The Audacity of White Men

In the wake of what will be remembered as the most polarizing, vitriolic presidential election since Reconstruction, various journalists published different voter profiles. The collective white working class rationale was thoroughly (perhaps exhaustively) detailed. The Latin@ vote was (conversely perhaps not thoroughly enough) discussed in pieces like “Here’s What Happened With The Latino Vote.” Black non-voters in a specific Milwaukee neighborhood were interviewed about their civic apathy. Even those who look upon qualities like prosperity and tolerance as, and I do quote, “shit” received a slice of the spotlight.

While the 2016 presidential election was truly unprecedented, voter profiles are fairly common. During both the 2008 and 2012 races—elections that were perhaps equally as historic as 2016’s, albeit from a polarly opposite perspective—Black voters, who turned out in droves, were met with a litany of pieces that supposedly explained their rationale. Author Kevin Jackson even went on Fox News to proclaim to conservative anchor Megyn Kelly that Black voters supported President Obama not because of his extensive credentials or qualifications, but because he was Black. Shallow dives into the supposed collective conscious of the Black American voter were so ubiquitous in 2012, comedian Chris Rock addressed it in his HBO special, “Kill The Messenger”:

“This whole election is so weird, just the way they cover it. Everything’s so racial, racial, racial… And the crazy thing is, whenever white people vote for Barack Obama—which is a lot of the time—they go, ‘well you know, they listened to the issues, and they felt Obama spoke to their issues. They went over the issues, they weighed the pros and cons, and they felt that Obama spoke to their issues.’ And whenever black people vote for Barack, they go, ‘Well they black, he black, so I guess that’s why.’ Like we don’t even have names on our ballots, it’s just scratch and sniff!”

I can proudly declare that in 2012, I did vote for President Obama because we share a racial identity. My rationale then, at 19, was that I would not have another chance to vote for a Black presidential candidate. For what it’s worth, I regret nothing.

More importantly, it is critical to properly identify the foundation of both Rock’s joke, and of race-based voter profiles. If we are to assume, erroneously or otherwise, that Black people voted for Barack Obama because of his Blackness, then we also must conclude white voters did the same in electing Donald Trump. While there were no people of color on the official presidential ballot (even including third-party candidates Jill Stein and Gary Johnson), Republican candidate Donald Trump ran, and won, on a platform steeped in identity politics. The very same identity politics that white writers like Mark Lilla accused of causing Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat ultimately fueled Trump’s ascent. Despite his reluctant condemnation of white nationalists, it is undeniable that Trump’s platform, one that demonized everyone but similarly privileged white men, spoke to their interests specifically as white people.

That last piece is vital to appropriately understand the election, and how we relate to whiteness—and consequently Blackness—in general. Too often, we as a global people, allow whiteness to exist as the uninterrogated status quo. Unlike every other unprotected or semi-unprotected class of people, white, able-bodied, cisgendered, straight men, are allowed room to navigate the world free of ever having their identity politicized. But the sobering reality, as many learned for the first time exactly a month ago, is that white people are motivated by that very whiteness, those very same identity politics.

Even this year, as pundits focused on the “white working class,” the central issue that bound those voters was grounded in class, not race. “Economic anxiety,” not violent racism and xenophobia, ignited the white working class. It is then peculiar that no one could quite explain why economically anxious Black and Brown folk didn’t turn out in droves to vote for the candidate backed by the country’s self-proclaimed largest fraternal order of police and the Ku Klux Klan. So, at the risk of further centering the most privileged class of people in the world: let’s talk about white men.

As a disclaimer, I refer to white men as a social institution grounded in capitalist white supremacy, rather than every white man in the world. Even if it were possible to meet each and every one of you, I have no interest in doing so, and just as we can dissect the minds of people of color with a handful of anecdotal examples, the same can be true here.

Let’s face it: 2016 was not a great year for white men. For the sake of argument, focus on three that made large splashes in the news in just the last six months: Edgar Welch, Ryan Lochte, and of course, Donald Trump.

Edgar Welch, believing DC pizzeria Comet Ping Pong was the headquarters for an underground child sex trafficking ring, drove 350 miles from his home in North Carolina with a car full of guns, and opened fire inside the restaurant. For the sake of clarity, let’s gloss over the fact that a patently false conspiracy theory advanced by propaganda could have caused serious injury. Let’s even ignore the fact that the assault rifle Welch used shouldn’t be as accessible to, say, someone who would be so detached to believe that an underground child sex slavery ring would take place in a pizza shop and that Hillary Clinton was orchestrating the entire thing. Let’s focus on the fact that Welch felt that he alone was capable of investigating what, by his own admission, was a criminal operation spearheaded by one of the most powerful people on the planet. What kind of systems of power are at play that would allow someone like Welch to take the law into his own hands? Even when he arrived in Washington, he could have easily gone to the restaurant and simply called the police. After all, the police exist to help people and deter violence, right?

Only a few months earlier during the Brazil Summer Olympics, gold medalist and swimmer Ryan Lochte made front pages for all the wrong reasons. Lochte and his teammates went out for a night of partying, became incredibly drunk, got into an altercation with security at a gas station, and proceeded to destroy items and urinate on the premises. Rather than simply pay for the fines and apologize like an adult who actually has to face the consequences of his actions, Lochte fabricated a story in which he was robbed at gunpoint. Lochte even described himself as strangely calm, reporting that he uttered a glib “Whatever,” after a loaded revolver was (not) pointed at his head.

Somehow, despite his story’s shaky foundation, we all believed him. Because of course a place like Brazil is violent, of course Lochte and his teammates were only there to compete and have fun, and are incapable of wrongdoing, right? The global anti-blackness that drives the animosity toward Black people in the United States also permeates places like Brazil. Lochte, being the privileged and entitled white man that he is, knew that he could get away with it. And for a while, he did. Again, it is imperative to interrogate the role whiteness played in this situation. Had USA basketball players Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler, and Demarcus Cousins conducted themselves as Lochte and his teammates, would people like Billy Bush be as quick to sweep their behavior under the rug? Or, would the national conversation become a referendum on Black people? Would Breitbart have reported it in their “Black Crime” section? What does it say that the public intoxication of a young athlete is less believable than a hijacking that would have caused an international incident? Why were we so quick to buy into Lochte’s demonizing portrayal of Brazil, and would we have been as quick to believe him had this taken place in 2012 when the games were in London?

Even in an explainer piece by Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos, Lochte is still awarded a plethora of excuses for his behavior:

“The hubbub over Lochte potentially making up a weird story feels a little overblown — a lot out of nothing. If Lochte is lying but he and his friends didn’t get hurt and didn’t hurt anyone else in the process, then no harm, no foul, right?”

Sure, except for the part where he destroyed property, physically confronted the security officers, and lied about it. Other than that, it was “a lot out of nothing.” If we should hold Lochte accountable for his profound arrogance (and we definitely should) then we must also acknowledge that whiteness and masculinity are allowed to thrive and persist without ever being challenged, or interrogated. Ryan Lochte, a white man, merely lived up to the atrocious standards of accountability that white men have enjoyed since time immemorial.

And then, of course, there’s the 45th President-elect of the United States. There is so much to still dissect and digest from Trump’s win. Stories have already been printed about his various conflicts of interest as a businessman and future president, his fanning the flames of the alt-right rise, and his rampant, unapologetic sexism punctuated by a leaked Access Hollywood tape in which he told then-host Billy Bush that he had regularly groped and assaulted various women. But somehow in the wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s campaign, his identity politics were hardly ever called into question. He was asked to disavow David Duke but was never properly challenged about his relationship with racism and white supremacy. Trump ignored critiques of his cabinet selection Steve Bannon, the former executive chair of Breitbart News and champion of white nationalists. It is not enough to say that Trump simply is ignoring the alarming views of his cabinet staff—including Michael Flynn, who believes, among other conspiracies, in the Comet Ping Pong Pizzagate conspiracy. We must also question what is it about him that allows him to feel comfortable in that willful ignorance? It certainly is not his “economic anxiety,” and considering the confidence he described in his grabbing of random women by their genitals, it would be naive to argue against his male ego playing a large role in how he conducts himself, his businesses, and ultimately, how he will run the country.

To be clear, not all white men are bad. Some, I assume, are good people. But they are not sending their best into the world. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. Most importantly, white men are allowed unfettered access to every institution and are allowed to fail and flounder without ever facing consequences. Any person of color who walked into Comet Ping Pong—located in a very wealthy, white part of northwest DC—would have been blessed to walk away alive, as Welch did. There are few women, white or otherwise, who would ever dream of running for President, despite lacking any qualifications and bringing absolutely no experience to the table. Hillary Clinton was perhaps the most qualified, experienced candidate to ever run for office, and she lost to someone who wasn’t even good at the job he had before. It is not just ignorant to assume that race and gender did not motivate the overwhelming majority of Trump’s supporters, it also perpetuates the cancer that is white male entitlement.

It is not just the work for oppressed people of color to adopt. It is the responsibility of, specifically and especially, other white men to hold themselves accountable for the violence they commit. If people are serious about bringing unity to the country (as Trump has promised he can do) then we must first acknowledge who is being asked to unite. It is not enough to allow whiteness to exist as the norm, it must be treated as a race, just like any other. Until then, the unchecked recklessness of the white man will continue to reign supreme, leaving the rest of us undoing their destruction.

 

Please Stop Calling the Cops

In an episode of the television show “Martin,” Martin and his friends believe that their plumber had a medical emergency and died in the bathroom. They quickly call 911, only to lament the fact that no one responded. Martin calls back and adopts a white alter-ego, Thurston O’Malley III, and assures the 911 operator that he is white, and thus, deserving of assistance. The operator quizzes him about America’s favorite pie flavor, the names of Barry Manilow songs, and which condiments are appropriate to put on a sandwich. The scene turns into a Family Feud-style game show, that—perhaps unsurprisingly—Martin and his friends cannot win. They are disconnected from the 911 service.

There are two jokes here. The first is how the episode toys with the expectation that black people must always be experts on white culture. The second, and the more important joke, is that black people cannot call 911 and expect assistance to arrive in our neighborhoods. I expect white audiences to understand neither of these jokes, but particularly not the latter. Calling 911 when white brings a prompt and professional response from the police, and far too often, spells doom for any black person within the caller’s general vicinity.

The killings of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin, the brutalization of teenage swimmers in McKinney, and now the recorded assault of Andrew Guilford (also by McKinney’s finest) are all examples of extreme police brutality prompted by a 911 call. But it would be a mistake to look at these aggressions against black people as isolated incidents. There is an established pattern of institutional police violence catalyzed by people calling 911 dispatch centers not to truthfully report a witnessed crime or emergency, but merely because they feel uncomfortable.

In March of 2012, Pasadena resident Oscar Carillo had his laptop stolen. Carillo believed a black man stole his computer and called 911 to file a report, at which time he said, on eight separate occasions, that a black man robbed him at gunpoint. When officers arrived on the scene, they apprehended 19-year-old Kendrec McDade, and promptly shot him eight times (one of the officers fired four shots while still seated in his police vehicle), claiming that they saw the muzzle of McDade’s gun flash. Kendrec McDade was unarmed when he was killed. Carillo later admitted that he lied about being robbed at gunpoint to get a faster police response. He was sentenced to 90 days of community service for making a false report and ordered to pay $3,000 to the Pasadena Police Department.

In August of 2014, John Crawford III was shopping at a Wal-Mart in Dayton, Ohio. Crawford picked up a pellet gun sitting on a shelf. The pellet gun is a product that Wal-Mart sells, and was on the shelf, presumably, to be purchased by someone shopping at this Wal-Mart—just not Crawford. Ronald Ritchie passed by Crawford and promptly called 911 to report that Crawford was “a gentleman walking around with a gun in the store,” and that, “he’s like pointing it at people,” a statement he would later recant in an interview with the Guardian. When the police confronted Crawford, he was on the phone, holding the pellet gun at his side. Police then opened fire, killing Crawford in the store

This past February, Sureshbhai Patel traveled from India to Madison, Alabama to help care for his premature grandson who was battling health complications. Patel was walking down the street at 9 a.m. one Friday morning when two officers approached him, asked if he was looking at houses, told him they couldn’t understand what he was saying, and then threatened to “put him on the ground” if he started to walk away from them. An officer then promptly twisted Patel and slammed the 57-year-old man onto the pavement, giving Patel a severe neck injury that left him partially paralyzed. The reason for the police accosting and interrogating Patel—apart from the overwhelming racism and xenophobia—was that they received a call from a neighbor about a “suspicious man” that the caller did not recognize.

Most recently, Andrew Guilford of McKinney, Texas was sitting in his front lawn when two officers on foot arrived with their guns drawn, ordering Guilford and his friends to put their hands up. When Guilford asked if he was being detained, and why he and his friends were being handcuffed, the yet-to-be-identified officer slammed him to the ground, handcuffed him, and barked, “Because we got a call, people saying they were going to shoot the police when they came back! It’s on 9-1-1.” These officers responded to a false 911 call, and later released Guilford and his guests.

For your sake as a reader, I stopped at these examples, but I could go on, and on, and on. And the problem is not simply white people easily frightened by the sight of blackness. The blood of innocent black people is also on the hands of 911 dispatch operators and responding officers. In fact, black people cannot even rely on 911 when we are the ones most in need.

In February of 2014, officers in Bastrop County, Texas responded to a 911 call about two men allegedly fighting over a weapon. People from inside the house where the men were fighting witnessed a woman make the 911 call and said the fight was over money, not a weapon. Officers ordered everyone to exit the house, and promptly shot 47-year-old Yvette Smith twice when she stepped outside — once in her left buttock, and once fatally to her lower abdomen. An initial statement from police claimed Smith had a weapon, but that report was later retracted.

In November of 2014, Tanisha Anderson was killed by Cleveland police officers. According to a complaint filed to a district court in the Northern District of Ohio’s Eastern Division, Anderson was suffering from “a mental health episode.” Her mother called 911 for assistance, and when officers arrived, they attempted to place Anderson in a squad car. Putting someone in a confined area during a mental health episode is not usually the best idea, and in this case, Anderson became even more anxious and panicked. Officers proceeded to slam her to the ground and handcuffed her while putting pressure on her back. Anderson soon lost consciousness and stopped breathing. Her death would eventually be ruled a homicide, caused by “being physically restrained in a prone position by Cleveland police.”

Last December in Decatur, Georgia, Kevin Davis’s girlfriend April was stabbed by a man in their apartment. Davis did what any of us would in that situation, and called 911. When officer Joseph Pitts arrived on the scene, Davis’s three-legged dog ran outside. Pitts then opened fire, killing the disabled canine. Davis, thinking that the man who stabbed April had returned with a gun, grabbed a revolver. Pitts saw Davis with his gun and pulled the trigger on the man who was merely guilty of trusting the police to help in an emergency.

This past January in Kinloch, Missouri, Theda Wilson believed someone was breaking into her apartment complex and called 911 to report a burglary. Wilson approached the police when they arrived and began explaining that a suspicious person was going in and out of a nearby building. The police responded by telling her she was under arrest, and when she resisted their physical contact, three officers wrestled her to the ground and began to assault her, leaving bruises on her face and arms. When Wilson demanded that officers read her the Miranda rights, officers informed her that they were not required to do that. At the time of her assault, Wilson was the interim mayor of Kinloch.

Individual officers are definitely to blame in all of these instances, but it would also be a mistake to exonerate employees at 911 dispatch centers.

In October of 2013, Lalo Delgado called 911 in Arizona to report his girlfriend was on fire after a freak accident caused his car to burst into flames. Bafflingly, the operator responded with laughter. Delgado had to call back a second time to make sure that his girlfriend—who at the time is still on fire—could receive prompt medical attention. Captain Jim Berry of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department was quoted as saying the dispatcher “messed up.”

Last February in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Rick Warrick was the victim of a hit-and-run. Warrick and his fiancé were changing a tire on the side of the road when a car struck them both and fled. Warrick’s two children were in the backseat when the accident happened, and his 13-year-old daughter called 911. During the call, the girl is understandably upset, but the dispatcher (whose name remains unreleased) interrupts her.

“OK, let’s stop whining,” he says. “Let’s stop whining, it’s hard to understand you.”

The dispatcher somehow manages to be the villain in a story about a driver who runs over two people on the side of the road, by chastising a young girl for “whining” as she watched her father die on the street.

And in June of 2013, a 911 operator in Dallas was fired after content on her Facebook page became public. April Sims, the 23-year-old dispatch operator was not fired for lewd photographs, or for slandering her place of employment, but for something much more damning:

“Black people are outrageous!” a post on her Facebook page read. “They are more like animals, they never know how to act … Always causing problems. I can count on 1 hand the black people I know who don’t have [expletive] for brains!!!”

It got worse.

“You want to call 911 cause your boyfriend put his hands on you and you want to press charges when you don’t even know his real name?! Sure lets [sic] make a police report for Dino, that is his street name,” another post read.

If we are to hold the police accountable for violence on black communities—we should—then we must view policing as a system that transcends those who wear badges. Racist, violent policing is bolstered by white neighbors who are easily scared by people who don’t look like them and frantically call the authorities. Anti-black policing is strengthened by 911 dispatch operators who believe that black people are more similar to animals than people. Tragedies like what happened to Theda Wilson or Kevin Davis are made possible by the widespread belief that black people are not capable of being in distress, that we are always the perpetrators, never the victims. None of this should be used as evidence to absolve police officers of the large role they play in state-sanctioned mass killings. Instead, these examples should remind us that many innocent Black and brown people are killed as soon as someone dials 911.  

[originally published for Slant News on 07/02/2015]