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Bang! Smash! Pow! Representation Matters. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

A superhero walks into a bar.

A reporter walks up and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

*

A superheroine walks into a bar.

A reporter walks up to her and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

*

A Black superheroine walks into a bar.

A Black reporter walks up to her and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

*

A Black superheroine walks into a bar.

A Black woman reporter walks up to her and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

That’s Black Lightning.

*

Superman and Lois Lane got to love one another, and

Wonder Woman fell in love with the first man she met.

For generations of Sci-Fi and superheroes,

Everybody was straight and white.

The Star Trek franchise has been imagining a fairer future since the 60’s, but

It’s only now -on the newest Star Trek show – that

Yellow, black, white, red and brown people portray species from throughout the galaxy.

Finally, things as fickle as religion or gender identity aren’t barriers to love.

*

I earnestly wonder if it was the creators or the audiences who couldn’t see anybody else loved, but straight white people?!?

That only straight white men could save the day.

Representation matters.

Which superhero did you see at first?

My MAGA #BlackAsiaWithLove

Back in 2007-8, I didn’t spend too much time watching the build-up to the presidential election. Until then, all I knew about America was that we’d yet to atone for our original sins: Enslaving one group of people, annihilating another, while lying and bragging about freedom, justice and liberty for all. Naw, America hadn’t never been great in any way I’d like to try again. My America had never been that, so nothing about 2008 betrayed that notion, even Obama’s candidacy.

Flash fast forward to a year later, for once in my life, America was finally great. This isn’t to suggest that America had suddenly become great, but electing and inaugurating Obama was a sure flash of greatness, a threshold that we’d crossed which distinguished us from the entire history of the nation hitherto. This is why the world celebrated the Obama candidacy – distinct from his actual presidency –the will to break from the white supremacist pattern of our original sins.

My MAGA Day 1:

There weren’t massive protests against president Obama on his very first day. Nay, his successful campaign was lauded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Flash further forward to now, and we have a president who picks with his allies, bullies his party members, dismisses people of color, chides poor people, taunts the media, teases any woman in his presence. We can’t call any of this ‘character’…unless it’s preceded by a bunch of bad adjectives, like his favorite for a non-compliant woman, “nasty.”

During Obama’s 8-year presidency, when it came to addressing ‘the people’, I could see that our leader was demonstrating what it meant to MAGA. He was capable of nuance even in cultural timebombs! When a white cop arrested an upstanding Black professor on his own porch, Obama invited them both over to the White House for a beer, and ostensibly to signal the need for racial reconciliation in critical justice in general, and, in particular, in Black folks’ dealings with the police. Later, when a Black teen was murdered by a rent-a-cop, Obama wept, and lamented that that could have been his son. ‘They’ chided him for racializing the issue. ‘They’ never see patterns, so entrenched are they in the myth of their own individuality.

Throughout Agent Orange’s presidency, when we being gunned down repeatedly by cops -in our own homes, out jogging, playing in the park, driving down the street, shopping at Walmart – 45 remained silent… that is until we took a knee. Back then, circa 2016, he and his klan caught all hell fire. When we started more openly defying white supremacy, ‘they’ had our names in their mouths like liquor. They ain’t had nothing to say about the value of Black life until that undeniable 8 minutes of 46 seconds of the symbolic hooves on our necks! Some say that was the breaking point.

Flash forward to today: Agent Orange may have to be carried out of the White House – in cuff hopefully – as he refuses to concede. What’s more, the nation has elected our second Catholic president, and our first women of color as vice president, and she’s the child of immigrants, too. Has America woken up from that sad slumber?

More Grotesque Black Death #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Each time I turn on the news I see more black death.

It’s grotesque. In my country, ‘Merika, there are peaceful protestors all around the country combatting police violence. Initially, when George Floyd was murdered, these peaceful protests spread across the world, as folks rose in solidarity for peace against white supremacy in America. Many more Black bodies have died in dubious police circumstances since. In the popular rhetoric, sadly, the peaceful protestors are held to account for the violence sweeping our streets. One of Dr. King’s major battles was to convince a people who’d been born into a nation of violence, how to be peaceful; we are a nation born of violence. Dr. King believed and taught that “non-violent resistance… [is] a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love” (King, Stride, 80). That was just to boycott the local busses  in the 1950’s. Working people choosing to spend their hard-earned money as they pleased, and still Jim and Jane Crow showed up to verbally and physically harass each one of them. By the 60’s Black university students worked in solidarity with students of all colors to teach, preach and practice non-violent civil disobedience.

It’s in bad faith to focus on the rioters and overlook those attempting to exercise their first amendment rights. I say “attempting,” because even the lone Black woman in Kentucky house of representatives, Attica Scott, can be arrested in our hometown for peacefully protesting #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor, #AtticaScott4Ky. Without the 1st amendment, there’s no second. And let’s not forget all those anti-mask protestors that showed up at city and state halls around the country – in 2020 – armed to the teeth, so-called peacefully protesting any ordinance to protect ‘us’ from the spread of CoVit. How peacefully will the po-po resolve this conflict instigated by their own violence? The white supremacist way, of course. Look at 45, head hood and chief of their klan. “’Cause God’s stopped keeping score,” as George Michael sang.

Back then leading the cause of segregation, we had white supremacists like 4-term Alabama governor George Wallace, and Birmingham public safety commissioner, Bull Connor, (in)famous for sending in fire hoses and attack dogs against children peacefully protesting. Right now, there are all kinds of icons named after ole George. Just a few years ago, I went to my little cousin’s high school basketball game in Tallassee, Alabama, and the public high school gym was named after good ole George’s wife, who’d held onto his governorship for a bit because law forbade him from serving consecutive terms. It’s as if only a few strong survivors believe us when we speak about how white supremacy has its hooves on our necks. It tuns out 8 minutes and 46 seconds changed that.

George Wallace literally blocks Blacks from entering the university

Read, will you, what good ole George said in a 1986 interview about sending in troops to squash the peaceful protests in Birmingham, after those four little girls got bombed in the 16th Street Baptist Church, on a Sunday in September 1963. As you’d expect, no one was held to account. The good governor says:

I sent Colonel Lingo there because they were, there was some trouble there, we tried to maintain law and order, we’re not trying to maintain segregation there, it was a matter of law and order, and uh, as I recall that nobody got hurt in any of the things, in the demonstrations, uh, except that whoever those evil mean, minded men were who had something to do with the blowing up of that church.”

Alabama segregationist Bull Connor ordered police to use dogs and fire hoses on black demonstrators in May 1963.

Sound familiar? Sounds like 45. Like then, today’s protestors are regularly intimidated and assaulted by the police and troops. This too often seals the cycle of violence instigated by the police, who are further instigated by the commanders and their chief.

It’s grotesque, and understandably, even more grotesque to look at, if you’ve rarely looked at it before, tucked it away, and not thought about it because it did not impact your daily life. “It’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate,” and you sang along. You knew it was happening, but your eyes betrayed you, and because you didn’t see it in your neighborhood, in your schools and streets, you let your faith in humanity go.

You let yourself believe that we, Black people, did something to deserve to be the nightly feature on the news: Weather, sports, celebrities, national headlines, and the local Black criminal; that’s literally fed into our homes each night on the news. And if you’ve been spending your time with Fox and ilk, then certainly you’ve been trained in a language that pits them against us, and posits losers and sinners against the righteous folks like you who are just trying to make it in this world. How could the Blacks live such a radically different existence? You lie to yourself and say that they can’t, that all the opportunities they lose are theirs alone. It’s all down to individual decisions, just like you. We each chose our own fates, right? There’s no system, and certainly no systemic oppression. F #MeToo, too, you say… at home with only the family and kids to hear. The kids repeat it at school, grow up and vote like that. They cycle repeats, whiteness is rendered, effectively, invisible. Only the Blacks are not acting right.

If only these 4 Little Girls had acted right, right?

It’s Autumn, and my hometown is on fire. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

It’s Autumn, and my hometown is on fire. [Theme song: When You Gonna Learn, by Jamiroquai]

Jay Kay sang: “Yeah, yeah, have you heard the news today?”

Me: Yeah, yeah, my hometown is on fire.

Protestors in downtown Louisville, my hometown.

My hometown is on fire. In March, SWAT-armed officers served a warrant, and an EMS worker ended up dead. The deceased was Black and poor, and lived in the poor Black part of town. The officers adhered to the codes of the ruling caste. The media covered the death matter-of-factly. The tag line is: “Breonna Taylor was an innocent person in her own home.” So, by extension, all the other victims were not innocent, and therefore deserved to die. Only Jesus’ death warrants defense…and outrage – according to the actions of the folks who James Baldwin called those who believe themselves to be white. So, Breonna, George Floyd, all of them…these were justifiable killings? Yeah, yeah, casualties of the race war where white supremacy has always had the whip.

My hometown is on fire. The mayor put the city on lockdown days ahead of the grand jury’s announcement, not Corona. Trucks block traffic now; windows were boarded up days ago. All to announce that (only) one of the shooters would be indicted, and on the lower end of charges. The officer was initially denounced and fired, and (only) now charged with “wanton, reckless endangerment.” None of the charges relate to Breonna’s death, so that’s exactly what the courts won’t be able to address.

Those who believe themselves t be white will defend their rights against these dead Black bodies

My hometown is on fire. Locals who believe themselves to be white char the memory of the victim, each victim, individually. For Breonna was not perfect, nor was Trayvon, nor George Floyd, nor Sandra Bland, nor countless others … all just human. Not even Amadou Diallo was a perfect-enough-victim for ‘those who believe themselves to be white’. Each family of each victim has had to fight the system individually, as if in a vacuum. Little attention to this incident was paid until the bodies mounted around the country. Everything changed when people of all races marched together, looters rioted and property was lost. Only then did “voters” take notice.

My hometown is on fire. The police have never been held accountable for such deaths. Apparently, the deceased liked bad boys, and was a victim of circumstance. White citizens – the so-called “voters”  – resist seeing the systemic causes to these deaths. Just a few weeks ago, after MONTHS of national outrage and protest, the police reached a 12-million-dollar settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family. Every Kentucky tax payer will pay for our collective neglect. My hometown held it down, made the world say her name.

My hometown is on fire. Say her name. “Say her name,” is now a moniker for another fallen Black body. Where whites see no systemic problem, there can be no systemic solutions. Please, “stop it going on.”

Protests in my hometown, Louisville, KY

For the Trayvons, Since Blackface is a weapon #BlackenAsiaWithLove

2 April 2012 Hanoi

 

The real Blackface that’s the weapon is the minstrel show,
The Blackface that labeled me out,

Showing people a side of me never seen

But projected onto me,

Such that when so many see my own Blackface,

They see that other

They see that other one.

The one told to them over their kitchen tables.

The one sold to them at the movie show –

Hoop dreams

Baller creams

Holla dolla-dolla bill, y’all.

‘Cause we also know that there are real Black faces

That see those minstrel black faces

Staring them back in the face,

So blinded by the light that they cannot see their own.

 

That’s one side of Trayvon’s story-

Then we all know how precious of a story this really is

That a mother lost her darling son

That a grandmother lost the one who used to babysit for the other gran’kids

That the little cousins are still unclear about where that dear boy is.

 

Blackface means that as soon as your voice starts to drop

As soon as that fuzzy hair starts to sprout all over

As soon as your knock knees start to look bold

You’re no longer a kid

Your childhood is lost

And you must learn to act in ways that would make most sane adults stumble

You learn how not to offend white people

How to speak in a soft voice

Or perish

How to walk slowly, with an unassuming gate

Lest you appear as a threat

With the knowledge that any of these threatened folks can annihilate you

Wipe you from this earth

Where only a generation or two ago

Men hanged like tree-ripened fruit

Aged on a rope in an instant

From kid prankster

To adult menace in a matter of moments

We’ve all seen that photo of one of America’s last lynchings

Not nearly the first

Not nearly the haste, carnage and human waste that made people cease.

 

In 1930, not in anywhere near the deep south

Not from one of our southern willows that sway

But in the mid-west

In Indiana, less than a 150 miles from where Michael Jackson was born

And less than 30 years before he came to be,

So that years later when he sings about hate in our multicultural hearts

Or smashes a window in the video

Enraged with anger

Mad from hypocrisy

The sort that we all know all too well

The gap between the promise and dream.

The reality versus the verses etched all around the capital,

Versus the slave hands that laid those very stones.

The women folk whose very gender made them slaves

And the Black women whose faces made them chattel –

But exploitation of a sexual kind

Yes, we all know too well

What a Blackface can do

How a Blackface can scare you

Even when it’s yours.

So, we now the rage Michael felt,

The hate he seemed to have fought though lost,

Internalized but never giving up.

Yet he was born into a world that hated Blackfaces

Where his was a real threat,

Lest he learn to sing and dance.

The hate is real life minstrelsy.

 

It’s that same song and dance that we as boys learn to perform

And I am tired of dancing

Trying to make nice when people approach me as cold as ice

Smiling and trying to behave

While all their body language tells me that they are scared to death of me

And that they see my Blackface as chilling.

We all know that all the Trayvons in this place

Learn from an age too early to have to teach kids such harsh cruelties of life

That by 13, he could be nearly 6 feet tall and that factor alone endangers his life

Were he to play sports and his body develop.

He would stand no chance of being treated like anything other than a gladiator.

So it’s even more ironic that Trayvon was a scrawny boy they called “Slim”

Seems there’s no real way to win

Though I think that if we as a people can get through this

If we as a nation can have this conversation

The one mothers like Trayvon’s have with their sons

For we all know how people react to Black

 

We are Spartacus: the publishing industry and race

As one of only a handful of non-white authors on the British crime fiction map, I thought it might be worthwhile spending a moment reflecting on the worldwide rebalancing touched off by the George Floyd killing in America. Fear not. There’s no need to put on your tin hats and dive for the trenches. My purpose isn’t to haul anyone over the coals. But there’s little doubt that some of what I say might make for uncomfortable reading. More importantly, I will ask you to reflect, at a personal level, on what we mean by systemic inequality, particularly as it applies to the publishing industry.

Screenshot 2020-06-30 16.14.40

First, some background. My parents are from the subcontinent. They came to the UK in the early seventies, lured by the immigrant dream. The streets of London may not have been paved with gold, but they were paved with opportunity. My father, who was not literate, spent his life in honest labour, in an industrial bakery, while my mother raised children, demonstrating the much-lauded immigrant work ethic by slaving away at her sewing machine every hour she wasn’t feeding us or stopping us from poking each other’s eyes out with eraser-tipped pencils. She instilled in us the need, above all else, to study, to educate ourselves, to progress.

So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that my parents were, in a broad sense, xenophobes, too? Not overtly. They didn’t oppress anyone; or traffic slaves across the oceans; or pillage defenceless communities for profit. But their attitude towards black people – cultivated by the insular world they had grown up in – was, at best, indifferent, or, at worst, mistrustful.

Here’s a simple, unpalatable truth. Racism, in its most basic form, is a feature of most societies. It shouldn’t be. But it is. A simple example illustrates my point.

The outpouring of angst and handwringing currently gripping the world has seen celebrities across the globe express their views on racism (rightly so), only for some to discover that a seat on this particular bandwagon can be an uncomfortable one. In India, numerous Bollywood stars were called out for the disparity between their #blacklivesmatter tweets and the fact that they had fronted campaigns for skin-lightening creams. Across the subcontinent, lighter skin has traditionally been valued (usually alluded to in matrimonial ads by the rainbow-bending adjective “wheatish”), so much so that white foreigners, especially Brits, are treated with overt deference, while black people are routinely afforded a lesser welcome. An odd perversity, given that it was the whites that pillaged the subcontinent for three centuries while, with those of Afro-Caribbean descent, one might assume Indians would evince a colonial-era solidarity.

Let me be clear: this idea of a sort of universal xenophobic instinct does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horrors of the slave trade, or the enormous, long-term damage done to black people because of that terrible practice. Nor does it justify the entrenched, systemic prejudice that continues to colour western societies, prejudice that culminates in overt racism of the kind that permits white American policemen to routinely kill black men with little fear of reprisal, and prejudice of the less obvious kind that serves to keep black people ‘in their place’. My point was merely to demonstrate that, in the wider, global race equality agenda now under discussion, we all have a part to play.

Part of the issue is that many well-meaning efforts to redress the balance are hampered by a profound lack of insight into how unconscious bias can affect the lives of people of colour, in a million different, small, but, ultimately, debilitating ways. The problem is further hampered by an education system that often fails to properly tackle the ‘race issue’.

Yet, the problem must be addressed. Because the world has become a smaller place. The goldfish bowl has shrunk and we are now all swimming in the same seas. It behoves us to make the effort, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the most effective means of progressing humanity towards a more equitable, more meritocratic, global society. If the Covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how interdependent we are.

Coming, now, to the publishing industry. Cards on the table. Since my first book was published six years ago, I have received tremendous support from my agent, publisher, critics, bloggers, readers, event organisers, and crime writers. My experience is not typical. A simple look at the statistics tells us what we already know. Any way you slice it and dice it – diversity of publishing staff, published writers of colour, books featuring characters of colour – the industry is dominated by white thought and enterprise. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that, in terms of population, BAME communities, by definition, are a minority. You wouldn’t expect there to be a 50:50 split along these dimensions. That isn’t the issue. The problem is the entrenched attitudes that make it so damned difficult for writers of colour to break into the industry and then to enjoy the same rewards and freedom of expression that is accorded to their white counterparts.

The world’s most successful crime writer, James Patterson, became famous with a series about a streetwise black detective, Alex Cross. James Patterson is not black. Nothing wrong with that scenario, in my opinion. Authors should not be constrained by artificial constructions of propriety. But, if the industry is being honest with itself, it will acknowledge that a writer of colour attempting to do something similar – trying, as it were, to write outside of their cultural straightjacket – is rarely accorded the same privilege. Questions of ‘authenticity’, ‘voice’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ suddenly come racing to the fore, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters questioning our right to go to the ball. Asian writers, for instance, are often expected to pen literary tomes about colonialism or exposes of the immigrant experience. Again, nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, brilliant writing is regularly published exploring those themes. But there are so many other stories that we would like to tell. White writers can be published writing about matters far outside their experience – wizards, serial killers, aliens. But for non-white writers, the same consideration is much harder to find. A lot of this is not the result of overt racism, but rather the mindset that accepts as perceived wisdom the idea that profitability comes almost entirely from white authors writing white stories, or writers of colour writing stories suited to their ethnic background. This thought is so prevalent in the industry that it may as well be an eleventh commandment.

A terrific article by Laura B. McGrath, associate director of the Stanford University Literary Lab, in a Jan 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled “Comping White” identifies the true nature of the problem. Paraphrasing her research, it goes like this: publishers buy new books by comparing them to books that have been successful. Is this the new Harry Potter? Is this the next Gone Girl? Given that the majority of books are white, the process becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. The industry buys and promotes white books because they sell. White books sell because they’re the only books the industry buys and promotes. Do you see the problem?

Making the gatekeepers more diverse, McGrath argues, will have only a marginal impact. It’s the system that’s at fault. The same applies to practically any walk of life that you might care to name – hence the reason so few people of colour in boardrooms, or lecturing at top universities, or opening Michelin-starred restaurants. White people have done all those things successfully before, so why take a chance on the unproven?

Until we change this structural, often unconscious, bias, all the current furore around race will do little to improve the prospects of the average BAME person.

Can readers help? Of course! By voting with their feet. By buying books written by authors of colour, readers signal to publishers that they won’t be put off by a ‘funny-sounding’ name on the cover, or a protagonist who doesn’t share their own cultural background. The only bar should be quality.

In an ideal world, a good story, well told, should stand on its own merits.

What else can we do? In my opinion, people shape people. If we want better, more thoughtful attitudes in the industry, we must all stand up and be counted. Solidarity is the name of the game. A solidarity of thought that acknowledges that a genuine change of perspective is needed. From agent to reader, all along the chain. What we need, in other words, is for all of us to stand up and say: ‘We are Spartacus.’

Vaseem Khan, author, Midnight at Malabar House and Baby Ganesh series

London, June 2020

Zombie Apocalypse

In post-war cinema, movies became part of political propaganda, especially when the creators did not want to tackle directly on a particular issue.*  The use of metaphors and euphemisms became part of the story telling especially when the creators tried to avoid strong opposition from censors and political groups. This allowed social commentary to be made under the nose of “puritan” critics! Visual semiotics in modern cinema revealed a new reality in social symbolism.   

One of those symbolisms was the living dead, later known as zombies!  Zombies appear on the screens in the late 40s and 50s but predominately appear with the name in the 70s.  The critics show in their representation of apathetic citizens who are not alert to the dangers of communism.  Originally the zombie and the alien body-snatcher became metaphors of the red danger in the US at the time of McCarthyism. The fear of communist expansion was fertile ground to play with public fears.  It became evident that a good citizen in order to avoid zombification has to take up arms and resist the menace.  Inaction is accessory to the crime of overthrowing the social order. 

As the paranoia leading to the red danger subsided, the zombie metaphor began to lose it potency and it become a cult population for those who love watching “B-movies.” In the 80s and 90s, zombie movies became aligned with the impeding doom of the millennium and technological bug that allegedly was coming to wipe out civilisation as we know it.    

In the new century, zombie became a representation of those who succumb to technology and become its blind users.  Generations Y and Z were accused of spending more time than before on game consoles, surfing the web and becoming “couch potatoes.” The gamers who binge on games for days, losing all other engagements with life until the game is completed.  The motionless body of the gamer sitting in the same spot, non-engaging in conversation, was likened to the brainless zombie who slowly moves in space with no volition and conscience. 

More recently, the zombie movie genre promoted the idea of a global medical pandemic, mostly caused by a virus that mutates people and turn them into flesh eating abominations!  The virus breakout of the zombie disease became so convincing that a concerned member of the public back in 2011 asked Leicester City Council about their preparation in case of an invasion. Of course, at the time, cultural sociologists argued how zombies are a representation of “the other” in terms of race, nationality, and of course gender.  Whilst others saw them as a representation of end of days, an eschatological message that bring an end to life as we know it. 

Therefore, in the situation of Covid-19 the contagion of the potent virus that can kill some whilst others carry it without even realising it, brings to the surface the zombie fears Hollywood warn us about.  In a recent survey a third of US believe that the virus was created in a lab, and whilst most people according to WHO acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic there are those who question its existence. With opinions divided about the causes of covid19, life in 2020 appears to be a prequel to a post-apocalyptic reality.

Back in zombie movies and we are coming out of a lockdown when cities and towns feel deserted like 28 Days Later, people came out with protective masks like in Resident Evil and became frightened of the invisible threat like in every movie in the genre.  Back in 2011, we laughed at the question “how ready are we for a zombie apocalypse?” Maybe if we asked is there a likelihood for a pandemic we could have planned and prepared for now, slightly better.  There are great lessons to be learned here and possibly we can establish that when we are looking at healthcare and services, we cannot do more with less!  Just whatever what you do, do not take lessons from Hollywood!   

Until the next time! 

*At this stage, I would like to apologise to my younger colleague and blog comrade @treventoursu who is far more knowledgeable than myself on movies!

CONned by CONfederates #BlackenAsiaWithLove

I come from a town named after the French king who supported America’s independence struggle from Great Britain. A large statue of him sits in front of our old courthouse, across from the old town hall. The fleur-de-lis covering his robe was consequently adopted as the symbol of my city, as well as New Orleans and several other municipalities around our nation. I am from a county named after a slaveholding ‘founding father’, the nation’s third president, who was the governor of the Virginia territory that was split then to eventually create my ole Kentucky home.

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Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence at the same time as he was a prominent slave-owner. Our nation fought for nearly two centuries to (openly) recognize the long-term relationship Jefferson had with a teenage slave. Contemporary CONfederates & other zealots fought against recognizing their descendants.

Dixie Highway is one of the largest roads crisscrossing my city, and it’s even the best way to get to Fort Knox, where our nation used to hold its gold. There are other CONfederate activists who are venerated locally in bronze. I never had to “wish I was in Dixie.”I was born there.

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Rosa Parks statue in downtown Montgomery, AL

Although the Sons of CONfederate Veterans resisted, my parents’ alma mater moved a 70-foot-tall CONfederate monument off its campus and out of the city. It wasn’t destroyed, but perhaps, hopefully, better contextualized.

There are umpteen items in my hometown named after President Zachary Taylor who was born into a prominent plantation-owning family. He held slaves during his short-lived term and danced all around the issue of slavery with his CONfederate chums.

Where my grandparents are from in Alabama, the Black high school is named after a CONfederate war general. Right now, the first white house of the CONfederacy sits smack in the middle of the seat of city, county, and state government.

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“First White House of the Confederacy,” Montgomery, AL 2013.

History needs to be re-written to include all the people that made the history.

The victimisation of one

One of the many virtues of criminology is to talk about many different crimes, many different criminal situations, many different deviant conditions.  Criminology offers the opportunity to consider the world outside the personal individual experience; it allows us to explore what is bigger than the self, the reality of one. 

Therefore, human experience is viewed through a collective, social lens; which perhaps makes it fascinating to see these actions from an individual experience.  It is when people try to personalise criminological experience and carry it through personal narratives.  To understand the big criminological issues from one case, one face, one story. 

Consider this: According to the National Crime Agency over 100K children go missing in the UK each year; but we all remember the case of little Madeleine McCann that happened over 13 years ago in Portugal.  Each year approximately 65 children are murdered in the UK (based on estimates from the NSPCC, but collectively we remember them as James Bulger, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.  Over 100 people lost their lives to racially motivated attacks, in recent years but only one name we seem to remember that of Stephen Lawrence (Institute of Race Relations). 

Criminologists in the past have questioned why some people are remembered whilst others are forgotten.  Why some victims remain immortalised in a collective consciousness, whilst others become nothing more than a figure.  In absolute numbers, the people’s case recollection is incredibly small considering the volume of the incidents.  Some of the cases are over 30 years old, whilst others that happened much more recently are dead and buried. 

Nils Christie has called this situation “the ideal victim” where some of those numerous victims are regarded “deserving victims” and given legitimacy to their claim of being wronged.  The process of achieving the ideal victim status is not straightforward or ever clear cut.  In the previous examples, Stephen Lawrence’s memory remained alive after his family fought hard for it and despite the adverse circumstances they faced.  Likewise, the McGann family did the same.  Those families and many victims face a reality that criminology sometimes ignores; that in order to be a victim you must be recognised as one.  Otherwise, the only thing that you can hope for it that you are recorded in the statistics; so that the victimisation becomes measured but not experienced.  This part is incredibly important because people read crime stories and become fascinated with criminals, but this fascination does not extend to the victims their crimes leave behind. 

Then there are those voices that are muted, silenced, excluded and discounted.  People who are forced to live in the margins of society not out of choice, people who lack the legitimacy of claim for their victimisation.  Then there are those whose experience was not even counted.  In view of recent events, consider those millions of people who lived in slavery.  In the UK, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and in the US the Emancipation Proclamation Act of 1863 ostensibly ended slavery. 

Legally, those who were under the ownership of others became a victim of crime and their suffering a criminal offence.  Still over 150 years have passed, but many Black and ethnic minorities identify that many issues, including systemic racism, emanate from that era, because they have never been dealt with.  These acts ended slavery, but compensated the owners and not the slaves.  Reparations have never been discussed and for the UK it took 180 years to apologise for slavery.  At that pace, compensation may take many more decades to be discussed.  In the meantime, do we have any collective images of those enslaved?  Have we heard their voices?  Do we know what they experience? Some years ago, whilst in the American Criminology Conference, I came across some work done by the Library of Congress on slave narratives.  It was part of the Federal Writers’ Project during the great depression, that transcribed volumes of interviews of past slaves.  The outcome is outstanding, but it is very hard to read. 

In the spirit of the one victim, the ideal victim, I am citing verbatim extracts from two ex-slaves Hannah Allen, and Mary Bell, both slaves from Missouri.  Unfortunately, no images, no great explanation.  These are only two of the narratives of a crime that the world tries to forget. 

“I was born in 1830 on Castor River bout fourteen miles east of Fredericktown, Mo. My birthday is December 24.  […] My father come from Perry County.  He wus named Abernathy.  My father’s father was a white man.  My white people come from Castor and dey owned my mother and I was two years old when my mother was sold.  De white people kept two of us and sold mother and three children in New Orleans.  Me and my brother was kept by de Bollingers.  This was 1832.  De white people kept us in de house and I took care of de babies most of de time but worked in de field a little bit.  Dey had six boys.  […] I ve been living here since de Civil War.  Dis is de third house that I built on dis spot.  What I think ‘bout slavery?  Well we is getting long purty well now and I believe its best to not agitate”. 

Hannah Allen

“I was born in Missouri, May 1 1852 and owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs.  I had two sisters and three brothers.  One of my brothers was killed in de Civil War, and one died here in St. Louis in 1919.  His name was Spot.  My other brother, four years younger than I, died in October, 1925 in Colorado Springs.  Slavery was a mighty hard life.  Kitty Diggs hired me out to a Presbyterian minister when I was seven years old, to take care of three children.  I nursed in da family one year.  Den Miss Diggs hired me out to a baker named Henry Tillman to nurse three children.  I nurse there two years.  Neither family was nice to me.” 

Mary Bell

When people said “I don’t understand”, my job as an educator is to ask how can I help you understand?  In education, as in life, we have to have the thirst of knowledge, the curiosity to learn.  Then when we read the story of one, we know, that this is not a sole event, a bad coincidence, a sad incident, but the reality for people around us; and their voices must be heard.    

References

Nils Christie (1986) The Ideal Victim, in Fattah Ezzat A (eds) From Crime Policy to Victim Policy, Palgrave Macmillan, London

Missouri Slave Narratives, A folk History of Slavery in Missouri from Interviews with Former Slaves, Library of Congress, Applewood Books, Bedford

Watching while Black. #BlackAsiaWithLove

One of the most surprising conversations to have emerged from the BLM protests is representation. On the news outlets I follow in my liberal bubble, items around the protestors’ demands led to implicit bias, and the media cited as a primary arena for such instruction. Chomsky, as we all know from his Propaganda model, contends that it’s media’s “function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.” Consent to white supremacy is what’s being manufactured here. Whether the nightly news or the entertainment, deconstructionists have long since called out the white supremacist propaganda. We know that the propaganda is a comprehensive representation of the dominant hegemony, what bell hooks describes as the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy.

Ain’t your momma on the pancake box?

Mammy-jemimaAunt Jemima, gone! Uncle Ben! Gone with the Wind, swept away! Representation matters. These iconic images survived an era when white supremacy was on parade – literally- the height the K.K. Klan marches and minstrelsy. We know NOW that these images were based on racist stereotypes. And thankfully that analysis has extended into the modern day: They canceled Cops, and are going after entire franchises of cop dramas that have busily perpetuated racist propaganda.

These TV shows are all chock full of Black criminality, Black Best Friends and white saviors! And they’re lovely. Consider the Law and Order franchise, which is comprised of over half a dozen different shows, including the longest-running cop drama ever, L&O Special Victims Unit – sex crimes! Activists writers and cultural critics are popping up everywhere discussing this mess. Jim and Jane Crow must be shaking in their boots.

What’s interesting, and feels unique about this particular moment is the earnest effort with which emotions are confronted. This includes terror and rage. The grief with which Black people watch reels of Black bodies falling is horrendous. We’re over a decade into massive social media saturation, so it’s safe to say, you can see a nigger die daily – looped if you like.  As Evelyn From the Internets said, we need a day off from this trauma: I’m calling in ‘black’.

Then there’s rage. Of course, it’s enraging to see no justice sought or found in the majority of these cases. What’s worse, we’re not talking about actual criminals that the law already outlaws- no one has forgotten about gang violence, like that 15-year-old Chicago girl in who caught a stray bullet in her back just days after returning from the White House where she’d performed at Obama’s second inauguration. Yes, we wept as we watched that tragic story of Hadiya Pendleton.

Rhythm-blues

Yet, there’s a particular sting around “justified homicide,” by law enforcement officers. Who can we turn to for lawn enforcement? Who secures our justice? Not the United States! We’ve watched that for decades throughout many evolutions of media technology. We have Black and white photos of ET’s brutalized young body in 55. We see Rosa Parks sitting in a segregated bus that December. We have newsreels of over a decade long of different acts of civil disobedience that culminated in what we call the Civil Rights Movement. We watched Bloody Sunday in Selma, live, in Black and White TV.

We watched Rodney King get beat down by a mob of LAPD! We watched the trial and the slurs and the acquittal of his killers. So, we watched the riots a year after the police beating, and we watched as justice yet again slipped away – from Black people.

Now, in the age of social media, we can watch a live-streamed murder – such as that of Philando Castile who was shot by a cop within seven seconds of informing the cop he was legally carrying a gun! Thanks to many citizen-journalists, we see all of it, every excruciating second – each second where a sense of humanity might have intervened.

Have you taken the Implicit Bias test yet?

We’re now talking about the implications of implicit bias. In health, Ms. Corona showed us all the biases not only in treatment, but also in systemic differences in housing that impact wealth, education and, sadly health. Red Lining is real. And Corona has shown that those biases lead to our morbidity.

In corporate America, if you have a Black sounding name on your resume, you’re 50% less likely to get a callback – fact! And if you get the job, you have to deal with micro-aggressions.

From Spectacle to Spectacular

Social media has made the most mundane spectacles of public life spectacular through the lens of racism. There’s a whole hashtag, #LivingWhileBlack- that will show white people calling the police on Black people just for being ‘suspicious’ and making them ‘uncomfortable’. We know that white discomfort has led to many deaths at the hands of the police because we’ve heard the 9-11 calls, too. But, now, we can also see BBQBecky, PoolPatrolPaul, PermitPatty,  HotelEarl call the police. We see a white woman in a bodega charge a 14-year old Black boy with sexual assault because his backpack swiped against her. We see that white woman calling the police on a little black girl selling bottled water in front of their apartment complex on a hot sunny day. There are loads, loads more of such incidents, now caught on camera by citizen-journalists. Under these conditions, Black sanity is a spectacular feat!

Recently, we watched that white woman in Central Park threaten to call the police and tell them a “Black man in threatening her,” and moments later, because the brother stayed calm enough to record the spectacle on his phone, we see her feign terror on the phone to the emergency services. She nearly strangles her newly adopted dog with the leash the birdwatcher had asked her to use in the first place. She was readily prepared to weaponize her white tears in a situation that she knew could end in this Black man’s death! She knew she existed in a system that would support her, yet the wider/whiter masses either refused to believe that any of this was happening, despite our consistent, collective protestations. So, here we are, locked in a battle of wills: Will the world finally affirm that BLM?

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