I remember an incredibly uncomfortable Thanksgiving during Occupy Oakland. Not the cliche uncomfortable of Republicans and Democrats getting into immigration policy over the mashed potatoes and gravy.
A friend of mine who had been arrested during Occupy for carrying an umbrella (the citation indicated it was a temporary dwelling, which had been banned from the plaza in front of city hall) was regaling us with stories about what it had been like to be in jail, and how they sang together and made jokes to the arresting officers.
Across the table, another friend was clearly not amused, while his daughter’s eyes got wider and wider.
See, my friend had been working really hard not to normalize jail or prison as a regular part of life for Black people in his daughter’s eyes. He wanted his daughter to believe that to be Black in America did not mean an expectation that jail or prison would be a regular and normal part of life; even though they have people in their family who have been to jail and prsion. He did not want her to see it as “no big deal” or a laughing matter. Now, he was also raising her to know about civil rights and justice and fighting for fairness, and when she reached the double digits, they would likely start talking about the prison-industrial complex, because he knows how real the New Jim Crow is. But the light, comical treatment of jail life at the dinner table was the opposite of what he was going for at this moment in his daughter’s formation.
Parenting is hard. Parenting a Black child in America is harder.
I didn’t want to write that sentence, because some of the best parents I know are Black parents of Black children (and I know quite a few exceptional White parents of Black children, too, although over my years I have definitely come across some cross-racial adopting parents that made me really sad for their children). But the parents I’m thinking of are exceptional despite the much greater odds and the much more complex terrain they have to navigate.
Take this video by the Salt Project. Some of us have to teach our children this lesson, and some don’t. It’s what’s referred to sometimes as “the talk.”
To read the list, click here.
I’d like to believe that we won’t be hearing people talk about “a colorblind society” any time soon. I’d like to believe that the past several months since Michael Brown’s shooting have forced us to pay attention to the realities of race in America. And at the same time, I know lots of parents who don’t have to have “the talk” with their children and don’t realize that other parents do. A lot of Americans don’t see themselves or their children in the face of Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin or Alan Blueford or Oscar Grant (or Alejandro Nieto or Teresa Sheehan in San Francisco), which creates a huge disconnect between the people doing the marching these days and the people hearing about the marching on tv, and also a disconnect between the people who have to have “the talk” and the people who don’t.
I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy ever since I read that Grand juries almost always indict, except when reviewing cases of police officers. They don’t empathize with criminals. They do empathize with officers.
Empathy shapes our politics, I think. And studies indicate a “racial empathy gap,” where we literally don’t feel the pain of people of a different race — people, including medical personnel, do not believe Black people feel pain as much as White people. This is compounded by “racism without racists,” as described by sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, where White people in studies look a a picture of a Black man and a White man fighting and imagine a knife in the hand of the Black man. Racism looks different today than fifty years ago.
And sometimes it doesn’t. Over 50 years since we celebrated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the Civil Rights Act, we learn that the North Miami Beach Police Department is using pictures of Black men for target practice:
I wonder if we will see ourselves or people we love in those pictures and therefore be horrified, or if they will remain abstract enough not to be troubling. I wonder about the racial empathy gap.
On Saturday, queer and trans people of color and allies walked into the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of the Castro to bring attention to Black queer and trans lives that have been ended by state-sanctioned violence. Some people in the bars and in the streets were supportive; others screamed, “What does this have to do with us?” They screamed that at the protesters while standing in a neighborhood that had originally served as a safe haven for LGBTQ people whose lives were at risk in the wider community. They screamed it across the road from Harvey Milk Plaza named for a man killed for his public stance for human dignity.*
Today, on Martin Luther King Day, a lot of folks in my city of Oakland will be marching three miles from Fruitvale BART station (where Oscar Grant was shot) to Coliseum City, where a proposal to revitalize or renew the neighborhood around the A’s, Raiders and Warriors stadiums includes lots of high-end restaurants and shops and condos but little in terms of clear commitment to preserve low-income housing for the people who currently live in the community. The march will connect economic violence and state-sanctioned violence directed at Black and Brown bodies.
In the midst of the movement for justice, where some of us will risk arrest and horrifically large fines, we will do so, I hope, aware of the privilege of being willing to consciously choose to risk arrest in the midst of both an economic system and an incarceration system that funnel Black people into our prisons (and sometimes that intersection is really clear, with judges taking kick-backs to send children to for-profit prisons, which only profit if there are people filling the cells). There are many people I work with who cannot risk arrest or re-arrest no matter how good the cause, because the risk to their lives and livelihood is so much greater than mine.
In the midst of the movement for justice, I hope we will remember that part of why we are doing it is because parents shouldn’t have to protect their children from those who commit to Protect and Serve.
In the midst of the movement for justice, I hope that we remember that many in law enforcement are good, we would not gamble our own children’s lives against those odds if we knew that our children faced a high likelihood of being targeted by the law enforcement who aren’t good, especially law enforcement using pictures of our children for target practice.
In the midst of the movement for justice, I hope that we start asking the questions about the school-to-prison pipeline that requires that a Black father shield his Black daughter from the idea that prison is a normal part of life, knowing that too soon he’ll also have to explain that prison might be about punishing wrongdoers but it does not punish Black people and White people the same way for the same crimes.
In the midst of the movement for justice, I hope that we will remember we are about the work of creating a world where no one’s children will need to be protected against their state-sanctioned protectors and everyone’s children might be able to benefit from the renewal of east Oakland, not just those who can afford a high end condo, so that people like Jayvon Johnson won’t have to have this conversation with their nephews ever again:
*I consolidated a lot of details for this paragraph. I would like to include a couple of statements from people at the action on Saturday:
from organizer Erika Cespares: “a patron of Toad Hall grabbed a white ally by the hair & told her if she was a man he would beat her up, threw a bottle at her feet and then punted a huge trashcan into our QTPOC & Mixed Race mourning demonstration – hitting multiple members of our group while we were recognizing the lives of murdered Black Transwomen & Queer People. During this time, the DJ at Toad Hall continued to turn up the volume of the music so we could not be heard, as well as slammed the DJ Booth door on another white ally, hitting her in the face. We held space in Toad Hall because of it’s white supremacist history of casting out queer Black men from it’s former incarnation Pendulum. Our group did not bow down to the hateful violence and instead marched out with heads held high chanting#BlackLivesMatter to be received by a beautiful healing critical mass of Black & Brown QT community that had reclaimed the intersection of 18th & Castro for sacred space. We are unswayed by your ignorance. We will not be made fearful by your misplaced feelings of humiliation, guilt and subsequent greed. We successfully highlighted the deep racist chasm of the Castro that lurks only a few inches beneath the surface. We knew it was there and your hostility has only helped us prove our point. Which side are you on Castro District, which side are you on?”
from participant Mahfam Malek: “Somewhere in the middle of this, a white man got in my face, pretty much body-checked me, as I tried desperately to hear & repeat what our human megaphones were saying, and said, “What does this have to do with us!?” I wish he could have heard us – I had an answer for him. Shame on the violent DJ at Toad Hall. Shame on all of them, save the few patrons who respectfully watched & engaged with us.”
There are also video clips on facebook of White people shouting at protesters that there is no racism in San Francisco.