Episode 37: Black Lives Matter, Dreamers, and the Problem of ‘The Perfect Victim’
Citations Needed | May 16, 2018 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thank you everyone for joining us this week. Obviously you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, share, like, tell us things, share things, blah blah blah blah blah on the Facebook, Citations Needed, and of course, help us out, become a supporter of the show and of our work and help us keep it going through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your help is so appreciated.
Adam: So, today’s topic is one that we’ve tangentially addressed but never really dug into on its own terms. And I know that it’s something we’ve struggled with a lot and how to frame how the news covers populations that we were sort of generally call oppressed or victimized. Um, and that’s the problem of “the perfect victim” as it relates to Black Lives Matter and immigration.
Nima: So, we hear obviously in the press, um, these kinds of tropes over and over and over again, often the same exact language used. But when you hear of someone who let’s say has been picked up by immigration agents, if they are deemed worthy enough for sympathy, we’ll hear that, ‘Oh well, they, you know, got straight A’s.’
Adam: Or, ‘They were on their way to college.’
Nima: That, ‘They entered the country through no fault of their own.’
Adam: Or in the case of a lot of Black Lives Matter, ‘They were a good father, a good citizen’ or kind of good faith attempts to humanize people can have the negative or unintended consequences of creating a tiered system of moral worth by establishing what we generally call “the perfect victim.”
Nima: So this idea of the, of the media’s search for this “perfect victim” and its corollary desire to then smear those with less than perfect pasts really winds up making humanity conditional. Some are deserving of support, understanding, leniency. And this kind of misses the entire point of why anti-immigration policies wind up being really discriminatory and should be opposed. And, of course, why without qualification, black lives do obviously matter.
Adam: So on our show today we’re going to discuss the real time auditing of those who die or are deported at the hands of the state and the overt and more subtle ways this happens. How we can expand our moral vocabulary to protect all vulnerable people regardless of where they were born or what they may have done in their past.
Nima: On today’s show, we’re going to be speaking with two guests. Our first will be Joel Sati, a Ph.D. candidate in Jurisprudence and Social Policy at UC Berkeley.
Joel Sati: In terms of violence against black people and respectability I mean no matter what one’s station in life, people are still treated horribly by the police. And I think in terms of the dreamer narrative, so essentially you are asking that people be 4.0 students with perfect English with no criminal record. And so the problem is it’s exacting to higher price, but also it takes the focus away from the institution that forces respectability onto people and places it onto the self.
Nima: And later in the show we’ll also be speaking with Charlene Carruthers, founding national director of the Black Youth Project 100.
Charlene Carruthers: Black people are all too often on the side, on the other side of violence, uh, as a result of centuries of stories, policies and practices that say that we are not full human beings. And so it is not surprising to me when solidarity with black people is conditional. That’s what everybody in this country is taught. All of us are taught that in order to be believable, in order for your life to matter, you had to have been a straight A student, uh, an all-star athlete and a regular volunteer at your local community centers.
Adam: We’re going to begin by telling a tale. I sent an email to Jim, my editor at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting the other day, that I have been thinking a lot about what I’ve been writing over the last three years because this just recently passed my third year where I was basically a published writer, where I started doing media criticism. And to this day I had not still seen anything as shocking as the case of Timothy Caughman, a 66–year-old African American who was stabbed by a white supremacist by the name of James Harris Jackson, who drove all the way to New York from Baltimore for the express purposes of killing an African American, which is exactly what he did. Um on St. Patrick’s Day 2017, uh, and he stabbed him repeatedly with a 26 inch katana sword. Then he turned himself into the police and admitted to the crime. And so this is how the media reported it. There were two New York outlets, the first is the Daily News, which sort of prides itself on being a liberal or left of center publication, that’s quote, “[Caughman],” by the way, Caughman’s the victim, the one who was stabbed, “[Caughman] has 11 prior arrests, including for marijuana, assault, resisting arrest and menacing.” This was what the Daily News reported and the Daily News reported the assailant, the white supremacist who drove up from Baltimore for the express purpose of murdering an African American, referred to him as a “dapper” killer. This is how The New York Post wrote it, “Caughman, who has 11 prior arrests, walked for about a block after the stabbing and staggered into the Midtown South Precinct, looking for help. Police sources said the career criminal was refusing to talk to the police about the incident and acting combative before his death.”
Nima: The guy who was stabbed by a fucking stranger-
Adam: Right. A Nazi stranger.
Nima: By a dapper Nazi stranger, is then written up as a career, he’s the career criminal.
Nima: Who then is acting shady because he went into a police precinct asking for help after getting stabbed.
Adam: Yeah. He was combative. He was hostile to the police after being stabbed in the chest. Um, I’m not sure what temperament The New York Post expects out of someone who was just stabbed in the chest, but I mean it was, there was immediate outrage online for good reason and the Daily News changed their writing. But it really does speak to this, this instinct in the media to smear the victims of white supremacists and police violence and to go in and audit the moral worth of those who have suffered at the hands of the police or in this case, someone who was overtly a white supremacist.
Nima: Right. And in the article, in the write-up of that, the Daily News winds up also bringing up the 2014 killing of two New York police officers in an attack that was attributed to someone who lived in Baltimore, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a Baltimore resident who in New York killed two cops three years earlier. So somehow because there’s a Baltimore connection and because someone got killed, obviously the Daily News is then either, you know, implying that they’re connected, that there’s some sort of correlation, connection between these two stories. Obviously, there is none. Two cops were killed in one incident and in another incident someone from the same city, a major city in the United States, drove to New York and killed a complete stranger. But by conflating these you can see how the staggering violence, the white supremacy of the actual crime is being glossed over in order to further smear the black victim.
Adam: It’s painted as a tit for tat.
Adam: And this is, and then when AOL reported on the story, they erroneously pointed out that the murderer had prior arrests because they understandably assumed that The New York Daily News was smearing the murderer, not the victim of the murderer.
Adam: And then so I bring it to the journalist and he was like, ‘Oh my God,’ on Twitter. He’s like, ‘I cannot believe that was not in reference to the killer.’ And I said, ‘I know.’ Um, the Daily News, as we’ve talked about on the show numerous, numerous times is a, is very, very pro police in their criminal reporting, um, with the exception of some of their editorial stuff. But their actual reporting is very, very casually racist as a rule. So this doesn’t shock anyone who follows the Daily News even though they kind of, again, market themselves as a democratic or liberal newspaper that they would decide to gratuitously bring up the prior arrest records. And of course this raises the question of how did the reporters get the prior arrest record so fast?
Nima: Exactly. And I mean, we see this all the time. Where the victims of violence the victims of crime, if they are black, if they are Latino, if they are undocumented even, wind up being painted by the press as these not perfect victims, that they have something to hide that they have things in their past that are sinister or not ideal. And then therefore what happens to them is basically implied that it is somehow justified, somehow they brought this upon themselves.
Adam: Yeah. So there was obviously the case of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Fox News criticized his choice of clothing. Uh, The Miami Herald felt the need to go through his old school suspension records. There was the now infamous article about Michael Brown in The New York Times that referred to, that said he was “no angel” despite no one ever suggesting he was an angel or anyone was an angel. It’s a total straw man.
Nima: And that if you’re an angel or not, you probably should not be shot to death by a cop.
Nima: When the Los Angeles police shot and killed a homeless man on Skid Row, the LA Times reporting on this, actually wound up bringing up the victim’s prior bad behavior, publishing his mugshot on their website, the guy who was killed. And the day after Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first degree murder for the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald, CNN broadcast on Twitter that the victim, McDonald, the one who was killed, had led a quote “turbulent life” and also pointed out that the teen who had been killed by a cop had been quote, “abused.” So again, it is a testament to the not so ideal life of Laquan McDonald that he was gunned down by a Chicago police officer.
Adam: Then there was the case of Otis Byrd, who was found hanged, now later it turned out to be a suicide, but there were strong suspicion at the time because it was in Mississippi that it was a lynching or a murder of some kind. And CNN during the report of the of the potential lynching, decided to plaster his prior police record of the victim on the screen pointing out a murder conviction that he had had 20 years prior. Then there was the case in Ohio where a 16 year old was shot and killed by police in a courtroom. This was back in January of this year, and mysteriously the local TV anchors had the victim’s prior criminal records already ready to go by the 5:00 news and spent 30 seconds, an entire 30 seconds of a two and a half minute report, which will play right now, listing off the prior records of the 16 year old kid. Again, minors’ records are usually sealed, but the 16 year old kid’s records were mysteriously revealed to the local TV anchors which dutifully read them off like one of the anchors from RoboCop and RoboCop 2.
Yolanda Harris: Juvenile Court records obtained by 10 Investigates show that Joseph Haynes had been charged with aggravated menacing in November. Court records allege he pointed a gun at two people and threatened to shoot them. Haynes had already been declared to be a juvenile delinquent and was placed on probation in September for a charge of carrying a concealed weapon. He was also charged in 2016 for a domestic violence case involving his mother.
Adam: Yeah. So that was pretty ridiculous. They just kind of read off a laundry list there.
Nima: We also see this in terms of finding “the perfect victim” even when it winds up being for positive reasons in certain ways where, you know, for instance, nine months before Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to get up from her seat for a white person, nine months before that, 15 year old Claudette Colvin did the same thing, essentially, but because she was not the ideal kind of poster person for this movement, a lot of the leaders at the time, a lot of the civil rights leaders, didn’t want her to galvanize this movement at that time. So a 15-year-old who didn’t have the same kind of activist background as Rosa Parks, who wasn’t like already kind of a hardcore civil rights activist, was seen as also not ideal. But we see this in other ways as well. When there was the story of clock boy, if you recall, uh, Ahmed Mohamed, who brought a clock that he had put together to school and the teacher called the cops on him because he is Muslim and obviously there was fear of a bomb. And so the way that CNN reported on this, making sure that it’s okay to be outraged by that story, the reason it was injustice and that there was such harsh reaction to it is because this kid Ahmed was seen as ideally suited to be the proper victim.
Nima: CNN reported that he aspires to go to MIT and you know, was pleased the charges were dropped and not bothered that the police didn’t apologize for arresting him. Mark Zuckerberg wrote, quote, “Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest. The future belongs to people like Ahmed. Ahmed, if you ever want to come by Facebook, I’d love to meet you. Keep building.” End quote. And so you kind of see this like he’s the proper kind of victim. He, uh, is motivated, educated, and so he is allowed to garner that sort of outrage. While other people, other children of immigrants, immigrants themselves, Muslims, Sikh, whatever, if you’re deemed to not be perfectly suitable for outrage than you are cast aside and whatever happens to you is your own fault.
Adam: Yeah, and we see a kind of inverse corollary to this, which is the desire to have the “ideal immigrant” when we talk about Dreamers and the Dreamer narrative. For those who don’t know, dreamers is broadly an effort by Democrats in immigration activists to allow a type of amnesty, for lack of a better word, I know that’s become a pejorative but it used to not be, for people who came to the United States through quote unquote “no fault of their own,” which is to say, people immigrated to the United States as children, generally speaking. And that language of through “no fault of their own” is something we hear time and time again.
Man #1: The Dreamers are kids who were brought to the United States through no fault of their own.
Man #2: Who come here through no fault of their own.
Man #3: Anxiety of DACA recipients who came to this country through no fault of their own.
Man #4: Dreamers: those younger illegal immigrants who were brought across the border through no fault of their own.
Woman #1: From Arizona Senator John McCain saying, “I strongly believe that children who were illegally brought into this country through no fault of their own-“
Woman #2: illegally in the United States, through no fault of their own,
Man #5: By no fault of their own.
Woman #3: Through no fault of their own.
Woman #4: Brought here through no fault of their own.
Man #6: Would like to help those young illegal immigrants who through no fault of their own are here.
Adam: Right. Yeah. And then we have the highlighting the model minority, in this case the model immigrant, who’s been negatively affected by Trump’s and Obama’s deportation regimes. You have The Washington Post in 2013 saying, uh, in an editorial, “Deportations of parents can cast the lives of US citizen kids into turmoil. Jorge Panetta started a home maintenance business, giving him flexibility to be Jason’s primary care giver. He’s the one who wakes up his son, makes sure he’s dressed and ready for school in the morning, walks him to the bus stop and helps him with homework. Jason is nearly a straight A student in a gifted program at school.” You have The New York Times in February 2017, “He’s a Local Pillar of a Trump Town. Now He Could Be Deported.”
Nima: Right. Which was the story of Juan Pacheco in Illinois. And you see this actually a lot. This idea that certain people, certain immigrants, when they are picked up by ICE and deported, you hear this again and again, ‘They were local pillars of their community.’ Um, so they had to have this kind of social standing locally to justify the outrage. There are obviously hundreds and thousands of people even being deported who don’t get that kind of treatment. And yet, you know, you see KFSN-TV in Fresno, back in May of 2017, reporting on a woman living in the U.S. since 1989 at risk of deportation back to Mexico. And the story was Maria’s attorney Isabel Machado said Maria has no criminal record and is a pillar in her community, she’s also a minister at her church. Quote, “This is why I care so much about this case,” this is the woman’s attorney speaking, “because this lady is the perfect example of what this country professes to want in an immigrant.” Splinter News reported in July 17 on a “Kona Coffee Farmer and Community Pillar Is Latest Victim of Immigration Crackdown.”
Adam: Yeah, and I, you know, you want to be clear here that the instinct to do this is like super understandable, right? The instinct is to show that there are real humans that are being deported by Trump and these are people who are members of the community and a lot of them are in quote unquote “good standing” or people who would consider to be pillars of the community. I want to be super careful not to sort of be glib about why, why people do that, and the reason why they do that is because they’re trying to humanize-
Nima: No, exactly, exactly. This is certainly well-intentioned, to kind of spark this sort of outrage that these people are being ripped away from the lives that they’ve known, that they’ve built from their families, from their communities that they love and that love them. But it does create a tiered system.
Adam: Right and that tiered system can have dangerous implications as both of our guests will talk about, both as it pertains to Black Lives Matter and immigration activism, which is to say in general, how does one work to get your sort of sympathetic white liberal to care, because ultimately politically you need that, uh, because that’s how you kind of move the needle in this country, unfortunately, since they’re the ones who are kind of at the center of these things, how do you get them to care without either explicitly or implicitly throwing those who aren’t the model immigrant or the model black victim, how do you do that without throwing them under the bus in the long term? And I think that’s something that the negotiation of that and how that’s discussed is something that I think is super interesting. Something we want to sort of explore on today’s show. We don’t necessarily have a pat answer, we don’t have the perfect answer, but it’s definitely something we want to explore and something we think is worth talking about.
Nima: Definitely. So joining us today first will be Joel Sati, Ph.D. candidate in Jurisprudence and Social Policy at UC Berkeley. He’s going to join us in just a sec.
Nima: We are joined now by Joel Sati. Joel, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Joel Sati: Thanks for having me.
Adam: So yeah, we, we thought while researching this episode, we came across your article in The Washington Post and thought it was a fantastic breakdown of the moral hazard at work here rhetorically speaking. One of the things that people try to do is they try to sort of triage and they start to make priorities and there’s a fine line between humanizing a victim and making one’s humanity conditional upon certain good behaviors as it were.
Joel Sati: Right.
Adam: Um, can you talk about the trap that liberal politicians and liberal pundits get into when they treat immigration as something that needs to be a model immigrant in order to protect?
Joel Sati: Yeah. So a bit of context, I wrote this article in the context of um, right around the time that, um, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the decision to rescind DACA. And so, and the weekend before, um, there was a lot of, a lot of support for retaining DACA and yeah, there were definitely a lot of people, many from liberal institutions that said, ‘These are kids that came through no fault of their own, their situation is not of their own doing’ and um, it’s one of those things that even though people are left leaning and the well meaning it still could lead to dangerous consequences for immigrant communities. And so what I was worried about one was that in just focusing on things like choice, so the idea that they didn’t choose to be in the situation, um, the necessary conclusion is that, well then its the parents that chose and then it’s the parents who are at fault because of the really close linkage between choice and fault. Also the model immigrant is dangerous because I think it exacts too high a price for something that’s actually not all that much in terms of benefit. So for DACA, what it does is it gives a two year sort of extension from deportation. And also it would allow recipients to get work from it. And that’s not a lot, I mean it’s important, but it’s still not a lot. And so I think it’s really problematic to feed into a narrative that asks that immigrants be everything to everybody while getting very little in return.
Nima: In your piece you write, “As the Black Lives Matter movement makes, clear black Americans who are ‘respectable’ are not safe for mistreatment or violence at the hands of the state.” Can you Joel tell us about some of the parallels you see between this dreamer discourse and also respectability politics writ large and kind of the trap that both present?
Joel Sati: Yeah, so as someone who has both black with black immigrant parents, it’s definitely interesting to see this as part of their experience on two fronts. But terms of violence against black people and respectability, I mean no matter what one’s station in life, people are still treated horribly by the police. And I think in terms of the dreamer narrative, so essentially you are asking that people be 4.0 students with perfect English with no criminal record. And so the problem is it’s exacting to higher price, but also it takes the focus away from the institution that forces respectability onto people and places it onto the self. Um, and also there have been certain things, which I can definitely go into to, where even to sort of under cut whatever benefit would come from respectability. So for example, when Trump gives immigration enforcement officers, through executive order, discretion to stop people based on what those officers perceive to be a risk to public safety, then it really doesn’t matter in any given situation whether or not you are respectable. Um, so in that sense, even for people who believe in the narrative, it doesn’t grant as many benefits as, well, it doesn’t grant a lot of benefits and it actually helps uh discrimination.
Adam: You used a very interesting term that I hadn’t heard before when discussing how we label undocumented immigrants, we all acknowledged that “illegal,” calling somebody “illegal” is a pejorative. Obviously people cannot be illegal.
Joel Sati: Right.
Adam: And the more, the more PC term that most liberals including, uh, this show uses is “undocumented worker.” But you actually prefer a different term, which is “illegalized.” Can you tell us why the term “illegalized” is useful in reshaping how people perceive immigration in this country?
Joel Sati: Yeah, yeah. So going off of what you just said, it’s definitely accepted for widely thought among, especially left-wing folks that illegal is a pejorative, it’s not the term you use and I agree with that, but I think it also bears examination of just how accurate the term is. So the law for people in immigration enforcement speak of “illegal aliens.” So to the extent that the term “illegal” is a consequential term just because we shouldn’t use it to describe them. I think it’s important to still look at the explanatory power it has. Its sort of giving us an idea of how badly immigrants are labeled or treated or regarded generally. But undocumented, it’s supposed to be sort of like the kinder, gentler alternative. And the problem with that is that one it says that people are undocumented, it’s just based on circumstance and it sort of goes back to this idea of like, oh, it’s not people’s fault it’s just that they don’t have papers. And I think there’s such an overwhelming focus on getting the right authorization or getting authorization, but it doesn’t really allow us to interrogate the problems of citizenship. And also, I think it’s important to go back to the Black Lives Matter point because there are people who do have that and they are still being treated in a certain way by the state. And I think that the framework of the legalization allows us to do this dynamic ongoing process by which people, no matter their status, are put in to a relation to the state where they are considered weak in some important capacity. And it definitely allows for strong parallels between the Immigrant Rights Movement and other movements that are related to it. And I think it’ll allow for a much easier path to solidarity in my view.
Adam: Yeah, and you see this a lot increasingly with right-wing media, Tucker Carlson has, since the rise of Trump, become a kind of overt white supremacist and, and no longer speaks about immigration in this kind of legalese terms as Lou Dobbs used to, uh, used to do, the line is ‘I don’t oppose legal immigration just illegal immigration.’ Now that’s not true with Tucker Carlson anymore. He now speaks expressly against legal immigration of Latinos because he views it as being a threat to what he kind of broadly calls white culture, white America, which, uh, which is a expressly white supremacist or white nationalist talking point. And so the kind of niceties are no longer even there anymore.
Joel Sati: Yeah. And so with these developments the mere fact of moving is illegal. And so it’s back to the sort of like isolationist policy where they don’t want people coming in and they’re not looking for immigrants. They don’t want to welcome immigrants, it doesn’t matter if you’re legal or you’re not. And so I think its just going back to like this more brazen racism that doesn’t feel like it has to be, you know, covered under like jargon and terminology. Just can come out there in the open.
Nima: There’s this kind of idea of, as we’ve been talking about, the conditionality of humanity and then layered on top of that, not only who is deserving of rights and of care and have sympathy and support, but then there’s this kind of added layer of having to be good, right?
Joel Sati: Right.
Nima: Having to tick off the boxes of how your presence, how your good works benefit this society in particular in that if you don’t do those, you are not only expendable but expungeable and you have no right to be here. You should not be here. Obviously that is not the case for people who were born here. You don’t need to be an exceptional person. Can you just talk about how that like box ticking not only infects this whole discussion rhetorically, but actually the implications of then how immigrants feel like they have to behave in society.
Joel Sati: Yeah, and I think that exceptionality for example, like young people or DACA recipients’ sense of self in the sense that they’re sort of controlled, they feel forced to be something that they don’t want to be in a sense because they’re trying to tick the boxes and get these kinds of, what I think are practically crumbs in the large scheme of things. But I think more importantly, or at east something that could be out in the open is that even for those who tick the boxes, just ticking the boxes is not sufficient for protection. I mean-
Joel Sati: There are people who are, who might be in grad school or who are working or who have these plans and that’s upset, even if they did everything quote unquote, “by the book.” Um, and so it seems like if you don’t do it, you’re going to suffer and if you do try to fit this narrative, you still will suffer in some capacity.
Joel Sati: So it does speak to what has been the MO of this administration and maybe and also the deportation apparatus of the past administration. The overarching theme here is immigrants are not allowed, you know, they can be here, but they can’t be in that sense. Um, there are all these things that make daily existence precarious, difficult, expensive, to be frank to make life for immigrants as hard as practically possible. And then you pair that with overly predatory immigration enforcement mechanisms and then what you have is a hell for immigrants.
Adam: To those who are sort of, who deal in the day-to-day immigrants, like immigrant activists who are trying to basically triage the situation, what do you say to them? Because we obviously we don’t want to be sort of ultra left or kind of woke-r than now. And we want to sort of provide a practical consideration. How does one balance saving people that can be saved with not planting the seeds of propaganda that demonize the high percentage of immigrants who are in fact not documented?
Joel Sati: I think one of the things that has been an undercurrent in the current efforts to retain DACA, it sort of individualizes these DACA recipients. They are sort of isolated and exceptionalized and they’re really isn’t focus on the fact that immigrants have families. This is sort of that topic conversation about, well, how do you play the piece meal within the larger comprehensive objective? And I think it’s possible to have a campaign to retain DACA because DACA does allow a lot of beneficiaries to go out and help their families. But I think it’s important to focus on the fact that yeah, sure, if we can get something else, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that they have families and the families deserve protection and we can’t say that we’re making the situation better for DACA recipients if we’re not looking for solutions to, um, regularize not only them but their families or more generally even members of the community. And also on a related point looking at, well, what does it mean to not have a criminal record? Because it’s easy to say, well, if the person has a criminal record then they are not eligible for any kind of immigration relief, but that really doesn’t, um, that doesn’t inspire for like investigation whether or not these people come from over policed communities and it doesn’t really talk about how law enforcement just works in communities of color.
Joel Sati: So I think there’s a way to look at different ways to ameliorate the political situation of illegalized immigrants, but I think it’s important just to have a wider fix, a wider like a communal sense of the immigrant community and so we make sure that we’re still fighting for everyone no matter how small a victory might be.
Nima: I think that’s a great point to make, Joel, especially as you said, this kind of almost circular logic oftentimes of as long as you don’t have a criminal record, you should qualify for this or do this or blah blah blah. But then just by not being documented or not having the proper papers or not doing things by the book automatically you’re now deemed a criminal, let alone if you had a ticket for a tail light out or you killed someone. It runs the gamut.
Joel Sati: Right, yeah. Yeah and I think that’s part of why for many in like the right-wing media like illegalized immigrants are so titillating to them, because it’s sort of like we knew for a fact that immigrants are by their very nature criminal. Here’s just an example.
Joel Sati: And so I think there needs to be also questioning on that front, on those like larger big picture fronts in addition to just in terms of more like quotidian or just more standard matters.
Adam: Yeah, never mind the half a dozen studies showing that immigrants commit crimes at a less rate than the public in general.
Nima: (Laughs) Right.
Joel Sati: Yeah. I just want to emphasize that when you just need to again, focus on the humanity of immigrants. I think it’s important to highlight the contributions, but it’s important that we don’t frame it as necessary or have conditions for their receipt of basic human rights or a path to citizenship.
Adam: Yeah. And sometimes it can be a very, uh, a very tough balance, right? Between humanizing people and making humanity conditional. I think that’s a good place to stop. I really, really appreciate you talking to us. That was fantastic.
Nima: Yes. Joel Sati, Ph.D. candidate in Jurisprudence and Social Policy at UC Berkeley. Thank you again so much for joining us today.
Joel Sati: Yeah thanks for having me. I really enjoyed myself.
Nima: That was great. Joel’s op-ed in The Washington Post is really kind of like a seminal piece in terms of framing this debate and one of the points that I’m glad that we hit on was highlighted in a piece from December 2016 by a Leighton Woodhouse about the criminality placed on immigrants and how there are good immigrants and bad immigrants and the ones that are bad are felons and how that term even even can be really manipulative and elastic. In this piece, Woodhouse writes that the felon label can mean, “Summary deportation for an immigrant with a drug charge for more than two decades ago, for which he has already served time. It can cover a grandmother accused of being a gang member by a single police officer on the basis of essentially no evidence whatsoever. It can include an old DUI or marijuana charge or a citation for street vending without a license or based on no criminal history at all or on a criminal record who’s only offense is illegal entry or reentry, which as the basis for priority deportation creates a circular argument.” And then the piece cites the stats that according to a recent study by the Marshall Project, those last two categories made up 60 percent of the 300,000 deportations that had been carried out under the Obama administration since he first made that felons not families speech.
Adam: I think that’s a great way to segue to our next guest who’s going to discuss the problem of “the perfect victim” in a different but equally problematic context.
Nima: Definitely. We are going to be joined in just a moment by Charlene Carruthers, founding national director of BYP 100, that’s Black Youth Project 100, a national organization of young activists and organizers creating freedom and justice for all black people. Stick with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Charlene Carruthers. Charlene, thank you so much for joining us today.
Charlene Carruthers: Thank you for having me.
Nima: One of the things that we discussed at the top of this episode is the need by the media to always audit the pasts and the records and turnover every nook and cranny of people killed by police, namely black and brown people killed by police. The inverse, of course, is also true. The desire to want to shape and prop up the so-called “perfect victim,” which we’ve been talking about today. I’d love to hear your views about the trap and the bind that this puts us in. What are the pitfalls of making solidarity and basic humanity conditional in this way?
Charlene Carruthers: Well, first thank you for having me on. I think this is an extremely important topic, especially, I mean it’s a very important topic for the past several years in this country and I would say across the world. This ongoing narrative about the value of black life and in BYP 100, you know, we confronted this question and this challenge directly as a collective in 2013 when we were founded the weekend when the killer of Trayvon Martin was found not guilty. And for us, we’re very clear that no matter what Trayvon was wearing, no matter what he was doing, no matter what he said, what he didn’t say, what’d he didn’t do, a person felt it appropriate to take his life. And our understanding is that it is not an isolated event and that black people are all too often on the side, on the other side of violence, uh, as a result of centuries of stories, policies and practices that say that we are not full human beings. And so it is not surprising to me when solidarity with black people is conditional. That’s what everybody in this country is taught. All of us are taught that in order to be believable, in order for your life to matter, you had to have been a straight-A student, uh, an all-star athlete and a regular volunteer at your local community centers. And all those things are fine, right? But that’s not, it should not have to be the condition in which people matter as human beings. And so to me, the imperative is for people to make a commitment to like living as individuals, as full human beings, seeing our humanity as individuals, and then also that that opens up an invitation for other people who we’re in relationship with to live within their full dignity as well.
Adam: So one of the things that Nima and I have written a lot about is this, the smearing of, the second someone is shot, obviously, usually an African American is shot or killed by the police or in the case of Trayvon Martin, what we now know to be a white supremacist um vigilante, there is an immediate rush to sort of compete over the worthiness of that person’s life. Now, of course in Trayvon Martin’s case, you know The Miami Herald went through his high school suspension records, Fox News criticized his clothing choice. There’s the famous and the kind of now infamous a New York Times article about Michael Brown. He was, quote, “no angel.” And I guess what I’m asking is, is how does one fight the instinct to sort of defend people’s worthiness without falling into the trap of making it conditional? Which is to say that even if he did have a suspension record, what difference does it make? And I think that there’s kind of a movement that I’ve seen of late where people are sort of rejecting this kind of game where you go back and forth with the right-wing media to try to humanize someone and what we should say is that people’s humanity is axiomatic and it’s not conditional based on whether or not they’re good or bad. For lack of a better word, from a public relations perspective with a lot of the Black Lives Matter activists in which you do at BYP 100. What do y’all do to sort of push back against that trap?
Charlene Carruthers: Pushing back against the trap of dominant narratives about black folks to us is so much of it is about getting at those underlying assumptions that are rooted in respectability politics.
Adam: Yeah. Let’s talk about that.
Charlene Carruthers: And you know, and how we do that is by being unapologetically black. You know, our one of our members who is now a staff member, Fresco Steez, is a person who came up with like us using the unapologetic, unapologetically black demands identity. All of those things, right? Way of thinking as like a key framework for how we do our organizing work and how we also engage with each other and the ugly. And so we see blackness as a whole galaxy of possibilities, right? We don’t put blackness in one box. And so how we talk about our people, we don’t just focus on the black folks who have comfortable stories. Frankly, I don’t care if Mike Brown was indeed robbing a store. I actually don’t care.
Charlene Carruthers: That doesn’t warrant someone being killed. I don’t care if Sandra Bland, uh, was unruly and disrespectful. That does not warrant her being in an unsafe place where she ultimately died and we still don’t have the answer to how she died. I also think about Korryn Gaines who had a legal weapon in her household to my knowledge and what happened to herself and her son. And so black people do legal things every single day. Black people do stuff that goes against the law every single day and it doesn’t really matter. We can still be killed. And so we’re fighting for all black folks who are in right relationship with black people. I want to be clear, we’re not fighting for R. Kelly or Bill Cosby. We’re not fighting for this.
Nima: (Chuckles) Right.
Charlene Carruthers: You’re not in right relationship with black folks and they are not victims, um, and they’re surely not in right relationship with black women and girls. And so for black folks who are not actively like actively committing grave acts, and harm against other black people, um, particularly black women and girls and children. I just wanna name that category of folks that, no, we’re not going hard in the paint for R. Kelly and Bill Cosby when we were surely so hard in the paint for Sandra Bland, uh, Decynthia Clements, Troy Davis, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, all of those folks.
Nima: Yeah, absolutely. The idea that black disobedience automatically equals a death sentence that is somehow justified in all possible ways really kind of gets to the root of all this. Since you brought up Decynthia Clements, I would like to point out that I was in Chicago when the vigil was held on Michigan [Avenue] Bridge for her. Um, I saw you speak there. Adam was there as well. Because that is such a local Chicago story and you grew up in Chicago, Charlene, can you tell us a little bit about the story of Decynthia Clements, what happened and then how immediately the kind of official and media narrative wound up twisting the story on its head and how that speaks to the larger issue of how this keeps happening again and again and again.
Adam: And also if you wouldn’t mind the gendered element to it. I know that you’ve worked hard to recenter women in the struggle and, and how that relates to the Decynthia Clements.
Charlene Carruthers: Yeah, no problem. So Decynthia Clements was 34 years old when she was killed by police officers in Elgin, Illinois and Elgin’s not too too far from Chicago, and she was actually in the middle of a crisis. Her car was actually being filled with smoke and the police, they physically moved towards the car and they forced her out of the car and while she was choking on smoke they shot her. They actually shot her and they claim that she had a knife in her hand. In the video that they have it isn’t clear that she had anything and I am of the belief to never trust the police and what they say because they’re always going to say what was in their best interest. I think it’s really important to lift this up, is that this incident happened, just about around the same time as the young black man in Sacramento, California, Stephon Clark was killed. What we saw was a completely different reaction from both and one could argue, you know, Elgin is not Chicago. Sacramento is not Elgin. However, we seen this happen over and over again where the response is to make sanctioning killings of black people if they’re transgenders, if they’re a woman or a child that’s a girl, and someone to be all three of those things, of course, that there’s a different response from the public and I want to be really clear in saying that it’s not that no one cares. Like its not like everyone is out here no one cares about black women and girls. There are people who care. Oftentimes the people who care and the people who show up they don’t pay as much attention or not as much space as when we show up and we, me, I don’t know how many times I put my body on the line after a black man or boy has been killed by a vigilante or a police officer, however, and I will continue to do that work and I will continue to be drum for black women and girls as well.
Nima: Yeah. The idea that systems of power are never to be interrogated as right or wrong in and of themselves, the idea that police are the appropriate responding force to a person in crisis is always just a given and no one ever actually interrogates this. Can you talk a little bit about what you and what BYP 100 are doing? To kind of change, this concept that the first call that should be made when someone is in crisis is not either necessarily to 911 or, or to the police specifically or potentially not ever?
Charlene Carruthers: Yeah. So we don’t, or as an organization, how we approach things, we do not believe in calling the police. We don’t call the police for anything in an organizational context. I can’t tell you like what every single member of this organization does when they’re outside of, uh, you know, uh, organization space. That’s how we approach things. Because one, you know, I’ll give an example. I was at an organizing meeting that our new chapter in Milwaukee held on Monday, this was a couple of days ago and uh, there was a young woman, she’s 16 years old and we were having a conversation about policing. She was like, ‘Well, what if somebody breaks into your house, a burglar breaks into your house and steals your stuff?’ I was like, and she was like, ‘What would you do after?’ I said the more important question is what would the police do? Because if the police ever show up, I’m never getting my things back. If the police are responsible for me to get my things back and if the police were miraculously to find the person who stole my things, they would not give those things back. What I’m much more interested in is building a society where I find the person who’s taking my things or we fight it as community and either they give them back or they do the work to actually repair what they’ve taken and we have a conversation about that and they do the work to repair what they stole from my house because they’ve not only stolen something material, they’ve stolen a sense of safety and security. Right? So that to me, the police can not give me that. They cannot give that back to me on any level. But actually doing a transformative process with the person who has broken into my home is different. It has a potential to do that. That’s how I think about abolition. Um, and even when it comes to sexual violence, there are people in my neighborhood right now, there are people who I probably know and I don’t know they’d done it, who are committing acts of sexual violence against other people right now. They’re not in prison. So what are we doing about those people right now? They’re not going to all go to prison. They’re not going to all be arrested. So in lieu of that, what are we doing about it? And that’s something to me that has recently come to mind when talking about abolition. Like what will you do with people who are, who commit acts of sexual violence? I’m like, what are we doing with them now? Because it is rampant in our community, and prison will not be the solution. What will be the real thing? How are we going to dig our heels into figuring out the actual thing that’s going to create real safety and security in our community?
Adam: What, um, I mean since 2013 you, your organization’s been doing work. Black Lives Matter was founded around the same time in different variations, both the kind of official and unofficial versions. We’re now sort of into year five of that movement. Obviously there had been protests for years and years and years before. I don’t want to act like it just started in 2013 or 2014, but obviously it, it ticked up. There’s been some interesting discussions on Twitter about the amount of fatigue and labor that’s gone into that and how much of that labor specifically is put upon women as it typically is in these things. Can you talk about how one sort of sustains in that environment? It’s something I find super interesting because you sort of take for granted like that all these people are like cyborgs that can just keep showing up one, two, three, four times a week to these um, events. Can you speak to that amount of labor, both physical, emotional and political?
Charlene Carruthers: It’s a difficult topic to talk about because we’re not the first people to ever take up struggles of black liberation.
Adam: Right. Of course.
Charlene Carruthers: We’re not the first people to struggle and there are people in prison right now, black folks and non black folks in prison right now because they decided to take the black liberation struggle. To me like we’re within a lineage of people who decided to take up work, take up this work and be in service of black liberation. But we also have a different set of tools and resources ahead of us to address the trauma, the fatigue, the stress, the depression that comes one, from being black in the world and two, from being engaged in movement doing work. So I think its a continual process, excuse me. It’s something that takes both individual self work, and I’m a believer in self work and also community care and that as individuals, no one can do our healing work for us. We actually, even when you go to get reiki or you get massage, like you actually have to surrender or you have to give space. You have to commit to practices and the, the, the person who’s performing the service with you, they’re just a medium, but you actually have to do the work. Uh, and then on the other end of that, we have to be a part of organizations and communities that provide access to resources, information, and space for regeneration. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can learn from people who are in recovery from addiction. This came to me from a question that somebody asked me at a, an event at UC Berkeley and then I, you know, ‘What role does addiction play in black liberation work?’ And I told them I don’t think can give you a sufficient answer because I don’t work in that space. And then I was like, you know, I think there’s a lot that we can learn from people who are in recovery. Uh, and my understanding that people are constantly always in recovery. And when you go to a narcotics anonymous meeting, an alcoholics anonymous meeting, sex addicts anonymous meeting, whatever it is, you have to go there. You actually have to go there, you have to do the work every single day. And they create a space, a community to actually help you through that process. But it’s not one sided. They don’t do the work for you. You have to show up every single day. You got to struggle with that. So what can we learn from people who have taken a commitment to constantly being in recovery, um, and the things that they have learned and apply it to how we approach our commitments to movement. I think there’s a lot to learn there.
Nima: Thank you for that. That’s great. We talk a lot on this show about the destructive narratives that are swarming all around us all the time in our society and obviously on this show we have a particular interest in how that plays out in the press. Do you see any positive shift with any renewed focus on this in the media in general? Corporate media is always going to be very difficult because when capitalism is at play obviously the victims of capitalism are never going to get a full hearing. Do you see other sources, other alternative media trying to fill the void and change the narrative about this?
Charlene Carruthers: Yeah, I think some of the cool work that’s happening, it makes me think of a project being ran by folks out of Power and Dignity Now in LA. Uh, they have actually started their own web series where the whole series is a anchored by people who have been incarcerated. And also think about Prison Radio which has been running for a very long time with folks who are currently incarcerated record all types of, like they do news analysis, they do first person story, all kinds of really amazing things. And I also think about how people continue to leverage social media to tell their stories and the stories of people around them. And it’s in that alternative media be it video, be it short, like really short form content on Instagram Stories or other mediums people are continuing to write this year. A number of books have already come out from Patrisse Cullors, When They Call You A Terrorist. Um, Darnell Moore’s memoir is coming out soon, um, No Ashes in the Fire. And I have a book coming out August 28 titled, Unapologetic. This is a black queer feminist mandate for radical movement. And so we are doing both short form and long form work that I believe is doing that narrative shifting work that’s necessary.
Adam: Is there anywhere specific people can find it or can they follow you on social media? Can you give us your, uh, your info?
Charlene Carruthers: You can preorder it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell and Indie Bound. So everywhere.
Adam: Alright. Lets push some paper.
Nima: Yeah, let’s absolutely do that. Charlene Carruthers, founding national director of BYP 100. Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed. It was great to talk to you.
Charlene Carruthers: No problem. Thank you so much.
Adam: Yeah. Uh, it’s good that Charlene left us with some other options. Um, and I think that that’s, that’s good. We always sort of recommend people try to do that on the show instead of necessarily just, you know, doing what we do, which is pouting about how bad corporate media is.
Nima: (Laughs) Right.
Adam: To sort of to go seek out other media to try to boost other media and to promote it and to buy it and to fund people who are doing it. And I think that’s always a good note to go out on.
Nima: Yeah. No, I think that’s true. Obviously, um, you know, it was great to have Charlene on that, especially because I think centering black women in this as well is hugely important in terms of who is deemed a worthy victim of media coverage. Back in 2015, there was a report produced by the African American Policy Forum co-written by Columbia Law School Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, and it’s called “#SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.” And one thing that was said about the report by Crenshaw herself is that, quote, “Although black women are routinely killed, raped and beaten by the police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in popular understandings of police brutality. Yet, inclusion of black women’s experiences and social movements, media narratives and policy demands around policing and police brutality is critical to effectively combating racialized state violence for black communities and other communities of color.” End quote. That obviously also goes for abusive treatment by cops and others of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender nonconforming, black women as well, and the profiling that they go through as well as pregnant women always subject to abuse and assault. And I just think that that’s an important thing to also kind of bring into this conversation because when there is outrage about police brutality it rarely talks about women or non-gender conforming people as well.
Adam: Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is something that BreakOUT!, a group out of New Orleans, they focus on the transgender community, specifically the trans community in New Orleans that is disproportionately African American and Latina. They try to document the killing of transgender people, which is the ultimate not perfect victim, right, because that’s something that your average, whatever the, again, this kind of nebulous middle class white person we’re all sort of working to win over, that that’s kind of the last thing they want to hear about and this isn’t of course to say that like the Michael Brown’s of the world or somehow privileged, but I definitely think there becomes, even within these communities a priority list for the media.
Nima: There’s still a tiered system within oppressed communities without a doubt.
Adam: Yeah. I’d say within how the media perceives oppressed communities is sort of more to the point.
Adam: The vast majority of states don’t have laws protecting trans people and that’s, that’s I think reflected in the way in which those things are covered. So when we’re talking about the perfect victim, we’re necessarily talking about sexism, colorism, and these aren’t just like sort of lefty buzzwords. These things actually create a system of like how things are prioritized and who cares about certain parties.
Nima: Well, right. And so certain populations are obviously allowed to be labeled as, you know, in an inconvenient spot through no fault of their own, and yet others, trans people, for example, through no fault of their own because of who they are, they are targeted and yet that narrative never comes across. That language is never used for them to kind of circle back around, once again, we’re covering a lot here, but to talk about the way immigrants are perceived, I think because both DACA and the Dreamers are sort of Obama era creations, political creations, to categorize and to create this system of some people being deserving others not of certain kind of leniency, certain kinds of policies, we also should remember that Barack Obama had a lot to do with pushing a lot of these narratives out. He gave a number of speeches about immigration. One January 29th of 2013:
Barack Obama: 11 million men and women from all over the world who live their lives in the shadows. Yes, they broke the rules. They crossed the border illegally. Maybe they overstayed their visas. Those are the facts. Nobody disputes them…
Employers may offer them less than the minimum wage or make them work overtime without extra pay, and when that happens, it’s not just bad for them, it’s bad for the entire economy because all the businesses that are trying to do the right thing, that are hiring people legally, paying a decent wage, following the rules, they’re the ones who suffer. They’ve got to compete against companies that are breaking the rules…
We have to deal with the 11 million individuals who are here illegally. Now we all agree that these men and women should have to earn their way to citizenship…We’ve got to lay out a path, a process that includes passing a background check, paying taxes, paying a penalty, learning English and then going to the back of the line behind all the folks who are trying to come here legally. That’s only fair, right?
Nima: And then another speech in November of 2014:
Barack Obama: Families who enter our country the right way and play by the rules watch others flout the rules... All of us take offense to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America…
First, we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel, so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do crossover. Second, I’ll make it easier and faster for high skilled immigrants, graduates and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy as so many business leaders have proposed…
Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we’re also a nation of laws. Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws and I believe that they must be held accountable, especially those who may be dangerous. That’s why over the past six years, deportations of criminals are up 80 percent and that’s why we’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize just like law enforcement does every day.
Nima: So this language, I mean, on the Obama White House website at the time was a section entitled “Earned Citizenship.” And under that section talked about how immigrants who are undocumented need to come out of the shadows so they can pay their taxes and play by the same rules as everyone else. This just creates this narrative of certain people not pulling their weight, even as sometimes unhelpful as fact checks can be I think it is incumbent on us to also point out that a lot of undocumented workers already do pay a ton of taxes, social security, payroll taxes, property taxes, sales and excise taxes. According to a 2016 study by the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy, these immigrants pay roughly $11.6 billion in state and local taxes each year. So they actually carry what is effectively a heavier tax burden than the one percent.
Adam: So yeah, before we go, I wanted to, I think a good sort of wrap up of this, of how problematic “the perfect victim” thing can be is a rather amusing if not deeply depressing instance of casual liberal racism where back in July of last year, Keith Olbermann, the sort of most hamfisted and carnival barker-ish of the professional blue check mark resistance crowd tweeted out a story about a, about a gentleman by the name of John Cunningham who was an Irish immigrant to the United States who had just been deported by the Trump administration, and here’s what he said, quote, “ICE has nabbed and jailed and undocumented American from… Ireland. After 18 years here. This is madness.”
Adam: Now, the implication of course being is that this is somehow like a new escalation that they’re deporting Irish. Now. It is true actually, quite a few Irish have been deported under Trump. Now the real purpose of course is to snag up nonwhites, but you know, as part of that dragnet, so they don’t lose some appeal in the Supreme Court they have to kind of be ostensibly colorblind, even though that’s not the aim.
Adam: Keith Olbermann thinks now they’ve gone to far.
Nima: They’ve gone too far. They got an Irishman in their dragnet!
Adam: Yeah. And of course, even if it didn’t mean that that’s the, that’s the obvious implication of it. So that’s sort of “the perfect victim” thrown in a blender of just confused politics.
Nima: Yeah no it’s amazing. There’s a, um, there’s a CNN story from February of this year about yet another pillar of the community deported after 39 years of living in the US, uh, it’s about a Palestinian man deported from Youngstown, Ohio, and the man’s congressman, Tim Ryan is, is, is quoted in this piece on CNN, you know, describes the man, Amer Adi, as someone who created jobs with his multiple businesses and distributes hundreds of turkeys to the poor on Thanksgiving. And, uh, this is what Congressman Ryan says, this is where the outrage comes from, quote, “If you would see the breadth of support that this gentleman has from whether it’s his Italian-Irish Catholic congressmen or an African American Pentecostal Republican woman who is supporting him or the working class people I saw in a shop the day they thought he was going to get deported to show support for him.” And then Ryan continues to say that this man has quote, “A Jewish attorney whose father survived the Holocaust. This person has brought this community together in Youngstown, Ohio.”
Adam: ‘But he’s one of the good ones.’
Nima: (Laughs) ‘He’s one of the good ones.’
Adam: Didn’t Roy Moore try that line?
Nima: Yeah. I think his wife did like a press conference being like, ‘But our lawyer’s Jewish! We can’t be discriminatory.’
Nima: Um, I will end on this. In March of this year, Washington Post published an article about someone who had been deported, a restaurant owner, and the community showed some nominal outrage at first and then this article is about how after the fact though this person had been deported, quote “His town got over it.” And one of the quotes in here about how life has resumed normally for all the white people in town, so that’s good for them. But there’s this one quote which I just have to say because it is amazing. So here it is. Quote, “‘I didn’t even see Roberto as Mexican,’ said Angela Banfi, a friend and waitress at the restaurant. ‘He was not one of those Mexicans. He was like a white boy to me.’” End Quote.
Adam: Well, there you go. The perfect victim indeed. On that note, we should wrap it up.
Nima: You can obviously follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook at Citations Needed and help us out via Patreon at Citations Needed Podcast. Extra special shout out to our critic level supporters. That’ll do it for us. Thank you everyone for listening to Citations Needed. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Our research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Granddaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, May 16, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.