Poverty, Violence and PTSD – But What About Racism?

July 7, 2014

Chicago Police fatally shot a 16-year-old boy in the city’s Gresham neighborhood Saturday night and distraught family members are questioning the incident, July 6, 2014. (http://nbcchicago.com).

Chicago Police fatally shot a 16-year-old boy in the city’s Gresham neighborhood Saturday night and distraught family members are questioning the incident, July 6, 2014. (http://nbcchicago.com).

Over the past two weeks, thanks to Chris Hayes’ reporting on the state of Chicago for MSNBC, not to mention a horrific July 4th weekend, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s lie of declining violent crime in the metropolis has been thoroughly exposed. In the past eighty-four hours, dozens of shootings in Chicago injured at least sixty people, with between nine and eleven killed. Six of these shootings involved the Chicago PD, as they killed two teenagers over the weekend. But if we leave it to the mainstream media and the moralist Black elite to explain, the Blacks on Chicago’s South Side are just immersed in a “culture of violence.” Black youth simply live careless, nihilistic lives, that “gang, drug, [and] gun violence” is the root of the problem

For those White, bright, and bi-racially White, though, there’s the knee-jerk reaction of media and caring adults that comes with it. For mass shooters apparently with much better aim than folks in Chicago, like Elliot Rodger, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Wade Michael Page, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, mental health and mental illness, along with gun control, is the mainstream media’s topic of the day. Even their explicit racism and misogyny can become the media’s evidence for their mental illness. White and Black moral leaders don’t then speak of cultural deficiencies or of an enjoyment of crime and violence as reasons for their shootings.

It’s terrible that we afford one group of young men every benefit of the doubt because they were/are affluent or White, and the deny humanity of another because they were/are poor and Black or Brown. Yet recent sociological and psychological studies indicate what anyone who has lived in poverty and with violence has at least sensed throughout their lives. That many (if not most) growing up in these conditions experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), leading to more poverty and violence in adulthood.

I know this better than most. Below is a short sample of the violence I witnessed or experienced from birth through adulthood:

September ’70 – my father, drunk and jealous, attempted to attack my mother with a knife. My Mom with me and my brother Darren in tow, picked up a heavy quartz crystal ashtray and threw it at my father as he charged her in the kitchen. He was apparently struck in the head and knocked unconscious. The ashtray had detached the retina in his left eye, which he never had repaired. Nine years later, my father had to have his left eye removed. I don’t remember this attack or my Mom defending herself — I was all of ten months old. I do remember my father’s eye being removed, and the headache and vertigo he had prior to the surgery in the summer of ’79 The research indicates, though, that there would have been a psychological impact on me and my nearly three-year-old brother nevertheless, and not a good one at that.

July ’75 –  from Boy @ The Window

Screen shot 2014-07-07 at 1.08.28 PM

December ’76 – when my father stomped in a brand-new glass coffee table and had to go to the hospital with several serious bloody cuts in his legs.

April ’77 – when my Uncle Sam clotheslined my father after his months of psychological and abuse toward my Mom had landed her in Mount Vernon Hospital with kidney problems.

April ’82, May ’82, July-August ’82 – my then stepfather beating me up in a Karate studio in front of a group of men because I refused to call him “Dad,” beating up my Mom for not “lovin’ him,” and beating me up for the first six weeks of my summer between seventh and eighth grade for me defending my Mom.

January ’86 – the last time my stepfather actually laid a fist on me, damaging or chipping three of my front teeth and busting my lip in the process.

June ’89 – the last fight between my Mom and my stepfather, where the same crystal ashtray my Mom used in ’70 easily could’ve fractured her jaw and left cheekbone. Thankfully, my then stepfather had terrible aim.

If it were just a matter of domestic violence and child abuse for me alone, that would be tragic, but not necessarily relevant. The violence of 616 East Lincoln Avenue, sadly, wasn’t contained to A32. Domestic violence was the way of the A-building at 616, starting with our adjacent next-door neighbors. In the two-bedroom department immediately below us, the husband and wife had a violent, alcoholic relationship, so bad that it was a rare weekend in the years between ’77 and ’87 where a plate or wine glass didn’t break or the police weren’t called. Their son once pointed a gun at me on my walk up the front steps of 616 when I was a senior in high school and claimed he’d secretly pointed a gun at me in the past. Muggings and robberies, including the four that I experienced, were as common as the common cold

At the near-door apartment building, 630 East Lincoln, the drug trade had been alive and well years before the arrival of crack cocaine. Fights involving knives and baseball bats were normal, often involved a crowd of kids as spectators. Sometimes these fights would spill onto the front lawn of 616’s A-building, where I could witness it first-hand.

That violence was a frequent companion in my life wasn’t surprising. I never lived anywhere where the majority of the people around me weren’t welfare-poor, working-poor or working-class Blacks, where the heating oil came in time for winter, and where maintaining mental health was a topic of conversation. To act as if employment practices, education policy, public health access, police neglect or brutality or housing policies had nothing to do with the sheer concentration of poverty and violence around me would be at the least naive. Fundamentally, it was the benign neglect in the chain between individual racial assumptions, the soft bigotry of mainstream media, and the hard concrete of structural racism in play.

What was my constant companion growing up in Mount Vernon, New York has remained the story of poverty, race and violence in Chicago’s South Side for a century. Don’t feel sorry, for me or for all of those shot up in Chicago this past July 4th weekend. Do something, say something, or don’t. But feeling sorrow without saying or doing something about shouldn’t be an option.


Talking Tocqueville Too Much

July 5, 2014

Alexis Tocqueville caricature (1849), by Honoré Daumier, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Alexis Tocqueville caricature (1849), by Honoré Daumier, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Every year for at least the past thirty years, without fail, I’ve read at least one article, seen or read at least one book, or watched at least one commentary about the great Alexis de Tocqueville. These are almost always about the French political theorist’s grand tour of America in the early 1830s and his affirmation of America’s exceptional democracy, egalitarianism and lack of permanent social classes. Over the years, I’ve found these all too frequent comments and examinations of a long-dead tourist vomit-inducing.

Tocqueville may have gotten it right, that America and its democracy was in a unique position in 1833 to take off and become a powerful nation, if given the time. But he didn’t understand America at all, at least, not really. Tocqueville didn’t understand how central inequality was to the development of America’s unique and exceptional democracy. He assumed, quite wrongly, that any issues of inequality in our then young nation were limited to the American South, where cotton was king and slavery was the backbone of the economy. Tocqueville only saw slavery as a moral dilemma of debasing humanity — slave owner and slave — and not as a political or economic one. So what if he predicted the rise of the US and Russia as world powers if he didn’t predict the American Civil War?

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist (due out September 9, 2014 -- there's always Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery [1944]), July 5, 2014. (http://bn.com).

The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist (due out September 9, 2014 – there’s always Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery [1944]), July 5, 2014. (http://bn.com).

Tocqueville looked at America outside of the South and saw an egalitarian and agrarian society, one unconnected to the slavery located south of the Mason-Dixon line and spreading southwest across the Mississippi River. Where did he think the money came from to finance plantations, to ship the raw materials of these plantations overseas and to buy more slaves? How did Tocqueville think these plantation owners could turn cotton into cloth and tobacco into cigarettes and cigars? Much of it came from bankers and merchants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, and from the factories of New England and New York. Slavery was the backbone of the rise of the American economic system, and was America’s industrialized foundation. Period.

Tocqueville argued that America was unique because of its lack of a permanent class system, particularly an aristocracy. Our country’s democracy, in fact, guaranteed the constant churning of social mobility. Tocqueville must’ve been high on the tobacco leaves he sniffed in his tour of Virginia! While the nation had shed most of the obvious symbolism that came with wealth in Europe, Tocqueville had completely ignored that for the first half-century of US, only rich, land-owning White males could vote (and in many cases, hold office). Only in the five or ten years before his tour of the US did non-propertied White males gain the right to vote.

On top of this, though most Americans were farmers in the 1831-33 period, American urbanization had already begun. American cities didn’t have the age or splendor of European ones, to be sure. But what Tocqueville didn’t recognize was that wealth was already beginning to be concentrated in cities like Philadelphia, Boston and New York, in the form of commerce, in banking, and in the beginnings of modern industries. And though large-scale exploitation of poor and uneducated Irish immigrations wouldn’t begin for another fifteen years, the exploitation of poor, native White (and frequently, female and child) labor was already well underway, pulling Whites from countryside to cities in the process.

"World's Highest Standard of Living" poster with Black flood victims in bread line, Louisville, Kentucky, by  Margaret Bourke White, February 15, 1937. (ThunderPeel2001 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws -- low resolution.

“World’s Highest Standard of Living” poster with Black flood victims in bread line, Louisville, Kentucky, by Margaret Bourke-White, February 15, 1937. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws — low resolution.

And this is the man who so many of my historian and political scientist colleagues like to cite and quote? Especially around Independence Day! Sorry, but if I did a two-year tour of, say, South Africa right now, and predicted their eventual greatness because of their unique racial democracy and rapid economic development, who’d take me seriously by 2200 CE? Maybe MSNBC host Chris Matthews‘ great-great-great-great grandson, who would then claim South African exceptionalism based on my predictive power from 180 years before.

 


Patriotism, Post-Racialism and Prima Donnas

July 4, 2011

US Flag and Lower 48, July 3, 2011. Source: http://mapsof.net

It’s yet another 4th of July, number 235, and I find myself tired of how the prima donnas in this country think it their right to define for me what patriotism is and isn’t. Last I checked, carrying an M-16 rifle and wearing a uniform overseas isn’t the alpha and omega of patriotism here or anywhere, and saying that it is doesn’t make it so. By that definition, it would mean that Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Susan B. Anthony weren’t patriots, while Timothy McVeigh and John Allen Muhammad were. Those who serve in combat are obvious American patriots. But hiding behind our military in defining patriotism allows us as a nation to ignore so many things that contradict our sense of nationalism and patriotism.

Call of Duty Screen Shot, July 3, 2011. Source: http://independent.co.uk

Patriotism is about much more than guns, battles, taking flanking positions or making perfect speeches wholly incompatible with the imperfections of our society and people. As anyone in the education field knows, Americans in general know about as much history as my son knows right now, and he just finished second grade.

Our aversion to history is especially noticeable when it comes to race. We’ve declared ourselves post-racial when we haven’t even been pre-racial. Meaning that in order to get beyond race, we actually have to deal with it directly, head-on, without holding back, the ugly history of race and racism that is as American as apple pie. I’m afraid that it’ll take a national tragedy, though, for more Americans to dare be that brave, that honest, that, well, patriotic.

It’s sad, because most of us are prima donnas, or rather, imperial narcissists who talk about patriotism without understanding that being a patriot often means using one’s brain and vociferously resisting the status quo. We’re more concerned about winning Mega Millions and Powerball or the price of gas than we really are about troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan or making US foreign and economic policies more equitable abroad and at home. We somehow assume that “America is #1!” is our birthright, even as many of us haven’t the socioeconomic capacity to partake in America’s remaining riches.

Alexandra Pelosi (a documentarian and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s daughter) has been doing the media circuit talking about her latest film, Citizen U.S.A., the story of immigrants becoming naturalized

Citizen U.S.A. Poster, June 2011. Source: http://www.jfklibrary.org

American citizens and their appreciation of what they believe America is about. Her message has essentially been “shame on you” to native-born Americans for not seeing our nation the way these immigrants can and do.

But even Pelosi’s perspective is limited in its prima-donna-ness. There are millions of us who see the direction of the nation and work not to illuminate its already over-hyped greatness — a classic sign of imperialism, by the way — but to make the nation a better one, a nation that lives up to its ideals. Isn’t this another example of one’s patriotism, one that’s forward-thinking enough to work for the long-term success of a nation, rather than chest-thumping about greatness in the present?

It seems to me that we should illuminate the fact that we expend so much energy making millions of Americans who are not with the prima-donna program into unpatriotic outcasts. So much so that most of us have never had an independent thought on this topic in our entire lives. And if the 4th of July is to be about more than guns, speeches, guns and denigration, we need more people to think for and beyond themselves about patriotism, even if some of us are incapable of accepting independent thought and criticism from them.


Patriot Days

July 3, 2010

Source: Donald Earl Collins, Fear of a "Black" America Cover

Few things are more annoying or more confusing than my understanding of patriotism and how others — mostly White — perceive my patriotism and the patriotism of people of color more broadly. It’s something that I’ve struggled to grasp for more than thirty years. For those of you whose patriotism is akin to breathing, that’s your prerogative. I’ve found that something like one’s love for their country, like one’s belief in God (or not), shouldn’t be one that comes without thought or without any doubts at all. For without giving it any serious or critical thought or without any questioning or lingering doubts, most American patriotism is like being a Yankees or a Lakers fan. Patriotism in that sense is simply rooting for a team that can do no wrong, one that is expected to win in any contest simply because that’s all they’ve ever done.

My sense of patriotism began in ’79, when I started to devour history books and volumes of World Book Encyclopedia. I wasn’t completely naive, because I had also read Lerone Bennett’s/Ebony’s three-volume Black America set while learning about World War II. But I did believe that America ultimately stood for goodness and prosperity, for freedom and democracy all over the world. I fervently saluted the flag at pledge of allegiance time in school in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grade.

Snoopy & Charlie Brown. Source: Charles Schulz, Peanuts

At one point between fourth and sixth grade, I even created a pretend nation-state in our bedroom at 616, where I played out domestic and foreign policy issues through make-believe characters, from, of all things, the Peanuts comic strip. I saw the Cold War with the Soviet Union as one we absolutely had to win in order to keep the totalitarian communists at bay. Several of my Humanities classmates can attest to my defense of American foreign policy as late as ninth grade.

But even as I generally saw the US as the country the Scholastic Weekly Reader described it to be, I had my doubts as to America the always right and beautiful. It started at the end of fifth grade, when I hit the chapter in our social studies book about how we ended World War II with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hadn’t seen the mushroom cloud or the fire-bleached skulls before then. It scared me, but more importantly, it made me think about how cruel it was to wipe out a city the size of Mount Vernon but with three times as many people in the same space.

Then, with the Reagan Years and the almost complete refusal to acknowledge racism and poverty in the ’80s got me to the point where I refused to recite the pledge by my junior year of high school. One of the reasons I never saw the military as an option for escaping the abuse and poverty I’d grown up with was because I saw American foreign policy as one that was at least as imperialistic as that of the Soviets. Iran-Contra, Vietnam, El Salvador and Grenada were examples of us over-stepping our role as the leader of the free world.

It got worse for me before it got better. The Gulf War (’90-’91) and my growing knowledge of American history and atrocities at home and abroad made me feel as if this country was never meant for me, never meant to be mine.

Luckily I had other people from which to draw inspiration about how to approach a nation that generally takes people like me for granted, as if my life and death doesn’t matter at all. People as varied as Derrick Bell, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison — not to mention my Army ROTC friends who served — served to inspire another sense of patriotism.

Their writings and speeches, their acts on behalf of civil rights, human rights and social justice did teach me two things. One, that even folks who serve in the military deserve credit for understanding that their projection of American power means little without clear objectives and a clear sense that this use of power is necessary, justifiable and can actually matter to and gain the support of the rest of the world. Two, that holding my country’s feet to the fire around racism, poverty, imperialism and other forms of injustice is a form of patriotism. Without the socially conscious, this country’s ideals, its flag and other symbols of power, are meaningless beyond the imperial. So, for better and for worse, happy birthday America.


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