Because Most Americans Are Cowards

In Memory of Michael Brown


It’s time to start calling America’s brand of racism what it is.

I grew up in Boston. By twelve, I was told by coaches, police, pastors, teachers, and girls that I was built like a football player. I’ve edited and spliced this piece up, but I’ve decided we’re going to start here.

First, Boston.

Boston is a liberal city on a hill. Its taxes are high, its education standards are high, its residents get high and get off with a $100 citation, everyone can get married, it’s got a Shake Shack, and finding an elected Republican here is almost as difficult as finding a Black guy at a bar on Lansdowne (I don’t count, I was a bouncer over there). It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that a liberal bastion-cum-college oasis has a reputation as one of the most virulently racist cities in the union. If your only gauge for society’s ills is the red/blue binary of mainstream news media — where liberals are often seen as coddling minorities, while conservatives seem to shift between an unwillingness to engage and their oft-tragicomic inability to connect — I guess this fact might be hard to believe. Based on this kind of understanding, it would follow that the place that gave us the Kennedies, Deval Patrick, Elizabeth Warren and the blueprint for the Affordable Care Act should be a haven for black and brown faces.

No.

PK Subban, Henry Louis Gates, This Roxbury resident, Bill Russell, Joel Ward, the cop who busted my sister’s tail light in Brighton after I dropped off my white female friend, the cops who frisked and cuffed Black kids during a citywide blackout when a white assailant was described by the break-in victim, and dozens of others tell a different story. Elizabeth Warren doesn’t matter to folks who live off Blue Hill Avenue when the police don’t come, or when they come and treat everyone as guilty of something until proven innocent. JFK’s soaring rhetoric, Ted Kennedy’s fight for healthcare, and BC’s pristine campus don’t mean a damn thing to business owners who see their property pushed out in favor of cafes, record stores, and bulldozers to make way for condos.

Onto my build.

It came in handy on the football field, and standing by the car when my mother needed help carrying in groceries. It came in handy when the church needed help moving into a new building, and it came in handy when guys mouthed off to my girlfriends. Beyond these instances, however, my broad shoulders make it hard to find shirts, my thighs have rendered Old Navy, American Eagle, Hollister and countless others useless, and when confronted by police I have often found myself cuffed “as a precaution.”

The first time such a confrontation happened was in 2008. I was twenty at a house party thrown by a childhood friend in Allston. I was fairly plastered when a kid I had never met, about whom I’d heard only negative things, hit my best friend in the head with a bottle, kicking off a brawl involving about 150 people. I fought a bit, getting a few good scoops on the kid who hit my friend until I headed for the bathroom, realizing my girlfriend was inside and likely oblivious to the fracas. I waited for her outside the door, grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her out onto the street just before the fight spilled out of the apartment. The police were already there. A tall, skinny, white officer greeted me and asked me what happened. I explained what I saw, he thanked me and walked past me. I started to walk away from the scene with my girlfriend when I felt two hands, one on my wrist, and one on my shoulder.

“Calm down. Stay here. Get down on the ground. Don’t cause any trouble.”

I was cuffed, brought to my knees on the sidewalk, and told to stay put by the same officer with whom I had just spoken. The fight was broken up, arrests were made, statements were taken (not mine) from witnesses, and after about an hour and ten minutes on my knees on the sidewalk in November, sans jacket, I was released, told to stay out of trouble, and free to walk to my car.

I had done everything an upstanding citizen was supposed to do. I was calm, I protected my girlfriend, I assisted the police, described the kid who started the brawl, maintained my cool and spoke clearly and respectfully. My reward was handcuffs. When I asked another officer, this one short, stocky and white, why his partner had cuffed me, he told me, blithely:

A big Black guy just walks out of a fight, he’s probably all amped up, still in fightin’ mode. We’re just trying to make our night easy, save you from yourself. It’s no big deal.”

I’m five foot nine, about two hundred sixty pounds. I bench about 315, but the cops don’t know this. I squat about 550, but they don’t know this, as they don’t know I’ve never lost any of the relatively few fights I’ve found myself in. But none of this mattered. I wasn’t small and I wasn’t White, so I wasn’t allowed to do as I pleased after assisting law enforcement.

That is a big deal. It’s time we stop excusing this type of behavior and the attitude from which it is born.

It’s time we stop calling it anything but what it is. It’s time we stop giving White people, America, and Black respectability apologists an out. It’s time we call prejudice and racism out for the mutant cowardices they will so clearly always be.

Racism is cowardice. Prejudice is cowardice. America is a coward.

Credit: Stanley Forman

Cowardice makes a man shoot a seventeen year old in a suburban neighborhood. It tells trained law enforcement professionals that forty-one bullets are just enough. It tells the public that a president is enough. It makes sixty years seem like a millennium. It reads statistics for face value and then shouts them into the void without a hint of context. It blames the shackled man for his shackles. The lack of sufficient mental and emotional fortitude to face one’s own shared humanity with a black or brown face makes the overwhelming majority of White Americans, people who have enjoyed their status as the racial and cultural default since the nation’s inception with impunity, cowards.

Race is a murky, tangled, fucked up mess in this country. It is not unnavigable, like nearly every White voice, be they liberal or conservative or libertarian or anarchist or Jedi, would like us to believe. The psuedo-unnavigability of race and racism in this country allows White citizens and commentators to enjoy the best of both worlds; for the commentator on either side, race’s inexorability allows him to choose a side to admonish while allowing it an out, curbing the expectations and responsibilities of the reader in the same way an enabling spouse lectures his junkie love before breaking down and blaming the car accident that led to his chronic pain. For the citizen, it’s an excuse to say, hear, do, think, and change nothing.

Race is hard. It’s confusing. Agreements and concessions may be made, injustices may be noticed and decried, apologies may be made, but race is a game White people have no skin in. It’s a nonfactor for most, and for most who view it as a factor, the mere act of recognition seems sufficient. White people, “good” or otherwise, get to lift and drop race as they please. The white girl who grows up in Dorchester and gets picked on for her hair and her nose and her lips and her last name likely has the opportunity to move to a place where everyone at every level resembles her and her family. In Dorchester, the neighbors don’t, but the police, government, and business community overwhelmingly do. She can turn on television and see that the rest of society vehemently disagrees with her classmates and neighbors about the ugliness of her nose and hair and skin, that they view her as close to the default. The Black girl in Wellesley can find no such solace. She is not beauty’s default setting, the police will not look like her, it is very unlikely her senators or congressional representatives will, either. Her teachers will probably not look like her and will teach her no more than a handful of facts about a handful of people who could be her auntie or uncle.

These are the structures of cowardice. The structures that keep change out, that fight tooth and nail for the status quo in the name of fear, fear that too much melanin will rob America of its whiteness and whiteness of its rightness. Fear that a level playing field will make us all have to break a sweat. Fear that Black success as more than an outlier, as more than a carrot dangled in front of America’s Black workhorse would redefine or redistribute wealth, land, equity, and power. Fear that a fair shake might just make things fair.

Cowardice does more for White America than drop it on third base. It proclaims the triple it hit for the world to see and vociferously argues against any evidence to the contrary. It tells White America that fairness is the name of the game, that equal chances have been given, that Daquan and Sidayah and Rahmeek and Sanaa got the same chances they did. Cowardice writes books and columns, gives speeches and lectures, gets on your television and tells White America that it’s doing fine, that it’s done all that could be asked of it and more, that the ball is on our side of the court.

Cowardice sets the bar for justifying the shooting of an unarmed Black man as low as a toy gun, and cowardice tells you that prior criminal charges, the presence of a gun-like object, and the fact that you’ve probably never had a testy run-in with the law are reasons to take the side of law enforcement. Cowardice tells you it’s fine to tell Blacks to go back to Africa, that they should consider themselves fortunate as American citizens, as America’s foibles have nothing on African turmoil, and cowardice lets you forget who lit the matches that set Africa ablaze.

Cowardice, as pernicious as it may be, is not unique to White America.

Cowardice convinces David Banner to get on CNN dressed like the Black Colonel Sanders and tell us that Ferguson PD is somehow excused because of Black-on-Black crime. This same cowardice precluded him from mentioning White-on-White crime’s virtually identical statistics. Cowardice makes Al Sharpton take time out of his speech at the televised 50th anniversary of the march on Washington to bash Black youth culture. Cowardice lets your teachers, your pastors, your imams, your skinfolk tell you that maybe you’d get a bit more respect in this country if you wore your pants like so, talked thusly, and did X, Y and Z. Cowardice tells you we’re all one big family, that racism ends when we stop dwelling on it, that humanity is what matters — and the coward in some of us eats it up and spits it back out like clockwork when tragedy strikes. This cowardice echos the sentiment found elsewhere in the difficult, murky waters of racism, and it may demand more than nothing, but it is careful not to demand too much from the country it calls home.

Credit: Ernest Withers

The end result of all of this cowardice is the alienation of Black bodies from the only nation most of them have called home. Cowardice tells Black boys and girls that their names are too hard to say in the land of Mulcahy and Schwarzenegger. That their skin is too dark to be beautiful. It tells them that ballerinas can’t be Black because Black women grow up and into thighs and breasts. It tells boys that they are a problem that cannot be solved . . . in kindergarten. It tells Black women that they are undesirable. It tells you to eat, drink, be merry, work, toil, save, make friends, make love, to live as best you can in a land that never wanted or welcomed you. The fact that you and those who look like you have managed to grow, survive and even thrive under the circumstances you were placed is proof that no good deed goes unpunished, because cowardice makes police approach your peaceful assembly with rubber bullets as big as walnuts and tanks created for warfare.

The news will mourn and pontificate over the loss of property and merchandise, not the tender young life lost that galvanized your community. Your actions will be decried. Not the actions of the police, or the businesses in your community that are not of your community, that take and take but never give. You will be the looters. Not the prisons that extract you from your neighborhoods on trumped up charges for arbitrary mandatory minimums, not the laws that allow firms to shake you down for your labor, not the country that continues to reap the benefits of the rape and plunder of other nations full of black and brown faces. YOU.

And most American people will think that’s just fine. Because most Americans are cowards.

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