Quagmire: Black Lives in the U.S
Slavery is long gone. Legal segregation is behind us. Yet, segregation in our minds, institutions, and communities, as well as bias against the Black community continues to abound. Systemic and structural racism continue to shackle Black lives, while police brutality against them has become epidemic.
The killing of George Floyd, one of the latest casualties of this epidemic, has stirred not only a national, but also a global furor. Now, more than ever, immigrants like us need to align with the Black community—if for nothing other than for their historic struggle for Civil Rights, which paved the way for us to come to the U.S. and fulfill our American Dreams.
Genuine alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement, beyond performative gestures, however, also requires courage to call out the extremism in the movement, which is widening the fault lines between races, and instigating a dangerous animosity between civilians and police.
The Indian-American experience is largely characterized by merit-based upward mobility, success, and prosperity. Most of us have achieved the fabled American Dream, and then some.
But the America we came to—the one with a largely level playing field and its chockful of promises—is not the same America that has been available or accessible to Black Americans, on whose backs, to a large extent, the country, if not the nation, was built.
For the most part, the Black community has been denied the bounty of this nation thanks to a history and legacy of slavery rooted in white supremacy. This manifests in their contemporary lives in the form of racism, social segregation, and institutional discrimination— impeding just about all spheres of their lives: getting jobs, bank loans, a quality education, and so on. Meanwhile, a noxious prison-industrial complex, fueled by misguided policies and greed, “eats Blacks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” as quoted in 13th, the seminal documentary.
To boot, remnants of slavery era atrocities by the white establishment continue in the form of police brutality. Just like mass shootings, Black men being killed by errant or malicious cops has become an American phenomenon that is all too familiar and frequent. Only the audacity of such killings is becoming even more macabre. Words fail me in my attempts to unpack the smorgasbord of deep emotions evoked by the virulent sight of Officer Derek Chauvin, with one hand in his pocket, casually sucking out the life of George Floyd.
Is it any surprise then, that generation after generation of young Black men find themselves in a perpetual cloud of angst and hopelessness?
TIME TO QUESTION OUR OWN RACIAL BIAS
The current uprising against this systemic oppression that has built into a global crescendo is also a pivotal moment for an immigrant community like ours. With subtle undertones of our own racism coming from a long-standing cultural bias against dark skin, it is far too easy for many of us to believe that a level playing field is an universal American value— just as freely available to the Black community as it has been to us. Many of us take pride in the quintessential Indian-American saga defined by the thought, “I came to this country with $20 in my pocket, and have built my American dream with my blood, sweat, and tears.” Which is then followed by a seemingly logical question: “So, why can’t they (Black Americans)?”
This is an outlook that comes from ignorance of the unique historical intersectionality that defines—and constricts—the lives of Black Americans.CENTURIES OF SUBJUGATION AND ATROCITIES ARE NOT EASILY SURMOUNTABLE, ESPECIALLY WHEN A LARGE PART OF THOSE SYSTEMIC SHACKLES CONTINUE TO PERSIST.
EXPANDING OUR KNOWLEDGE AND EMPATHY FOR BLACK LIVES IS THE CALL OF THE TIMES
“The objective reality is that virtually no one who is white understands the challenge of being Black in America,” comes the surprising acknowledg- ment, in 13th, from the conservative mischief-maker Newt Gingrich.
What is true of whites is unfortunately even more so for Indian-Americans, whose ignorance of Black lives is not surprising, considering most of us are aloof from African American history and culture. But we are now at a crossroads where history beckons us to do more than just partake in the bounty of the land that we have come to call “home.” An active solidarity with the Black Lives Matter cause is the call of the times. Here are some ways to get started:
• Acquaint yourself with African American history through books, articles, podcasts, blogs, documentaries, and more. Fortunately, leading outlets have made it easier to engage in this national quest. For example, I have seen pop-up banners pertaining to Black lives and African American history on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Audible, to name a few.
• FOLLOW BLACK THOUGHT LEADERS LIKE TA-NEHISI COATES, IBRAM X. KENDI, ROBIN DIANGELO, YAMICHE ALCINDOR, ETC. (CAVEAT: MY FOLLOWING OF THEM IS YET RUDIMENTARY; NOR DO I ENDORSE ALL THEIR VIEWS. BUT THE GOAL HERE IS NOT TO SEEK CONFORMITY, BUT RATHER TO BE CHALLENGED AND EXPANDED.)
• Some of the best street-smart insights on matters of race come from comedians and satirists like Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Trevor Noah, Wanda Sykes, etc. (Be warned most of these comedians are not appropriate for children or family viewing.)
• Step up your political engagement. From local commissioners, judges, and police chiefs to state legislators and representatives all the way to the president, you have a vote in selecting the kind of leaders who will fight against police brutality and racism.
• Participate in petitions and peaceful protests.
• Donate to charities active in improving Black lives and fighting police brutality.
SOLIDARITY NEED NOT MEAN CONFORMITY: CALLING OUT THE GROWING EXTREMISM IN THE BLACK LIVES MOVEMENT
Considering the smoldering battle the Black community is waging with police brutality all over the nation, the first and foremost need is to stand in solidarity with their urgent cause.
But to do so effectively rather than superficially may require calling out the radicalism in the very movement we want to stand behind. There is growing extremism in a faction of the Black Lives activism that threatens to subvert its agenda, alienate supporters, and render it volatile rather than productive. Certainly, the seething anger is more than justified in the face of nonstop atrocities that only seem to have grown worse since Trump took office. But these are precisely the kind of trying times when the movement can fail or sail, depending on whether it is able to channelize the raw anger of the masses to its constructive agenda, or whether it succumbs to reactionary impulses.
Following are some of the extreme stances that characterize the radical wing of the movement:
• SOME OF THE VALUABLE GUIDING PRINCIPLES OF BLM, SUCH AS DIVERSITY, EMPATHY, AND LOVING ENGAGEMENT ARE DROWNED OUT BY THE EXTREMISTS WHO INCREASINGLY CLAIM THE VOICE OF THE MOVEMENT DUE TO THEIR HOGGING OF THE MEDIA AND THE STREETS. WHAT THE AMERICAN PUBLIC SEES AT LARGE IS THAT THE ONLY NARRATIVE THAT THESE EXTREMISTS PROPAGATE IS THE ONE ABOUT THE SYSTEMIC AND STRUCTURAL RACISM THAT PLAGUES THE BLACK COMMUNITY. WHILE THIS IS TRUE AND NEEDS HIGHLIGHTING, THERE IS NO ALLOWANCE FOR ANY COMPETING NARRATIVES OF BLACK RESPONSIBILITY, AGENCY, OR TRIUMPH.
• Any criticism of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is seen as sacrilegious, and all critics, regardless of background or intent, are labeled as privileged or racist.
• They make the police singularly and wholly responsible for the dangerous fissures festering throughout the nation between Black Americans and the police.
• When the police stereotype the Black community, they cry foul; yet they turn around and do exactly that: denounce the entire police force of America as one corrupt and racist monolithic entity—making close to three-quarters of a million individual police officers, each with their own unique background, values, political beliefs, and motivations nothing more than stock characters in their narrative.
• They hold police to impeccable standards, while vehemently denying any discussion of civilian behavior that causes escalation.
• Looting and rioting are rationalized and justified.
• Their views, positions, and means are often polarizing.
• They allow for no nuance, discussion, debate, or opposing viewpoints.
In his essay in the New York magazine, titled, “Is There Still Room for Debate?” the moderate conservative, Andrew Sullivan, writes that the new orthodoxy of the left subscribes to a foundational belief that America is systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start. But, he argues, “No country can be so reduced to one single prism and damned because of it. American society has far more complexity, and history has far more contingency than can be jammed into this rubric. No racial group is homogeneous, and every individual has agency. No one is entirely a victim or entirely privileged.”
Speaking of the intolerance of the radical left, S Prasannarajan, editor of Open magazine, writes, “Any intellectual position that abhors a questioning mind is pretense, a falsity. It is a wall built by moral cowardice to protect the illusion of consensus. As [these radicals] become proof-readers of arguments in media and academia, every word, written or uttered, has to pass the righteousness test. The failed ones are buried alive, and they are seldom mourned. The silence of the tribe is frightening.”
In my close to 35 years in this country, my lived experiences and keen observations—culled from working in retail, in sales, and then editing a magazine for a minority community—leave me at a loss in empathizing with the extreme emphasis that BLM places in defining the American experience as singularly and thoroughly racist, and nothing more. Yes, racism is real and debilitating; and yes, it is far more devastating for Black Americans than it is to other minorities. And yet, it is an extremist position to say that racism in America is omnipresent and insurmountable, and that Black community has no agency whatsoever in the matter. Such a reductionist perspective shifts the entire blame—and therefore also the power to affect change—only in the hands of whites, while reducing Black Americans to hapless automatons.
But American life outside of the optics of high profile incidents, no matter how frequent or disturbing, is better described, again, by Sullivan in his above-referenced article: “A country that actively seeks immigrants who are now 82 percent nonwhite is not primarily defined by white supremacy. Nor is a country that has seen the historic growth of a black middle and upper class, increasing gains for black women in education and the workplace, a revered two- term black president, a thriving black intelligentsia, successful black mayors and governors and members of Congress, and popular and high culture strongly defined by the African American experience.”
Such a world of incremental gains is not what the radicals of Black activism are willing to concede. In their world, any gain towards an egalitarian society is rarely acknowledged. To them every white person, or anyone for that matter, is either a supremacist or an enabler—if they don’t say or do exactly as per their manifesto. Perhaps this is a knee jerk reaction to the fact that we have a thoroughly racist president at the helm who has been stoking racism since he took office, making it rampant.
“DEFUND THE POLICE”: SOME EXCELLENT PROPOSALS DONE IN BY AN ILL-CONCEIVED SLOGAN
There is mounting consensus amongst insiders and experts that policing in America is broken beyond repair; that corruption, racism, and oppression are now institutionalized. According to them, the combination of various cultural and systemic factors—such as toxic masculinity, racism, and qualified immunity, which provides police officers legal protection from accountability; and the “blue wall of silence,” an informal but sacrosanct code that makes it all but impossible for good cops to call out the bad ones—have collided to make policing a failed enterprise across the board.
“Defund the police” may therefore seem like the right response to such a hopeless situation. Indeed, there are worthy objectives proposed under this broad banner: invest in communities through social services such as education, housing, and mental health, and relieve police officers from being first responders in situations that can be better handled by other professionals.
BUT IN THEIR ZEAL TO REBOOT THE POLICING SYSTEM OF THE NATION, THE RADICAL PROPONENTS OF “DEFUND THE POLICE” FAIL TO CONSIDER THAT ANYTHING THAT REPLACES IT WILL EVENTUALLY HAVE TO RESEMBLE POLICE AS WE KNOW IT NOW: THEY WILL HAVE TO BE ARMED AND WOULD NEED LEGAL AUTHORITY TO EXERT POWER—IF THEY ARE TO SUCCESSFULLY MAINTAIN LAW AND ORDER IN A CRIME RIDDEN COUNTRY WITH CLOSE TO 400 MILLION FIREARMS IN THE HANDS OF CIVILIANS.
While mounting evidence demonstrates that the pressing ills of policing are systemic and widespread, the hardline position that the entire law enforcement of the nation is incorrigible, and therefore must be abolished and replaced is questionable. The resulting extremist slogan of “Defund the police” only manages to vilify the entire law enforcement in one broad stroke while creating a dangerous dynamic of “civilians versus police.” We already saw the results of this in the recent mass walk outs and resignations by police in more than a couple places. Reasonable people do not want to wage war with police as a whole; they want reforms to root out racism and brutality, and police with better training and more accountability.
“Defund the police,” is therefore an initiative with some excellent ideas about how to create systemic change that gets lost in the extreme language of its slogan, as it conjures up fear in the minds of most reasonable people. It is one of those incendiary sound bites that can lend towards handing Trump a second term.
NARRATIVES OF EMPOWERMENT INSTEAD OF VICTIMHOOD
For far too long, right wing pundits have stood in judgement of Black Americans, citing the ills that plague the community: drugs, crime, breakdown of families, etc. I am well aware of the inflammatory dynamics of blaming the victim. When it is done from outside, it is ugly for both, the accuser and the accused.
But when inspired from an internal renaissance, few things in the human enterprise compare to the beatitude of personal growth and self-transformation—despite all odds. Perhaps taking inspiration from greats like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, the Black lives movement may want to strongly emphasize its original goals of responsibility, transformation, and empowerment, rather than the current radical means of agitation, victimhood, and blame. “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child,” goes the axiom. No doubt, Black Americans have been victimized for centuries! But there is a difference between fighting against it versus capitulating to it.
None of this is at odds with the important work of fighting police brutality and the larger issue of systemic oppression. Extremists may discount such "soft" approaches as Pollyanna. But what is actually Pollyanna is to fantasize that just by pressing the reboot button on the entire police system of the nation we will be able to replace it with a model which will have everyone sing Kumbaya.
In fact, precisely because there is widespread oppression against Black community, that is more the reason to engage in the renaissance of personal growth, responsibility, transformation, and empowerment. Success, as they say, is the best revenge.
Parthiv N. Parekh is the editor-in-chief of Khabar magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. General comments and letters can be sent to email@example.com
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