Thursday, November 7, 2013

The White Gaze Kills (Again): Renisha McBride was Shot in the Head by a Shotgun Because Black Americans Do Not Have the Luxury of Being Strangers in Need of Help

In the post civil rights era, the colorline is beset by many paradoxes. 

The United States finally elected its first black president. There is a multicultural elite class. In this same moment, African Americans are harassed and racially profiled by "stop and frisk laws" and the experience known as “shopping while black”. 

Black people are subjected to extrajudicial murder and violence by gun mad vigilantes, operating under onerous stand your ground laws, who shoot and murder young black people for the “crime” of walking down the street, in a neighborhood “where they don’t belong”, not being duly submissive, and carrying a bag of Skittles and iced-tea.

Full citizenship involves the presumption that one belongs to a political community. By virtue of that fact, citizenship also means that a person is entitled to safety and security in their person without qualification, exception, or justification. Full citizenship is not contingent or precarious.

African-Americans are not allowed such protections by the White Gaze. They are viewed as guilty until proven innocent, a criminal Other who is a priori categorized as “suspicious” and “dangerous”. While formal racism and Jim and Jane Crow were shattered and defeated by the Black Freedom Struggle, this ugly cloud continues to hover over the United States, some 400 years after the first black slaves were brought to the country.

Consequently, black Americans are not really allowed to seek help from white people; the Parable of the Good Samaritan does not apply to people of color as viewed through the twin lenses of Whiteness and the White Gaze. The black and brown Other is not allowed the luxury and privilege of knowing that if they seek help when in distress—either from the police, or white folks, more generally—that such pleadings and requests will be met with a “How can I help you? Are you in trouble?”

Of course, black Americans do not live under the threat of mass violence and racial pogroms that characterized the “Red Summer” of the post World One era when whole towns and communities were blown up, burned down, and the bodies of black people were hung from trees and signposts in the dozens and hundreds by rampaging white mobs.

There is a sense of dread and worry that remains. It impacts our peace of mind, and gives a tragic patina to the types of life skills which we have to teach young black boys and girls to avoid being killed by the police, racially harassed while conducting their daily business, and how to navigate a society where white racism and white privilege still impacts their life chances and upward mobility.

Such a burden can be mentally exhausting.

Freedom and the end of chattel slavery subtly modified how violence could be visited on black bodies by white society. This is signaled to by a scene in the new movie 12 Years a Slave, in which Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped by white slavers, is forced to show a white man his “slave tag”. The latter were pieces of metal, similar to a dog license, which indicated to whom a given black person, owned as human property, belonged. 

The slave tag offered some protection from the random violence of white people because it indicated that a slave owner had a monopoly of force over their black human property. Chattel slavery was a system of mass violence and racial terrorism against black Americans that fueled American wealth and empire. But, the right of a given white person(s) to maim, murder, rape, and kill a given black person was relatively exclusive.

With the end of slavery and Reconstruction, black people—men, women, and children—were subjected to the racial violence of Jim and Jane Crow, along with its constant companion the lynching tree, and its bounty that Billie Holiday so mournfully described as strange fruit. These lived experiences, historical memory, and pain of extrajudicial violence and vigilantism (which was legitimated by the State) is a legacy passed down across generations. 

Black people would like to forget this violence. We do not have such a luxury in America if we are to honor our ancestors and understand how their experiences and history informs the present.

Many white folks would like to forget this violence too, as it would further a narrative of Whiteness as something benign, and just like the standard white privilege colorblind racism denying deflection that “none of their ancestors ever owned slaves” (we are a nation of immigrants after all), they also want to believe that their people, family, and kin did not participate in the blood sport which was the spectacular lynching.

Americans want to believe that they are an “innocent” and "good" people. Lies, both personal and collective, are very comforting. American Exceptionism is an ideal-typical example of this yearning.

Formal lynchings are part of America’s near past. In the present, Stand Your Ground Laws, police brutality, and how black people are still treated as alien Outsiders, embody the descendants of a tradition which links whiteness, "Americanness", and violence together.

Renisha McBride was shot in the head with a shotgun after knocking on a door and asking for help in a mostly white Detroit area suburb because her car was broken. 

Jonathan Ferrell was shot multiple times by a white police officer after being in a car accident and approaching them for help. 

Glenda Moore’s children drowned during Hurricane Sandy because she had the misfortune of seeking help in a white community that refused her any aid. 

Roy Middleton was almost killed by the police outside of his own home because he had a flashlight on a key chain.

In the United States, there are many different types of freedom. Black folks and other people of color have the freedom to vote—although this right is in under assault by the Tea Party GOP. Black Americans have the freedom to participate in the consumer’s republic and the marketplace as equals with white people—but, this freedom is also constrained in practice. African-Americans exercised their freedom to elect a black man President—yet, he has done little if anything to address the specific needs of that community.

The freedom of black people to be strangers, and to be offered help when in distress, seems minor when compared to confronting the institutional white supremacy which still exists in the United States. They are complementary goals because both involve accepting that black people are full members of American society, and our personhood and freedom is not peripheral to the democratic project, but rather central to it.

The White Gaze which believes that President Obama is not an American citizen is the same one that shot Renisha McBride in the head with a shotgun. They both operate from an assumption that the black body and the personhood of black people are existentially outside of what it means to be an “American”. 

For that political imagination, black people are poisons in the body politic of the United States.

As a country, the United States has made great strides in confronting formal racism and white supremacy. There remains a long way to go in changing how people of color are still viewed as second class citizens deemed uniquely fit for a state best described as “unsafe, unguarded, and unprotected”.

The White Gaze which murdered Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell and Trayvon Martin is predicated on the above assumption. Ultimately, the problem here is not with black or brown people. We have done nothing wrong. The White Gaze is a type of pathology, one that is incapable of viewing non-whites as full human beings.

Once more, although it will not, White America needs to have a moment of introspection and a “national conversation” about how its laws make it legal to shoot and kill innocent people of color who are "guilty" of "crime" such as walking down the street or seeking help after a car accident.


KissedByTheSun said...

(Finally figured this disqus thing out. My former name was SunKissed)

I don't remember when or where but there was a speech Bill Clinton gave years ago during his presidency on race. I remember him making a point to black people that we should give whites a break when they profile us because many of them have suffered crimes at the hands of black people. I was a teen at the time but by God was I disturbed by that quote. Unfortunately that's the justification though, that the crimes of a few should be paid by the many.

nohandwaving said...

lol, there's always the option of eliminating the few who make it hard for everybody else..., the exact same way you would eliminate a roach if you saw it scuttling about in the vicinity of your pantry.

KissedByTheSun said...

Yeah...but killing the white people who paint all blacks with the stains of a few wont solve anything. You have to be careful not to let the white gaze instigate your black rage, otherwise you're just like them.

Bryan Ortez said...

A lot of conservative people use that argument, 'a majority of crimes in my area are committed by the black people' and so justify a general fear of black people. It's pretty appalling to me.

These instances of murder are really not much different from the lynchings in America's past.

Bryan Ortez said...

Is this the same Dearborn, Michigan that was a sundown suburb throughout the 1900's?

Learning is Eternal said...

Amurr'klan is a sundown nation.

Bryan Ortez said...

ain't that the damn shameful truth

The Sanity Inspector said...

Don't forget to allow for what you don't see. We're a nation of 300 million; you can find people who match whatever image of America you may have. When people extend neighborly aid to strangers of another race, they don't get featured in the newspapers. It would actually be sad if they did.

I remember one time I was driving down the street at night in a small south Georgia town. I looked down a dark side street, and saw a white woman standing beside her disabled car, the hood up. And then I saw two young black men down there with her--and you know what they were doing? They were holding a flashlight and squinting at the engine, trying to figure out what was wrong with their neighbor's car. Not newsworthy, thank goodness!

chauncey devega said...

Fair point. But never forget how the exception proves the rule. And we can't forget all those daily micro-aggressions that are motivated by white racial animus towards people of color that don't escalate to shooting and murdering. Just disrespect, meanness, not getting job promotions, stopped by the cops, lower grades in school, black and brown kids being expelled, not getting hired for jobs, etc. etc. etc.

Miles_Ellison said...

A lot of the conservatives who say this don't actually live near any black people. The closest thing they have to black neighbors are the stereotypes on their TVs.

Bryan Ortez said...

Often when I am discussing race with white people they will bring up incidents where a person of color was not quite kind or polite to them and will say something to the effect of they must not like white people.

Recently a woman related an interaction between an Asian woman who just simply didn't say hello or welcome her while they were sitting in a waiting room and the white person's child was trying to play with this other person's child. She concluded there may be some racial animosity or something from the Asian person.

What I think about these insignificant moments of people of color not going out of their way to be nice to white folks is that they are just living their lives like any one else would. White people very often ignore my presence or will not hold open a door, cut you off in a line or look crossly at you. However if it comes from a person of color, suddenly its this big racist thing that stems from their animosity toward white people.

Could it possibly be that they don't want to smile and kow tow to every white stranger they come across so that white people will know that they are okay in the eyes of people of color?

muhammad said...

Nothing from a White blue eye devil racist mind is on the earth today.

galleymac said...

I've been lost in Italy and France and had strangers invite me into their home to find locations on MiniTel (old fashioned French Internet) or who drove me to the home I was meant to be staying in when I accidentally got off my bus about 45 minutes too soon. They couldn't understand why I was confused, or why I tried to give them money, or why I started crying. They had no idea what UNICORNS they were to me. If I ever hit lottery, I'm going to set up a fund to help black kids take a damn peek outside and see that the whole world isn't like this.

chauncey devega said...

You are so right in that wisdom. Americans need to travel more. People of color especially so. I get sick when I meet black folks who have never even left their neighborhoods. Talk about internalized oppression.

pitbullgirl1965 said...

As a woman, I have to have my guard up around men. The men I fear the most: white men. The deadly combo of male and white privilege scare the h**l out of me.

pitbullgirl1965 said...

Black people have always for the most part been more hospitable, kind, supportive, and helpful towards white people than the other way around in this country
I know right?
Remember Charles Ramsey?
And these two young men

nationwyde said...

Travel is an eye opener and an education in itself.