First, an apology. I'm going to attempt
a hamfisted post about race from the whitest place I think I've ever
been. And it's not the first time I've been. I love Vermont, and I've
been coming here for five years straight, to the same little “corner
house” down by a stream. I don't come here beCAUSE it's so white. I
come here because it's pastoral and quiet and olde tyme. Though in
America, and particularly in the America as painted by the favorite son Norman
Rockwell, they're one and the same. I like to joke that Vermont is
America's historic district, cuz it is y'all. There are laws preventing all
kinds of stuff that would change it's basic homespun nature. In the Green
Mountains there are no billboards, no clear-cut areas on tree covered
hills, relatively few roads, no tall buildings. Everything's quaint,
eerily so, and it's perfectly suited to some sort of New Brooklyn
transporter back-and-forth, yet there are precious few NYC folks here. It's far
enough away to be far enough away. We ride down to the Town Hall to
get internet. That's where I'm sitting right now, in a rented car, bugs hissing all around me.
It's gotta be over 95% white as bone here. Though coming from Flatbush, the bones seem few and far apart. I'm pretty sure the cemetery up on the hill has more headstones than there are people living in this valley. By two-to-one I reckon.
So yes, I read the book. The whole book. It's short, and almost hypnotic to read. I promise to not generate some sort of
David Brooksy patronizing book review “response” to the brilliant
consciousness-raising letter to his son by the Atlantic Magazine correspondent Ta-Nahesi Coates called
“Between the World and Me.” I just finished the book, then went
to the Dairy Barn for one of the Clam Boats they serve at these ma
'n' pa feed-troughs that pass for eateries. [They look so tempting
and charming from the road, til you realize everyone around you is 75
or more pounds overweight. I mean, they call it the Dairy “Barn”
after all. Those clams are frozen by the way. Just cause you're
vaguely (4 hrs) near the Cod (as I like to refer to the Cape) doesn't
mean you're getting fresh clams and fish. Actually it was only
tonight, when my daughter asked what they were, that I realized a
“corn dogs” are named that because they're a hot dog wrapped in
corn bread. I don't know what I thought before. Maybe that it was
like a hot dog shaped like an ear of corn? Actually it's more like a
banana than corn. Banana Dog. But sometimes you do eat corn on a
stick. Anyhow I'm not ashamed to admit when I don't know something as
obvious as that. Like Vermont. It was just last year that I realized
it meant “Green Mountain.” You know, like in the French class
where we learned the colors? But then you get kicked out because
you're joking with Steve McCall all period every period and as you
skip out the door before dismissal the French teacher, who all she
ever said was “Dominique, tais tois!” since that was your French
name, yells down the hall “No More French For YOU young man!” and
you yell back “is that a promise or a threat?” If only I'd known
how to say that in French! How parfait would that have been?] French.
France. Ah yes, the book. At one point Coates goes to Paris.
Actually, that was my least favorite part, for all sorts of reasons,
but it's a decent segue back to the post at hand.
Again, to my apology. I want to
apologize, not for being white, or for slavery, or the
steroid-pounding police state and aggressively racist ideology of our
country, the country that Ta-Nahesi and Trayvon and Barack and
Cornell and Naz and I share, and anyway I don't pretend I could do
justice to such an apology and it's not really mine to make. Or any
one individual. It takes, as Chuck D says, a Nation of Millions to
hold black folks back. Only a nation of millions could push things
forward. But again and again and again you have to admit that the will isn't
there. It's never been there, not during Reconstruction, not during
the era of MLK. Only begrudgingly have we ever given
one-drop-of-black-blood a chance to flow unhindered. In contemporary
Flatbush, and Brooklyn and now-desirable urban America, the cover story
is the inevitable victory of capital, which means as it always has,
the victory of White, because whites hold the capital and they're not
handing it over. Are you, white reader, prepared to hand over YOUR
white privilege and cultural advantage? And inherited cash? Sure, the nation needs to get
its act together, but in the meantime who's to fault you for taking
every available opportunity to prosper?
The nation, actually any rich nation,
was built on the blood and guts and shoulders of slaves, either
slaves by name or deed. So no, Paris doesn't get a pass, even if our
particularly heinous version of white bondage of Africans escapes
direct comparison. The Irish were slaves and peasants, whole ethnic
groups throughout Europe slaughtered and/or enslaved. Hell, my
Norwegian grandparents fled starvation at the hands of tyrants.
Egyptians, Romans, Macedonians, Vikings, Vandals, Brits, Russians,
Germans, and yes Africans of all stripes - have all brutalized their subjects. You don't have to look hard
to find examples of abduction, torture, rape and forced labor.
Even mass extermination on unthinkable scales - even between rival African tribes - with machetes, for god's sake.
In the 1990's! Historically, globally, the struggle for Black
liberation and dignity is not unique. Hardly, it's emblematic of
humankind and economic development. But for a few things, a thousand years from now it may be a blip in the a textbook. Because right here right now (Jesus Jones!) the richest nation on earth,
with a nearly free press, has a Constitution, and a claim to a moral
compass. Whether from God or from philosophers and poets and Ronald Reagan, we've noted
on more than a million occasions our exceptionalism and our unparalleled strength.
A Judeo-Christian theology pervades our legal precepts, our own Shariah Law, and most important of all there is a critical
difference between what is past and what is present. For better or
worse, moving towards a “more perfect Union” is ingrained in our
code. Not code as in DNA. Far from, the DNA is working against us.
We're still tribal and base and beastly and cruel. Our code is found
in our laws, and our laws have for the most part kept us heading in
the right direction. But we fight against them, warp them, turn them
in our own citizens, because the Law often runs counter to our more
immediate concerns. Me. My family. My station. My job. My legacy.
My...tribe. The law, at least as I've come to see it, is actually on the side of progress, despite what Scalia might write in his increasingly 19th century diatribes.
Sometimes it's useful to remember that
there continues to be an enormous white underclass that believes
itself a part of the wealthier Tribe of Whites simply by not being
black. Maybe that's what prevents revolution? It's the most stunning
con ever conceived. Despite your poverty and ignorance, you actually
get to be BETTER than a huge swath of America. Put the oppressed
whites, blacks, latinos etc. together and NOW we're talking numbers
capable of revolt! No wonder the Republigarchs work so hard to pander
and gerrymander and lobby their asses off and keep us divided and
weary. Just like in the Jim Crow South, you gotta work hard hard hard
to keep the people down when you're in the minority, especially when
an MLK wins them the vote! Think Johnson did that? He was terrified
of King, enough to turn the South over to the Republicans. To think
Martin Luther King held that kind of power. Had he not been killed
we'd have seen a black president 30 years earlier. But I digress. It's my natural state. But it's my blog, dammit.
So as I was saying I apologize not for
anything else but for allowing myself to be tricked. I was conscious
once. In college, at liberal arts school, and for a few years after.
They taught me to deconstruct the narrative, to look behind the
curtain, to recognize the Dream for being dream, like the
dream-drenched cars in the front of the train in that awesome
allegorical movie about the train that perpetually circles the earth
after it froze over? What's it called? Ice Train? Steam Train? The
Train That Never Stops and Has All the Poor People In the Back and
James Caan Is the Evil Overlord? Polar Express? No, that's a kids movie. Snowpiercer! That's
it, stream it! The Dream allows us middle-classers to imagine
ourselves special enough to deserve a tranquil, safe life of plenty.
And get this! The Dream, in a wild twist of absurdity, allows the
middle class to be (feel?) free enough and entitled enough to get
pissed at the other white Oligarchs for having even more than plenty! The
audacity of these half and full billionaires for hoarding SO MUCH when
we have only plenty! Even it out, we say. Actually, isn't taxing the
rich a form of reparations, not for blacks of course whose great
greats never got paid for their misery and labor and might actually
be entitled, but reparations for the middle and upper middle whiners
who want a bigger piece of the pie? Oh, and if you're against the
idea of reparations because it would be paying people for doing
nothing, you gotta ask yourself...are you also against the idea of
passing along wealth to children and grandchildren? Because THAT
would be consistent. Think about it. Know anyone who has money they
didn't earn? Did it, maybe, come from the labor of someone from a
previous generation? Hmm. Reparations isn't just an idea whose time has come. It's actually completely consistent with our laws and practices.
So yes, there is a nation within a
nation, not the Aryan Nation, that's just a highly marketable subset
whose numbers probably quadrupled on Obama's inauguration day. But
rather there is the Nation of Whiteness, a whiteness that defines
blackness and without blackness can't even BE whiteness. White
privilege, white values, white culture can't exist without black.
Black is the necessary grease for the White machine. We made it.
Africans weren't black, we made them black. We imported blackness,
enslaved it, beat and raped it, subjugated it, tossed it bones,
ghettoized it and imprisoned it in staggering numbers, all so we
could hold tightly to whiteness, truly the only thing that makes us
special, because I'm sorry but we're WAY too varied to have any other
single quality that makes us special and capable of ruling
effectively, what with our ever decreasing majority. And blacks are WAY too varied for us to have any logical reason to insist on knowing how many there are on our census, for which sometimes I feel the sole reason to conduct the damn thing is to find out how many of us are white. And other than a
few great works of art in various media, there's not a whole hell of
a lot to be proud of, white culture. We exist. We celebrate birthdays. We dance
poorly. We pillage the earth. What's not to love?
This is the BIG picture. It should be
noted that I love each and every one of you dearly, please never
doubt it, white, black or zebra. Love the sinner hate the sin! But within the big picture
there are a trillion stories that keep us from seeing the Big
Picture, from really FEELING the Big Picture, because if we did, if
we truly felt the immensity of what we've done and continued to do in
the name of our Free and Decent nation, we'd stop doing anything
banal or take meaningless and unrelaxing and therefore futile vacations and we'd do
everything in our power to right the wrongs. We wouldn't rest til we
made things just, atoned, made reparations, reached into the void.
And we wouldn't stop there either. We'd make amends to the earth
itself and to the billions of people who suffer so that we can live
what Coates calls “the Dream.” We know it to be serious, we
occasionally acknowledge it, but we rarely ever act as if we have
something to be ashamed of. We're dreamers. Maybe there's a new dream
that would be even better! Frankly, we dreamers may feel compelled to
dream, because to wake up is to sink into a deep and intractable
depression. Maybe you've been there. Maybe you ARE there. Maybe
you're part of the struggle. But more likely, we're dreaming,
unnerved by true protest and concerned only for our own families and
legacies. So much easier, and besides, it's not without personal
struggle. This always being comfortable is hard work. Always so much
to do to stay comfortable. And the definition keeps changing.
One can ask it a million different ways. Am I happy? Am I at peace?
Am I enough? The other option, of course, is to look outward and
pitch in. My generation. My poor, miserable, lazy fucking generation,
is now up to bat. Expect no miracles. I've seen them at indie-rock shows. Not a lot of...pizazz.
So I apologize for unconsciously, or
worse consciously, forgetting what I know. For taking the easy road.
For letting life in all its ridiculous mechanics stop me from being,
feeling and acting awake. And it wasn't just me. I had friends! We
were there. We saw the avarice and injustice. Some of my generation,
classmates even, ARE the levers of power. And the damnedist thing,
some of them are black! The president is black for cryin' out loud.
There are black bigoted policemen even. Capos? Too harsh a word. But
like the seemingly endless supply of Morgan Freeman characters in
Hollywood movies, there's a pernicious offer out there for any person
of color willing to fully endorse and encode the Dream. You get to dream it
too! Not with all its dreamy dreaminess, but damn near. But, um,
don't forget this one thing. You're still black!!! So don't get TOO
dreamy. Or as Chris Rock put it, you can be a black dentist and join the
Show. But you'll have to be a dentist who...invented teeth. The bar,
it would appear, is quite high. Clarence Thomas high. Barack and
Condoleeza and Colin high. Even entertainers get a pass only because
they're so essential to the Dream. Without them, the Dream gets really, really dull, if not a little bit profitable.
What I always like to say is “we're
the adults now.” It's our turn. We're blowing it, big time. As
philosopher-queen Katy Perry puts it, by standing for nothing we fell
for everything. And by quoting Katy Perry, I'm proving my case. We earnestly wrote and sang and smashed our guitars
but we didn't do the one thing that our white privilege really had
the power to do. Change the whole bloody system. Because...we were
still, after all the education and awareness and cynicism, too afraid
and too selfish to act. We were, and are, the System, the ideology,
with a persistent desire to listen to music by bands that sing out of
tune with rhythm sections that provide only the bare minimum of syncopation. Neutral Milk Hotel?
Sheesh. That's the sound of Miles Davis rolling in his grave. The National? Why so glum, chum? Cha-ching.
Word to the wise, if you want a taste of the Dream and
you don't ooze Whiteness, we will ask that you hand over your
cultural passport upon leaving your house each morning, at work and
at the obligatory socializing events. You must fully assimilate. We
reward assimilation, in doses, and to those at the front of the line.
The Irish? Took a couple generations, but White eventually relented.
(That whole Irish Policeman racket didn't hurt). Italians? Jews? Next
up Hispanics, Asians? Guess who's still at the back of the pack? What
the FUCK is wrong with us? The majority of us were displaced
light-skinners just a couple generations ago. Guess what my
grandparents were doing in their young-age? Risking life and leaving
family, getting on creaky boats with nothing but a trunk of clothes
and heirlooms and money for a train ticket to Minnesota and Illinois.
How quickly we forget. How little time it takes, if you assimilate
properly and look white enough to pass for White.
If in fact, an integrated and
egalitarian society is what we're after, we haven't (to quote Stevie
Wonder) done nothing. It's still the '60s, the '50s, the '90s. When
Stop & Frisk became front page news, did you too say to yourself
“well, you can never be too careful, and some of those guys really
ARE the bad guys” or “it's a small price to pay” to be safer.
Let me ask you though to consider the scenario closely the interaction of a perfectly law
abiding black man being stopped by a cop who is merely “doing his
job,” all part of the tactic which stems from the system. He's not
going rogue. He's the good cop, doing a good job. We can see that
image, we might even be able to accept it as part of the gig. Tough, but necessary.
BUT. What if instead of an NYPD cop it
were a fat white Southern Sheriff with a drawl thicker than peanut
butter saying “Boy, what you doin' over t'here? Show me some ID,
boy, and don't give me no lip.” Wouldn't you surely be outraged? Is
it any different? How brainwashed are we to think it's even remotely
acceptable? Never, EVER, let 'em forget who's in charge. When Alabama
denied the rights of blacks to vote for decades, did it even occur to
the Governor to simply imprison so many that their votes could neverbe counted? Get 'em on a Felony, drugs are best, and take away their vote FOREVER. All
you need is a conviction, and how hard is that? Hell most of 'em will
cop a plea and admit to the felony anyway. Do hard time. Like fishing in an
aquarium! More felons, less votes. Voter restrictions. Racist
policing to mirror racist system. The perfect crime, and the
Republigarchs get the House. It's 1964 all over again, except the House part. Cue the
marches and assassinations and riots. I blame Reagan. War on Drugs.
The Dream. The destruction of the labor movement, the glorification
of Wall Street, the backlash against progressive ideology. He really
was effective, that RR. Damn effective. And the greatest irony? He was Irish!
His father was as good as black in his day. It's a crazy, crazy
world. Only humans could make this shit up and tear a whole in the sky at the same time.
There will be a reckoning. There's
always a reckoning. This is not a media-made state of events, by the
way. It's what's been happening all along, it just became to painful
not to notice. Are we waking up? Well, the alarm is going off, and
there's no snooze button. I'd like to think I can be part of the
solution, but my, but our, past performance isn't making me hopeful.
There will be begrudging this, and token that. There will be no
reparations, no Affirmative anything, no easy-access to guaranteed
low-rate mortgages, no G.I. Bill for young black students, no real
reform of anything. The only hope I see, really, is the schools. And
maybe it's because it's where I'm at, where my kids are at, that I see
enormous potential. The progressives saw it in the '70s when they
implemented capital B Busing. Like most social engineering it
backfired of course, creating whole new school districts for white
families to move to. The flight from the Cities only continued, to
the point of Gary and Flint and Detroit. (But Detroit's coming back,
the college kids and artists are moving there! Don't know it'll do
the black folks living there much good, but you'll finally be able to
buy a decent cup of $4 coffee!) I do believe that integrated schools,
where the parents actually work and break bread together, could
matter a lot, if it happens on a scale big enough to tip the balance.
It could happen in NYC even, if the parents of privilege considered
it a real priority. I'm watching a school go through the painful
integration process up close, and it's not always pretty. In fact,
I'm watching as white parents show their cultural ignorance, even as
they bemoan the ignorance of others. I'm being that parent, trying
desperately not to be either. I suppose you could say I'm trying to
be a credit to my race!. But I say the wrong things sometimes. I miss
the cues. I think I know what's best when what's best is to keep my
mouth shut. As a white person in Brooklyn in 2015 trust must be
earned by actions. You can't just fly your Liberal Arts flag and
expect the world to beg you for your wisdom and leadership. This is
HARD. This is uncomfortable. But it's deathly important. Physically,
yes, and spiritually. (And while Ta-Nahesi may be a devout atheist,
he's a deeply spiritual dude. Someone I'd love to meet and rap with,
and maybe go see a high-charged documentary. It's not out of the
question, and I hope he takes me up on it. Yes, Mr. Coates, that's an
invitation. We'll go Dutch.)
I recently met with the new principal
of my zoned elementary school, Jackie Robinson. She was quick to set
a meeting, but understandably wary of me and my motives. I decided to
lay it out all on the table, everything I'd learned over a dozen
years in the neighborhood, the things people say about her school,
the reasons gentrifiers give OTHER than race for why they don't
attend. Though sadly, I've come to believe that race is 90% of the
issue, because as I've seen in other schools and districts, the
principal can either be persuaded to meet parents halfway on issues
affecting the school, or more often than you'd guess, they can get
the boot from an organized parent body. The only truly good reason
for a well-meaning liberal white parent not to attempt to integrate
their local school is...no good reason at all. Parents make the
school, and if you want it to be more one way or another you go and
engage. At the age of 4 or 5, kids are kids. They don't yet need PhD
mentors - they need warm, nurturing teachers, and the vast majority
of early education teachers I've encountered are just that. The bad
ones? Lobby to have them removed. You really DO have the power. Get
to know your district peers, the higher-ups. Tell them what's going
on. They WANT to know. As a School Leadership Team guy I'm amazed at
what parents can do, and when they don't get satisfaction, they get
the principal canned. Ask the families at PS282, the last
majority-minority school in Park Slope. And Jackie Robinson? I can't
even tell you the whole story of why their longtime principal got the
boot, cuz I barely believe it myself. And Buffie Simmons, the
District Superintendent? Let's just say a few people read the Q.
What kids need, in my wholly unexpert
opinion, is a solid foundation in the realities of cultural
difference, getting along, collaborating, and maybe most important
watching their parents reach out to people outside of their comfort
zone for friendship, advice, learning and playdates. Kids don't
necessarily do what we say, but they will do what we do. If we don't
show them that we want to live harmoniously and respectively with
others, what chance do we have to expect anything different from
them? The one thing I'm sure of with this education thing...it's not
just the children who are “going to school.” The parents are
going to, with their fears and ambitions stuffed in their kids'
As to the System, the police, the
harassment and humiliation, I think it's time to start listening. The
answers aren't going to come from the white liberal establishment.
Because try as they, we, might, we're just one end of the political
spectrum of that very system. We help nurture it by being the
intellectual “cover.” I'd love to see a black candidate, one
versed in “the struggle,” come forward during this election.
Because admire as I do Barack Obama, he hasn't flexed much muscle in
the area of race relations. Perhaps wisely, in order to get things
done that he sees as crucial to the nation's survival. But Obama is
ultimately the perfect cover for the System, and that's what people
may be waking up to. He's the exception the hides the rule. As to the
police, well...they're just following orders. The orders need to
change, and it needs to come from on high. Last I checked, the Mayor
runs this town. And hell, his wife and kids fit the profile for
profiling. Again, a little flexing please?
In our neighborhood, LPG, Lefferts Prospect Gardens, I'll continue to
follow the state of housing and schools as barometers and weather vanes, pointing to
deep freeze, or Spring's thaw, or more likely - long, hot, sleepless
summers, where Dreaming becomes harder to indulge and sustain. Cold
bucket of water? Read Ta-Nahesi Coates.