Let me first give a disclaimer: I’m not a reverse racist, I have white friends [you see how that sounds].
Now that the formalities are out of the way, I have to be honest, I don’t do it this much, but I am poaching the idea of this blog from an article on the Root “White Men Mess Up and All is Forgiven.” Frankly, I had been seething quietly about the two white men who got redeemed in the most unlikely of ways in the past week or so to the point of refusing to give it any other thought because I didn’t want the colored headache–ya know the extra added stress some of us have just because we’re black in America. But honestly, with February 5 being Trayvon’s birthday and the news of George Zimmerman suddenly being physically fit enough to fight DMX (wasn’t it The Game earlier this month?) but not being physically able enough to push the skinny black teenager away just wasn’t sitting well with me. This was compounded by the fact that we’ve heard how the New York Police Department has launched a full investigation into who was the drug supplier for the now deceased Philip Seymour Hoffman. The article on the Root brings into conversation the redemption of Peyton Manning who forgot to show up to the Super Bowl this past Sunday and how the commentary didn’t at all thrash him in the same way Donovan McNabb was raked over the coals in Super Bowl XXXIV.
I want to push the envelope a bit farther than what the Mikol Clark article does on the Root beyond just what work needs to be done to bring parity in the media for black men and how we’re portrayed. This is beyond a basic kumbaya We Shall Overcome moment in America, this is about the systematic societal structure that consistently redeems white men, sanitizes white women, overly sexualizes black women and criminalizes black men.
As a mildly accomplished writer in my own right (I’ve already published over 1,000,000 words just here on this blog over the years), I lack the cultural capacity and therefore, I literally lack the words that can describe my social angst when I hear that the NYPD is concerned enough about the death of Hoffman to the point of making sure a citywide manhunt takes place to find his supplier. Please, can someone tell me who Whitney Houston’s supplier is? The same could be said for the dozens of celebrities who have met their bitter end from drug overdoses, but the devil is in the details: it’s not just the fact the cops are looking for a supplier, it’s the fact that his life has been redeemed to the point that his drug addiction really wasn’t his fault, it was the fault of the supplier. That was where my mental capacity failed to wrap my mind around this logic. But this goes true for most of the white men that have died from overdoses that were celebrities. From the likes of John Belushi, Chris Farley, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, hell, even Elvis Presley, we still laud them for their accomplishments.
Proportionately speaking, as a society the way drugs and black men are understood by this society and addressed in the media is totally the opposite. Take your average evening news-journal style show (a la “Dateline”) and look at how the portrayal is of crack and cocaine versus exposes on the meth problems in suburban and rural areas in this country. The use of police sirens and jail imagery is more prevalent when we talk about “urban crime” which is still a codeword for “black criminals.” It’s an overt criminalization of black men, while white men commit the same non-violent crimes and nothing happens. I think this Jon Stewart “The Daily Show” clip illuminates my point.
I just heard the story of Marcus Smart earlier last week, and I was amazed at how the narrative focused more on Marcus’ shove than the fan’s responsibility. There was a clearer criminalization of Marcus’ actions than that of the fan Jeff Orr. Both issued an apology and Orr put himself on a self-imposed ban from games for the rest of the season, but under the guise in which this story has been played, almost no article has given any credence to Marcus Smart’s allegations that Orr uttered a racial slur: the n-word.
Smart’s actions as a college athlete have more weight than that of Orr as a middle-aged white male fan. Smart is seen as a commodity of the university, pardon me, a commodity of the basketball sports franchise as a whole, both NCAA and NBA. His actions on court are seen as a liability of product, not a typical human reaction to a dehumanizing comment. What does it mean when black men are regarded as this non-human commodity; it’s no wonder this concept of $40 million dollar slave trade exists in the athletic cultural critique. When the subject of black quarterbacks in the NFL having tattoos is centered around whether or not they look like they just got out of prison, it’s an automatic criminalization of black men; it’s a scrutiny white professional athletes have never had to endure. I can’t recall one NFL coach or owner asking their white quarterback did they have tattoos leading up to their draft and signing date the way Cameron Newton was asked before he signed with the Carolina Panthers.
The fact that Marcus Smart is seen as having a temper and unruly in the process of being commodified, Jeff Orr has been redeemed as an overzealous fan. It took about a full week for articles and op-ed pieces to even begin to look at this from the perspective of Marcus Smart and at the arrogance of fans. But beyond that, this is a society that enforces the metanarrative that the likes of Marcus Smart is an aggressor and Jeff Orr is a victim. Black men have always been forced to choose between their bodies and their souls in this country, especially at the behest of white men. Retaliation is then seen as aggression which makes the antagonist now the victim.
The perpetual redemption of white men keeps the current power structure the way it is. That’s why it’s still jarring at times for people to see black and brown faces in white places because it signals to the power structure that something can in fact change, but it’s also a tacit admission of guilt. What would you have to be afraid for if you’ve done nothing?
What we as a society across the racial spectrum fail to understand is that to what level we are tacit in this automatic redemption of one at the cost of criminalizing “the other.” When the History Channel produced “The Bible” and every last major character was white, with a British accent, portraying people where it is common scientific and academic knowledge were people with brown and tanned skin and everyone probably had dark curly hair, it’s this weird post-racial redemptive engagement of whiteness. Seriously, everyone looked like they just stepped out of a shampoo commercial! To hearken back to the Jon Stewart clip, we refuse to image in our heads the white male CEOs of the Wall Street businesses and banks who committed fraud and other financial crimes that were responsible for the 2008 Great Recession as criminals. Just because of my skin color, I’d be more likely to be seen as a criminal than the Wall Street banker who committed securities fraud.
Without taking too much of an overly religious tone to it, but I think it bears in mind when dealing with the American zeitgeist, if the Christian deity and Jesus are imaged as white, then it would make sense that whiteness is worth redeeming. And more pointedly, how can the exact image of the one who can do the redeeming ever be in the wrong? Now we all know this is not a cut and dried example and there are many instances in which white people receive the same criminal penalties as blacks–wait, I couldn’t even type that with a straight face. When a prison industrial complex is filled with more blacks than whites so disproportionate to the demographics of the country, it’s a circular argument that supports the narrative that black men are criminals. This negates the fact that unfair sentencing laws exist when it comes to mandatory sentencing, and also that judges do have bias. Even to the point where there are judges who were sending young people to jail for the sake of getting kick-backs so that the for-profit jail systems could keep their numbers up–criminalizing trivial mischief.
Finally, the hung jury on Michael Dunn, the one who shot and killed teenager Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida illuminates the bias in this country and its predilection to favor and redeem white men. Just about every legal commentator, aside from those on Fox News, has commented that they don’t see how the jury convicted Dunn on counts of attempted murder, but failed to come to a consensus on the actual murder. Regardless of one’s social and moral compunctions about the existence of “stand your ground” laws, the fact that this is a country where 12 people can’t come together to convict this man of murder is beyond me. Not to mention, they couldn’t even agree to a lesser charge of manslaughter.
Some say, the time he will receive for the attempted murder charges is enough and justice has been served. I say it hasn’t. The sentence he will receive is basic retributive justice, but it’s quite clear many in the country and certainly the parents of Jordan Davis are seeking restorative justice. The two are not the same. It’s not so much that Dunn will “get what he deserves” or “pay his debt to society,” but really that the legal system, our society of laws, functions and operates to the true altruistic ideals that life is honored. The fact that Dunn was not immediately convicted for any of the murder charges sends a message that the justice system and our society isn’t about restoring, or rather valuing, the life of teenagers.
To drive my point home, I leave you with the open letter from the pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
The fact that Dunn is white and Jordan Davis is black makes this all the more challenging. While both defendants, George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn did not try their cases on the basis of “stand your ground” the jury does receive instructions when deliberating specifically about “stand your ground.” If suddenly white teenage males were being killed as a result of “stand your ground” laws regardless of the race of the one pulling the trigger, that law would be repealed so fast it would make our collective heads spin. In true “A Time to Kill” fashion (because watching that one movie has made all of us experts in law and legal proceedings), I would encourage us to imagine that scenario: white teenage males being killed wantonly because the murderers knew the law was on their side. As a country we’d collectively repeal the law. Why? Because white men need to be redeemed at all costs.
To drive my point home, I leave you with the open letter from Dr. Michael Bledsoe, the pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
Far be it that I, a white clergyman who is not a lawyer, instruct you as to the illogical nature of your “stand your ground” license to kill but let us note something that is apparent now after two cases where your predominantly white juries could not agree to convict a man who admitted he killed an unarmed teen-ager: if you convict a person for attempting to murder ten teens but fail to convict the killer for actually killing a teen, then you have incentivized killing since, not only on the face of it but in actuality, you have told the person we will not convict you for killing a black, unarmed teen-ager but we will imprison you for attempting it.
The stench from your houses of worship is wafting its way across this country, polluting citizenship, demoralizing parents and families, mocking accountability and blaspheming the Holy God whom you say you love and worship. If that offends you, try reading Amos.
Here is my premise and I dare you to prove me wrong: if white Christians in Florida stood up and cried out for justice, demanding an end to the license-to-kill-stand-your-ground law, it would be rescinded immediately. Where is your conscience? Where is the little light you promised to shine for Christ? You have put it beneath a bushel and suffocated it. You know as well as anyone that teen-agers should not be killed for playing loud music. But then, we all know don’t we, that Jordan Davis was not killed for playing loud music. He was killed for being an uppity black kid who dared to smart off to a drunken white man with a concealed weapon’s permit. Speak up, for Christ’s sake, for the sake of your conscience and because you know in your heart of hearts that had a black man killed your white son playing music in a car with friends, you probably would not have to be demanding he be tried because a mob of white folks would have administered mob justice. Shame. Shame. Shame!
White Christians of Florida, speak up for justice. Stand up and demand that this license for murder be removed from your books, from your lives. Stop defending it. It is but a few steps removed from lynching. And you recall, do you not, that the center of the Gospels is the story of the passion of our Lord who was lynched by Romans who perceived him as a threat?
I’ll end with a word from the great neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth, a man acquainted with evil in the form of Nazism and who, along with a small group of other ministers, signed the Barmen Declaration, refusing to swear an oath to the Fuhrer. This is what he said in the 20thcentury—it is as apt today for your hearing as then: “The time is not always ripe. It may be past, it may be still to come. But woe to the church if when the time does come it is silent….”
Speak up for justice. Rescind Stand Your Ground for the blasphemous sham it is. Do it because were the roles reversed, you would want someone to cry out for your murdered child.
He signed the letter “In the name of the Murdered and Risen Christ.”
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL