Black Lives: The Toteboard on Race

Although the Toteboard has promised a preview of the November senate races, it seems far more urgent at the present moment to address the confluence of racially charged events over the past few weeks.

It is, of course, very difficult to find the right words to discuss things that, quite literally, leave one speechless. But we have to talk about race. And we have to talk about power. And in so doing, it is necessary to warn readers that this discussion will at one point quote a literary source that uses a highly denigrating and offensive racial slur.

It truly boggles the mind how these instances have occurred (and are continuing to occur) in such rapid succession: the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the subsequent official inaction, the police murder of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, the especially gratuitous police murder of George Floyd. And all of them seem to echo and follow the same script from previous outrages, with Arbery’s murder replicating that of Trayvon Martin, Taylor’s replicating that of Kathryn Johnston, and Floyd’s replicating that of Eric Garner. And they all expose the same abuse of power, presumption of blacks as criminals, and other familiar patterns of dysfunction and injustice far too numerous and infuriating to articulate faithfully.

And yet, it is another episode from this last week, one that thankfully did not result in violence or loss of life, that is in some ways the most disturbing, and the most revelatory of how broken race relations are in the US. The episode is the absurd confrontation between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in the “Ramble” section of New York’s Central Park, when the former, lacking any moral or legal high ground in their disagreement, called the police and methodically and self-consciously channeled the voice of a terrified victim being “threatened” by an African-American man. The video reveals a person so blatantly dishonest, so blatantly calculating, that it would be almost comical were it not exposing some dark realities.

So what are those dark realities? If Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd recall Martin, Johnston, and Garner respectively, does this incident simply recall other cases where blacks engaging in innocuous activities suddenly find themselves treated as criminals? That is, do we now just add “birding while black” to the list of other “while black” offenses? It’s certainly a start, as Clemson University Professor J. Drew Lanham actually published an essay by that title four years ago. But the Toteboard is of the opinion that the real perversity of this dynamic was best illustrated by John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men, during a scene where four physically or emotionally “crippled” characters converge on the room (in a barn) of the literate but ostracized stable buck, “Crooks,” the story’s only black character. In this particular tableau, the narcissistic and opportunistic (and ironically unnamed) wife of the farm boss’s pugilistic son, despite showing occasional flashes of warmth and sensitivity, is only too happy to demean and debase the others as “bindle stiffs.” But when Crooks demonstrates (as Atticus Finch would say) the unmitigated temerity to assert himself – “you got no rights comin’ in a colored man’s room” – her tone suddenly changes from demeaning to menacing: “Listen Nigger, you know what I can do to you if you open your trap?” Steinbeck characterizes the black man as seeming “to grow smaller” as she names exactly what she was evoking: “Well, you keep your place then Nigger. I could have you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.” As a necessary survival reflex, the character could only tonelessly say “Yes, ma’am,” as he “reduced himself to nothing,” with “no personality,” and “no ego.”

The setting and the language and the education levels of those involved may have changed, but the theme remains eerily untouched by time and context. Amy Cooper may be a young urban professional with an MBA, and may have said “African-American man,” but she could have been talking to a black laborer in Depression-era California as easily as to a black bird-watcher in New York City. Either way, she almost instinctively invoked her entitlement to assert dominance over a black man who “didn’t keep his place,” and she apparently had no qualms about whatever damage might follow. This touches a terrible nerve.

The nerve this touches is just how persistent, how ingrained, and how systemic racist attitudes and structures are in this country. They endure not only in the real-life caricatures of southern rednecks accosting a black jogger, or out-of-control police murdering African-Americans in their own homes, but also bubbling somewhere under the surface in the most mundane day-to-day, moment-to-moment interactions. And when blacks name or push back against those baked-in attitudes, or the structures that reinforce and perpetuate their marginalization and dehumanization, when they dare to jog or bird-watch or whatever in a white neighborhood, they risk the consequences of (as Calpurnia says) overstepping themselves. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that this is the racist Ur-text, the archetype that replays and manifests in all of these recent events: the dominant structure relegates blacks (and others) to their “place,” it constructs those who won’t remain in their place as uppity (at best) or dangerous, and it authorizes the use of force to put them back in their place (or worse). And of course, the determination of who has violated his or her place is not really made by applying strictures from some rulebook, i.e., it is left completely to the person in power, and then (usually) reinforced by those similarly empowered. And this power can be (and often is) applied unfairly, or out of malice, or arbitrarily, or just because it makes some people feel good to hold their knee on a black man’s throat.

Perhaps the ultimate act of an African-American not knowing his place was Barack Obama getting elected president. For those of us who thought this marked the long-awaited arrival in the promised land, we probably should have known better, and should have anticipated the racist, xenophobic, and paranoid backlash that would follow. It makes a certain depressing sense that Obama was succeeded by someone who doesn’t even dog-whistle – he simply pulls out his cellphone and screams via Twitter that we’re all being threatened by African-Americans.

One final note. There are certainly many situations when blacks remind their well-intentioned white friends that whatever empathy they claim, or really do possess, they can never fully understand the black person’s experience. And this situation certainly seems to justify that position. To live one’s life with the knowledge that one’s family, one’s community, has been bombarded with messages that they belong on the margins, and that they deserve and should passively accept such degradation and dehumanization. To know that any situation holds the possibility that someone (or lots of someones) will construct you as overstepping yourself, and that those someones have the power to try to hurt you badly. And to know that it probably takes a smoking-gun video and people screaming in the streets before many of us even begin to wake up and notice how pernicious these patterns are. To say and reread these words can rouse in me a fury and righteous indignation. They can make me feel physically sick and unable to sleep at night. They can make me feel frustrated, and powerless, and, believe it or not, speechless. And even so, I get that I don’t fully get it.