted to trap the passengers inside the bus after a firebomb had been tossed inside. The passengers were able to escape before a gas tank exploded, only to be beaten by the mob. The Freedom Riders were eventually taken to safety by a convoy led by a Birmingham Civil Rights leader.
The question I kept thinking about as I listened to Chaz read and as I thought afterwards is, “Would I have gotten on that bus?” Would you?
“Let the good prevail.”