Racial Blindness & The Killing of Philando Castile

 

On the evening of July 6, St. Anthony policeman Geromino Yanez spotted a car on Larpenteur Road in Falcon Heights, a small suburb of 5,300 at the southwest border of St. Paul which was part of the jurisdiction of the St. Anthony police. Officer Yanez had been aware that two black males with dreadlocks had robbed a nearby convenience store three days before.

Yanez radioed a nearby squad. “The two occupants just look like people that were involved in a robbery. The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just because of the wide-set nose. I couldn’t get a good look at the passenger.” He told the squad he was going to stop the car and check the ID’s of its occupants.

What happened next is disputed. The accounts of officer Yanez and Diamond Reynolds, one of the occupants of the car, clearly differ.

What is certain is what resulted: Yanez fired five shots at the boyfriend of Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile, who was sitting in the front seat. Castile later died from the wounds after being taken to a nearby medical facility.

Yanez’s attorney Thomas Kelly maintains that “This is a tragic incident brought about by the officer having to react to the actions taken by Mr. Castile…This had nothing to do with race. This had everything to do with the presence of a gun…and the display of a gun.” Kelly said that Yanez, who had been put on administrative leave, is a “sensitive man” and had been distressed by what had happened and is “deeply saddened” for Castile’s family.

According to Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, “The gun never came out, it could never be a threat. He didn’t ask about it, he didn’t know it was on his person,” Reynolds said in an exclusive interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America. “He came to the car, he said it was a traffic stop for a taillight. He asked for license and registration. That was it, that was all. The officer never mentioned anything other than a taillight, and we later discovered there was no broken taillight.”

Reynolds says Castile had not touched his gun, but was reaching for his ID as Yanez had instructed when Yanez opened fire.

After Yanez shot Castille, Reynolds started recording from her phone: “I knew they wouldn’t see me as being the person telling the truth,” she told George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America. “I knew by recording, I would be able to have my side brought to the table.”

On the video Reynolds states in a remarkably calm voice, “Stay with me. We got pulled over for a busted tail light in the back and he’s covered….they killed my boyfriend. He’s licensed to carry. He was trying to get out his ID and his wallet out his pocket and he let the officer know that he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm.”

While Reynolds records her testimony, Yanez can be heard yelling/frantically shouting, “I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his hand out…”

“You told him to get his I.D., sir, his driver’s license,” Reynolds responds, again with a calm that seems remarkable in the circumstances.

Reynolds is told to get out of the car and is handcuffed. After she says, “I can’t believe they just did this!” there’s a voice saying, “It’s okay, I’m here with you.”

The voice is Reynolds’ four year old daughter, Dae’Anna. Dae’Anna was sitting in the back seat when officer Yanez opened fire and shot Philando Castile five times in the front seat of the car.

*

From these facts and statements, we can assume that officer Yanez approached the car he’d stopped with trepidation. He had surmised that the car’s occupants could be the two black males with dread locks, one with a wide nose, who had robbed a nearby convenience store. The two black males could be armed, as they were in the robbery.

What are we to make of Yanez’s agitated emotional state after the shooting? What are we to make of the fact that Reynolds appears to be calm and far more emotionally restrained than Yanez—this despite the fact that her boyfriend Philando is bleeding to death in the seat next to her?

In that moment where the video starts, officer Yanez knows his life and his career will forever be changed. After the shooting, his body is still coursing with adrenalin. He is safe physically, but he does not appear to feel safe.

Diamond Reynolds has just witnessed her boyfriend being shot. She worries he might be dying, and her worries prove correct. She is recording the rest of the encounter in order help validate the testimony she knows she will eventually give about the event. She knows she is in the presence of an officer who has just shot someone whom she believes was not a threat to the officer and did not reach for his gun. She can surmise that her being without a gun will not necessarily make her safe, especially in the presence of this officer who is clearly still quite agitated.

She also knows her four year old daughter is in the back seat. That her daughter’s life and her own life depend upon her doing what the officer instructs. She knows that the officer will most likely be upset that she is recording from her phone. Perhaps she also believes that the phone recording might prevent the officer from shooting her. It is a calculated risk she is taking. She knows that if she reacts too emotionally she might upset the officer. She knows also that the validity of her testimony depends in part on her ability to remain calm and in control.

She also knows that staying calm and in control will make her daughter more safe.

*

What we are faced with here is two different interpretations of the same reality. Two different epistemologies.

But even in this brief exchange it seems clear: Diamond Reynolds understands how officer Yanez is thinking. She is still aware officer Yanez could turn and shoot her if she does something which causes him to further fear for his safety. She knows she must remain calm.

Yanez is clearly not thinking about what Diamond Reynolds is thinking or feeling. His mind is focused on the shooting. On his justification for the shooting. He is not thinking about how Diamond Reynolds is perceiving this event, nor how her four year old daughter is perceiving the event. Nor does he seem to be thinking, I need to do what I can to save the life of this man I have just shot. Nor does he appear to be thinking, Who is this man I have just shot?

Yanez entered the encounter picturing the possibility of confronting two male robbery suspects. But the car obviously did not contain two males. It contained a male, a female, and a four year old girl.

Questions arise: At what point did Yanez realize that the occupants in the car were not the robbery suspects? Was it before or after the shooting that he realized there was a woman and not a man in the front seat beside Philando Castile? At what point did Yanez see the four year old girl in the back seat? Even after the shooting it is not clear that Yanez realizes there is a four year old girl in the back seat. That he actually sees her.

But then we may also question: Did officer Yanez actually see Philando Castille?

To answer this question, we must understand that the verb “see” here has two quite different meanings in this tragic encounter.

*

Even if the occupant of the car had been one of the robbery suspects, that does not mean that officer Yanez would have been justified in shooting him.

But Philando Castile was not a robber of convenience stores.

Under the headline “He Knew the Kids and They Loved Him”: Minn. Shooting Victim was Adored School Cafeteria Manager,” here is what how the Washington Post article described him:

“Before he was fatally shot Wednesday by a police officer in Minnesota, before his name became a hashtag, Philando Castile was known as a warm and gentle presence at J.J. Hill Montesori Magnet School, where he managed the cafeteria. He was there when children streamed into school for breakfast in the morning, playing music and bantering. He was there when they returned for lunch: Laughing with kids, urging them to eat more vegetables, helping keep order in his easy going way….’We’re just devastated,’ said Anna Garnaas, who teachers first-, second- and third-graders at the school, located in St. Paul, Minn. ‘He just loved the kids, and he always made sure that they had what they needed. He knew their names, he knew what they liked, he knew who had allergies. And they loved him….[A parent of a student] said that one of her children has a sensory processing disorder that makes it hard for him to make eye contact and show affections. But with Castile? Her child would fist-bump him, she said, and hug his legs. Her son felt safe with Castile, she said.”

Another mother of a student called him “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks.”

But over the last fourteen years or so, this “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks” had been pulled over and stopped by the police 52 times. He’d been given citations for speeding, driving without a muffler, not wearing a seatbelt. He accrued $6,588 in fines and fees. Half of his 86 violations were dismissed by the court.

Most blacks and people of color would argue that Castile’s record shows clear evidence that he had been a victim of racial profiling. Many blacks believe that what happened to Castile could just as easily have happened to them.

Many whites believe the police do not act with any racial bias. Or that if there is bias on police forces, that bias stems from only a few “bad cops.”

But even these whites cannot dispute this: Philando Castile was not the robbery suspect that officer Yanez suspected him to be.

*

Psychological studies have shown that racial bias can be expressed in two ways. One way is conscious or explicit bias. The other is unconscious or implicit bias. Until recently, discussions on racism have focused on explicit bias.

In “Faces of Black Children as Young as Five Evoke Negative Biases” on the Association for Psychological Science web page, the article reports on research published in Psychological Science:

Previous research has shown that people are quicker at categorizing threatening stimuli after seeing Black faces than after seeing White faces, which can result in the misidentification of harmless objects as weapons. Todd and colleagues wanted to find out whether the negative implicit associations often observed in relation to Black men would also extend to Black children.

The researchers presented 64 White college students with two images that flashed on a monitor in quick succession. The students saw the first image — a photograph of a child’s face – which they were told to ignore because it purportedly just signaled that the second image was about to appear. When the second image popped up, participants were supposed to indicate whether it showed a gun or a toy, such as a rattle. The photographs of children’s faces included six images of Black five-year-old boys and six images of White five-year-old boys.

The data revealed that the student participants tended to be quicker at categorizing guns after seeing a Black child’s face than after seeing a White child’s face. Participants also mistakenly categorized toys as weapons more often after seeing images of Black boys than after seeing images of White boys.

The problem with implicit bias is that, by definition, the person is unaware that he or she holds such a bias. This bias acts beyond the person’s conscious control. It is conditioned or created by the ways our society depicts whites as different from blacks,. This difference can show up anywhere—in books, in news, in films or television, in education, in social media, in everyday conversations, etc. Just as importantly, because this bias is unconscious in many whites, it is difficult to prove to them that such a bias exists inside them—unless they themselves have taken a test for implicit bias or have come upon the psychological research on implicit bias.

Blacks and other people of color have little trouble believing that implicit or unconscious bias exists. We are aware when white people treat us or other people of color differently than fellow whites even if the white people who do this are unaware they are doing so. There’s a correlative to this in the old black saying, “I don’t believe what you say because I see what you do.”

Most blacks and people of color believe racial bias in policing stems from an explicit bias which is far greater in police forces than is acknowledged and from an implicit bias which many police and whites do not even recognize or know about.

In other words, blacks believe many police do not see blacks as they actually are, but instead see blacks through a number of racial biases or filters.   Thus, the conscious or unconscious belief that black people are more dangerous and more prone to criminal acts becomes a self-fulfilling lens.* Any number of statistics demonstrate this. For instance, whites and blacks smoke marijuana at exactly the same rate, but blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Blacks are more likely than whites to be stopped for minor traffic violations.* Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow contains many more statistics like this.

But the evidence of such statistics or the psychological studies on implicit bias have done little to change the behavior or training of police in our country. Though there is some willingness these days to try to address these inequities, clearly most of the speakers at the recent Republican convention did not believe there is any bias at all in the actions of police. In their view, the police must be supported at all times; the actions of officer Yanez must be justified a priori—that is, assumed to be legal and devoid of any racial bias.

*

Assuming police unions would allow this—and that’s a big assumption—what if police officers could be tested for implicit bias? As has been shown by psychological studies, it’s not just whites who possess a racial bias towards blacks. A significant portion of people of color and even of blacks also possess such a bias. Clearly, such a bias keeps the police for accurately seeing the people they are dealing with. One would think that quality policing depends upon an accurate assessment of reality.

Of course, we know that police actions are not judged solely by this criteria. Political and citizen pressure, police unions, various interested parties, are more concerned with the safety of whites or more well to do citizens than they are about the rights of black citizens, particular economically disenfranchised black citizens.

But let us suppose hypothetically that there is value in a racially unbiased police force and that, in order to do this, we must take measures to rid the police force of explicit and implicit biases. We already have some measures of rooting out the most egregious or obvious examples of explicit bias. But we also know that in general, at least until the recent rise of Trump, most Americans know they should not express explicit racial bias in public. The police are no different. So there are police who hold explicit bias against blacks, but they keep such bias confined to private conversations, and they rely on the blue code of silence to protect them. Thus, the only way to find such people is with a test for implicit bias, because such tests bypass conscious concealing of bias.

Obviously, then a problem arises. It is almost certain that a significant portion of the police force exhibits evidence of implicit racial bias. How significant we do not know, since the police have never been tested for this.*

But even if they are tested, what do we do then? How do we root out implicit bias? As Destiny Peery, Assistant Professsor of Law and Pyschology, at Northwestern University writes in The Huffington Post:

Many researchers who study implicit bias for a living, including the creators of the primary implicit bias measure, the Implicit Association Test (IAT), caution against seeing implicit bias as the newest one-size-fits-all approach to solving issues of bias and diversity. These researchers argue that implicit bias is helpful to the extent that it adds to our toolkit for understanding how bias operates, but research has not progressed to the point of suggesting concrete, long-term ways to eradicate these biases. In other words, we must remember that implicit bias training is not able to de-bias participants, no matter how well-meaning they are. After decades of research, we still don’t really know how to get rid of these biases, especially biases like implicit racial and gender biases, given that they, and the stereotypes that maintain them, are so pervasive.

While not much is known about how to de-bias people, a lot more is known about how to protect against bias. Here awareness matters, so teaching people about implicit bias can help, but what matters more is creating policies and procedures where decision-makers can check their biases and insulate against them. The National Center for State Courts gets it right, publishing a report on strategies to reduce the influence of implicit bias that focuses on inoculating against bias rather than de-biasing. Their strategies focus on changing policies and procedures in courtrooms that create conditions where bias is less likely to have an influence or can be stopped more easily.

In other words, police can be tested for implicit bias and training to combat implicit bias could be instituted, but such measures will not solve the problem of implicit bias. Implicit bias is rooted too deep in our culture. This bias stems from and is created by the society around us, its beliefs and practices, the ways it depicts whites and blacks and other people of color. It is difficult for police training to dismantle their implicit bias if, the minute they step outside the door of the training sessions, they are bombarded with messages confirming their implicit bias.

Moreover, the cultures of most police departments would not be open to such training. Thus, while we should continue to try different ways to combat implicit racial bias on the part of police, we should also take measures to mitigate the effects of that bias. This means we need to focus not just on the individual police officer and his or her racial attitudes and beliefs, but on the entire practice of policing in this country.

One example of this shift in police policy is Campaign Zero’s 10 point platform on police reform. These ten points include:

  1. End broken windows policing: This would include decriminalizing activities that do not threaten public safety, such as loitering, marijuana possession, jaywalking, etc, and ending profiling and “stop and frisk” policies.*
  2. Community oversight.
  3. Limit use of force: e.g., “Deadly force should only be authorized after all other possible means have been exhausted.”
  4. Independently investigate and prosecute: The prosecution of police should not be directed by offices that work directly with the police.
  5. Community representation.
  6. Body cams/Film the police.
  7. Training: Both to combat implicit racial bias and to teach techniques in crisis intervention, conflict resolution and de-escalation, etc.*
  8. End for-profit policing: In Ferguson, the police department budget depended upon the income from traffic citations and other minor offenses.
  9. Demilitarization: Jeronimo Yanez took a militarized seminar titled “The Bulletproof Warrior” which “urged the lawn enforcement officers…to make the decision to shoot if they ever feel their lives are threatened.”
  10. Fair police union contracts: “Remove barriers to effective misconduct investigations and civilian oversight. Keep officers’ disciplinary history accessible to police departments and the public.”

It is clearly time for a call for national police reform. Whether that call will be heeded is not clear.

*

Still, in my mind, rather than focusing on police reform, I keep going back to Philando Castile. How conservative websites trumpet headlines about him like this: “Confirmed-Philando Castile was an Armed Roberry Suspect—False Media Narrative Now Driving Cop Killings”.*   To such conservatives, the fact that Philando Castile did not rob the convenience store is a “moot point.” So, presumably, is the fact that he was a beloved cafeteria manager at the J.J. Hill School. To such conservatives, he was a “robbery suspect” with dread locks and not “Mr. Rogers with dread locks.”

What’s important to note here is this: In the conservative narrative, there is no room for Philando Castile to be considered “innocent.” The fact that Officer Yanez suspected Castile of being a robbery suspect is sufficient and renders all other considerations “moot.”

Such a mindset, unfortunately, is part of America’s legacy. Historically, this nation has had a difficult time seeing black people—seeing them as human beings, as free people, as citizens, as something other than a long list of negative stereotypes, chief among them blacks as inherently criminal. As Khalil Gibran Muhammad demonstrates in The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, after the emancipation of blacks, a whole body of racial science arose which purported to prove that black criminals were not simply individuals but proof of the criminality of the entire black race. In contrast, white criminals were seen as individuals rather than as indicative of any racial characteristics for whites. Muhammad writes: “The idea of black criminality was crucial to the making of modern urban America. In nearly every sphere of life it impacted how people defined fundamental differences between native whites, immigrants, and blacks….Moreover, the various ways in which writers and reformers imagined black people as inferior to and fundamentally different from native whites and immigrants in the early twentieth centuries had a direct impact on allocation of social resources for preventing crime in all communities….Thoughtful, well funded crime prevention and politically accountable crime fighting secured immigrants’ whiteness, in contrast to the experiences of blacks, who were often brutalized or left unprotected and were repeatedly told to conquer their own crime before others would help them.” In many ways, the stereotypes and ideology of this nineteenth century racial science are still present today.

Explicit or implicit bias both produce blindness and blinders, false filters and lenses, not clear or true sight. Every adult black person in America knows that this blindness can come into play any time they encounter a police officer. Every black adult knows that in that encounter, their life may be held in the balance by someone who does not see that black person, who, because of our history and the presence of that history in the present, might see that black person not just as guilty or a criminal, but as a threat to that officer’s very existence. And no matter how they behave, that black person has no control ultimately over how that police officer views that black person. It is a terrifying situation to find oneself caught up in. And it occurs daily in America.

Or in the life of this one 32 year old black man, it had occurred some 52 times. The 53nd time proved fatal. It was as if the odds had caught up with Philando Castile.

And yet, despite being the victim of racial profiling by the police, Castile had greeted the white children and white parents of J.J. Hill with a smile, with the natural warmth of his personality. He tried to see each of the students as individuals, remembered who had allergies, and who were the parents of the kids who had allergies.

According to Rebecca Penfold Murray, a parent of two five year old children at the J.J. Hill school, Castile appeared to know every student’s name: “When you see 400 kids a day and you can remember those details about them, I think that you really care about how those kids are doing. It’s preposterous for anyone to die violently, but I am still unable to wrap my head around the fact that his happened to a person like him.” Hill parent Angie Checco de Souza reports that her six year old said, “’Mom, can you tell the police that they were wrong. This is our guy, who served us lunch at J.J. Hill Montessori School.”

Think of how Castile woke up each day and greeted those kids. Think about how he woke up each day and got into his car to go to work knowing he might be stopped by the police for any number of reasons, some perhaps legitimate, but others dismissed by the courts, who would not be inclined to necessarily take his word against the police who stopped him. But he was not bitter about this. Though his mother states that she thinks he was constantly stopped for “driving while black,” he did not take up her advice to make an official complaint about such bias. Partly she believes this is because he drove for several years without a valid license. But she also says it wasn’t his nature to complain. “He didn’t quite look at it as being profiled,” she says.

Personally, I don’t quite understand how Castile coped with this contradiction. He seems to be one of those people who tried to make the best of things, to treat others with respect and care, with openness and warmth, even if the world around him did not always treat him in the same way. This is not, I would argue, the picture the general public would have if they were simply given the information that this black man had been stopped 52 times by the police in fourteen years.

*

Whatever the courts decide, I believe officer Yanez did not see Philando Castile as he actually was or even entertain that Castile might be such a person.   And this failure of imagination, this failure to entertain an alternative picture of who a black man with dreadlocks in a car might actually be, is related to this: Yanez did not see soon enough that Castile was not accompanied by another male, but by a woman and a four year old child. It also appears that Yanez did not possess the instinct in his brain to reassess the situation; he did not possess the impulse to wait a moment longer, just to test the accuracy of his assumptions and the ways those assumptions colored his sight.

Yes, every day police put their lives at risk to enforce the law, to protect citizens. But Philando Castile was also a citizen, whose life needed protecting. Yes, I as a civilian cannot know what it is like to live with the fear that police experience. But I can imagine a police officer who would not have acted as officer Yanez.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Yanez had been trained to be such an officer. He wasn’t trained to recognize or combat any racial bias he might have had, and certainly not any implicit or unconscious bias. Instead, Yanez had gone through a course, “The Bulletproof Warrior,” which instructed him to shoot whenever he felt his life was threatened, and thus, he learned not to question whether his feelings might be inaccurate, might be conditioned by explicit or implicit racial bias.

With such training, the possibility of seeing the J.J. Hill Phil, “our Phil,” was ruled out before Yanez ever encountered Philando Castile. In this way, Yanez’s actions and his mindset reflect not just on him personally, but on the culture around him—both the greater culture and the police culture; his actions stem from the training he received and our collective failure to root out racial biases from our society.

I don’t believe Yanez consciously wanted to kill Philando Castile. But that Yanez did so was not an accident. It was pre-ordained by our America’s failure to deal with its racial problems. It was pre-ordained by the blindness that resided in Yanez, perhaps in his unconscious rather than his conscious mind, but still, just as problematic and fatal for Philando Castile.

Our laws may say “innocent until proven guilty,” but in practice, what occurs for blacks and other people of color is more often “guilty until proven innocent.” Despite our Constitution and its rights, our laws are applied by fallible human beings, by human beings conditioned by a racist society and culture which has failed throughout its history to see blacks and other people of color as innocent.

Philando Castile was innocent. Tragically, the society around him is still guilty of not seeing that fact.

 Notes:

*   Star Tribune: “It appears at first glance that St. Anthony police are targeting black people for arrest.

Data released by the Minneapolis suburb last week show that 41 percent of the people whom St. Anthony police arrested last year were black — nearly seven times what one might expect, given that they make up about 6 percent of residents in the department’s patrol area.

Yet nearly every Twin Cities metro-area police department exhibits a racial disparity in its arrest rates, according to a Star Tribune analysis of recently released FBI Uniform Crime Reports data for serious crimes. Minneapolis, St. Paul and inner-ring suburbs had the highest disparities, which diminished in exurban areas….

“There are not studies out there today that readily document overt racial bias,” Frase said at a June 7 seminar at the U on racial disparities in law enforcement. “But there is study after study after study out there demonstrating implicit racial bias when it comes to decisionmaking” at every stage of Minnesota’s criminal justice system, he said.

Implicit bias occurs when police target high-crime areas, Frase said in an interview. Those are largely poor areas in the Twin Cities, which have higher minority populations. When police find guns or drugs, it ratifies their judgment, leaving them with a predisposition to stop similar people in those areas.”

http://www.startribune.com/racial-disparities-in-twin-cities-arrests-are-widespread/387482811/

* New York Times, Olevia Boykin, Christopher Desir and Jed Rubenfeldjan: “In the seven states that collect the most comprehensive data on traffic stops, analysts have found often-striking disparities in how African-American drivers are treated. In two of the states, Connecticut and Rhode Island, changes in traffic enforcement followed.

There has been no such change in Minnesota. A state-commissioned study in 2003 found that minority drivers were more likely than white drivers to be both stopped and searched, even though officers found contraband more often when searching white drivers.

Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota professor who was a co-author of the study, said that the findings strongly suggested widespread racial and ethnic bias in traffic enforcement.

More recently, a study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that African-Americans and Native Americans in Minneapolis were eight times more likely than whites to be charged with a low-level infraction, such as trespassing or loitering.”

* New York Times: Olevia Boykin, Crhistopher Desire, Jed Rubenfeld report “…racial bias can affect what seems reasonable. Individuals of all races in America perceive black people as more aggressive and dangerous than white people. Studies show that black people are seen as being physically stronger and less prone to feeling pain than people of other races, and black children are often perceived to be older than they are. When faced with an armed black target, shooters are both more likely to shoot and quicker to shoot than they are when faced with an armed white target.

These biases can affect the way we think, judge and act. As a result, force that may seem unreasonable if used against a white person may seem perfectly “reasonable” when used against a black person.

One critical and common-sense change would be to adopt a necessity rule. The difference is simple but crucial. Even when the police have a reasonable belief that a person is dangerous, the necessity standard does not permit deadly force if non-deadly or less deadly alternatives are available and adequate to meet the threat.”

* Star Tribune: “Just 7 percent of residents are black in St. Anthony and neighboring Lauderdale and Falcon Heights, according to census data. The St. Anthony police data shows that nearly half of all arrests made by St. Anthony officers were of African-Americans in 2016. And despite a small increase in the area’s African-American population since 2010, the percentage of the department’s black arrestees has increased steadily since 2011, when a third of the people it arrested were black.” http://www.startribune.com/apnewsbreak-half-of-arrestees-where-castile-died-are-black/386667881/

* Star Tribune: “About three years ago when Joe Olson blew through a stoplight in Lauderdale, he expected what would be a routine traffic stop when he got pulled over by a St. Anthony police officer. He put his hands on the wheel, then prepared to turn his head to the left and smile.

Instead, the stop was so troubling that he later went to the then-St. Anthony police chief to tell him he may have a serious problem with how the department conducts traffic stops. But the chief, Olson said, dismissed his concern.

“I told him that if you don’t fix this, you’re going to have an even bigger problem,” Olson said. “And that’s apparently what happened.”

Olson, whose story was first reported by the Washington, D.C.-based blog ThinkProgress, is no stranger to law enforcement or firearms. A retired Hamline law professor, he’s also a gun rights lobbyist who helped write Minnesota’s permit-to-carry law. He also regularly taught classes on firearms safety that included instructions on what to do when someone carrying with a permit is pulled over.

Olson said on that day three years ago, he expected the St. Anthony officer to stand just behind the driver’s side door at the traffic stop, which is generally standard practice. Instead, the officer stood about 3 feet behind his SUV and conducted the interview through Olson’s driver’s-side mirror.

“His voice had the tremor of fear,” Olson said. “He couldn’t see my hands. He couldn’t see if anyone was in the car. I thought: This is dangerous for both of us.”” http://www.startribune.com/professor-st-anthony-police-chief-dismissed-plea-to-improve-traffic-stop-training/386079641/

* Star Tribune: “The seminar was called “The Bulletproof Warrior,” and the instructors urged the law enforcement officers in the hotel conference room to make the decision to shoot if they ever feel their lives are threatened.

Videos of bloody shootouts between police and civilians emphasized a key point: Hesitation can kill you.

In the audience at the May 2014 seminar was a young St. Anthony police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, city records show. He’s now known around the world as the officer who killed Philando Castile minutes after making a traffic stop in Falcon Heights last week.

Amid intensifying demands for changes in police training in the wake of the shooting deaths of Castile and others, such “survival” courses for officers are flourishing nationally. But some in law enforcement are distancing themselves from the approach.

The Houston Police Department, for example, won’t pay for its officers to attend the Bulletproof Warrior seminar, which is put on by an Illinois for-profit company called Calibre Press.

And the leader of an international police training association said he thinks some seminars like those offered by Calibre and other firms foster a sense of paranoia among officers.

“Police training became very militaristic and it caused a lot of the problems that are going on in the nation,” said Michael Becar, executive director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, with offices in Idaho and Washington, D.C.”

http://www.startribune.com/officer-in-castile-case-attended-bulletproof-warrior-training/386717431/

*   The Conservative Treehouse: “In addition, Mr. Castile also matched the physical description of the suspect as given by eye witnesses:

[…]  The other suspect was described as a black man with shoulder-length dreadlocks, who wore tan pants, tan shoes with white soles, a green jacket, a green baseball cap and glasses, the release says. He also had some of his hair pulled into a bun through the strap on the back of his hat and had a small mustache and facial hair on his chin. (link)

Similar clothes as noted on the robbery suspect are also noted in the Facebook images of Mr. Castile.  However, whether Mr. Castile is actually the person who committed the armed robbery is -again- essentially a moot point…. It is with that “armed robbery suspect perspective” the approach toward the vehicle was made by officers Yanez and Kauser.

Mr. Castile, fitting the physical description, being in the same geography, generally matching the BOLO CCTV image, and then having a handgun on his thigh only made the suspicions gain exponential weight.

Any behaviors or sudden movements by Mr. Castile would only increase the anxiety and increase the officer’s perception of Castile as a threat.” This sight contents that a dark line on Castile’s lap, barely visible in the Diamond Reynolds video, is “the same type of hand gun used in the Convienced Store Armed robbery four days earlier” (in which video the gun of the robbery suspect is clearly visible).”

https://theconservativetreehouse.com/2016/07/08/confirmed-philando-castile-was-an-armed-robbery-suspect-false-media-narrative-now-driving-cop-killings/

* Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (272-73).

“White Delusion” & Racial Debates

In his New York Times article* today, Nicholas Kristof examines the ways whites constantly underestimate the prevelance of racial bias in our society.  Kristof labels this “white delusion.” In other words, white attitudes on race in America constantly deny a vast array of facts and statistics. Here is an excerpt from Kristof’s piece:

“In 1962, 85 percent of white Americans told Gallup that black children had as good a chance as white kids of getting a good education. The next year, in another Gallup survey, almost half of whites said that blacks had just as good a chance as whites of getting a job.”

“In retrospect, we can see that these white beliefs were delusional, and in other survey questions whites blithely acknowledged racist attitudes. In 1963, 45 percent said that they would object if a family member invited a black person home to dinner….”

“Half of white Americans today say that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks. Really? That contradicts overwhelming research showing that blacks are more likely to be suspended from preschool, to be prosecuted for drug use, to receive longer sentences, to be discriminated against in housing, to be denied job interviews, to be rejected by doctors’ offices, to suffer bias in almost every measurable sector of daily life.”

In certain cases, this “white delusion” results from an ignorance of the facts and statistics. But even when presented with facts and statistics which contradict their stated beliefs, many whites continue to believe either that racism is relatively over or less prevalant than POC maintain or that whites are now the ones discriminated against. This delusion is built into the ways white identity is constructed, and the rules of that identity concerning the nature of knowledge. Some of the rules of white identity are: Ignore our racial history and assume that there is no connection between the past and the present (if the white person cannot see the connection); assume that blacks and people of color are not credible witnesses to their own existence and lives; assume that only the white perspective and epistemology matters and gets to determine what is objective and what is the nature of reality.

Thus, “white delusion” not only denies facts and statistics. It also assumes white superiority in perceiving the nature of reality; it denies that people of color may possess knowledge, experience, and an epistemology that exists outside of or beyond white understanding. Most people of color can adequately describe how whites perceive the world and constitute their identity. Whites cannot do the same for people of color. On the one hand, this is just an example of DuBois’s double consciousness. But because POC see through “white delusion” we actually see and know a reality whites do not see and are in denial of. And yet, when we describe that reality to whites, whites automatically dismiss our description as delusional, reverse racism, race baiting, playing the race card, etc.

This echoes Baldwin’s assertion that the anger of whites over race is intrinsically different from that of blacks and other POC. Whites are angry because their delusions are being threatened, because they want to keep their denial of reality; more importantly, that denial rests upon the assumption that they alone get to arbitrate what knowledge is legitimate and what knowledge is not. Thus, their denial rests upon an assumption of their supremacy–not just that they have superior knowledge but that they are the ultimate arbiters of what is legitimate and what is illegitimate knowledge. In contrast, POC are angry because a racist system denies them equal opportunity, equal power and equal rights. POC are angry because they dealing with people who refuse to see the reality they have created and which POC suffer under. POC are angry because what they see and experience every day in their lives is being denied by white definitions of reality and because whites possess the power to over and over deny the reality of POC. Unlike whites, POC understand not only that the white perception of reality exists –we could not survive in this society without knowing that–but also why it exists and the history which created that perception of reality (which goes all the way back to slavery for blacks).

Ultimately, whites are angry because the power and privileges they receive from a racially biased system are being challenged; those powers and privileges include the power to deny even the existence of a separate knowledge which blacks and other POC possess and whites do not.

“White delusion” has constantly been maintained this week in public conversations where white anger and black anger are posited as equally justified or the same. This is simply not true. Not only are the realities whites experience vastly different from that experienced by blacks and other POC, but the ways we construct our identities and process our knowledge of the world is also vastly different. In this way, as much as I admire Obama, he’s wrong: We are not closer than we think; we are farther apart than most whites and, as Obama demonstrates, some POC understand.*

* http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/opinion/a-history-of-white-delusion.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=0

* Caveat: I suspect that much of what Obama says in public about race is an example of signifying–speaking to whites in a way that will convey one message, while hiding or signifying another message for blacks who will read his message differently than whites (c.f., Keye & Peele’s Luther, Obama’s anger translator; or Gates, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism)

 

On the Killing of Alton Sterling & Philando Castile

In the past few days, two black men were killed by the police, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, MN. I live in Minneapolis, just a couple miles from where Castile was killed, and one of my friends is friends with him. According to Castile’s girlfriend who was in the car with her daughter, Philando Castile was stopped by a Falcon Heights policeman for a busted tail light (which his girlfriend said was not busted). The officer told him to produce his driver’s license. Castile informed the policeman that he had a gun and a permit to carry a gun. He then told the policeman he was reaching for his wallet and the policeman shot him several times. The shots killed Castile.

As so many, I am sick of police killing black men when they are unarmed or being stopped for a minor violation or for no reason at all. There needs to be a complete overhaul of how police are selected, trained and sent out into the field. At the least police should be screened not just for explicit bias–after all, any candidate would know he or she should not express out loud any racial bias. Instead police should be screened for implicit or unconscious bias–there are tests for this. Unfortunately this will make it much harder to find qualified police since most whites and a significant portion of blacks and POC (the policeman in the Caste killing was reportedly Asian Am) possess implicit or unconscious racial bias towards blacks. This problem isn’t just because there are police who are explicitly or consciously racist. This problem exists because, throughout our society and justice system, racial bias is deeply embedded in the actions, thoughts, beliefs, policies, laws and practices of both individuals and systems.  Just read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; it’s all there.  Blacks and whites use marijuana at the same rate, but blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for this.  A black man is twenty-two times more likely to be killed by police than a white man.  Etc.  Etc.  Etc.

As for the Castile killing, I know this stretch of road where he was stopped.  That spot is a notorious ticket trap. It’s not a high crime area, it’s not a densely populated area, it’s not a busy traffic area.  It runs next to the U of M golf course and along fields where the U of M agricultural dept. does studies. It’s a sparsely populated road, and there’s no reason why it should be so heavily patrolled. Falcon Heights has a population of 5,500 people. The reason police patrol this road is for them to write tickets and collect revenue–just as in Ferguson. There’s a place where the speed limit changes from 40 to 25 and the road feels more like a county highway where the speed would be 55. It’s an ideal place if you want to catch people speeding. I’ve seen more cars pulled over within that half mile stretch than anywhere in the Twin Cities, and this for a town of 5,500 people.  The police are there to write tickets and collect revenue–to my mind, a form of highway robbery. That Castile was pulled over for a busted taillight is so stereotypical–a black man stopped for a busted taillight. To me, this incident calls for a whole reevaluation of the Falcon Heights police force and not just this one policeman.

I will end with something I’ve written before, prompted by the death of Freddy Gray in Baltimore. Here we are mourning the preventable police killings of two more black men, and the words I wrote before are still applicable:

At what point does the social contract end? If violence can be wreaked upon you without cause? If your life can be taken from you while you are unarmed and your murderer goes unpunished? If your rights as a citizen have been taken away simply because you were walking on the street? If the skin on your body becomes the marker for your criminality and you become a source of profit for those who run the prisons? Isn’t this the definition of a slave? You are not a citizen, violence can be done to you without need of justification or provocation, you are deemed to be property, you are not regarded as a human. If the society you live in has failed to recognize and protect your humanity, what is your obligation to that society?

Further Thoughts On the Rise of Trump

As I’ve written before, the shifting demographics of America will create a white backlash because of white fears of what will happen when whites are no longer the racial majority. More liberal whites now realize that the era of the “post-racial” was not inaugurated by the election of Obama, but with Trump, there are clear indications that racial tensions can worsen rather than steadily improve (contradicting the myth of the post-Civil Rights era that race relations will steadily get better).

Activists involved in the struggles for racial equity believe that clear, direct statements concerning systemic racism and racial bias are what’s needed. One cannot solve a problem without accurately describing it. Yet, at the same time, how are we to address rising white fears and resentment? What is the most effective language and approach to addressing the problems of racial equity and winning the support of whites? Or should that be a question we should be asking?

A white writer friend of mine recently wrote me that she’s stopped using the term “white privilege,” not because she doesn’t think there is such a thing but because every time she used it, the white person she was talking to or writing to immediately shuts down. Now it says something about the entrenchment of “white privilege” that any mention of it can cause a white person to stop all dialogue. But will the ceasing of dialogue help us create greater recognition of the racial inequities that plague our society?

One of Baldwin’s gifts was his ability to examine the psyche of both black and white America, to articulate both how blacks thought about and approached the issues of race and how whites thought and approached the same issues. That’s one of the reasons why his work is so valuable today.

In the recent HBO film “All the Way” about the struggles to pass the Civil Rights bills of the early sixties, we see LBJ trying to win over  those in Congress who were resisting the passage of these bills. Johnson was a genius at this work, and he of course relied on his position as a white Southern politician. Johnson could talk to these white men–for they were all white men–in ways they would never have allowed Martin Luther King to talk to them. Both LBJ and King were instrumental to the passage of these bills. Part of King’s genius was his ability to keep various black leaders and factions working together–until that coalition fell apart. King obviously sacrificed more, including his life, but both men had an ability to persuade those who disagreed with them and we surely need such people now.  But what language and what strategies do we in the present need to use to be able to do this?

Clearly I don’t have answers here to any of these questions. But I do think they are questions we should be asking.

Footnote:

Here’s a summary of a psychological study on white reaction to our shifting demographics by Northwestern University psychologists: “Recent Census Bureau projections indicate that racial/ethnic minorities will comprise over 50% of the U.S. population by 2042, effectively creating a so-called “majority–minority” nation. Across four experiments, we explore how presenting information about these changing racial demographics influences White Americans’ racial attitudes. Results reveal that exposure to the changing demographics evokes the expression of greater explicit and implicit racial bias. Specifically, Whites exposed to the racial demographic shift information preferred interactions/settings with their own ethnic group over minority ethnic groups; expressed more negative attitudes toward Latinos, Blacks, and Asian Americans; and expressed more automatic pro-White/anti-minority bias. Perceived threat to Whites’ societal status mediated the effects of the racial shift information on explicit racial attitudes. These results suggest that rather than ushering in a more tolerant future, the increasing diversity of the nation may instead yield intergroup hostility. Implications for intergroup relations and media framing of the racial shift are discussed.”   http://groups.psych.northwestern.edu/spcl/documents/Craig%20&%20Richeson%202014%20PS.pdf

The Darker Key to Trump’s Success

To those of us who are surprised by the rise of Trump: Yes, people are afraid of terrorism and understandably so, but Trump’s series of racist remarks point to another less understandable key to his success. In 2012, an article on an AP poll stated: “The election of Barack Obama failed to usher in a post-racial US, with a new poll showing that 51 percent of Americans hold explicitly anti-black views.” This figure is higher than other surveys I’ve seen which indicate that roughly 20 to 25% of whites hold explicitly anti-black and racist views. But even that percentage of white Americans is no small number–more than sixty million people.

Many white liberals aren’t aware of these statistics, but Trump’s surge to the head of the Republican presidential campaign is exposing the reality that there are tens of millions of white Americans who are explicitly racist. While Republican party leaders have been aware that a large portion of their base is racist, Trump has tapped into that racist base and shown that it is far larger than the party leaders were aware of or wanted to admit. By his leading in the polls and constantly being in the news, he’s given this racist base more and more permission to come out of the closet (witness the white supremacists saying Trump has been a boon for them): “Oh, he’s said all Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists. That’s what I’ve felt all along.” “Trump said the majority of murders of white people are committed by blacks [sic—a bogus statistic]. I always knew the blacks were out to get us.” “Trump wants to ban all Muslims. Great, it’s okay for me to say now I hate Muslims.” Now Trump will say he doesn’t hate Mexicans or “the blacks” or Muslims, but he will never criticize those in his base who do, and that gives them more and more room to hate.

It used to be that the racism the Republican party handed out was done covertly, on the sly, like a backroom take out order so no one would supposedly notice (the so-called dog whistle politics telling them their order was ready). Trump has moved the dish of racism to the head of the main room menu, and now the Republican party leadership and the rest us see how much of their party eagerly wants to gobble up that dish.

Link to article on the AP poll:  https://www.rt.com/usa/majority-americans-racist-poll-378/

Trump’s Racist Precedent

To justify his anti-Muslim racist proposals, Trump invokes the precedent of FDR’s Executive Order 9066. This order imprisoned Japanese American citizens like my parents (ages 11 and 15 at the time) and Japanese immigrants like my grandparents who were forbidden by racist laws from becoming citizens.

To Trump and his supporters, racism had nothing to do with the internment during World War II. Here is an editorial from the Los Angeles Times, 1942, arguing for the internment; it provides a vivid sense of the racism that was rampant at the time:

A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched. A leopard’s spots are the same and its disposition is the same wherever it is whelped. So a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere and thoroughly inoculated with Japanese thoughts, Japanese ideas and Japanese ideals, notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship, almost inevitably and with the rarest of exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, into an American in his thoughts, in his ideas, and in his ideals, and himself is a potential and menacing, if not an actual, danger to our country unless properly supervised, controlled and, as it were ‘hamstrung’.

Even President Ronald Reagan, in an apology to the Japanese American community, admitted that the camps were not militarily necessary and said the real reasons for the camps were racism, wartime hysteria and a failure of leadership.

Our fellow Muslim American and Arab American are experiencing now what my family experienced in World War II–having their patriotism and loyalty questioned, enduring insults and prejudice and vandalism, fearing what might happen next. I wish, I hope, those who say we are better than this are right. Principles–of equality, of justice, of what America is supposed to be–are not principles if they can be abandoned in times of crisis. And if we abandon our principles that will not make us safer. It will only make us more afraid. It will only make us weaker. It will only give encouragement to those who wish us harm.

On the Controversy Over A White Poet Submitting as “Yi-Fen Chou” and Being Chosen By Sherman Alexie for the Best American Poetry Anthology

As editor of the 2015 Best American Poetry, Sherman Alexie chose a poem written by what seemed to be a Chinese American poet named Yi-Fen Chou. But then Alexie found out the poem, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was actually written by a white male, Michael Derrick Hudson. Hudson reported that his poem had been rejected forty times under his own name and then nine times under the pseudonym before being accepted by the Prairie Schooner.

In a long and convoluted essay on the Best American Poetry Blog, Alexie said he was angered by Hudson’s “colonial theft” but ultimately decided to stay with his choice of Hudson’s poem for the anthology. Alexie explains his thought process in making his decision like this:

        “So I went back and reread the poem to figure out exactly how I had been fooled and to consider my potential actions and reactions. And I realized that I hadn’t been fooled by anything obvious. I’d been drawn to the poem because of its long list title (check my bibliography and you’ll see how much I love long titles) and, yes, because of the poet’s Chinese name. Of course, I am no expert on Chinese names so I’d only assumed the name was Chinese. As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I’d never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading. And I found it to be a compelling work. In rereading the poem, I still found it to be compelling. And most important, it didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn’t been fooled by its “Chinese-ness” because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian. There could very well be allusions to Chinese culture that I don’t see. But there was nothing in Yi-Fen Chou’s public biography about actually being Chinese. In fact, by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I’d argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture. When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the “maybe” pile that eventually became a “yes” pile.

        Do you see what happened?

        I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.

         ….Nepotism is as common as oxygen.

         But, in putting Yi-Fen Chou in the “maybe” and “yes” piles, I did something amorphous. I helped a total stranger because of racial nepotism.

         I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa.

         And, of course, I know many of you poets are pissed at me. I know many of you are screaming out a simple question: “Sherman, why did you keep that poetry colonist in the anthology even after you learned of his deception?”

        Listen, I was so angry that I stormed and cursed around the room. I felt like punching the wall.

        And, of course, there was no doubt that I would pull that fucking poem because of that deceitful pseudonym.

        But I realized that I would primarily be jettisoning the poem because of my own sense of embarrassment. I would have pulled it because I didn’t want to hear people say, “Oh, look at the big Indian writer conned by the white guy.” I would have dumped the poem because of my vanity.”

As Alexie predicted, he’s been criticized for rewarding a “poetry colonist” and for not rejecting what many call poetic “yellow face” (more on this in a note below).  At the same time, Alexie has been praised by some for being so honest about his own biases and for his “nuanced” response. Beyond this, some commentators and the news coverage seem to imply that the white poet couldn’t get his poem published as a white poet but that he could posing as an Asian/Asian American poet (Washington Post headline: A White Guy Named Michael Couldn’t Get His Poem Published. Then He Changed His Name to Yi-Fen Chou), i.e., Yes, Virginia, there is reverse racism in the poetry world. There’s so many things wrong with this implication but to get into it, I’d have to write an entire dissection of the ways race plays out in the literary world. So I’ll just stick to something more literary:

I don’t think Sherman Alexie should have published the poem once he found out the ruse. For one thing, I think it’s an ethical violation, and that could have been a reason not to include the poem.  Beyond this, Alexie could have made the case that the poem reads differently if you know it’s been written by a white male, rather than an Asian or an Asian American. Indeed, part of his initial take on the poem and what attracted him to it stems from his believing the poet to be Asian American: “When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the “maybe” pile that eventually became a “yes” pile.”

I think, though, that Alexie was so afraid of appearing to himself as fraudulent that he didn’t investigate his initial response to the poem—or perhaps he wasn’t able to articulate to himself how certain poems are actually read in part with a knowledge and a context provided by knowing who the author is.

This is a complicated literary issue, and given in part our generally limited understanding of the ways racial readings affect our understanding of poetry, it’s not that surprising that Alexie doesn’t trust his initial reading. He seems to believe, as some maintain, that the words should be judged only as they appear on the page and nothing else matters. But this is not actually the way we read and interpret poems. As with standup comics, the person delivering the words is part of the way we hear and interpret the words. Tig Notaro’s jokes about cancer are funny in part because we know she has had cancer. Similarly, if someone writes a poem about dying from cancer and they’re not dying from cancer, that’s a different poem than one from a person who is actually dying of cancer. That’s why so many poems on mortality by poets in old age mean something to us.

The same principle also applies at times in terms of race, but often in a more complicated way. When Patricia Smith writes a poem in the voice of a racist skinhead, we read that poem knowing the poet who wrote it is a black woman and that is part of the accomplishment of the poem–how she is able to enter the mind and feelings of someone who hates who she is. If the poem were by a white poet, we would generally assume it’s a persona poem but we wouldn’t read it as the poet having to travel as great a psychic distance to get to the space to write the poem since the white poet would not be the object of the skinhead’s hate. But if the poem were written by an actual racist skinhead, we would read the poem quite differently. The words would not be distanced as those of another person, as imagined; they would simply be meant to be taken literally.

With the poem in question in the BAP anthology, “The Bees…,” there’s a tone of complaint which to my mind reads differently if you know the author is a white male rather than an Asian or Asian American. If I read it as being written by an Asian or Asian American, that tone of complaint takes on a level of irony which is not there if I know the poem was written by a white male: “My life’s spent/ running an inept tour for my own sad swindle of a vacation/ until every goddamned thing’s reduced to botched captions/ and dabs of misinformation in fractured, / not-quite-right English.” Among other things, my speaking English–that is from my body–is never received in the same way as the exact same words spoken by a white male (the white male never gets questions which imply that he is not American or that he comes from somewhere else). So when a white male poet writes “not-quite-right English” I read that differently than if an Asian/Asian American wrote those exact same words. If English is not the first language of the Asian or Asian American poet, the phrase refers in part to that; but even if English is the first language of the Asian American poet, the lines would refer to an uncertainty about the poet’s relationship to the language and the ways the poet’s English is received by others. If the poet is a white male, all the phrase means is that he’s fooling around with the language. There’s no racial/social meaning, no irony, and the language reads flatter, with less resonance. I think Alexie responded originally to the poem with this racial/social reading and perceived an irony in it as written by an Asian/Asian American, but couldn’t quite see how the poem was transformed once he knew the poet was a white male.

What this controversy points to is how still, within the poetry world, many do not understand the myriad ways we make meaning of and interpret a poem. In an essay of mine published in the anthology A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race, I argue that often poems by poets of color must be read as racial allegories, though many readers, especially white readers, can miss this allegorical reading. In other words, poetry does not take place in a Platonic realm where there is no social context and where race and ethnicity don’t ever affect how we understand language. We often read through a racial lens–sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly–far more than most people, even poets (and sometimes especially poets), realize.

Endnote 1:  It turns out that Hudson’s act of “poetic colonialism” and “yellow face” has not only offended many in the poetry world.  He apparently took the name from a high school classmate, and she and her family are also angered by Hudson’s appropriation.  Yi-Fen’s sister, Ellen, views this as an act of misplaced racial resentment and insensitivity.  The New York Times article reads:

Now it turns out that pseudonym may have come from a real person.  The family of a woman named Yi-Fen Chou, who attended the same high school in Fort Wayne, Ind., as Mr. Hudson, has stepped forward, demanding that he immediately stop using it.

“I’m just aghast,”  Ellen Y. Chou, the sister of Yi-Fen Chou, said in an interview. Mr. Hudson’s use of the name, she added, showed a “lack of honesty” and “careless disregard for Chinese people and for Asians.”

…Ellen Chou said that Yi-Fen Chou, a nuclear engineer in Chicago who goes by a married name, did not want to be identified or interviewed. The family, she said, wanted Mr. Hudson to immediately stop using the name, which had a “unique spelling” and had been given to her sister by their paternal grandfather.

Ms. Chou questioned Mr. Hudson’s seeming assumption that Asian-Americans have an advantage.  “He seems to think we have it easy, but we don’t,” she said. “We all worked very hard to achieve our own success. I’m just appalled by his actions.””  http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/09/10/family-protests-white-poets-use-of-chinese-pen-name/?_r=0

I cannot help but wonder how much of Ellen Chou’s anger here has to do with how she, her sister and her family were regarded and treated as Chinese Americans in Fort Wayne, Indiana, particularly in high school.  Her remarks imply that Yi-Fen Chou and Hudson were never friends.  Did Ellen and Yi-Fen experience what many Asian American kids experience going to high schools where they are a small minority and are seen as foreigners and through the lens of Asian stereotypes?  My guess is that these are issues Hudson never considered; Yi-Fen Chou was just a name; there wasn’t a real person attached to it.  But then that’s the basis of colonialism, isn’t it?  “These people we are colonizing aren’t people like us.  We don’t have to pay attention to their rights or property, much less their feelings.  They are there for us to use.  That’s why they’re the colonized and we’re the colonizers.”  The tropes and practices of history continue on into the present.

Endnote 2:  More on the ways “my not-quite-right English” and the use of European references could be read differently if the poet were Asian American:  I’ve always been struck by this passage in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen, the Irish colonial, is talking with the English Dean of his school.  Stephen, who can be read as a Joyce’s fictional self, thinks: “The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine.  How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine!  I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit.  His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech.”  Another gloss on this point would be two quotations from James Baldwin.  The first is on Baldwin’s relationship to the American language:  “You see, whites want black artists to mostly deliver something as if it were the official version of the black experience. But the vocabulary won’t hold it, simply. No true account really of black life can be held, can be contained in the American vocabulary. As it is, the only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which the vocabulary is based.”  The second quotation is on Baldwin’s relationship to European culture: “I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa.  And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude.  These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history….I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.”  Of course, all these references are Baldwin’s heritage in another sense; that is why he can write about them the way he does, in sentences that often echo the cadences of the King James Bible, which is not surprising from a man who grew up as a child preacher.

Both in the case of Stephen/Joyce and Baldwin, these quotations don’t stem from their lack of linguistic skills or familiarity with English, but in the ways the one, a colonial, and the other, a black man in a racist society, must contend with their marginalization and their relationship to the works and tools of the colonist, of the master.  The relationship I as an Asian American have to American English or to the European heritage of the culture is different from that of a white male like Hudson, but even in the world of poetry, many don’t actually understand the nature and complexity of this difference and its myriad causes.

Endnote 3:  I know of at least two Asian American poets who have been asked by audience members to read their poem in its “original language.”

On Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter

Here’s one answer to people who respond to Black Lives Matter with the inane “All Lives Matter”:

Given America’s history, there is no reason to believe that when white people say “All lives” or “All people” in terms of rights or justice or privilege, such expressions include black people (or POC or Native Americans). When the founding fathers wrote “All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, we know that did not include black people–or obviously women. And when white women did get to vote, that did not include black women or black men. Similarly, given the state of our justice system and its myriad practices of racial bias, America does not truly want equal rights and justice for black people; otherwise we would have equal rights and justice for black people. “All Americans” should have the right to a fair trial, but that is not the case in the current justice system (nor was it the case when my parents–who were citizens–and my grandparents–who were forbidden by racist laws from becoming citizens–were imprisoned for their race and ethnicity in World War II).  Unarmed black Americans are twice as likely to be shot by police than unarmed white Americans.  If all lives did matter, this would not be the case.

So when white people say “all,” is it any wonder we think: “You mean just yourselves, not us.” As the old black saying goes, We don’t believe what you say because we see what you do.

The Murders in Charleston & The Double Standard of Southern History

In his essay “Stranger in the Village,” James Baldwin wrote: “Joyce is right about history being a nightmare–but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” I can’t help but feel the pessimism of Baldwin’s observation after Charleston. At the same time the persistence of the Emmanuel AME Church and its congregation, the love they have shown for each other and for this country is a continuing triumph. They continue to fight to step out of the traps history has laid out for them.

Beyond that Baldwin also points to a solution: We can only free ourselves from a racist history by acknowledging that history and then ripping the evil of that history from inside us. Which, among other things, would include the taking down of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina state house and from the license plates of various states. The fact that that has not happened and probably won’t happen tells us how deeply this country clings to the nightmare of its racist history.

The Charleston murderer saw that Confederate flag as a symbol of racism and racial supremacy; that was part of his “Southern” pride. What I don’t hear much about is “Southern” shame. Or regret. Or apology. The soldiers of the Confederacy are no longer alive or fighting, but the racism they fought to defend continues. It’s okay to remember and honor these soldiers in the minds of Southern conservatives. But if you point out our history of slavery, conservatives instantly say, “Why bring that up? That was in the past.” Two unequal standards for remembering history. Racism continues to create its own rules to maintain itself–or rather, racists continue to create their own rules to keep their racism.

I am also waiting for someone to point out that the Charleston murderer focused on characterizing blacks as rapists in the same way Donald Trump focused on characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists. The fact that he is a candidate for President in the Republican Party and that Party has not disavowed him once again shows how deeply racism is embedded in our politics and psyches and how the status quo of American life is far more racist than many are willing to acknowledge.

On Freddy Gray, Baltimore & The Social Contract

At what point does the social contract end? If violence can be wreaked upon you without cause? If your life can be taken from you while you are unarmed and your murderer goes unpunished? If your rights as a citizen have been taken away simply because you were walking on the street? If the skin on your body becomes the marker for your criminality and you become a source of profit for those who run the prisons? Isn’t this the definition of a slave? You are not a citizen, violence can be done to you without need of justification or provocation, you are deemed to be property, you are not regarded as a human. If the society you live in has failed to recognize and protect your humanity, what is your obligation to that society?

These questions stem from the thinking of Afro-Pessmists like my friend, the writer and scholar, Frank Wilderson. The argument is that the ontology of slavery continues to this day for Blacks in America. Given recent events, it’s hard to argue otherwise. If one looks at the video of Walter Scott running away from the gun of policeman Michael Slager or Freddie Gray being hauled into the police van, the history of America haunts the viewer with its reincarnation of violence against Blacks.

The anger in Baltimore contains a recognition that the social contract can end, can be deemed null and void by those who believe their humanity is not recognized and protected by the state and the society in which they live.