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young black man crying
I'm home from a holiday visit with family members who were gathered in Philly, where I shared the joy my cousins have found. They have adopted a young boy out of foster care. He is three, going on four. He is black. He will now have two well-educated middle class parents to raise him. He will live in a "safe" community with them in a mid-west college town environment.  

But now that I am home again, I am gripped by melancholy. I cannot avoid my musings—ones that I did not want to share with these two new parents, though I am sure they are just as aware as I am. They are both sociologists and quite familiar with the political and social implications of blackness, or brownness and maleness in our world. They want the best for him, as parents are wont to do. Far easier to smile, hug and imagine a bright future for him.  

Three distinct yet entwined themes are twisted in my thoughts this morning. The first thread is Newtown and the immense sadness and outpouring of grief for those lost in our latest national tragedy and shame. The second is the stark reality that every day some young black or brown child will die mourned by only a few, and not as part of a national paroxysm of grief and outrage, but simply missed by family and school friends. They will be, however, equally dead. The third is about fear, and in many ways it is the thread that ties in the other two.  

Even "fear" as I think about it has multiple faces. Why do I hear the drumbeat of fear every time we attempt to stir the waters of a national conversation about gun violence? Every time, I hear one more lament about "it shouldn't have happened here," or "why should innocents die in safe communities," I visualize the other side of the coin. The light and the dark, and dark is surely those unsafe mean streets of urban climes filled with crime and drugs and young black and brown men around whom no one is safe and isn't it true that they are always killing each other? They are dangerous thugs and gangsta gang members in hoodies with baggie pants and surely they must be constrained from invading the safe white spaces of America. Even black middle class parents buy that in hopes that an escape to the burbs or a gated community will somehow fade away their blackness into suburban acceptability. It didn't work for Trayvon Martin's parents.

I wonder why I am not supposed to feel automatic fear when I go to the suburban shopping mall or movie theater near me and see a young white male all dressed in black or camouflage pants? No knee-jerk reaction. No nervous shifting away of eyes and quickened step. They are not invaders. They are normal, and only when atrocity beckons are they then different—but a different singularity. They are mentally ill. They are not part of a slavering wolf pack. So there is nothing really to fear from them. It's simply your bad luck if you happen to fall victim to an anomaly. The press and social theorists from the left and right cry out, "It's the guns. It's lack of mental health services. It's the video games. We must do something! "  

And so we hold a national day of mourning, flags are at half-staff and we reanimate the debate on how to preserve safety from these lone wolf aberrant young white men. The NRA has its standard response: "It isn't about the guns. Arm the teachers." The Left counters with strident cries for reform along with stricter gun laws to lock up the "criminals." Yet when were these young white men ever criminals? Surely none of them were graduates of the university of the streets or school-to-prison pipeline.

Nothing in any of this addresses the fear and who we are really trained to guard against if "they" should spill out of "their place" in South Philly, Southside Chicago, Harlem or East L.A. Tim Wise explored this in Race, Class, Violence and Denial: Mass Murder and the Pathologies of Privilege, but it got lost during the fractious debate between those on the left who believe in responsible gun ownership and those who calling yet again for reform of the Second Amendment and others who want all guns to go away.

The view from the darker side of the street, though given light this last year by the death of Trayvon Martin, has devolved into yet another debate around "Stand Your Ground" and "Castle Doctrine," veering away from the highly uncomfortable yet obvious fact that Trayvon would be alive if he wasn't one of those to be feared. His death is complicated by the unheeded cries of those mothers of the feared who have seen their children's lives extinguished by those employed to "serve and protect," not simply self-appointed vigilantes like Zimmerman. Any attempts to delineate this thread in the racial warp and weft are often derailed—which is what happened when shanikka wrote, Hey America! Can you please stop killing our (usually) innocent Black male children now?, in early December. There was a flurry of "But ... but ... but ... what about black on black crime?" which was not the focus of her piece. She tolled the bell for those young black men, and when 12 days later Adam Lanza's slaughter of lambs stopped the nation, her cry was buried under a tidal wave of righteous anti-gun outrage, which obscures the culpability of those that no one has argued should not be armed—the police.

I am a weaver, and as such should be able to follow more than one thread and see in the end product a whole cloth. Yet I am afraid that no matter which individual thread I may focus upon those who fail to pay attention to the red flag waving in front of our faces will yet again follow trail markers leading no where.

I am tangled in a quandary of variables. Constantly forced to pluck individual threads and follow them through the maze that at some point must lead to an opening which we call "change."

Race, class, privilege. Guns, violence, crime. Innocence, guilt, justice.  

An impossible task to lay out or unravel on one morning's loom. There is no nice, neat finished product to present. There are no easy solutions and where each thread begins, criss-crosses or is knotted off is not always visible.

(Continue reading below the fold.)

Let me pluck first at the thread of racial fear. It is stretched tautly in the fabric of America. Anchored in the past and so tightly woven into the present that it is often overlooked. So deftly woven by those master weavers we call founders that many of the laws we take for granted show few traces of their initial purpose supporting the whole cloth.

I've been told here that gun laws today, and the stance of many ardent supporters of them, have nothing to do with race. And yet, can anyone who reads the rants of the right wing, who has followed the "tough on crime" stances of politicians from both parties through the years, fail to appreciate just who we are trained to view as criminals?

Case in point. Go back with me a few decades to a racial fear tightly knit with sexual threads.

The fear of young black men.

Wilding.

Savages.

Wolf pack.

Rapists.

Demons.

Who can forget the case of the Central Park jogger?  

The Central Park 5

Co-directed, written and produced by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon.

In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were arrested and later convicted of brutally beating and raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park. New York Mayor Ed Koch called it the “crime of the century” and it remains to date one of the biggest media stories of our time. The five each spent between 6 and 13 years in prison before a shocking confession from a serial rapist and DNA evidence proved their innocence. Set against a backdrop of a decaying city beset by violence and racial tension, THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE tells the story of how five lives were upended by the rush to judgment by police, a sensationalist media and a devastating miscarriage of justice.

Hard to believe over 50 years have passed since this outrage dominated headlines and shaped both public policy and private fears. Sarah Burns published her book on the case and now the documentary is available for viewing in theaters and online.

Over the years, I've gathered much of the press material around this case and a collection of online comments as well.

Many of those comments promoting fear read like this:

Why did the daughter of Ken Burns bother to write this slop? The animals that were "wilding" in Central Park that night should have been put away for life. If you want the truth about the Central Park jogger story, read Ann Coulter's book, Demonic. Don't waste your money on this one
On the other hand, historical and legal scholars have made linkages to the case of the Scottsboro Boys.
The Central Park Five, the Scottsboro Boys, and the Myth of the Bestial Black Man
In late 1989, five East Harlem teenagers were convicted of brutally raping a white jogger in Central Park, and New York City erupted in racial animosity. Over thirteen years later, on the heels of a serial rapist's detailed confession to the Central Park rape and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau's subsequent investigation revealing extensive evidence of the serial rapist's culpability, New York State Justice Charles Tejada vacated the youths' convictions. Now, in the wake of this monumental development in one of the most racially divisive criminal cases in American history, we are left to consider how these wrongful convictions came to be. This article seeks to do so.

Specifically, this article seeks to examine the Central Park convictions in light of America's long-standing battle with racial stereotyping and, more particularly, in light of the myth, deeply imbedded in American history, that black men are animalistic, sexually unrestrained, and inherently criminal. By deconstructing this myth and analyzing its historic impact on the criminal justice system, its particular impact on the notorious wrongful rape convictions of the Scottsboro Boys in 1931, and its stubborn persistence in modern America, this article seeks to demonstrate the myth's influence on the Central Park convictions.

The case itself is still being litigated in the courts, and in the court of public opinion. Nine years ago, a federal lawsuit was filed on the behalf of the wrongfully convicted (and exonerated) defendants. New York City is now attempting to subpoena the filmmakers. City Subpoenas Film Outtakes as It Defends Suit by Men Cleared in ’89 Rape

So while the no-longer-young men wait for justice, forever branded as animals and feral beasts, I sit and watch yet another obfuscation catch hold in media parlance. Young white Adam Lanza, is now depicted as the child of a "prepper" mom. What's a "prepper"?  Why are those people preparing for complete financial collapse ... a Doomsday economic scenario, so steeped in fear and paranoia? Even the NY Times noted in reviewing the current crop of reality TV prepper shows:

At their worst the shows don’t merely give the prepper universe a pass on difficult questions; they reinforce its ugliest undercurrents. The most recent “Doomsday Preppers” included a white family 40 miles from Atlanta that is worried about rioting caused by economic collapse. “Civil unrest will most likely ensue in the metropolitan areas and then spread out to the suburbs,” the patriarch says.

His defenses include a generous supply of guns and a couple of German shepherds. An expert with a trained attack dog comes by to demonstrate what a properly schooled dog can do. He has a man dress up in protective gear and act menacing, then turns the dog loose. The fake intruder is black, the only black face in the hourlong program.

Am I making the argument that racial fears underlie all of this prepper stuff? No. But it sure is a pesky variable. Just like the ties NRA leadership has to hardcore racists. Throw teapublicans into the brew. You've now got a recipe for racial explosion.  

One thread.  

Now let me pick up the dropped stitch of the black youth death thread. Organizations around the country have been calling for change, and pointing to the death statistics in communities of color directly relating to guns. One of the groups at the forefront has been the Children's Defense Fund, who issued this report "Protect Children Not Guns" in March of 2012:

Next month, April 16th, marks the fifth anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre in which 32 students and faculty were killed by a gun, 25 others were injured, and many more were traumatized. Each year since then has seen shootings with multiple victims—young children, teenagers, young adults, a Member of Congress, a federal judge and many more. Days, weeks, months and years go by and little or nothing—except fleeting headlines, tears, trauma and talk—is done to protect children.

A total of 5,740 children and teens died in 2008 and 2009, the two years after the Virginia
Tech shooting, according to the most recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is the equivalent of one child or teen being killed by a gun every three hours, or eight each day over those two years, or 229 public school classrooms with 25 students each.

Gun homicide continued as the leading cause of death among Black teens 15 to 19. White teens the same age were more likely to die from motor vehicle accidents, followed by gun homicide in 2008 and gun suicide in 2009.

Black males 15 to 19 were eight times as likely as White males the same age and
two-and-a-half-times as likely as their Hispanic peers to be gun homicide victims in 2009.

Non-fatal gun injuries and the physical and emotional trauma that follows afflicted 34,387
children and teens over two years, 20,596 in 2008 and 13,791 in 2009.
n Taking a 30-year snapshot when child gun death and injury data collection began,116,385 children and teens were killed by firearms between 1979 and 2009—enough to fill 4,655 public school classrooms of 25 students each. Since 1979, America has lost nearly three times as many children and teens to gunfire as the number of U.S. military personnel killed in action during the Vietnam War, and over 23 times the number of U.S. military personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan (5,013).

Where is our anti-war movement here at home? Why does a nation with the largest military budget in the world refuse to protect its children from relentless gun violence and terrorism at home? No external enemy ever killed thousands of children in their neighborhoods, streets and schools year in and year out.

Other groups like Demand a Plan, Mayors against illegal guns have mounted video and petition efforts, utilizing youths ...

... and celebrities.


I worry that as long as the death of a child on the streets of the South Bronx (or even a missing one) has little media currency, the current national outrage will do little to change the facts of life in low income communities of color.

So back to fear.

The fears of young black men.

Afraid they won't grow up to be fathers or grandfathers.

Afraid that this society has only carved out two spaces for them—prison or an early cemetery plot.

Afraid of walking while black, driving while black, shopping while black, breathing while black. Knowledge that even your socks can get you sent to prison.  

Afraid that no matter how much you achieve or how far you run from certain neighborhoods you will always be a target.

I know some of these fears very well. Contrary to the macho braggadocio portrayed in much of the money making gangsta rap imagery, I have spent time with young black and brown men who are part of street "gangs" or associations here in New York. I've looked into the faces of some of those teens who are afraid to walk down their own streets, who get shot in their own backyards or on front stoops. I've seen a mom decide to give up a badly needed job and pull her son out of school to homeschool him, afraid he will not make it alive into the next grade. I've seen the fear on the faces of those youths who get shipped upstate to prison for the first time. Fear they will never make it back out again alive. Fear that if they do they will never get a job—not after being branded criminal for life.

Fear of even venturing into areas that are delineated as white. Lest anyone point fingers at southern racism, the fear of white spaces is also a northern one.  Yusef Hawkins paid for his trespass with death, in Bensonhurst, as did others. Yet young white men are not wilders nor feral wolf packs and animals. In "The Press and the Central Park Jogger," Lynnell Hancock points out:

The jogger case planted "wilding" into the English lexicon, a term that came to define the inhumanity of these kids. But it was never clear where it came from — the kids, the police, or the media ozone. "The word seemed to come out of the ether," remembers Krajicek, a former professor at Columbia'sjournalism school and author of Scooped: Media Miss Real Stories on Crime While Chasing Sex, Sleaze and Celebrities. "It took on a life of its own." Meanwhile, at the same time the first Central Park jogger trial was going on, thirty white teens in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, cornered sixteen-year-old Yusef Hawkins near a used-car lot and shot him dead. New York Newsday referred to those arrested as "white young men." The Daily News called them "a gang of thirty white teens." The city's leaders were equally subdued. Mayor Koch painted the killing as "an enormous tragedy."

I have black and latino male students who were afraid to come to upstate New York to my university. White spaces inside or outside of the city borders can be fatal.

Talking with my husband about these fears during the drive back to New York from Philly was disconcerting. He shared a memory with me of his experience with a program designed to help "inner city kids" go to the country for "fresh air" for the summer. He and his sister were sent out of East Harlem to stay on a farm upstate New York. His sister looked "white." He was dark. The host family had a black dog named Rastus. On the day of his arrival, the white host family nicknamed my husband "Rastus." He never went back. Better to risk the mean streets than face the white demeaning.

Other variables and threads in our racial crazy quilt cannot be ignored. Segregated housing. Inferior schools. Neighborhoods where stray bullets are peskier than mosquitoes, and far more deadly.  

What kind of massive Marshall Plan must we enact to begin to even make a tear in the capitalist white elite favoring fabric of our nation?

Will a call to get rid of guns simply turn into more anti-crime legislation and stop and frisk laws like the abuses in NYC?    

I know my own fears, and the often contradictory positions I hold. I lived through my family moving out of Brooklyn to the green streets of Queens. Who wouldn't want to live in "a better neighborhood." We moved in and white flight ensued. The American Dream of the house on tree-lined streets in suburban wonderland or in discreetly gated communities of safety, while the urban sprawl rots and spreads is no futuristic nightmare from the dystopic visions of writers like William Gibson.

Gated community? The gates I knew were rusty and on the windows in the front of and back of my shotgun apartment in East Harlem—preventing access to those who made free of the fire escapes that were the only balconies we had in that neighborhood. Calling the cops was never an option. Having a gun for protection behind those gates was often salvation. What rights do poor people have to self-defense and safety?  

I remember waiting in the dark as a burglar crawled through the window of my small one-room efficiency apartment in a "rough" section of D.C. Once he was half-way in I threw on the lights and he looked down the barrel of my shotgun. I calmly gave him two choices. Come in any further and I'd pull the trigger, or he could wriggle back out and tell all his buddies on the block that there was a crazy b***h in residence with a piece. He took option number two. I was left in peace till I moved.  

Anyone who thinks there is no fear in poor communities needs their heads examined. Anyone who thinks that the often touted "black on black crime" we read so much about is somehow different from white on white crime is buying yet another twisted media line.
We are so used to the term "white collar crime" that we forget that from the perspective of communities of color it is interchangeable with "white people crime". And rarely does it land you on the "go to jail" space in Monopoly.    

Poverty is violence. Unequal rights is violence. Our criminal injustice system is violence. Who says any of this is going to be easy for us to undertake changing it all?

I am under no illusion that the multiple ills of our society are going away anytime soon. I realize that I have not even touched the subject of a broader global perspective.  

Today I simply ponder a tear on the face of a young brother.  
I want to gather that tear and add it to those that fill a million oceans.


The Women Gather

He was her only child, her baby boy
She was his second daughter, a father's pride and joy.
Somebody's mother, brother, best friend, sister, lover
Maybe an A-1 student running, hiding, taking cover.

The women gather crying tears that fill a million oceans
It doesn't matter where you're living,
The women gather crying tears that fill a million oceans
It doesn't matter where you're living
The women gather

People say, "Not in this neighborhood!
It doesn't happen here!
Our kids have everything,
What do we have to fear?"
But what about the ones who say, "This happens every day;
Drugs and violence take our children.
How much more death can come our way?"

The women gather crying tears that fill a million oceans
It doesn't matter where you're living,
The women gather crying tears that fill a million oceans
it doesn't matter where you're living,
The women gather

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Dec 30, 2012 at 10:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges, Black Kos community, White Privilege Working Group, RaceGender DiscrimiNATION, LatinoKos, Right to Keep and Bear Arms, and Repeal or Amend the Second Amendment (RASA).

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