What a week. I am listening to Beyonce’s Lemonade album all the way through for the umpteenth time, feeling in-love, excited, melancholic, and nostalgic. And that’s just on a personal level, not even considering our current, painful political climate. Of course I have been thinking and feeling, as most if us have about the murders of Black people and people of color in our country. These concerns have been intensified by international attacks in France to Turkey to Baghdad and the ongoingU.S. violence abroad. It has been a rough two weeks to be an empathetic human being in general, and even more so if one is black, queer/trans, woman, working-class, migrant, and other oppressed identities. As I hurl into my future and think about my various roles, I think of my parents’ adage– look at yourself first. Look internally, they would say. To diagnose the problem and think of solutions, we need to look internally. Even on the national level, we do not have to go too far to consider what we need to do for healing and justice. At least a part of what this means is to look at ourselves honestly as a country. Will the people (particularly officials) be upfront about the racist policies we have created, carried out, and continue enabling?
A few days ago, I returned to Michelle Alexander’s amazing book The New Jim Crow, after needing an emotional and intellectual break from it. Her research and the narrative she weaves is horrifying, illuminating, and so necessary. And I ask again, are we all ready to be honest and brave enough to acknowledge it? Only then can we dismantle these systems of injustice and create something different.
Will we acknowledge that the War on Drugs was stimulated to attack communities of color? Alexander writes, many studies have found that during the War on Drugs, law enforcement and media used a “predictable ‘us against them’ frame[…], with ‘us’ being white, suburban America, and ‘them’ being black Americans and a few corrupted whites” (Alexander, 105).
Will we acknowledge and critique that the Supreme Court has essentially legalized implicit bias? In the case of McCleskey v. Kemp, clear and well-researched evidence of discriminatory sentencing in Georgia was not enough for the Supreme Court to consider the state’s practices unlawful. Alexander explains, “The court accepted the statistical evidence as valid but insisted that evidence of conscious, racial bias in McCleskey’s individual case was necessary to prove unlawful discrimination” (110). In other words, even if the prosecutors applied the death penalties in clearly racist patterns, it cannot be used as evidence of racism unless someone explicitly used race as part of the reasoning. And in today’s U.S. society, who is going to sentence someone and– for example– include a racial slur? What’s more, the McCleskey case evidence was so strong, it questioned the validity of the entire criminal justice system, to the point that the Supreme Court wrote, “Taken to its logical conclusion, [Warren McCleskey’s claim] throws into serious question the principles that underlie our criminal justice system… [I]f we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty” (Alexander, 111). The Court openly worries about claims of bias would weaken the criminal justice system. Their ruling that implicit bias could not be used as evidence of racism then could be read as an example of the corrupted system trying to save itself.
Finally, will we acknowledge and critique that the Supreme Court has essentially legalized the use of race-based discrimination? The “Supreme Court has indicated that in policing, race can be used as a factor in discretionary decision making. In United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, the Court concluded it was permissible under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for the police to use race as a factor in making decisions about which motorists to stop and search” (Alexander, 131).
These disgusting facts keep coming in The New Jim Crow, and I deeply hope these points are brought up more often in the national conversation. While recent events are about the murders of individual men, it is well-researched that racist policies enable and exacerbate these interpersonal encounters with police. Sometimes in our hashtags and comments, we do not raise just exactly how deeply rotten is our criminal justice system (and government). When the President invites people for meetings about police brutality, are government officials able to admit to this level of wrong-doing? I believe we need these conversations, and I hope some emotional vulnerability and rigorous analysis is happening from all parties.
That said, we are emotional beings and need to bring our honest and vulnerable selves to see and to be seen by others. We need support to to do so, in personal ways and in systemic ways. I believe we must engage as a country in a truth and reconciliation process to begin to heal wounds and have space to continue systemic changes. National discussions would lead to a washing of deep wounds and hopefully bring us to some shared understandings. Without heart and historical clarity, any progress made in one generation will be maimed and contorted by the following. I hope we can move towards this as part of the work to end police brutality and the larger efforts for true justice.
There is a deep need to look at ourselves. We need cold, hard objective facts. We need warm, tender, difficult feelings. We need to look at ourselves honestly to create a healthy and just society and planet for ourselves and our loved ones. Finally, because we need uplifting and spirit and the intangible, I want to end by sharing this an amazing video from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater doing their thing with Beyonce and Kendrick as a soundtrack: Alvin Ailey “Freedom” Chereography.