Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Historical Amnesia and Whiteness: 'Ferguson And Why We Need History'

We are doing some good sharing and processing here about the decision to free the thug cop Darren Wilson from facing a trial for the murder of Michael Brown.

I also have a featured story on Alternet (with a second one that is the lede story on the site forthcoming), as well as an appearance scheduled for Ring of Fire Radio and TV next week, where I will be talking about these matters.

The Michael Brown-Darren Wilson saga becomes even more absurd as a tale of corruption, fantastical white racism, conflicts of interest, and now a planted witness who was on a "spirit walk" of sorts to overcome his hatred of "niggers" and just happened to be at the scene and subsequently described Brown as attacking the thug cop Wilson. You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried. Unbelievable.

If these events took place in another country the American press would have a field day; thankfully, there are some folks who are reversing the gaze in order to do some truth telling about America's habitual miscarriages of justice when police and other white identified vigilantes kill black people.

As is my habit, I would like to share a recent essay by friend of WARN, Mr. Werner Herzog's Bear.

Over at his site Notes From the Ironbound--which folks should be reading and sharing as it is very sharp and smart; truly, an under-appreciated gem)--Werner penned a very insightful and honest essay about his feelings about Ferguson and the historical amnesia of too many white Americans.

Once again, Werner is on point.

There's not much original or insightful I can say about the lack of an indictment yesterday. I knew it was coming, but still felt horrible last night, similar to the horror I felt the night of George Zimmerman's acquittal. I came to school today and thought about the young men of color in my classroom and despaired over their safety in a world where a man like Darren Wilson can kill without punishment. Like a lot of people, I am feeling a whole welter of emotions that I am having a hard time expressing.

Instead of doing the impossible, I'd rather make an observation. Ferguson, more than anything else in recent years, has convinced me of the importance of history. Michael Brown's death, Darren Wilson's acquittal, and even the very residential space of Ferguson only make sense when viewed in historical context. There is a very long, very bloody, and absolutely horrific history of men of color being killed in public by white men without punishment. That awful history is tied to another history of turning black men into superhuman creatures in need of destruction, or "demons" in the words of Wilson. There is a similar history, specifically, of police brutality and police violence and a jury rigged to prevent African Americans from getting justice. There is another history, of redlining, white flight, and disenfranchisement. There is also a history of urban unrest protesting injustice and brutality. If you try to understand Ferguson as an isolated event, detached from these histories, you will be woefully misled.

But that's what our news media and conventional wisdom does. That fits the general tenor of white American life, which refuses to grapple with the past unless it is the usual patriotic narrative of freedom triumphant. The main paradigm of American society sees individuals as the complete masters of their fate, never beholden to larger social and historical structures. It is a paradigm born out of our vulgar consumer society, where we are constantly reminded of our choices. That consumerism does political work too, in that encourages colorblind racism, and the inability for so many white people to understand where inequality comes from, among other blindnesses. Most white Americans look at the nation's urban landscape and seem to think that the black and brown ghettoes, white subdivisions, and gentrified chic neighborhoods are somehow natural occurrences, like the hills and the rivers.

A lot of the ignorance and foolishness I have seen and heard by those unable to comprehend the reaction to Wilson's acquittal is based around seeing the events in Ferguson outside of any historical context. "Why are "they" so angry?" is what I keep hearing. Michael Brown's death and Darren Wilson's apparent profiting from that death with contributions and TV interviews ought to be reason enough, but context also really matters.

My fellow historians, your society needs you. We need to go out and set things straight. We need to go out in public and interpret the wonderful if obscure academic histories for the masses, who need to know the context of what they are seeing. We need to do it because no one else will do it. The price of inaction is too high.


balitwilight said...

Historically, there was a time when America flattered itself that the horrific bloodshed of the Civil War was a communal sacrifice, a blood-redemption for sins against "black" citizens of America. But after the Civil War until today, White Supremacy just re-tooled and continued. Today, with yet another sacrifice to the Idol of White Supremacy (this time 13 years-old in Cleveland) I hear prophetic American voices that sound more and more like an unfulfilled warning:

"There's a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet. . . there's a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it's a coming as sure as the Lord is just."
- Solomon Northup ("Twelve Years a Slave" author)

"...Until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether"
- Abraham Lincoln

"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever."
- Thomas Jefferson

"I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood"
- John Brown

Justin M. White said...

Even as a historian, I've felt particularly impotent. I avoid cable news as a matter of mental hygiene, but the few snippets I've seen have been soul-crushing. No amount of notes on Charles Mills can push back against repetitive segments on Fox News ridiculing the idea that riots are to be expected when people have no outlet, and doing this by quoting MLK Jr. (not noting the irony of what they're doing). Anchors saying footage of looters "undermines 'their' argument" while they loop films of looters on the side-screen. Watching white people say the most inane things imaginable--stuff you couldn't invent even in the most ridiculous attempts at parody by exaggeration.

On the upside I have seen white people of conscience taking up the responsibility of educating themselves on race in American history, and ask for some structure on how to proceed. I've tried to help but I can only pass along my own experience of realizing my ignorance and trying to do something about it. I've tried to pass along context on American gains in civil rights having to do with international pressure/embarrassment, not necessarily changes in the "culture" becoming more tolerant (an example I use a lot: interracial marriage was legal long before it was culturally accepted, the opposite trend is occurring in gay marriage rights). It is the time for historians to take up their responsibility to be vocal, I just hope enough do.

balitwilight said...

Witness #40 is hilariously tragic. So...the witness that the St. Louis prosecutor quoted as most credible at his press conference, in a racially charged case, was a convenient journal-writer who also literally WROTE DOWN that they are a racist who calls "black" people niggers. You could die laughing at this stuff. "Taking a random drive to Florissant" needs to become a meme.

...Also, that satire report of Ferguson through-the-looking-glass of the U.S. State Department is one of the best illustrations I've seen of the absurdity of Serious-Foreign-Policy Americans who don't recognise their ironic kinship to British Empire Viceroys. You know who I mean... all our Brookings Institute/NPR types who cluck their tongues at Russia, or want to arm the Kurds, or want to bomb ISIS carefully (not recklessly like George Bush). And oh yes, for gods' sake leave a few thousand of Our Troops! (TM) in Afghanistan. Ha ha.

Gable1111 said...

History is the antidote to the popular, color blind narrative that gives us these absurd justifications for the killing of Brown. Which is why every time one of these lynchings occurs, pains are taken to present it as an isolated incident from the perspective of the perpetrators devoid of any historical context. E.g., nothing to see here, just another dead nigger getting his or her just desserts.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Thanks for posting this, Chauncey. I also think the term "historian" should be used inclusively, and that we ought to use the opportunities we historians have, whether it be in the classroom, talking to friends and family, pushing the media to talk to us, etc. I agree with what Justin said about feelings of futility, but there were always be a big chunk of people who will not want to know the real history. That said, my own engagement with more critical history happened because a mentor pushed me in that direction. A lot of people, especially young people, have not heard anything but the colorblind narrative, but when they are exposed to something more critical, are more than capable of asking some more challenging questions about their old assumptions. There is an urgent need right now to reach the people capable of being reached.

Justin M. White said...

Sociological Images just put up a post on police use of lethal force broken down by race and whether the person did anything to "justify" their killing:

Of course, over 60% of white people feel that Ferguson doesn't raise any questions about racism in America.

kokanee said...

nothing to see here, just another dead nigger getting his or her just desserts.
Poignant. In colorblind NYC, the white folks say, "Just another thug getting his or her just desserts."

kokanee said...

A dog's live is cheap to a police officer —unless it's a police dog. Police officers kill around 50 dogs a year. Some even execution style. See Boy, 17, sentenced to 23 YEARS for fatally shooting a retired police dog

Make your own inferences.

joe manning said...

The grand jury format, as opposed to a jury trial where the accused is cross examined, is an obvious cover up that all white supremacists have a stake in maintaining. Its a naked use of power. But like classical mechanics power gets used up the more its exerted, which ultimately exposes racism as an unsustainable antinomie.

Sandy Young (Corkingiron) said...

I couldn't agree more with your last sentence. But as a history teacher for more than 30 years, there's been a trend towards teaching "that old narrative is wrong and here's the new improved narrative".
The word itself - historia - means "to inquire". To ask questions. All to often we focus on answering questions rather than encouraging our students to ask them. And when they do ask, we need to avoid the temptation of saying "oh, this is the answer" and instead say "how would you go about finding the answers?"
A life spent doing this means you are unlikely to be comfortable, but it guarantees you will never be bored. Or smug.

seeknsanity said...

Important article WHB. It is true. Every indication shows that we have become too far removed from our history in this country. Many of us are left confused when the system, that was set in place during the worst of our experience here, turns around and bites us on the ass. When, it is only doing what it has been crafted to do, in order to keep us under control.

Our leaders, unlike those like Angela Davis, Malcolm X and others, have only the highlights and most egregious, that they trot out as examples. They have nothing to counter the negative portrayals of blacks, against FBI, statistics, and such. It's quite shameful As is evidenced, there are systems of law that have been put in place, policies, unwritten codes and rules, that ensure that the sort of things that happen now, will continue to happen. Case in point, how the justice system is being used to perpetrate injustices against us.

Zimmerman and Brown's cases show that, what this country celebrates as the greatest system in the world, is in fact, a tool used to justify, and quell disapproval for criminal acts. Ensuring that there is no true equivalent argument when comparing acts of any one group against us, thereby making us appear to be the more dangerous, violent, and illiterate, in the eyes of the world. It also ensures that this projections stays in place, by protecting companies that make their livings off portraying us that way.

No, we need to know, keep being reminded, of where these mindsets came from, how they were shaped, how they were never corrected, and how they continue to influence this country.