Racism is Just One of Two Things Shown in Alton Sterling Killing

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Americans are notoriously bad at holding two thoughts in our heads at the same time.

We look at the police shooting of Alton Sterling and can’t decide whether it was racist or if the 37-year-old black man just had it coming.

But we’re missing the point. Sometimes twice.

Baton Rouge Police shot and killed the father of five on July 5th.

The 37-year-old man was killed outside a convenience store in Louisiana because police allegedly got a tip someone was selling CDs and was armed. In the resulting scuffle, Sterling was shot and killed.

If the whole thing weren’t caught on a cell phone video, it probably wouldn’t be more than a sad headline. Just another black dude killed by police.

But the resulting attention has made his name a hashtag and his death a source of outrage – for good reason.

On the video, police tackle Sterling to the ground before gunshots are heard.

One of the officers shouts “gun” before shooting, but store owner Abdullah Mulfahi told the media that Sterling’s hand was not near any weapon and the alleged gun later recovered from his pocket was not visible.

People watch the video (or not) and immediately take sides.

Who is to blame – the police or Sterling?

Was the black man armed? Maybe – though Louisiana is an open carry state so he would be within his rights to do so.

What should he have done when confronted by police? What actions of his might have resulted in police not shooting him dead?

Did he have a record? Is that even relevant since police had no access to that information at the time?

Typically people come to conclusions based on their convictions and not based on the evidence. If you think black people are being victimized by police, then you’re probably on Sterling’s side. If you think black people are naturally violent and police rarely do any wrong, you’re probably on the side of law enforcement.

But what both sides are ignoring is a sense of context.

This was the 15th American killed by police so far in July alone.

Not the 15th black person. The 15th person. Period.

There’s some dispute over exactly how many people have been killed by police so far this year, but the number is surprisingly high. You’d think that would be something the federal government would keep track of, but no. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program tabulates every criminal statistic imaginable – except homicide by law enforcement. Alarmingly, it leaves this to the private sector – almost as if it had something to hide.

Much of this is done by the news media, both in and out of the country. The Washington Post puts the number of Americans killed by police this year at 505 people. The Guardian puts it at 560. An open sourced database called Killed by Police puts the number at 580.

Any way you look at it, no matter which tally you go with, 2016 is turning out to be one of the deadliest years for police shootings since people have been counting.

It’s a problem for everyone. Police should not be killing such high numbers of civilians. In fact, in other countries, they don’t. Police kill more people in the U.S. in days than they do in other countries in years.

For instance, U.S. police killed 59 people in 24 days last year. In England and Wales, 55 people were killed by police in 24 YEARS!

And the numbers aren’t that high solely because the United States has a larger population. The entire nation of Canada has about as many people as the entire state of California, yet Canadian police killed 25 people last year to 72 by California law enforcement.

That may be due in part to a lack of accountability.

Despite such high body counts in this country, not a single police officer has served jail time for it in the last few years. Several officers went to trial in 2016, but none were convicted, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Last year had the highest number of officers being charged for shooting civilians in a decade. That number? 12. And none of them – not one – was convicted of murder or manslaughter.

We have a real problem here. American police kill far too many people.

However, this doesn’t mean that racism isn’t a motive in many of these police shootings. In fact, the numbers back that up.

Though more white people are killed by law enforcement in this country, it is black people who are killed at a disproportionately high rate. They only make up 13.2% of the population, yet they are twice as likely to be killed by police as whites. Nearly a quarter of all police homicides this year resulted in dead black folks.

What’s going on here?

First, we live in a police state. Officers often kill suspects with impunity and face little to no consequences. Not all police, certainly, but far too many.

Second, black folks are killed more regularly by police than whites. In fact, if all things were equal, you’d expect MORE white people to be killed than already are. Whites make up 77.7% of the population, yet they account for only half of the victims of police shootings.

This isn’t because black people are so much more violent than whites. According to the Center on Disease Control’s annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, they engage in violent behavior at similar rates to whites.

For instance, they carry a weapon (whites 17.9% to African Americans 15.2%) and carry guns (whites 5.5% to African Americans 6.5%) at about the same rates. However, blacks are twice as likely to be arrested for weapons possession.

The same holds for assaults. African Americans report being in physical fights at similar rates (36.5% versus 32.5% for whites) but are three times more likely to be arrested for aggravated assault.

It should come as no surprise then that black people are more likely to be killed by police. This holds with everything else we know. When it comes to the criminal justice system, black people are penalized more often and that includes being shot and killed by law enforcement.

Why? Because they’re black. Because of societal attitudes, fears, phobias and prejudices.

For many of us, when we see Sterling’s last moments enacted on that cell phone video, we’re confronted with that fact. We put ourselves in his position. What could he have done differently? Whether he was guilty of a crime or not, what action on his part would have assured that he got out of this situation alive?

Eric Garner was choked to death by police while repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe!” Tamir Rice was shot by police in two seconds. What exactly could a black person do to avoid being shot if law enforcement already perceives him or her to be a threat?

These are important questions. But they aren’t the only ones.

America has a problem with police violence. In fact, it has two problems. And we can’t solve one without solving the other.

We have to come to terms with this. It is not a case of racism or a police state. It is a case of BOTH.

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Without Black Culture There Would Be No American Culture

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“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”

With these words, Jesse Williams absolutely floored the crowd at the BET Awards Sunday night.

His acceptance speech for the Humanitarian Award was jaw dropping.

Here was a black actor on “Grey’s Anatomy” just telling it like it is on national TV.

He wasn’t afraid a business dominated by white people would take offense (and some white people did). Or if he was, he wasn’t going to let it stop him.

The activist who recently produced a documentary “Stay Woke: the Black Lives Matter Movement” said, “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander… If you have a critique for the resistance… then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.”

No more tone policing. No white fragility. Just if you’re with us, stand up – otherwise, sit down and shut up.

It was beautiful. And it got me thinking.

There are so many obvious truths about our country’s relationship with race that hardly anyone ever gives voice to – especially a white person like me.

So I’m going to add my voice to Jesse’s. I’m just going to say it.

It’s past time we admit it, white people.

American culture would not exist without black culture.

I don’t mean to say that white people are incapable of culture or that if black people had never been kidnapped and brought to our shores as slaves that white people wouldn’t have been able to devise a unique national character.

But if that had happened, it would have been a very different character than what we have today.

It might be America, but it would not be our America. It would be some other thing. I will leave it to speculative fiction to attempt to determine what that might have been like.

However, we need not resort to fantasy to see all the incredible things black people have given us. They’re everywhere, in everything – though usually staring back at us through a white face, heard from a white voice and monetized by a white industry.

The hundreds of years of struggle from slavery through Jim Crow through the modern prison state have given black people plenty of fertile ground with which to build our national culture. Traditionally white people have served as both oppressors and appreciators of the fruits of that oppression.

The most obvious example is music.

There is very little American music not based on black traditions. Even if it is performed by white musicians, even if it is written by white musicians – almost all American music owes an overwhelming debt to black people.

Take rock n’ roll, a style usually associated with white people. The majority of rock musicians are white. The majority of rock stars are white. The majority of rock listeners are white.

But it couldn’t exist without black music – specifically blues and jazz.

Rock n’ roll was invented during the second great migration, when black people from the southern United States came into contact with large groups of whites in big cities such as New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, etc. It was the first time many white people heard black music like blues, work songs, etc. It was also the first time many black people heard European instrumentation. The resulting cultural collision was extremely fruitful.

Rhythm and blues (sometimes called “race music”) evolved into distinct new styles – country, jazz, gospel, folk and rock. In many ways the different styles had less to do with actual differences in the music than in rebranding black music for a white audience. When a black musician became known for a particular kind of music, the fledgling music industry tried to monetize it by finding a white musician who could do something similar and thus reach a larger audience.

They figured if X number of white people will listen to this music played by a black musician, X plus thousands more will listen to it if played by a white one. And they were right.

Black musician Chuck Berry was one of the first to play what we’d recognize as rock n’ roll. He took standard jump blues and played the two-note lead line on his guitar that until then was typically performed on piano. He put guitar at the center of the sound, amplified it, electrified it and rock was born.

The genre developed organically with many black musicians taking the lead – Fats Domino, Sister Rosetta Tharp, Goree Carter, Jimmy Preston, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Joe Hill Louis, Guitar Slim, Howlin’ Wolf and many others.

However, the first certified rock hit “Rock Around the Clock,” was recorded in 1954 by an all white band, Bill Haley and His Comets. With this recording, the die was cast. The music was invented and developed mostly by black musicians, but it wasn’t a major success until it was recorded by white musicians.

The same thing can be seen with Elvis Presley, the so-called “King of Rock n’ Roll.” He wasn’t breaking any new ground. He was just the first white person who could sing like the black blues musicians who came before him. They toiled in obscurity. He cashed in.

This isn’t to say that no black musicians succeeded playing rock n’ roll. But it was predominantly white musicians who popularized the style that their black forebears had created.

To understand this, perhaps it is best to turn to the insight of Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones). In his classic book “Blues People,” he dissects the complex American relationship of race and music through the 1960s.

Baraka writes that white and black America have different value structures. As such it is a very different thing for a black American and a white American to play the same music.

When a black musician like Louis Armstrong played jazz music – another invention of black culture – he was fulfilling the ideals of his culture. By contrast, when a white musician like Bix Beiderbecke played jazz music, he was rebelling against his.

There is something jarring and revolutionary when white musicians play black music, Baraka writes. In doing so, the music becomes devoid of race. It is no longer black music. It is just music.

However, the musicians who created it are not likewise freed from the ghetto. They’re still black even if their music no longer is.

So what are black musicians left to do but create new music that they can call their own?

This may explain why so few black performers play rock music anymore. It was taken from them. They had to move on.

Even so, their fingerprints are all over everything that came after. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, all the way through the White Stripes and Black Keys. Ask any hardcore fan to name the best rock guitarist who ever lived, and the answer is bound to come back – Jimi Hendrix. Yet, Eddie Van Halen made an awful lot more money.

Perhaps the most incredible thing is that black musicians have continued to develop new and more creative music after every appropriation. Funk, Rap, Pop, Hip Hop, modern R&B. One can see all of it as a progression of gentrification and subsequent creation.

It makes me wonder: why do we love black culture so much but not black people?

As Williams said to end his speech this weekend, “…just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”

Black people have achieved amazing things in America. But white people rarely give them their due.

For instance, people generally think of rap as a black thing. But the largest audience for the genre is us, white folks.

There’s something jarring about white teenagers singing along with every n-word in the lyrics of a black rapper’s song as if these kids had the right. We don’t, people.

As Baraka might say, it’s a very different thing when we say it. But it’s more than just rebellion.

Too often white people turn to music that is characterized as black as a way to mock that culture. We demand black culture be commodified in a way that makes sense to our vision of what black people are. And when someone like Williams comes forward to call us out on it, we resent it.

Look around, white folks.

We love our culture, but we’re ignorant of our history.

We enjoy living vicariously through a marketed vision of black struggle but we don’t do anything about the actual struggle before our eyes.

Our black brothers and sisters are crying out in pain. And we’re the cause.

No, we probably didn’t light any crosses afire on anyone’s lawn, but what about our attitudes? What do we say when race comes up? Do we indulge in gut reactions of colorblindness or do we actually listen to what black people have to say? Do we do anything but shrug?

This isn’t about white hate or white guilt. It’s about accepting our responsibilities.

We owe black people much of our very idea of what it is to be an American. Isn’t it time we started paying it back with love and action?

Prejudice of Poverty: Why Americans Hate the Poor and Worship the Rich

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Take a breath.

Take a deep breath. Let your lungs expand. Let the air collect inside you.

Hold it.

Now exhale slowly. Feels good doesn’t it? You’d never realize there are hundreds of contaminates floating invisible in that air. Dirt, germs, pollution – all entering your body unnoticed but stopped by your immune system.

If only we had such a natural defense against prejudice. Racism, classism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia – we take all that in with every breath, too.

It may not seem like it, but all these value judgments are inherent in American culture. They’re as much a part of life in the United States as the flag, football and apple pie. And to a greater or lesser extent, you have subconsciously accepted them to help construct your ideas of normality.

What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? How should black people be treated? To whom is it appropriate to be sexually attracted? What makes a person poor and why? All of these questions and so many more have been answered one way or another for us by the dominant culture. Not everyone accepts this perceived wisdom, but most of us have swallowed these solutions whole without thought, logic or criticism – and we don’t even know it’s happened.

Take our preconceptions about wealth and poverty.

Well paying jobs are drying up. Minimum wage work is becoming more common. Salaries are shrinking while productivity is increasing. Meanwhile the cost of living continues to rise as does the cost of getting an education.

Yet we still cling to the belief that all rich people deserve their wealth and all poor people deserve their poverty.

When we hear about someone on Welfare or food stamps, we sneer. The average conception is that this person is probably faking it. He or she could have earned enough to avoid public assistance, but he or she isn’t trying hard enough.

Moreover, we KNOW with a certainty that goes beyond mere empiricism that many of the poor still manage to buy the newest sneakers, have flat screen TVs and eat nothing but Porterhouse steaks.

You can hear this kind of story uttered with perfect certainty from the mouths of white, middle class people everywhere. They don’t mind helping people who are really in need, they say, but most poor folks are gaming the system.

Never once do they stop to consider that this story about impoverished individuals living better than middle class Americans is, itself, one of the most pervasive myths in our society. We know it the same way we know all Polish people are dumb, all Asians are smart and all Black people love fried chicken and watermelon.

However, none of this “knowledge” is supported by the facts. Look at the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). According to the New York Times:

Allegations of fraud, including an informal economy in which food stamps are turned into cash or used to buy liquor, gasoline or other items besides food have been used to argue that the program is out of control. In fact, the black market accounts for just over 1 percent of the total food stamp program, which is far less than fraud in other government programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

If you include erroneous payments because of mistakes on applications, overall loss to the food stamp program comes to 4%, according to the Department of Agriculture. Compare that to the 10% lost to Medicare and Medicaid – programs no one is calling to be cut or eliminated.

But figures like these don’t convince the average American. We’re so certain that all or most poor people are just lazy parasites. Everyone “knows” some low-income person they deem to be living too high for their circumstances.

And, yes, sometimes you do see an impoverished individual not wearing rags. Sometimes you do peek into an indigent person’s hovel and see new electronics or game systems.

How does this happen?

Debt.

Credit card companies are waiting in the shadows to extend a line of credit to just about anybody. It’s a safe bet for these businesses. If they give you money today, they can charge exorbitant rates of interest – even more so with the highest risk clientele. But there isn’t much risk to these corporations these days when almost anyone can take a job as a state constable or bail recovery agent to hunt down debtors and bring them to economic justice.

When you see a destitute child with new sneakers, his parents probably bought them with plastic. When you see an X-Box in a needy person’s house, chances are that wasn’t paid for in cash. They used the charge plate and will end up paying for that game system many times what it’s worth.

It’s a problem not limited to the poor. Even middle class folks are drowning up to their eyeballs in debt. As wages have decreased, people have used their credit cards to keep a standard of living they expect. But they’re paying for it with huge portions of their paychecks going to these credit card companies. Yet even though we all do this, middle class folks look down their noses at people lower down the economic ladder for doing the same thing.

In fact, they refuse to even see that obvious truth. Instead they cling to the lie that poor folks are social parasites. We even begrudge them food. Those are my tax dollars going to pay for that penurious person’s free ride, they say.

Unfortunately, we don’t stop to consider how much of our taxes are actually going to help the less fortunate.

Let’s say you make $50,000 a year. That means, you pay $36 toward food stamps. That’s ten cents a day – the same amount many charities ask to help feed starving children in Africa.

If you add all safety net programs, the cost only goes up an additional $6 a year. That doesn’t seem like a huge chunk of my taxes. Honestly, do you begrudge needy people less than the price of a meal for a family of four at Bennigan’s?

By and large, your tax bill isn’t going to the poverty-stricken. It’s going to the wealthy. Over the course of a year, you pay $6,000 for corporate welfare.

You read that right. Six K. Six grand. Six thou. Those are your tax dollars at work, too. And it’s a much larger burden on your bank account than the $42 you shell out for the poor.

What do you get for that $6,000 outlay? It includes at least $870 to direct subsidies and grants for corporations. An additional $870 goes to offset corporate taxes. Another $1,231 goes to plug holes in the federal budget from revenue lost to corporate tax havens. Oh! And don’t forget a sizable chunk for subsidies to Big Oil companies that are polluting our skies and fueling climate change and global warming.

Most of your money isn’t going to feed hungry children. It’s going to recoup losses for giant transnational corporations like Apple and GE that hide their money overseas to boost profits and avoid paying taxes for things we all need like schools, police and fire departments.

This money subsidizes giant multi-national corporations that are already making billions and billions of dollars in profit each year. In the past decade alone, corporations have doubled their profits – all while reducing their American workforces and sending jobs overseas. Yet we only complain about poor folks using food stamps and buying new sneakers on credit.

Why is that? Why does it only bother us when poor people get help and not when huge corporations do?

Part of it is the media. We’ve been convinced that big business deserves its money and poor people don’t. Another part of it is that these facts often go underreported. Movies and TV shows love portraying the parasite poor person but rarely portray the corporate leech. Outside of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol,” the wealthy are usually portrayed in the most positive light possible and not as addicts hoarding cash they don’t need to compete with each other in a childish game of one-upmanship.

Finally, there is the racial and sexual element. By and large, corporations are run by white males. The poor are mostly black, brown and though women make up a slightly higher percentage than men, it is often conceptualized as uniquely female. Take the term Welfare Queen. Why is there no Welfare King? How telling that our conception only allows for one gender in this role!

The reality is much different. The true Welfare Queens are Big Businesses. They make unprecedented profits and avoid paying taxes on them. They have tons of cash on hand but never can seem to get enough. And if we increased the corporate tax rate to what it was in the 1950s when the Unite States was more prosperous than it has ever been, these same corporations would still be Filthy. Stinking. Rich.

So the next time you hear someone blaming the poor for gobbling up your taxes, remember the facts. First, it’s simply not true. There is no widespread fraud by the poor. They are not gaming the system. They are not putting an undue burden on the middle class. However, big business IS – in fact – cheating you out of income. Business people are getting fabulously wealthy on your dime – and even if we stopped subsidizing them, they’d still be fabulously wealthy!

Finally, don’t ignore the racial component. Would middle class Caucasians still complain so vehemently about the poor if they weren’t mostly talking about Black people, Latinos and women? I doubt it.

We may breath in these prejudices but we’re not helpless. It’s up to all of us to dispel these myths, not to let them stand, to confront them every time they come up. And, yes, I mean EVERY. TIME.

The only immune system we have as a society is education, knowledge, wisdom. And once you know the truth, don’t let anyone get away with this kind of racist, classist bullshit.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.