With America’s history of racial oppression, it should come as no surprise that the range of reactions to events like the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (among many others, male and female, Black and Latino) have been on the side of racial stereotypes and assumptions. On the one hand, police officers, ordinary Whites and some ultraconservative Blacks have used the terms “animals” and “thugs” interchangeably because Garner and Brown were big Black guys, the stereotypical boogeymen, lurking and ready to rape, maim and kill scared-shitless White folk.
On the other hand, the traditional civil rights establishment and its cadre of ministers have equated the lessons of Brown and the Ferguson protests with the need to stop “looting and pillaging” and to stop wearing baggy pants. That’s the fallback position for attempting to explain why the message of police brutality and militarization against communities of color because of racism and classism isn’t getting through to Whites who have mostly been silent on these incidents.
As I’ve written in the past year or two, both of these perspectives suggest that Blacks and Latinos must somehow make ourselves worthy of humanity. That way, even the most racist of Whites could see that we’re not animals or thugs, but human beings worthy of the same human rights and civil liberties that they enjoy. This didn’t work even during the height of the Civil Rights Movement some five decades ago. Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., John L. Lewis, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Wearing suits and ties, marching with White allies, having the backing of the President of the United States. None of that swayed most Whites, as evidenced by changes in American politics since 1968.
The fact is, those Whites and sycophant Blacks who call African Americans and other people of color “animals” and “thugs” know we’re just as human as they are, if not more so. It’s their way of asserting that they’re better than us, precisely because they believe they can get away with seeing, calling and treating Blacks and other people of color as such. Especially since so many of these “animals” and “thugs” advocates have missed the full material benefits of American capitalism. And with America’s long history of allowing Whites to get away with lynchings, murders, rapes, race riots and other forms of violent oppression, why shouldn’t Whites think they’re in the right when they give money to Officer Darren Wilson for “doing his job” in murdering Michael Brown? As I’ve said before, the year doesn’t matter, the clothes don’t matter, our demeanor in public or how perfect our walk doesn’t matter to many — if not most — Whites. That may be our problem as people of color, but it’s definitely their problem as well.
Rev. Al Sharpton, sexual predator Jamal Bryant, megachurch-Gospel-of-Prosperity pastor T.D. Jakes and so many other men who spoke at Michael Brown’s funeral Monday put themselves on the other side of the “animals” and “thugs” coin with their agenda-loaded bloviations. Sharpton especially should know better, given his history of talking out of both sides of his mouth about the limits of the politics of respectability (Tawana Brawley comes to mind). Yes, being able to orchestrate nonviolent protests with proper victims in a way in which the mainstream media cannot dehumanize or engage in stereotypes was how the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the first place. But this methodology had its limits then, as it led to some victories that looked more like symbols than actual victories (even Dr. King said as much in his final three years). It definitely has its limitations now.
We have a leadership that has grown corpulent and ossified in its stomach, pockets and spirit when it comes to oppression and how to respond. Their thinking in so many ways isn’t much different than the Whites who post pictures of President Barack Obama eating a banana with his face pasted onto the head and body of a great ape. That’s the full shame of watching a funeral that was more about individual agendas than it was about Michael Brown or his family and friends, or his life and death, or mobilizing a larger effort.
It’s already terrible that we already have a nation of millions trying to hold people of color back, if only in their own minds (to quasi-quote Public Enemy). We can no longer afford to have an aging leadership whom, even when well-meaning, is unable or unwilling to move beyond symbols and pontification to an effort that promotes new tactics and strategies and younger leadership. It’s beyond time for younger generations to take the reins, and not in a respectable way, either.