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Ferguson and the Insulting Paternalism of White People

November 27, 2014

First, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a white guy, about as white as they come, and I grew up almost exclusively around other white people. Even as an adult, I can’t pretend I’ve been surrounded by diversity.  I make no claims to be an expert on race relations. I’m barely a novice. As with all things, I can speak only through the microphone of my own experience.

In the months since Michael Brown was shot by Darren Wilson, and in the days since Darren Wilson escaped indictment, I’ve seen ugly racism from some white people, but let’s be honest, this is no surprise. The dyed-in-the-wool racists cannot be argued with, they cannot be placated, and they come out of the woodwork at the slightest whiff of opportunity to shove their anachronistic and vile beliefs down our throats.  “See,” they tell us, “I told you they were criminals.” “What do you expect from savages?” they ask. No amount of truth will change their minds. No “good behavior” by black people. No impassioned pleas. Our best defenses are sunshine and ridicule. Good people realize this and reject their hatefulness. They deserve no more than that.

But that’s not the end of it. What possibly disturbs me more is the veiled (and, hopefully, unknowing) paternalistic racism I’ve seen in some of those same “good people.”  Most people do not consider themselves racist, but words and deeds can be born in or fuel racism. And I’ve seen a tendency on the part of white people to take a “kindly master” tone when discussing the events in Ferguson, couched in appeals to the black community to not reinforce stereotypes and in terms like “personal responsibility” and “black-on-black crime.”  I’m sure these are usually meant with the best of intentions (although the hard-core racists use them as well), but they reveal a systemic, hidden racism. Hidden inside ourselves.

Let me give you an example. On Facebook, I’ve seen a lot of people like a post about Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn’s comments on Ferguson. So as not to misrepresent what he said, here is the quote:

80 percent of my homicide victims every year are African-American. They know all about the last three people who have been killed by the Milwaukee Police Department over the last several years, but the there’s not one of them who can name one of the last three homicide victims we’ve had in this city

I don’t doubt that Ed Flynn is concerned with the safety of all the citizens of Milwaukee: black, white, hispanic, asian, etc. He is probably a good man who does his best to serve (something I have an immense amount of respect for). However, deflecting the legitimate concern about police homicides to a statistic on black-on-black crime is a complete nonsequiter. First of all, it’s not at all odd that people remember the people killed by the police, as it is a smaller number and is publicized more widely. This may speak to how we treat black lives, but it is also a case of the “man bites dog” theory of journalism. Light is shone on the oddities. The everyday fades into the background.

You may ask why we don’t pay attention to black-on-black crime, which is common, and focus less on police brutality, which is comparatively rare? Fair enough, but let me tell you about something else that is extremely common: white-on-white crime.  Eighty-three percent of white murder victims were killed by other Caucasians.  And yet, no one talks about an epidemic of white-on-white crime. Black people are more likely to commit crimes against other black people because they are more often around other black people.  It’s not a symptom of a culture gone to seed, one that doesn’t respect itself or value life.  It is an issue of proximity (but not only proximity. There are many elements that factor into the crime rate, including poverty, but that requires a post of its own.. It’s like the oft-bandied-about statistic of 75% of accidents happening within 10 miles of home.  Yes, because that’s where people do the vast majority of their driving.

Establishing that black-on-black crime is not an epidemic or is even all that odd is not an excuse to do nothing. Regardless of whether it is an epidemic or not, shouldn’t the focus still be on it rather than the few, random police shootings.  First, I’m not so sure they are random (he says, arguing with himself), but most importantly, how do we know the black community isn’t intensely focused on crime in their community? Our ignorance of their fight does not mean the fight doesn’t exist.  Are there black people who bury their heads in the sand when it comes to crime? I’m sure there are, just like every group has members who prefer not to deal with difficult things.  But there are also innumerable black people working with their communities and neighborhoods to make changes. And don’t pretend they can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.  There is more than enough energy to go around for both police shootings and crime within your community.

OK, moving on. Let’s talk about riots and looting.  I recently saw a meme, again on Facebook, that said “Looting. Because nothing says you care about a dead kid and community more than stealing 50 pairs of Air Jordans and burning the store to the ground,” with a photo of a couple black guys with their arms full of shoeboxes (if this photo is actually from Ferguson and not just a recycled meme, I will eat my hat).  Now, even though there are also white guys in this photo, I’m pretty sure this meme is being circulated because of what is happening in Ferguson. I feel stupid for even having to say this, but as we know, the internet demands explicit statements (and even then often misinterprets them).  I am against rioting and looting.  In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the vast majority of everyone is against rioting and looting. Violence met with violence only begets more violence.  And I believe an individual’s actions are always up for criticism. However, the type of fear and anger surrounding the Ferguson riots only seems to come up when black people are doing the rioting and looting. When majority-white students rioted at Penn State because a football coach was fired, sure people thought it was stupid, people condemned it, but people didn’t fear it (I mean those watching from afar. I’m sure there were plenty of people there who were terrified), and they didn’t extrapolate it out to the entire white community. With Ferguson, a minority of protestors are rioting and looting, but this becomes indicative of the entire movement and black people in general. “They are reinforcing all the negative stereotypes,” I hear people say. “If only they’d behave.”  And this is where I see the true insidiousness of racism in America.  This is where racism is embedded in even the most liberal of liberals, even the most open-minded of conservatives.  In us all. When a black person does something wrong, the entire black community is indicted.  When a white person does something wrong, only the person is indicted (or not, depending on the circumstances).  I want you to think about how infuriating it must be to have every negative action of your neighbors reflected upon you, to be constantly told that if only those neighbors would “behave,” you’d get some respect. I want you to think about how infuriating it must be to be told to “behave,” as though you need a parent watching out for you and when the truth is your good or bad behavior has little to nothing to do with how other people see you.  Think about what it means to behave: “be like us” or “do as you’re told,” one of which is impossible and the other is degrading in the extreme.  Think about what it means to chastise others for “reinforcing negative stereotypes.” By definition, stereotypes are not absolute. They are a projection of an oversimplified belief. They live in the minds of the people who believe them, and it is the responsibility of those people to reject them.

Lastly, think about how all this started. A teenager was shot by a police officer under mysterious circumstances.  The anger and grief of a community was met with a military response, inciting a conflagration. The acknowledged killer was set free without even a trial. Think about your response if this happened to you, not just once but multiple times. And try to stow your condescension and have a little compassion for people in pain.

**UPDATE** In the year or so since I originally wrote this post, police have killed Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, and many others, and John Crawford, Eric Garner, and many others were killed prior to the original post. I just wanted to mention their names and encourage people to comment below with all the names I’ve missed.

  • Endnote 1: I am not pardoning myself of racism.  I understand that it lives inside me.  To say otherwise would be dishonest and a disservice to the ideals I hold dear and to the people who must deal with racisms, petty and horrifying, every day of their lives.
  • Endnote 2: The photo accompanying this post is not, despite what you may have heard, of a Ferguson protestor throwing a Molotov cocktail but rather of a Ferguson protestor throwing a tear gas canister back at the police.
  • Endnote 3: I understand that police officers have difficult jobs and are often forced to make split-second decisions.  This, however, does not give them carte blanche in their dealings with the public, nor does it absolve them of all sins. In fact, I’d say it means we have to hold them to an even higher standard. And the fact that there are plenty of good cops does not mean we let the bad cops do as they please.
  • Endnote 4: I realize that I have made somewhat generalized statements above, but please don’t write to me bringing up the one contradictory case.  For example, I’ll concede that there are examples of certain white communities that get painted with a broad brush (and even then it is limited to that community and doesn’t extend to all members of the white race), if you’ll concede that it is more common among the non-white races.
  • Endnote 5: That said, I welcome all respectful comments whether you agree or disagree.
  • Endnote 6: I worry that this piece itself comes across as paternalistic.  The truth is we white people have a tendency to be paternal even when we are trying to do good.  It is its own form of insidious racism, one that I try to combat but often fail.

Book Review – Revival

November 13, 2014

Not without its faults, but probably the best new King I’ve read in years. Surprisingly short (about 400 pages), this book pulled me right along, even though there were plenty of points where I wish King would’ve delved more deeply, mostly because I found the central premise so fascinating. It builds to a truly unsettling finale. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so glad to not be one of King’s protagonists.

Book Review – Of Sea and Cloud

November 5, 2014

OfSeaAndCloudWithout a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read this year. There’s a touch of Cormac McCarthy in both the language and characters but I think that’s more incidental than even homage. The people in this book demand a cold sparseness to reflect their cold, sparse lives and yet Keller injects plenty of heat and warmth into their dealings with each other.

As for the technical aspects of the book, it’s clear it was written by someone who knows lobster fishing and lobstermen. The world he creates around these aspects feels authoritative. I would never out loud pretend to know fully the lives of lobster fishermen, but inside I now feel like a bit of an expert.

As you can tell, I highly recommend this book. The language is beautiful, the relationships are real and heartfelt, and the world is probably as close as you’re going to get to setting lobster traps yourself.

Full disclosure: I went to grad school with Jon Keller. I don’t know if this affects my feelings about the book other than to say it makes me feel lucky to have studied with him.

Book Review – The Store

October 19, 2014

Synopsis: A giant discount retail store (called The Store) moves into a small town and takes over.

Unsettling more for its depiction of corporate fascism and groupthink than its supernatural aspects (which are downplayed and undercooked). The author has a tendency to drop in information that should be a major character motivator or seems to be a major plot point and then never come back to it again. For example, an early viewpoint character is killed offscreen and not only do the other characters not comment on it but it is barely mentioned again.

Also, there are some odd sexual politics shoehorned in that seem to be more the beliefs of the author than any of the characters For example, one of the female characters laments the current (1998) state of feminism, thinking “Today many of the feminists were as bad as the old male chauvinists had been” and that “feminists were advocating restrictions and censorship, trying to inhibit freedom rather than expand it,” and this ends up having no bearing whatsoever, character-wise, plot-wise, or theme-wise, on any other aspect of the book. This is not about my feelings on feminism (which I support) but rather that whatever a character believes should be supported and reinforced by the text. Characters are not mouthpieces for the author.

In another example of the sexual politics, a scene of a widow interested in buying a vibrator is meant to portray the way The Store infects the town with an insidious debauchery (which is never really brought up again). I understand that horror often uses sex as a shorthand for taboo (and this book breaks the ultimate taboo), but I struggle to see how a lonely woman wanting a moment of pleasure could be considered evil.

All in all, I think this book pulled too many punches. There are multiple instances in which the author could have expanded to show the truly horrible and deranged way The Store is changing the town and the townspeople, but in each case we just get a brief interlude with no followup. Instead, we get A LOT about the political machinations of The Store, which, in my mind, should’ve been the setup for the real horror. Don’t get me wrong, the way The Store swallows the town is genuinely disconcerting. I was just hoping it would become terrifying.

All in all, a decent page turner with some interesting thoughts about the intersection between consumer culture and totalitarianism, but I was left feeling like it was more of a sketch than a fully realized fable

Me man. Me no know cook

August 10, 2013

058071_MuscleChow

I recently received the results from routine metabolic and lipid panels.  Almost everything fell within the acceptable range, but my triglycerides are too high and my HDLs are too low.   Not dangerously so in either case, but given my family history, it would be foolish for me to not take some action to rectify the problem.  I’m not an unhealthy eater as it is, but even without the above test results, I could stand to pay more attention to what food goes into my body.   I’m not looking to lose a bunch of weight or sculpt my abs (have you seen this six-pack?).  I just want some fairly simple meals that help me get the vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats I need.  I’m no great cook, but I’m handy enough in the kitchen when I have a plan or a recipe, so I went to Amazon to see if they had any cookbooks for men seeking to eat a healthier and more rounded diet.

And then I remembered how men are marketed to in this country.   In general, advertisers see us as dicks (I don’t mean jerks) with mouths and stomachs (Let that image sink in for a second…and…moving on.) that can’t take care of ourselves, but thank god there are women to do that for us.   And that mentality apparently doesn’t change much when trying to sell cookbooks.

Here are  the top five results on Amazon when I searched for “men’s healthy cookbook”:

  1. Guy Gourmet: Great Chefs’ Best Meals for a Lean and Healthy Body – The title is fine, but then you get to the blurb: “Man cannot live on bread alone. He also needs chili and steak, tacos and jambalaya, barbecued ribs and burgers.”  All in all, pretty tame, but still selling the idea that real men love chili, steak, etc. and if you don’t, well, maybe get the sand out of your vagina (Although, I do love everything listed there, so maybe they know more about me than I realize).
  2. Healthy Husband Cookbook: Quick and Easy Meals to Feed the Man You Love Good Food and Good Health – Published not in 1953 but in 2013. Seriously, women, get in the kitchen and cook me some healthy meals.  Or do you want me to die young?  That’s been your plan all along, hasn’t it? Let us morons eat ourselves into oblivion and then take over the world. You’ve always been jealous of my penis.
  3. Men’s Health Muscle Chow – The picture above is the cover to this book. See the pipes on the guy holding the knife and fork and stuffed pepper on the cover? All that bulk came from eating stuffed peppers. (secretly ordering this one immediately because who doesn’t want veins popping out of their biceps)
  4. A Man, A Can, and a Plan: 50 Great Guy Meals Even You Can Make – Besides sounding like a treatise about reading on the toilet, notice the little dig at our ability to take care of ourselves.  “Yes, EVEN YOU, a man who watches football with his hand down his pants; EVEN YOU, who once sniffed cinnamon up his nose to win a bet (and lost that bet); EVEN YOU, who should probably find someone to read this book to you, can make these meals.  Now get to cooking, you homunculus mongoloid.”
  5. Man Meets Stove: A Cookbook for Men Who Have Never Cooked Anything Without a Microwave – Uh, what’s a microwave?

I’m not delusional. When it comes to advertising, the condescension and objectification that marketers rain down on women so far outstrips what happens to men that I feel a little silly writing this (and even if it was all equal, we still own everything).  But that doesn’t mean I don’t get tired of seeing commercials and sitcoms and print ads and movie trailers treating men like one giant hive-mind of  sex, boobs, boobs, sex, beer, please take care of me, duh books are for nerds (or worse, women. Oh, the horror!), sex, boobs, FOOTBALL!  Don’t get me wrong, I like sex, boobs, boobs, beer, sex, FOOTBALL!  I just don’t appreciate being treated as though liking anything else is grounds for revocation of my man-card (sidenote – any male who uses the term “man-card” in a serious manner should have one testicle smashed with a hammer. It sounds harsh, but it’s the only way they’ll ever learn.  Use of “man-cave” only requires a swift punch to the groin).

And you want to know the worst part?  Even though I’m aware of these twisted tricks advertisers use to make me believe I need a can of Dr. Pepper Ten to feel truly masculine, I fall for that shit all the time.

Who is the Dumbest Member of Congress? (Steve King edition)

August 8, 2013

110105_steveking_birth_ap_605Everyday it seems I hear one of our so-called leaders spouting such ignorant bullshit that I start seriously weighing the merits of libertarianism.  So instead of moving to the hills and stocking up on guns and bottled water (pipe down, libertarians.  It’s a joke.) or just banging my head against my desk fifteen times a day, I’m going to call attention to these morons.  And without much effort, I’m sure I can keep this a running segment.

Today’s nominee for dumbest member of Congress is Steve King (R-IA).  When he’s not comparing immigrants to dogs, or calling Joe McCarthy a hero, or feeling oppressed by speed limits, or defending dog fighting and animal torture, or believing there is a 100 to 1 ratio of drug smugglers with “calves the size of cantaloupes” to valedictorians among DREAMers, or suggesting that liberals have so devalued life that a man can rape a young girl, kidnap her, force her to undergo an abortion across state lines (why is “across state lines” a part of this?), and then  “drop her off at the swingset…and that’s not against the law in the United States of America,” he’s admitting he doesn’t understand photosynthesis or how sea level works.  Here’s a quote from that last article:

“Everything that might result from a warmer planet is always bad in (environmentalists’) analysis,” he said. “There will be more photosynthesis going on if the Earth gets warmer. … And if sea levels go up 4 or 6 inches, I don’t know if we’d know that.”

He said sea level is not a precise measurement.

“We don’t know where sea level is even, let alone be able to say that it’s going to come up an inch globally because some polar ice caps might melt because there’s CO2 suspended in the atmosphere,” he said.

Read that again, and try to process the amount of stupidity contained in those few sentences.  He actually thinks warmth induces photosynthesis (and even if it did, why assume that more photosynthesis is a good thing?).  He really seems to believe that science is just a bunch of guesses. It would be high comedy if it weren’t so terrifying. This is a man who has a direct say in the future of our country. When you tuck your kiddies into bed at night and tell them there are no monsters under the bed, be sure they don’t know who Steve King is (granted, he’s such an idiot, he’d probably bang his head on the box spring, trip on his way out from under the bed, and then fall out the window before he ever had a chance to call your son a pansy or tell your daughter not to worry about legitimate rape).

***UPDATE***

In a Tea Party−sponsored, “Stop Amnesty” rally on Monday, August 12, Steve King had this to say about Latino immigrants:

If you bring people from a violent civilization into a less-violent civilization, you’re going to have more violence right? It’s like pouring hot water into cold water, does it raise the temperature or not?

He really is the gift that keeps on giving.

This Year by The Mountain Goats

August 8, 2013

I included this song in my Music for the Road post, but I think it deserves its own spotlight.  For the past week or so, it has been the song that gets me up in the morning, the song that gets me singing in the car and playing my steering wheel like drums, the song that has me dancing solo around my apartment (with the blinds drawn).  Also, at least lyrically, it is the perfect companion piece to Jodi Angel’s You Only Get Letters From Jail, which I know you’re all reading based on my glowing recommendation.  And if you’re not reading it, you really should be.

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