Black Lives Revisited (part 2) by Sean Cardinalli
Last week’s tandem interview of Dr. Milton Brown and Dr. Finnie Coleman discussed what made the Black Lives Matter movement necessary in our current chapter of American history.
Dr. Coleman provided a timeline of black activism against systemic American oppression from the 19th century to the present, leading to this current explosion of protest. Dr. Brown iterated his study of epistemological “whiteness”—a sense of entitlement and superiority having less to do with one’s skin color than one’s assimilation into an accepted—and encouraged—American cultural and sociopolitical standard.
Here is part 2 of our frank and provocative conversation.
When black folk simply state the obvious, that “black lives matter,” and we take the most civilly disobedient action we can take, like San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem, and are greeted with such animus, how do we keep expressing ourselves? How do we keep the faith to get into the “good and necessary trouble” that Congressman John Lewis speaks about?
Dr. Milton Brown: Take a look at what Kaepernick did and I think something really good is happening there, on small but multiple levels. This is a very privileged black man [who] did something he knew would cause great difficulty. He had the courage to do that and to speak relatively eloquently about it. And look what the outcry and the pushback was; they were, in essence going to lynch him. And then this military white man [former US Army Green Beret and pro football free agent Nate Boyer], wrote an open letter and Kaepernick invited him to come and talk and [Boyer] convinced Kaepernick to go down on one knee. Then [Boyer] stood next to him at the next game and it quieted the country.
This white man had the courage to stand up and say, “I believe in our ideals and you have the right to say what you do.” He actually put himself on the line and it quieted folks for a moment. For me, this is a pregnant moment for us, to begin to analyze what just really happened here. This one person, standing with Kaepernick, reaching out to him as a human being, honoring his humanity, and his belonging here, and it quieted the nation! It’s in these moments that people can nuance this and really look at this, and give expression to something different than what we’ve been seeing, and not [just] as individuals—this white man, this black man—but what that reflects in the larger sense, then I think we move incrementally to the kind of discussion you and I want to have.
Black Lives Matter got Kaepernick to stand up, to leverage his privilege with great courage and then it caused [Boyer], who didn’t know [Kaepernick]—and who seems to represent all that America is about—to stand with him. That’s something we need to really investigate and honor as something really meaningful that just happened. Now, how we get 10,000 others, 100,000, or one million [people to act], that’s a different story. But I think it’s an incremental step.
On a basic level, you’re [protesting for] humanity. It’s not just solving a political or social problem, it’s literally for the sake and humanity of our children. [Epistemological] whiteness [see part 1 of this interview for its definition] destroys that in us, dissipates it to such a level that it becomes almost non-functional. Especially beyond family members or loved ones. “I can do this for you, but I can’t do it for them.” We don’t recover from that unless we really work at it. [Our children and grandchildren] need to be aware enough and rooted in their own humanity which, by definition, will make them open to the humanity of others if we’re ever going to get out of this [current tension].
Dr. Finnie Coleman: The logic [against Colin Kaepernick] is that he has assaulted the American flag and that he’s unpatriotic. People are burning his jersey in protest of what he has done regarding his “disrespect of the American flag.” But he’s not said one thing about the American flag! What he’s said is he’s not going to stand up for the national anthem and if you’re a person of color, it should be hard for you to stand up for the national anthem. But what he’s done is put a face on the movement which can now be attacked in ways that people weren’t able to attack the movement before. They had to attack the broader idea but now can attack this kid. His playing career, I hope, is not over…but I think the success of what he’s trying to do is going to hinge on whether or not it catches on. If Eli Manning doesn’t stand up; if Cam Newton and Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers don’t stand up; now it takes on a different force. Right now, [Kaepernick] can be beaten up as an individual. They can’t beat up the NFL, but they can beat up Kaepernick. The question is, whether or not his peers will have the courage to come to his side.[This interview was completed before the opening week of the NFL’s regular season, which saw Denver Broncos’ Brandon Marshall, Kansas City Chiefs’ Marcus Peters, Megan Rapinoe of soccer’s Seattle Reign, four Miami Dolphins players, and the Seattle Seahawks’ Jeremy Lane all initiate respective protests.]
[As to “good and necessary trouble,”] my answer may not be the popular answer, but I think it’s true that one of the problems with the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement is you have a chicken-and-egg problem when it comes to outcomes. We tend to focus on the actual protest, the stagecraft more than the endgame. And that’s the problem with Colin Kaepernick. He has a great strategy but there’s no endgame to it. If his strategy were to say, “We’re going to stop the NFL from playing a game, one weekend this year… [and] are going to simply walk off the field for 15 minutes,” and I’m just throwing out a hypothetical here—they could bring a multibillion-dollar industry to heel. It would cost [the protestors] something personally, probably. But Colin Kaepernick cannot do that on his own. He needs a coalition to do that. And so his effort is a personal effort and that personal effort has no endgame or at least he hasn’t articulated an endgame.
The endgame can’t simply be voicing your personal disgust. Voicing your personal disgust is available to all of us; you can blog like you’re doing, you can go out on Facebook. He has a bigger platform than most of us, it is true, but he is not saying anything more than what you or I have said in our private conversations, or what we might write in a blog, etc. He is the biggest voice so far, I grant that, but he’s making the same mistake [as prior protestors]. Well, I won’t call it a mistake because you can’t succeed in this type of strategy if you have a very clearly defined platform because people can destroy the platform, and therefore destroy the movement.
So social justice is going to require us to move beyond platitudes, beyond protests, it’s going to require us to move beyond all of the strategy and tactics that we’ve used before. And if we do that, I think we’re on the verge of social reform, if we don’t, we’re simply in the midst of a social movement. So Kaepernick has done exactly what one would expect in a social movement. If he were to take the next step, we’d be on the verge of social reform. And that’s the problem with Black Lives Matter more generally, it’s that its rhetoric and tactics so far have only resulted in the kinds of change which would come along with a social movement—which is incremental change, it’s potential change, it’s gradual change. Social reform is instantaneous. It may take you a moment to get there, but at some point, it was against the law to drink; at some point, slavery was abolished.
So we won’t be able to see that until we’re able to more clearly articulate the problem and that requires us to do exactly what we haven’t done before and that is to be cognizant of our history and use that to assist us in moving forward. And we don’t seem to be either willing or able to do that. “What are the outcomes you seek?” is the question.
I am floored by the lack of moral outrage at the injustices perpetrated on black women, men, and children, which speaks to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s theme of brutality perpetrated “against our black bodies.” How do we start a conversation with “the other side,” the other point of view? How do we speak to those who are privileged and/or in denial? How do healing discussions begin when the start of the conversation finds us at such polar opposites?
MB: We’re caught because we’re individuals and we’re part of systems. Our struggle is how do we [communicate] individually and still struggle in the midst of this oppressive system that we help to perpetuate? Very difficult position to be in, as you know.
What I thought of when you began this inquiry, was the inhumanity of silence, the “betrayal of silence,” as Martin Luther King says. It’s not really betrayal. It’s not a betrayal of whiteness, in fact it serves the interest of whiteness. We were defined as black as the antithesis of white; the denigrated, inhuman, lowest-level opposite. And that was essential to elevate the status and perception of white goodness.
There’s no self-interest for folks to come out and say [about racism or brutality], “that’s terrible, that’s a human being,” because that might not even be conscious in their minds. There’s nothing that moves them toward expressing that. That’s why I was talking about human dignity. There’s no incentive [to express outrage], because to do that disrupts the status quo, the rational order of whiteness, because [whiteness] needs to be in power, have control, and be unchanged. And the more so-called progress that blacks make, the more of a threat to that rational order we have. So [the outrage expressed in “black lives matter”] gets redefined, it gets stamped down, it gets rooted out. I understand [why], I think, but I rail against it the same as you do.
FC: I’ve been thinking about this question since the OJ Simpson case. You remember, when Judge Lance Ito comes out to render his verdict. CNN had a split screen, one camera was at Harvard University; the other at Howard University. These are the best and brightest kids from the white and black community, so to speak; if we’re going to use those kind of binders. They had seen the exact same case unfolding for months. They heard and saw the exact same verdict. One group erupted in cheers; the other sat in stunned disbelief.
What we have to understand is that our fact, our truth, doesn’t mean the same thing to other people. Our facts, our truths, don’t elicit the same responses from others. And so if you’re vested in social justice and pursuing social justice and there’s someone sitting across from you who’s benefited from the presence of social injustice, that person might with an equal passion to yours, argue there is no such thing as institutionalized racism because in their own mind, they can’t justify their privilege, their position, their success, as something that they themselves didn’t earn. That they didn’t get because they worked hard. What they fail to see often in that is that, they got that even though they did work hard and might have gotten it still, even if they had not worked hard. So for them, it’s “I worked hard and therefore that’s why I have this privilege.” That may or may not be true. So, for us who think about these issues trans-historically, from an intellectual perspective and with intellectual honesty, we have to understand that “truth” never produces the same emotional response from one group to the next.
You gotta understand that for a long time, there was actually a movement to defeat legislation that would’ve outlawed lynching! It’s absurd, but there was. When we look back, I do believe there are some tangible right and wrongs. They tend to be those issues that we align with social reform. Slavery was wrong. It was never right. There was never anything “good” or “right” about slavery. It was a social evil but people tolerated it. There was nothing morally correct about segregation but people tolerated it. So you move forward and ask, “What today is morally unacceptable?” Shooting unarmed black men in the street is unacceptable, but we’ve tolerated it.
And now we get to the point where we have to fight against [brutality] and the people who have tolerated it, instead of fighting that particular fight, use the “master’s cheap tool” that [the late] Dr. Barbara Christian taught us, which is diversion. And so, instead of addressing that issue head-on, we’re now asked, “Where’s the Black Lives Matter movement when 488 kids have been shot down this year in Chicago?” What that person presumes is that the person who’s bound in Black Lives Matter is not also interested in that issue. We have to be able to walk and chew gum socially. We have to be able to entertain multiple problems and that certainly doesn’t diminish what happens in Chicago. And frankly, I’m more concerned about that then I am about police shootings but that doesn’t mean that I’m not concerned about police shootings. I’m deeply concerned about that. But I’m also deeply concerned about what’s happening in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, in Mexico. I’m deeply concerned about what’s happening in the world because I’m a citizen of the world. Because I’m concerned about the Zika virus doesn’t mean I’m unconcerned about influenza. It’s stunning to me how we can compartmentalize these things. So that’s what we’re up against. It’s easier to compartmentalize these things than to think critically about them. And frankly, if we were able to move away from compartmentalization we would no longer need these conversations because these social ills would be taken care of.
Figure 2.1 –http://www.coast2coastsounds.com/life/san-francisco-49ers-qb-colin-kaepernick-protests-oppression-by-sitting-during-national-anthem-there-are-bodies-in-the-street-people-getting-paid-leave-getting-away-with/
Figure 4.1, 4.2, 4.3 & 4.4 – http://edition.cnn.com/2016/09/12/sport/colin-kaepernick-nfl-opening-day-reaction-trnd/index.html