Wednesday, February 15, 2017

If You Prick Us, Do We Not Bleed? Black History and Dehumanization

I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

Shylock (The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 1)

Here is a good question to consider:
A large percentage of the population in the USA believe that there is a systemic racism throughout the country.
What would lead them to believe that?
Before you post your answer, see if it looks/sounds racist. For example,
"The media has led them to believe it." Well, why do 'they' believe it but 'we' do not? Are 'we' so much more wiser than 'they' are? Are 'they' gullible while 'we' are knowledgeable?
"A lack of education." Same thing as above...'they' are not educated, 'we' know better.
So, what would lead a large population of our culture to believe that this were true, while at the same time keeping another segment from believing it?
This may help define the problem, if there is one....

February is Black History Month, and in our present times, understanding our history and our present is more vital than ever. We have seen the reemergence of full-on White Supremacy and overt hatred toward non-whites on a scale that I have never seen in my 40 years. So I think this is a good time to write this post, which I have been mulling in my head for the last couple of years.

It has been nearly two years since I wrote a bit about the Ferguson protests, and more specifically about the Department of Justice report that found widespread bias and a system of fines and imprisonment that can only be described as systematic oppression of the poor. In the time since that, I have had some rather awkward conversations about race and racism with friends, family, and acquaintance, starting with a person who (without reading the Ferguson report) sent me an op-ed from a hard-right opinion site claiming that, well, African Americans were just so much more likely to be criminal and violent than everyone else, so this is all just a media creation.

Later, I had another conversation with a different individual who opined that Black Lives Matter is just a media creation, and that police brutality doesn’t really exist.

These are just a couple of the many. (The use of “media creation” makes me think it is a Fox News talking point.) And that is just people I actually know. If I expand to friends of friends who have been quick to jump on those of my friends who support Black Lives Matter to say just how fake they think the outrage is. I think the overall belief is clear:

A great many people think racism no longer exists, and that minorities should just shut up already.

Sadly, this includes not just those who, after the rise of The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named, started feeling free to say obviously racist things. Most of those who I know with this opinion do not believe they are racist, and can probably honestly say they have never personally mistreated anyone of any race.

Let me be quick to add at this point that one of the people who has said these things has been me. Yep, I do confess it, and acknowledge that I have had to confront my own biases over the last few decades.  

There are two factors that particularly opened my eyes to the true level of racial hatred in this country over the last few years. First, the way President Obama was treated, the Trayvon Martin killing, and a myriad of police shootings have made it much harder to naively believe that bias - and outright racism - do not exist. The second factor was actually listening during the Ferguson protests. Listening to the protesters. Imagining I was in their shoes. Listening to my non-white friends tell of their own experiences with the police, with whites who feared and distrusted them. Listening to those of my white friends who have adopted non-white children tell of the differences they see in treatment.

I realized that the only way I could continue to believe that this wasn’t driven by racism was if I considered non-whites to be less human than I was.

You really only have two choices here. Either there is something lesser about non-whites - less intelligence, less intellect, less education, less judgment, less ability to resist manipulation; or, you have to grant that they were reacting just like any other humans would to their situation.

But instead, what I hear is this: “I understand your experience more than you do. You do not understand your experience as well as I do.” And along with this comes a healthy dose of telling people that their experiences aren’t really happening to them. Or that even if they were, their negative experiences were all their fault.

The arrogance of this is apparent. (Even if it wasn’t always apparent to me either.) “I can better interpret your experience (which I haven’t experienced myself) and explain it to you.” Ouch.

I can’t see how you come to this conclusion without believing that you are, in some way, superior.

If I believed that non-whites were fully and equally human to me, then I had to grant that they were assessing and responding to their circumstances and experiences the same way I would.

So, what would induce me to protest? What would make me brave enough to confront people armed with military weapons, driving armored vehicles, and generally able to kill me? What would lead me to calmly stand up to someone screaming “Bring it, you fucking animals, bring it!”?

Hmm. Let’s just say that seeing something on a news show probably wouldn’t do it. Not by half.

But if I genuinely felt that my family and community was in danger, I would. If I was suffering under injustice, I would. I might even protest to protect other families and communities. (And I may have to before this administration is over.)

Joe Holman, who I quoted above, is a missionary who has challenged me in my faith a lot over the last few years, by his continued insistence that we don’t just parrot our sources, but genuinely think through whether we sound like Christ, or just sound like Fox News or MSNBC (or whatever your flavor of choice is).

This particular post I thought captured the essence. Is there any way to say that the vast majority of African Americans (to say nothing of the white parents of adopted African Americans) are imagining a problem without making a racist assumption? I do not believe it is possible.

Shakespeare, in a play that is on the awkward edge of antisemitism (very much reflecting the prejudices in Europe for hundreds of years which would eventually lead to the Holocaust) nevertheless hits on a universal truth. The Jew, Shylock, makes this extraordinary statement that takes him beyond an otherwise unfortunate stereotype into a sympathetic character.

If you prick us, do we not bleed?

And, if you inflict injustice on us, will we not protest?

This is - or should be - Empathy 101. We cannot even begin a constructive conversation on racial issues until we grant full humanity to those who have suffered immense wrong over the last 400 years.


Praying for Peace:

I want to address one more thing here. Many a well meaning (and usually decent) person has expressed, whenever there is civil unrest and protests, a prayer that God’s peace would be given to the protesters.

And I know that most of the people who say this have the best of motives, and are genuinely nice and decent people, who, again, have probably never personally mistreated anyone. I am not trying to impugn your motives, which I assume are pure as the driven snow.

But really?

Seriously, this is like a pat on the head of someone who just got kicked.

Let me translate what this really means. Or at least how I suspect it sounds to those whose loved ones are dead.

“God, the scary black people are making me scared when they protest. Please give your peace to the scary black people so they stop being so scary and making me uncomfortable. Amen.”

You know, I have an 11 year old son. Tamir Rice was 12. My son is a good kid, but he is a kid. His judgment isn’t always spectacular, he doesn’t always pay attention, and I have no doubt if a cop pulled up and yelled at him, he probably would just say “What??” Because he’s a kid.

My son has two advantages over Tamir Rice. The first is that he is short like me. The second, though, is why I don’t worry that he will be murdered by a cop. He’s white.

Likewise, I have been pulled over for traffic violations. (Yeah, me and my lead foot…) I have never worried that I couldn’t reach for my wallet without ending up dead. But not so much for Philando Castile. Honestly, I cannot even imagine how his partner held it together and filmed his death. That’s a level of self control that I am not sure I could maintain.

Now let me say this, if my son were shot dead, or if my partner were shot dead, the cure isn’t “God’s peace” so that I will feel better about the murder of my loved one. The cure is justice. And the cure in the long term is significant societal change so that this stops happening.

To tell someone who has been wronged and is devastated that you wish God’s peace on them is incredibly insulting. It minimizes the harm to them, and puts a burden on them to stop being upset. Suddenly, if they don’t stop protesting, complaining, seeking change, then they are the bad people. They aren’t accepting the Peace of God™ you just sent their way.

So here are perhaps some more appropriate prayers:

“God, let those who set up a system of looting the poor in Ferguson be brought to justice, and may those who were harmed be compensated.”

“God, please convict the cop who screamed “Bring it, you fucking animals” at protesters of his evil racist heart, and let him repent and make recompense to those he harmed.”

“God, help us all to see that we need to make a more just and safe society for everyone, not just people of our race.”

“God, please make our elected officials see that they need to fix things. I pray that they see the need to address implicit bias and train police in deescalation.”

See how different that sounds.

But also, it suggests that what we really need here isn’t prayer. It’s action. We need to insist on reform. We need to work on our own attitudes of dismissal toward the outcry of those we oppress. (A very Old Testament Prophet sort of idea, actually…) We need to actually listen to others and seek solutions, not pray that they stop complaining.

It has been through listening that I have changed over the years. Listening to my friends and colleagues tell of their experiences of prejudice, police harassment, and racism. Listening to them talk of people showing overt (and unwarranted) fear of them. Listening to the condescension they have experienced, and their fears of accidentally saying or doing something that gets them killed.

And really, let’s stop praying that God would make them feel better about it all, and start working to change things.


Whether or not you have any non-white friends - the evidence suggests many American whites do not - you can at least use your local library or bookstore to find resources. Right now, one of the books I am reading is Remembering Jim Crow, a transcription of first hand oral accounts of life. It is incredibly powerful to hear ordinary people talk about the systemic injustice they faced. Things are better than they were, but not nearly where they should be. And remember, there are still many alive today who grew up during Segregation, including my parents generation. When I was born, the Civil Rights act was a mere 11 years old.

And there are many, many, more; reading them can help create a sense of empathy for the millions who were denied basic human decency. Furthermore, reading these histories make it possible to recognize that the rhetoric and slogans you see today are continuations of the same racist ideas which have plagued our nation (and much of the West) for hundreds of years. One that particularly stands out to me is the way that there has never been an “acceptable” form of protest. Every protest throughout history has been dismissed as having the wrong tone, not being polite or deferential enough, being based on emotion, being unnecessary or inappropriate. Those in power, and those who benefit from privilege have never enjoyed having that challenged.

This is precisely why Black History Month is necessary. We do not know our history. Our textbooks do most often gloss over the stories of the oppressed. We also tend to glorify a past that does not deserve it, and think that a return to those times would make us great again. We tend to assume that others are less human, and that their complaints are therefore unjustified. And we don’t want to hear things that cause us discomfort. 


One more for a future post, perhaps: Apply the same logic to immigrants. Why would people risk death and arrest to come to the United States when our laws forbid it? Is it stupidity? Media? Or are they, perhaps, reacting in a predictable human fashion? Just saying...


In advance, I should apologize for what I know will be my own bias in writing this. I am always awkward writing about race, and I am definitely a work in progress. If you want to understand some of my formative experiences, such as the Rodney King beating, this post is a good start. 

Before you comment: please read my Comment Policy.  
In particular, for this post, there will be a zero tolerance for racist statements. And yes, that includes use of stereotypes ("Blacks are just more criminal than whites.") If you wish to make an argument, it needs to start from the premise that others are as fully intelligent and human as you are. I also will probably delete raw assertions. While I don't like people just linking stuff, if you are going to cite a statistic, it had better be supported by evidence from a reputable source. (Brietbart doesn't count...) Also, if you comment on Ferguson and have not read the entire DOJ report, your comment will be deleted. Please do your research first.


  1. I enjoyed this essay not only for its eloquence, but for the call to action. I particularly related to the light shed on general reactions to any form of protest. Having recently participated in the Womens March, I have experienced more than several of the reactions you listed here.

  2. This is an important post, Tim. I love reading about the evolution of your thoughts and personal growth. Your life will be richer for your willingness to view experiences through different lenses.

    I've just started The New Jim Crow. I'd be happy to pass it along to you after I'm done. For some reason it was in library use only at SFPL, so I had to buy it. As much as I'm reading right now, it might not be finished until Black History month 2018.

  3. I've said it in other places, and it is worth saying here. For anyone to express anger (which is often coded as a negative emotion) in the US, you need to have some degree of privilege already in your backpack. It helps if you're (general you) white. Male. Straight. Meet norms for physical attractiveness and perform norms for masculine behavior. Are Christian, US-born, and at least middle class, just a few for starters. The further you move away from the mythic norm, the harder it is to express emotions that are coded as negative.

    For women to express anger, they become strident, ugly, lesbian, militant, unfeminine/masculine. They are told that anger isn't natural, it makes them less attractive, being too bitter can be aging or make her ugly. People of color hear they are the problem. "Those people's" gangs, drug dealers,absent fathers, welfare queens, wild teens, truant kids, drop outs-- that's what causes all these problems they experience, not systematic racism that shapes people and institutions.

    I am so exhausted of hearing people talk about how terrible it is when women, people of color, Jews, non-religious people, poor people, immigrants, Muslims, members of the LGBTQ communities-- anyone a step from the mythic norm-- speak up to demand change, justice, equal treatment under the law, or that the law actually be followed. I am tired of hearing that anger is ugly, destructive, dangerous, unnatural and irrational when Blacks express it to protest police brutality, when women express it to demand bodily autonomy or equal pay or protest rape culture, when poor people express it to demand redress of decaying schools or polluted water. Many of these same people who are oh-so-troubled by anger turn around and applaud and say the anger is normal, rational, and natural when those with privilege express it when faced with even just the possibility of some degree of unearned privilege decreasing.

    It isn't just the hypocrisy I find galling, but the insistence that the current matrices of oppression, injustice, and privilege are normal, natural and, most of all, beneficial for society as a whole.

    Whether this is about the entrenchment of ideas like the bootstrap theory, reluctance to change/ unease with change/the unknown, someone feeling that the status quo is working just fine for that person, fear of what happens when a person loses some kind of privilege they've been accustomed to, or more likely a combination that includes these things and many others, there are too many people who don't want to seriously look at the matrices and how and why they hurt far too many people and in reality benefit very very few.