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“The problem is the racism of your people”
“The problem is the racism of your people”
“Yes, the problem is the racism of my people”
The above statements, largely accepted without question in America today, are racial accusations requiring a racial solution. That solution will never come. The sooner people understand this, the sooner a true solution will appear. As long as these sentiments are expressed, it is a formula for constant drama and the occasional disaster. Try as I might, I was unable to turn my head away for the drama as it played out on my four screens and police radio yesterday afternoon. I watched and waited as the hour of curfew approached.
Like the pandemic, there was nothing but moral panic being broadcast and tweeted yesterday wall to wall and station to station. For me, watching it was like watching a nature documentary where the cheetas and wildebeast, alligators and gazelles, lions, vultures, hyenas and zebra all interacted in their predictable ways. I was the giraffe casually munching and observing the circle of life and death. Like a giraffe, I wasn’t making any noise. Today as a human, I suppose I’ll stick my neck out.
The announcer lamented, on channel five, in a typically unprofessional way. “What should be different this time, what have we not done in 25 years?” He was asking the mayor of West Hollywood who replied. “I would ask anybody who wasn’t moved by that film of George Floyd’s death, what is wrong with them?” I didn’t watch it. I still haven’t and I probably won’t. As much as I like watching MMA fights, and even the fightporn subreddit, I don’t watch snuff films. I don’t watch Isis beheadings. I didn’t read Cho’s poetry. Such things are poisonous to the spirit. It might be funny to watch a child cursing and demanding the rent, but I do not like crime or true crime. The reason is because I understand violence and I understand justice, in fact I am compelled to respond. I know that law enforcement is inevitably violent. I know that people inevitably conflict. Like John Dunne, I feel myself a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Every man’s death diminishes me. And yet I recognize my limits, my capacity to heal, my ability to defend, my willingness to go the distance, the limits of my mind, body and spirit. I too know my strengths, advantages and talents. I have tools. What can I fix?
I think this is a question that few people ask of themselves. At least that’s the impression one gets piling on images of sadness, defensiveness and pity , hour after Eyewitness News Live hour, and minute by GoPro minute. There were no scenes but three that were of the type I was encouraged by during my six hour vigil. The first took only 20 seconds as a man with a pistol, rifle and beard rapidly disarmed a man who had taken a rifle from a burning police car. The second was a multicultural set of a dozen suspects cuffed and seated on the curb, black suspects to the left, white suspects to the right. One obese black man in an orangeish getup was allowed to remain standing, hands ziptied behind his back. He stood over with the white suspects. The third was a discussion between several protesting citizens and two officers. A couple dozen onlookers stood behind the citizens. The discussion went on for several minutes, silent to me with my view from the circling helicopter camera. The citizens and the onlookers walked peaceably away. Something was resolved. The rest of the day was filled with salacious filming of young masked men, bounding as they do, in the delirious excitement of being naughty in the streets. They got shoes. They got tracksuits. They got backpacks. They rarely got busted. They got recorded. And their cars and their license plates got recorded. The panoptics were in play.
A couple of cars burned. But here in Los Angeles County nothing was particularly vicious. For every gleeful, looting fast mover, there were an equal number of uniformed shooters, but they were minding the larger, more static crowds and their signs, seated in Santa Monica just east of the pier. The peaceful protesters faced the peaceful cops in a boring standoff. When that got too boring, the TV station replayed conflicts and looting on a continuous loop, with the small qualification “Earlier” on the screen. Shortly, other contingents of troops were pushing Santa Monica crowds south out of the shopping district towards the park and pier and peaceful protest. They didn’t seem to need more than a half dozen canisters of loud banging tear gas, and that bum’s rush only lasted 10 minutes. None of the police even broke into a run. I watched a recording made in downtown Philadelphia. I recognized the shops on Chestnut Street. The view there was of casual disintegration. The Apple Store was desecrated, the Forever 21 demonstrated its vulnerability. There were turned over dumpsters that had clearly been on fire. You can hear the mumbling and the crunch of glass shards underfoot. It took me 3 minutes to realize there was not a policeman in sight. No squad cars, no sirens, no helmets. Only the occasional fireman amongst the shambling crowds. Everybody was on their own, wandering the streets in a kind of slack oblivion. This is what happens when shit gets real, I can imagine them thinking. No. It’s hardly real. It’s merely dramatic.
I do not believe in American exceptionalism, not in the people. Americans themselves are not exceptional, and they have the capability of destroying anything, including their inheritance. America has a handsome set of institutions and organizations that are world class, and many of them are capable of monetizing anything. Somebody said “Soon, the rioters will have corporate sponsors.” They already do. Our economy has provided everything that anyone would ever want to loot for, or protest for including the masks, hoodies, smartphones and iconography of revolution. But that’s exactly the distinction that people get wrong. They think the tools to fix what ails us are to be found in retail outlets, including retail media. No such transactions are for sale. So when people say “I can’t believe this is happening in America.” I always think them naive. They haven’t been paying enough attention to human nature to understand what humans do. They don’t quite understand cause and effect in the course of human events. They think that we all have these static roles in a stable nation that does not change. From that incorrect reasoning comes a broad number of platitudes like the first two in this essay. “It’s subtle, pervasive white supremacy that is the cause of this.” It has been 40 years since people have been talking about “400 years of oppression”; even that benchmark is static. White = White and Black = Black. Your people and my people are no more and no less than that, and America supports the White at the expense of the Black. Or perhaps your version is that the Democrats, Liberals, Commies and Socialists protect the Black at the expense of the White. All that static remains static in the settled minds of the unexceptional American. It is self-fulfilling foolishness.
I am not Morpheus and I have not been searching for a messiah, but I do have a red pill to offer. It’s the same one I’ve possessed for many years and although its flavor is difficult to describe, its effect remains potent. My red pill enables transcendence. People of conventional wisdom hate the idea of racial transcendence. They have been disabused of the notion of a post-racial America that was nurtured during the candidacy and Presidency of Barack Obama. Despite the fact that he personified everything they hoped for in a president, despite the fact that he handed out bucketfuls of hopeful rhetoric and delivered some actual change, Americans who suspended their disbelief in a hidebound crooked-ass racist America for eight years snapped back to their old fear and anger in 2016. I was there, witness to the happily offended parade at the Women’s March here in Los Angeles. I recall the launching of the Trump baby balloon that heralded the return of the same derangement visited upon Obama, and Bush before him. Kanye West blamed the man as being The Man when Katrina hit. Obama claimed to be The Victim when Trayvon Martin’s name was on everyone’s lips. The duality remained static. Only a few of us have decided that our race does not, cannot and will not define us or ‘our people’. Everybody has an archetype for which they intend to represent. The armed citizens pretending to be a Genuine Patriotic Militia did so recently at the statehouse in Michigan. Everyone with a BLM t-shirt pretends to be a moral crusader for the most righteous of causes of human dignity they imagine other Americans simply cannot see. So many have these ingrained dualities firmly planted, as well as the Hallmark Card exceptions that make everyone say ‘Awww’. None of that is transcendent.
So here’s how it works. You recognize that everyone has a racial identity. In America it is impossible to escape that racial identity. You may not want it, but you have it. The question is, whether or not you take it seriously. How much of your life is defined and determined by your racial identity is entirely within your control. It is as much of your self as you decide it to be. Racial identity is sticky; it likes to eat other identities you possess. Racial identity is easy and popular; everybody in America knows what it’s supposed to mean. We get a racial identity education and we understand it just like we understand Facebook, or watching TV, or eating at McDonalds. I tell people to think their way out of their racial world. It’s the only thing that works. If they call you ‘nigger’ do you respond? Only if you think they have correctly identified you. Only if you admit to yourself that you are playing that role in their heads. Only if you are statically just that. Maybe it’s just 30% of who you decide to be. And maybe it’s just this kind of media panic that pushes you over the edge and suddenly you have to represent. You represent in solidarity. Well the lines are so clear and obvious that anybody can do that. “Yes, it’s white supremacy and I am part of the problem, because I am white.” That simple admission is all it takes. One sentence. Just like this sentence “I call upon Jesus into my heart to be my personal savior.” It doesn’t take much to claim your identity. You don’t have to be an active 24/7 Christian, or an active black revolutionary. You merely have to recognize the moment, and answer the call in proper form.
That’s what I’ve been listening to for the past few days. I’ve been listening to people singing their symbols, joining the dissonant chorus and trying to keep everyone in harmony. They keep singing “We shall overcome, someday.” as if nobody ever overcame before. As if someday can never come. And so the panto continues. Everybody plays roles of contrition, roles of anger, roles all dictated by the simple and seemingly all-encompassing definitions of race. The shoe fits, and nobody is going barefoot into the struggle. Well, except us giraffes. I’m happy to accept my vulnerability in this regard. I have had my glory road, I have been to the top of the mountain I was supposed to climb. I’ve played the role I was destined to play some 28 years ago. I led the marchers in NYC alongside William Kunstler. Still I was accustomed to not having my homeboy suit fit perfectly. I knew to put it on and to take it off. I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, and found a third and fourth way. But I have grown old enough to have worked my way through it. Not around it, but through it. And so I know how to pray for the monsters Americans become when triggered. I know how to hear what they say — how they say the same things in a racially dissonant way — how they fall back to their archetypes and behave typically, think typically and expect typical things. When you transcend, you work your way through it. What is the black part of me? What is the white part of me? They were things I wrestled with when I was young, dumb and full of insecurities. I did my race man thing, and I learned that I was not destined to be that. Now you say it. “I am not destined to be that.”
It’s probably the hardest for those who have tatooed a progressive atheist mark on their mind. Tied to an ideology that has no god but progress puts one in a position to calculate your value and worth according to statistics from social science. You cannot leverage your identity with God’s grace. You cannot say so much that you have felt the love of God for you and have been liberated from the troubles of the world. Sam Harris says he has meditated himself into such a graceful state, but I think he doth protest too much against those who have found another path. Reason has its limits, but the mystery of grace is infinite. I hear such men and women volunteer up their racial selves and take responsibility with a certain set of recognizable caveats. “It’s not my purpose. I know those who do it. I know it might be me unconsciously.” That is certainly not the exhaustive list but I know a White Liberal as instantly as I know a Black Conservative. Everyone volunteers to be called into account someway, someday. My country. My race. My problem. No exit. That is an eternally frustrating place to be, especially when one is so easily aroused by a dramatic murder.
A dramatic murder. Hmm. I have to say that in the game of “unarmed black man” vs “white racist cop” the scenario surrounding the drama surrounding the particular homicide of George Floyd couldn’t have been staged better by George Lucas. The media coverage and meta-narrative have set up a powerfully irresistible magnetic field that have polarized the iron filings of racial identity into exactly the right patterns. Having been through my Iron Age, I have those memories. Today I’m really not drawn in. I’m iron deficient according to some. I have some skin in the game, but not my bones. My bones are made of something else, nothing so brittle as iron. Something not easily melted and cast into an archetypical mold. So I can’t ask for what the sides are asking for. I can’t weep for this kind of dramatic tragedy. I’m on the margin, a minority of one today. Until somebody else reads this and becomes halfway convinced. I’m telling you I ate the red pill a long time ago. You don’t have to believe me. After all, if you really feel that bones are racial iron, then I can’t convince you anyhow. Somebody needs to remind me, somebody with an excellent memory for those crazy old black movies of the 70s. This one had a scene in which the word ‘insolubilous’ was used. It meant to describe an unsolvable problem. I loved that scene. I named one of my jazz tapes after the word. A jazz tape with Mingus, Brubeck and Monk. People who have been marching in 4/4 time their entire lives can’t see a solution in all of their rhythms. They need to take five. They need to accept not everything rhymes. They need some odd chords and phrasings, all this racial shit is tired. Who wants to say it’s 400 years of the same old shit?
I used to say, that if you dig around a toilet long enough, you are bound to find some shit. That metaphor, like all metaphors cracks under pressure, but people are looking up the ass of America and trying to predict its future. I happen to think that nationalism is appropriate and that America has outgrown its best form of nationalism. There’s something inherently slippery and dynamic about the interaction of 350 million people that cannot fit into what we currently need nationalism to be. I think there are plenty enough people who are more certain than ever before that globalization has ruined a lot of things we ought to be able to take for granted. I’m one such person. My favorite company is American Giant. They understand the value of a domestic supply chain. So there are excellent models of American individuals who have grown their institutions out of an optimism that the bottom up view is not always a sky full of buttcrack and worse. Yet people want to be mad. People want retribution. That’s human nature. Until we remaster more institutions and come up with something more coherent than populist identitarianism, we will easily regress to days when America actually wasn’t so great. As I said before, it’s never so static. The dynamism is always present; there is always discovery.
I can’t tell you who to be. It’s something you have to discover on your own. You need to see that the static game of race is a broken record, and if race is in your bones, you may have to break them open and then heal up again. You need to respect most of all, the process of discovery. You have to step out on that limb. You have to get your hyena ass off that savanna, open the fourth wall and realize you are not destined to be that. You already know that the investment of millions of Americans in racial identity easily sets them up for a bunch of stupid games, some of which are very profitable. Believe me all that live coverage is being sponsored by some corporations. When is the last time you ever heard of a company refusing to advertise on a news channel that displays racial conflict? When is the last time you’ve heard a pundit not leap for the opportunity to lecture the masses on the significance of race relations? When is the last time people have avoided telling “you people” how to think about X Y and Z? As I like to say, nobody owns black people, including black people. Who dares to be something else? Who has bothered to discover a personal way out? I have, and the water is fine. From my perspective, I have the luxury of telling every American the exact same thing no matter what race they claim. It’s just that simple. It hurts when you do that. Stop doing that. Stop identifying with the archetype, stereotype, typical type, all types of racial identity. Can’t you discover something else to be? It this what your god requires of you? Is this what your philosophy demands? Obeisance to the totem of race? Are you satisfied with that? Truly?
If you want to be mad, go burn some shit down. I said as much when it came to Ferguson, MO. There are plenty of examples where American institutions fail. They fail their direct stakeholders and everybody flies journalists in from every major city to get the footage of how it fails the ideals of peace, justice and security. You don’t get those things by being ‘white’ or being ‘black’ or being ‘yellow’. You get those things by being busy working. Calling out racial slogans in the streets is some people’s idea of working. What’s the quote? “A riot is the voice of the oppressed.” It actually doesn’t take very long to burn down your neighbor’s house, to loot the luxury store, to write 3000 words in an essay from your home office or a Birmingham jail. Half a day maybe. It takes longer to build and reform institutions and rid yourself of pre-determined reactionary patterns of behavior. Everything you feel ain’t democracy. Everything you fight for isn’t moral politics. That takes practice and work. Work you should be able to point to any day of the week. Work you try and correct along the way. Work and discovery, because nothing stays the same except a mind that refuses to grow.
What tools do you have? What’s your fix? I say start with yourself. Put your head above the savanna of drama. Shutup and take in the view. Eyeball the circle of life, the inevitability of death, the chaos of mindless emotional behavior. Don’t be. Do.
Originally published at https://cobb.typepad.com.