Pass To Power: The Truth About “Trans-Racial”

The news cycle giveth–and it taketh away.  After days of international hubbub over fake black “trans-racial” Rachel Dolezal claiming that blackness is something one can choose to be, we see the powerful and very real consequences that still lie at the heart of race in America.   In Charleston, South Carolina, 9 people were shot by a lone gunman as they attended a prayer circle. Officials and investigators are labeling it a hate crime.  No one of those eight lost souls had the chance to stop a bullet and say they identified as white.  None of those people had the right to self identify their way out of the hate.

It’s not a weave or a rap or a twerk that makes a person black.  Race operates on multiple levels at the same time.  We each experience race at the individual level: your own racial identity and your way of thinking and understanding race ; at the interpersonal level: in the interactions and relationships we have with others; at the institutional level:  the schools, organizations, and churches we belong to; and at the ideological level: where the ideas that undergird these systems lives.  While Dolezal has gotten us to talk about race at the individual level, what the crazy-talk about trans-racial ignores is the very real way that race operates on those other levels.

Before we get into the trans-racial take down, a word about words.  Transracial is already a word used to describe an adoption process when members of one race adopt a bona fide member of another race, who remain that other race their whole life.   Lots of TRAs are heated about their term being used incorrectly on this rare occasion when it is used in the mainstream media at all.   There are tens of thousands of transracial adoptees in the US, many of us proving Dolezal wrong–you can have a white mother of a black adopted child.  I know: I have one!

Why call Dolezal’s ask for a pass transracial?  She’s trying to skate on the cool response that Caitlyn Jenner got  just a couple weeks ago.   Cue the meme! (BTW, note that they didn’t have to change Caitlyn’s cover to match Rachel’s face!)

It’s not just an image trade. A very real and complex conversation has popped up to answer the question if transgender is a thing, and race and gender are both constructs, then isn’t transracial a thing? My answer is an emphatic no, with a not now coda.

Race is not biologically assigned, true.  Since it’s socially constructed, we could socially reconstruct or deconstruct it.  Of course.  Race hasn’t always been this way, so it can be something completely different at some point in the future. Yup. And if race is made up by people we can all change our mind and then we can be whatever race we want and tomorrow we’ll be post racial hooray!  No, stop right there.

Click to explore!

Even though race is socially constructed, it’s not constructed primarily at the individual level (remember those levels).  An individual cannot make the decision alone to change the categories–otherwise the census form would be really really long.  Like we said in part 1, even if we all wake up tomorrow trans-racial, race as a construct would need to be dismantled in our systems and institutions.  We can’t agree on much politically–do you really think a referendum recatagorizing all Americans–including Mexican Americans, I’m looking at you Donald Trump–would stand a chance of passing? Not a Dolezal’s chance in hell.

But is someone feels–I mean really feels–like they are black, then why not?  Hmm, notice there is no one saying that black people also have the right to change it up.  In fact, blacks that were caught passing weren’t given a pass–they lost school and work opportunities , social status and in some cases suffered violence.  If whites can become black and blacks cannot become white, then trans-racial is just the penultimate expression of white privilege–the privilege to choose black, and be rewarded.

Besides, how white do you have to go to be considered white?  Lightened skin, straightened hair and white cultural moves might get you paid, but it doesn’t make you white. The costume of whiteness is all around us–and is a multibillion dollar industry.  From 28 inch silky to skin whitening candy (for real) there are any number of products to kick you down Von Luschen’s chromatic scale, but none will give you entrance to whiteness.

7957a-beyonce-skin-bleaching bf6a0-nicki-minaj-skin-bleaching-dadc6a2f

The borders between black and white in this country are still strictly enforced.  There benefits of whiteness are protected in big and small ways from the ballot box, to massive cultural hegemony in media.  The consequences of blackness are enforced with a heavy hand: uneven sentencing laws, banking practices like redlining, not to mention the raw brutality of police killings of black men and women.

Founders of Black Lives Matter

And now Charleston.  People shot dead because they are black.  Not because of a head of fake dreads or a particular shade. The killer didn’t check their black cards before unloading his weapon.  He just shot them.  Because they are black. And no amount of self-identification will bring them back.  They do not have a choice.  They didn’t have Dolezal’s choice.

To say that race is a choice indicates that people can choose.  And if you are suffering, and you choose not to help yourself, well, then your problems become your fault.  Like slaves that didn’t run away. Like blacks that were in the ‘wrong place’. Like Selma marchers.  If race is a choice, then your oppression becomes your own doing. Entertaining that race–and all the consequences that come with it are a choice is offensive given the blood, sweat and tear-gas tears that  have soaked our cities this year alone.  Race is an actively enforced construct at this time in America, so the mutability of race at the individual level is trumped by strict enforcement in our political, economic and cultural spheres. 

As long as blacks still suffer injustice and cruelty at the hands of white supremacy, transracial will remain an offense to people who care about the struggle to move past systems of oppression.  Someday, will we all be able to trade race like we change hair?  Maybe one day, in a lovely dream of a world.  But the struggle is too real in the streets right now to entertain that.The theoretical conversation about what transracial could mean ignores the lived realities of race.   So no to trans-race.  Maybe not ‘no’ forever-f-or evea evea?–but definitely no for now.

How Black am I?

We love to take pictures of ourselves.  We love youth.  So, its only a matter of time that we get an app that looks at our selfies and answers the age old question: do I look old?  How-Old.net is a simple site that allows you to choose a picture and, using facial recognition software, it will guess your age.  While trying to find a picture that would tell me I looked young, I found something interesting.  The site told me I was not-so-old (great!) but at least it could see me–my Ghanian husband: not so much.

IMG_2280

The site had a hard time seeing dark-skinned black faces, whether in the bright sun with plenty of light

IMG_2279

Or sipping cappuccinos with pinkies up, the app couldn’t recognize my fabulous husband or his friend.

IMG_2281

It’s bad enough that black lives have to demand that they matter to be visible.  Now they are erasing us from our selfies?

Cops’ Lies and Videotape

TRIGGER WARNING: this article uses links to police brutality.  Videos are used here to emphasize the graphic nature of available video content that has yet to result in widespread radical police reforms.  It is my experience as a professor that many students have not seen the videos included here.

Walter Scott was shot in the back while fleeing South Carolina police officer Michael Slanger who now faces charges of murder.  What made this case so different from ones before it?  When Walter Scott ran for his life, fearing quite rightly the cop who fired 8 times across 15-20 yards, Feidin Santana turned his cell phone on and started taping. Clear video evidence of Slanger shooting the victim, then apparently planing a taser nearby to support the official report he filed that sounds like a broken record of police abuse:  “He was a threat to public safety. I was in fear for my life. I had to shoot him.”    The video Santana shot gave lie to the official version of events, resulting in murder charges again Slanger, and renewed calls for cameras on cops.

No doubt the constant cascade of black lives culled down at the hands of the state can leave us hopeless, wondering what it will take and what can be done.  The power of Santana’s video in this case, and the importance of its incontrovertible evidence in forcing the process to bend toward accountability cannot be overstated.  Justice in this case was on its way to being denied before the video surfaced. So can video be the answer?

After  each of several recent high profile police shootings, much attention has been focused on putting cameras on cops.  Body cameras are already being used in many police departments across the country.  The logic goes that if there are cameras on cops, then there is a record that will allow us to see first hand what cops are up to.  And for those few bad apples, the camera will act as a deterrent from their crimes.  In fact, stats show that officer aggression is down when cops are equipped with rolling a/v. Though sometimes those apples shut the cameras off…..one report places officers’ compliance with camera policies as low as 30%.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes that bad police shootings are simply a function of a few bad cops gone rogue.  The root of police brutality, however, lies not just on the individual “bad cops”, but on the justice system that they represent, and the racism that has been a part of that system since the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown.

Increasing the visibility of police brutality ignores the deep roots of systemic racism. The police are the pitbull and the end of the leash of the state.  Police are charged to serve and protect, but the state is responsible for training, monitoring and disciplining the police.

After video of Rodney King surfaced in 1991, it seemed certain that police brutality’s days were numbered.  After all, if you watched the video, you couldn’t deny what you were seeing was wrong, right?  But then those cops got off, and the killing of black people by police continued.

In August, we watched heartbreaking death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD.  We watched him die in front of our eyes.  The video couldn’t be clearer.  There was no way justice could be denied.  But those cops got off, and the killing of black people continued.

official combined mug shot of Slager, charged with murder

Now in South Carolina it looks like their trying to get it right…only four days after, when Santana was prompted to bring the video to light because the police were lying, blaming Walter Scott for his own death.  Video is forcing them to come correct.  The default setting, though was a police force eager to cover up the death of an unarmed black man.  Video can make them come clean, but it doesn’t challenge the dark heart of their policing practices.

Video evidence can no doubt help get justice, but only after the crime has occurred.  Cameras on cops?  Absolutely.  But the presence–or absence–of videotaping does not cause, merely captures, police brutality.  A longstanding history of police brutality in the black community needs a complex solution including increased political access as we saw in Ferguson’s recent city council win.

Citizen accountability boards and community groups looking can provide a feedback loop to help nip problems in the bud, and make sure the community can trust those charged with their safety.

To do the heavy lifting ahead, we need an educated and culturally competent electorate that leaves denial behind to chase our dreams of all being equal.  Unless the many people that still blame blacks for their own victimization rejoin the all too real world of rampant racial injustice it will be hard to have the kind of electorate that will hold the Sate and local governments to heel aggressive police tactics.

Putting cameras on cops will end police brutality no more than cameras in every connivence store have stopped armed robbery.  Video didn’t stop sexual assault, instead it created a whole new platform for degradation.  Even now videos of blacks being attacked by police play as both tragedy and trope.

Video won’t bring Walter Scott, or Eric Garner back. Video alone is not enough.

9-to-1 Sounds Even, Right?

digits police killings

These numbers refelct the best info available, which isn’t saying much.  Police killed in the line of duty as tracked by the Officer Down Memorial Page, and includes officers killed in auto accidents–26 last year.  Since they do not parse who caused the accident, I included them.  Civilians killed by police tracked by Killed By Police Facebook page–I know, I know, a Facebook page doesn’t sound credible but this is more reliable than FBI statistics, which reflect only “justifiable” homicides.  For more on the lack of stats, visit this Five Thirty Eight post on police involved killings.

Black (Celebrity) Lives Matter (more)

Weeks of protests across the country have been missing lots of your favorite black pop stars, including one formally pink-haired princess.  Nikki Minaj has been silent on the issue of police misconduct and brutality.  Turns out, even though she has assured us that she is both a monster and a boss bitch, that she is worried about taking a hit in the pocket if she stands up for black lives.  Not so tough now…

bad-bitches-like-me

In a recent interview in Rolling Stone Minaj said that she feels like she can’t speak out about racism in society without her career taking a hit:

“I feel like when Public Enemy were doing ‘Fight the Power,’ we as a culture had more power — now it feels hopeless,” Minaj says. “People say, ‘Why aren’t black celebrities speaking out more?’ But look what happened to Kanye when he spoke out. People told him to apologize to Bush!”

Minaj must not have notices tens of thousands of  people around the country participating in die-ins:  laying on cold streets, in traffic, on highways, and across the sticky floors of malls.  These people– many young people squarely in Minaj’s demographic–have been unafraid to speak out and to literally lay down to stop the world and make people hear their chants of black lives matter.

BS md-black-lives-matter-p1.jpg

Some of these people left work or class to participate in protests risking all kinds of consequences.    But most of the protesters are not famous, and few are likely to have a corporate record deal, so admittedly, most of us have a lot less to lose than our favorite rapper.

141124_seattle_maclemoreThen again, look at Macklemore who has made a career in rap speaking out.  From celebrating thrift store swag to same sex rights, Macklemore has made millions, topping charts and hearts with his uber-unity rap.  Even Eminem, the bad boy of rap, has spoken on on a variety of social issues like suicide and poverty.  Em didn’t get black balled, he got put in car commercials .

What could possibly be different between Kanye and Nikki and Macklemore and Eminem?  Black artists don’t get the same pass, don’t get to play the same parts that their white counterparts play, even in the land that blacks created–hip hop.  Black artists can easily be labeled as radioactive for the same stances that we swoon to see white stars in.  Bill Gates can dump money wherever he wants, but when Dr. Dre gave a massive donation to USC he was criticized for not giving black enough.  Critics questioned Wyclef’s work in the wake of the Haiti earthquake.  And of course, there’s Kanye.

Of all the spheres for black celebrities to orbit, hip hop was supposed to be the genre where black lives–and voices–really did  matter.  Truth is, there is lots of great hip hop talking about these issues, but to Minaj’s point, that is the game of mainstream media.  Market forces determine the lowest common denominator for pop stars to aim at, hoping to please the bland palate of the masses while ignoring the issues of the smaller classes in the audience.  the risk is real, but is that an excuse?LeBronJames1

Despite having offered an apology to George Bush, Kanye persists. Despite the potential backlash, dozens of sports stars have made their voices heard.  Despite the cold, Black Lives Matter Protests persist.  So what’s up, pop princess?  In the face of racism we each have to chose how we will respond.  When we choose to sit on the sidelines and not risk what we have despite our best intentions, racism persists.

Minaj bemoans the hoplessness of these times–I feel her.

“[Kanye]was the unofficial spokesman for hip-hop, and he got torn apart,” she says. “And now you haven’t heard him speaking about these last couple things, and it’s sad. Because how many times can you be made to feel horrible for caring about your people before you say, ‘Fuck it, it’s not worth it, let me live my life because I’m rich, and why should I give a fuck?'”

We create these stars when we buy their shit, but they cannot be bothered to say in public that your life matters.  Go ahead, Nikki and live your life, because fuck it, it’s true–you’re rich and why should you give a fuck.   Selling out pays well.  But if you ever want to see what a real star looks like, look at the bodies dotting the pavement.  They’ll be out there, holding you down.

No Justice: Killer Cop Walks, Prosecutor Blames the Media

Tonight in Ferguson Missouri, prosecutor Bob Mc Collough announced that Officer Darren Wilson will not be charged for shooting and killing 18 year-old Mike Brown in front of witnesses at 1 in the afternoon  August 9th.  While the prosecutor confirms Darren Wilson was responsible for killing the unarmed teen, the grand jury, led by the prosecutor, did not return an indictment. Darren Wilson is now a free man.    The announcement comes floating on a flood of calls for calm from everyone from the governor and the attorney general to Michael Brown’s father.

Since that night in August when Michael Brown was shot down in a residential neighborhood of Ferguson, protesters have applied steady pressure calling for accountability for his killer–Officer Darren Wilson– and those in the system who protected him.

Mike Borwn's stepfather holds a sign accusing police of shooting his unarmed son just hours after the shooting.
Mike Brown’s stepfather holds a sign accusing police of shooting his unarmed son just hours after the shooting.

Thousands of people in dozens of cities have staged legal and peaceful protests seeking justice for Mike Brown, despite a widespread media narrative that has focused on stoking fear of violence and retaliation from the black community both in a Ferguson and across the country. There are two important points to consider about massive coverage of “potential violence.”

B2HNqRyIgAAxf9P

First, focusing on the potential for tension and violence, rather than the reason for the protests and anger positions the black community as ‘problem people’ deserving of repressive measures of control.  In the days leading up to today’s decision state agencies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on gear to be used against US citizens protesting injustice by the American government.  That’s enough to make conspiracy theorist sound like they might be on to something.  After the massive show of paramilitary gear in August to deal with protests met with a massive outcry, the authorities’ only lesson seems to be “bring bigger guns.”

Police Shooting Missouri

Secondly, media narratives that frame peaceful protesters as blind mobs bent on violence and destruction of personal property, justifying strong armed retaliation of the police, keeps the focus off the injustice at the heart of the Mike Brown case.  While news stories in the days leading up to today’s announcement focus on preparations for a hurricane of violent protest,  Darren Wilson has already negotiated a quiet exit.  Wilson has been on paid administrative leave since August 9th.  Given the lack of an indictment Wilson was eligible to return to work on the force.  That he could negotiate this at all adds insult to injury–he was legally able to return to patrol the same streets that he shot Mike Brown on, despite dozens of eye witnesses to his unlawful use of force and the continued potential of federal civil rights charges. Today’s decision is clear evidence that we have yet to shed a history of racial disparity in our justice system.

police-brutality-stats
click to enlarge

You may say, as many will in the days to come, that if the grand jury decided there was not enough evidence to indict, then Darren Wilson remains, legally, innocent, and therefore, no racism occurred.  Let’s be clear: racism is the systemic exercise of power advantaging one racial group over another. The shooting was just the first in a long string of points of tension in Ferguson.

racismis

In the Mike Brown case we have seen authorities exercise power in their own interests over those of Mike Brown, the community or the constituencies to whom they are responsible.  Despite widespread calls for the police chief and the prosecutor to recuse themselves, they have refused.  Calls for independent special prosecutors trusted by both sides were denied.  Information leaks, clouds of tear gas, FAA restrictions on media and hundreds of arrests, including the arrest of many high profile civil rights activists and peaceful protesters, line a trail of racism from Mike Brown’s body to the steps of the Missouri courthouses.

And now after months of peaceful requests for action on behalf of Mike Brown and the people of Ferguson, justice is again thwarted.  Don’t get mad, they say.  Don’t act out, they cajole.  James Baldwin once said, “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”  

Ferguson-Am-I-next-from-FergusonOctober-10-11-14

To be assured that if you are a black man you may be stopped by the police and shot down in the street like a dog.  To look at young black boys innocent before the world paints them as wolves.  To send your husbands and sons–and daughters for that matter–out with the knowledge that they may be targeted by those sworn to protect them–this is the reality, and one well worth your rage.

Now is the moment not to fall apart, but to fall together.   Since Wilson has not been charged, double jeopardy does not apply and another prosecution of Wilson is possible.  Remember, any decision on federal civil rights charges in the case are still pending, so there is still opportunity for national pressure to bring justice in this case. .  Whether black or white or Latino or Asian, we’re all responsible for keeping the American dream of freedom and equality for all alive.

Don’t be distracted by fear mongering and race baiting. Let your anger today be a weapon polished with knowledge and drawn in civil action against those who think you too uncivilized to fight strategically.  Fight with tweets, fight here with words and letters and here with marches.  Fight with your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving.

After a recent discussion about Ferguson in my college class, a students asked me, “What should I tell my 3 year old son? ”  The very idea that he will need to know about systemic racism when he is Mike Brown’s age breaks my heart.  Despite today’s decision, this cannot persist.   We as a nation must do better.  Nurse your broken heart today, and then lace up your gloves.