The Reckless Eyeball

This is Matt Ingram.

In 1951 Matt Ingram drove his old car to a neighbor’s house to see about borrowing a trailer. The neighbor didn’t answer the door, so Ingram went and looked out in the field to see if the neighbor was there, but all he saw were some kids. So, he left and borrowed a trailer from someone else.

Matt spent 2 years in jail for looking at those kids.

Well, really for looking at one kid. Willa Jean Boswell, a 17 year old girl saw Ingram driving on the road and was frightened when he looked at her. She ran to the field, told her brothers, who told their dad, who told the police, and they arrested Ingram for assault with intent to rape.

That’s it. No other relevant details. No one contested or offered that there was more to the story. The entire court accepted that Matt, who had not been in, or caused, any trouble previously, never got closer to Willa Mae than 75 feet. He never spoke a word to her, never even made any sudden or aggressive movements, just a look, and the jury convicted him. He was sentenced to 2 years on the chain gang.

A series of appeals and a whole lotta pressure from… the Soviet Union, eventually brought his case to the North Carolina Supreme Court where his conviction was overturned.

That process took around two years… which Matt spent in jail.

For a look.

Or maybe rather, because he had a look.

Mr. Ingram wasn’t trying to have a look, he was just doing his thing. He was working and being himself- which is in some way the root of what makes that look “a look”. There is some form of innate coolness. Not posing. Not trying. Just being. All business.

Thing is, Ingram’s look wasn’t all that unique. He was by all accounts- normal.

For a Black man.

At that time all sorts of other folks, who were in fact trying, worked this look. In fact, that look was being imitated and replicated all over movie screens and billboards because there was, and still is, something in there, that is undeniably cool.

But cool is only safe for some.

And if that cool is innate, the sort that just is, then what do you do if you are Black? In order to be safe should someone not be themself? Tone it down? Tuck it in? Reel it back? Take what others imitate and monetize and push it down to make white people feel safe? To a lot of people, those who just wanted to get on with life, the answer was “yes”.

It was the sort of thing that when white folks do it, they are popular and get to be in movies but when Black people do it…

It was just after Ingram’s case was won, and received worldwide media attention, that a group of White men decided not to take their case to court when a Black kid named Emmet Till was accused of having that same look.

We have, in so many ways, come a long way. That was 70 years ago. So many people have marched, and worked, and changed since then.

But then I think about backwards hats and hoodies and I have to wonder.

And man, when I look at old pictures of Matt Ingram,

I can still see that cool. Plain as day.

CRT Simplified, Day 7

Microagressions are small, often unintentional slights, not even necessarily insults, but little pin pricks based on a marginalized characteristic (such as race, sexual orientation, gender, nationality).

Any one instance of such would be no big deal, but the thing is, they add up.

It’s like when my older brother used to hold me down and begin tapping me on the forehead till I could name ten fruits. It wasn’t painful but man it was annoying and made it super hard to do something that was normally simple- naming ten varieties of fruit.Microagressions are just like that, except instead of my big brother its American society and instead of naming ten fruits, Black people are just trying to live life.

The concept of microagressions fit solidly within CRT in that they become very evident and pervasive (endemic) when we listen to non-white people (counter-storytelling).

CRT Simplified, Day 6

American law is based on property rights, not human rights.

If American law had been based on human rights rather than property rights, slavery and the confiscation of Native American land would have never been legal. But both happened- with official sanction.This prioritization of property over people was evidenced in proposals to emancipate slaves via slave owner compensation- rather than prosecution for a violation of human rights.

The caveat is that White people have in fact been protected under the law in a similar way to property, making Whiteness itself a form of property. This would help explain why stand your ground law tends to favor White shooters over Black victims, but not vice-versa, or, why there may be more systematic reaction to property damage from a Black Lives Matter protest than there is systematic reaction to the killing of an unarmed Black person.

CRT investigates how Whiteness acts as a form of property.

Simplified CRT, Day 1

Civil rights laws were good, but sorta didn’t fix the problem.

Critical Race Theory began as a critique and rethinking of our legal system with the awareness that civil rights legislation or legal cases, even when “won” haven’t necessarily helped Black people. For example, Brown v Board of Education made segregation in public schools illegal, yet all these years later, more Black students experience a segregated education than was happening before.

Black Lives Matter: who are you listening too about “them”?

If you are a White person and think calls to reform or even defund police departments sound ridiculous, or extreme, might I request that you consider the following:

If you are not Black, or do not live in a predominantly Black neighborhood, then how are you getting information about what is happening in the Black community? Is it from Black people in those communities? If not, why not? Is your source a Black person you know personally or is it via mass media or reposted social media? How reliable is your information and the perspective it brings?

What is different in their experience that would lead them to such a proposal? Perhaps, the danger you foresee in a police-less state, already exists in some communities. If you lived in a violent neighborhood, and the police department is part of that violence, is it really crazy to want to change? Or crazy to want to shut down a department?

Have you read the Ferguson Report?

Do not assume that those calling for these measures are stupid, or that you are simply smarter than them.

Black Lives Matter

1. Bad intentions and bad choices are equally distributed throughout the population without regard to race or wealth.
2. The consequences of bad intentions and actions are NOT equal for all races and social classes.

This indicates there is a systematic issue that cannot simply be solved by teaching one group to make better choices.

Astronomy isn’t About Race: unless there are people up there, then it is.

Race is not a thing. By that I mean it is not an event, an object, or even an adjective.

Race is a who.IMG_70891

Race is not the only thing a person “is”, but everyone has a race, and that race, because it is a social construct, affects how that person, all of us, interacts within a society. For most of America’s existence “race” or “race issues” really means things having to do with anyone who isn’t white. Otherwise those things are just plain old issues.

When the Declaration of Independence was written race was never mentioned but it wasn’t exactly ignored. White was assumed. So really, race wasn’t ignored, non-white people were ignored. The word race would only come up when “We the People” were being talked or written about in comparison to those who weren’t, or aren’t, considered white. So when it came to the constitution there was “we the people”, and then there were also Native Americans and those 3/5ths of persons held in servitude.

Remember that race is always a who.with flag

Because race is a who, making something about, or not about race, is really making it about, or not about, a person.

Knowing this is important, mostly for white people as we are the ones who are less used to our race being spoken of explicitly. We are used to just being people, not white people. We need to realize that when we say “this isn’t about race”, what that translates to is, “this isn’t about you.” Which is ironic because most of the times I hear someone say “this isn’t about race”, or “don’t make this a race issue”, it is being said by a white person who is referencing something involving non-white people whom they have never met.

For example when someone says college admissions should ignore race, what that really means is colleges should ignore that there are people who aren’t white. When a black person is killed by a police officer and our response is, this has nothing to do with race. What is really being said is that said instance wasn’t about the black person- though that is who was shot.IMG_1908

This gets real tricky, or troubling, when it really is about them. Or… maybe it is very telling when we white people talk this way.

As in I, a white person, looks at a situation in which I am not directly involved, and say to the black people involved, “this isn’t about race”, which would mean “this isn’t about black people”- then who is left for it to be about? What we are inadvertently saying is that it is about us. About white people. And if we white people are the ones saying such things we should probably think a little bit more about how we are at the heart of all these race issues.

This is the part, or the point, where we get very defensive and start “No. That isn’t what I said or what I meant.”

But it is. We just don’t like to deal with that. Because any issue or instance where people are involved- is a race issue.

You cannot un-race a person. Maybe one day skin color won’t hold real relevance, but even when that day comes, we will all still have a skin color, we will have simply shifted who “we” includes and the ways in which we value each other.

Black History Month:Gun Rights

It is important to know that MLK’s ideology of non-violence was only one aspect, one wing, of the civil rights movement, and it didn’t really work everywhere. It mostly worked on television. Down South and in person, especially in places like Lowndes County Alabama, what worked was guns.

MLK and the SCLC were for the most part a PR organization. They literally marched through town, took a literal beating, and got it broadcast on television worldwide. It helped build political will nationally and created a public outcry against injustice.democratrooster

At the same time SNCC had a different job. SNCC would come and set up shop in various jurisdictions long term. They were there to organize political participation among the local Black population and it was dangerous work. This sort of activity regularly, not sometimes, but reg-u-lar-ly resulted in a Black person being killed. One SNCC worker explained that when one of them would come to stay with a local family, that home would immediately come under fire. Actual gun fire. These homeowners could not call the police, because they were among those doing the shooting. The only thing that stopped the gunfire was when those inside the home started shooting back. This was not how it happened once but rather this is how it would go every time. So naturally, armed self-defense became a regular part of political organization among the Black people in Lowndes County. In 1964 the place had zero Black people registered to vote. By 1968 there were 2,500. It worked.

Due to high illiteracy rates all political parties were required to have a symbol. This allowed those who couldn’t read, the ability to identify the party for whom they wished to vote. The Democrat’s symbol was a white rooster and the words “White Supremacy For The Right”. The local Black population formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization as their new political party. They intended to run candidates, register voters, and challenge the Democrats. They needed to declare a symbol and one member joked that they needed something that would eat that chicken- so they decided they would use a black panther.

Word got out that the Black people were serious so the Klan threatened to summon all of its members statewide to stop the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Come election day, the local authorities, and the Klan who had all been warned by the FBI that a bunch of young thugs from out of town were on the way to cause trouble at the polls, were all shocked when hundreds of old Black people carrying loaded weapons, showed up to vote.

The press went wild talking about this new Black Panther party and their guns. They left out the fact that the average age of the party was 55. One Black leader also pointed out that if the Alabama Freedom Organization was going to be referred to as the Black Panther Party in the news, the right thing would be to also call the Democrats the White Cocks. This request was not granted.NRA

The success of those humble Black farmers with guns gave a sense of excited hope to Black people nationwide. In Oakland CA, frustrated by violent policing, Black Panthers took their loaded guns to Sacramento and occupied the capital building. This completely freaked white America out and that same year California governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act banning the carrying of loaded weapons in public. Reagan was quoted as saying he saw “no reason why on the street today, a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons”.

That was 1967, one year before MLK was killed.IMG_1989.JPG

Black Firefighters: Black History Month

America’s first firefighting company was founded in Philadelphia by good ol’ Ben Franklin in 1736.

The first “Black” firefighting company in Philadelphia was founded by a free Black man named James Forten 82 years later. Back then all firefighting was done by volunteers, no one was getting paid to extinguish flames. But still the white people protested against this new fire company and the city shut it down in less than a year.IMG_1297

The city started paying professional fire fighters in 1871, but none of those professionals were Black till they hired Isaac Jacobs in 1886. The catch was they didn’t actually let him fight fires, just clean the stables. Mr. Jacobs wasn’t satisfied being a stable boy, he wanted to fight fires, so he left the department after 4 years.

In 1905 Philadelphia hired its second Black fire fighter, Steven Presco. He insisted on fighting fires and was killed doing so 2 years later.IMG_1299

Twelve years later, in 1919 Philadelphia founded its first official Black fire station, Engine 11. Despite being designated as the Black station, Engine 11 was captained by white firefighters and not used to fight fires but was strictly restricted to city maintenance work. They were the city’s original pothole crew.

It was not until 1952 that Philadelphia officially integrated its fire department. That makes a full 134 years between the city’s first black firefighter and actual integration. What a long hard road full of death and humiliation to fight for the privilege of protecting people from fire.

Philly’s story is not unique and similar story lines played out in Virginia, New Orleans, and an especially interesting case in San Antonio.IMG_5303

The city of San Antonio formed a number of professional fire brigades immediately after the close of the civil war. Their cadre of companies included 2 engines run by freed Black men. The catch was the white brigades were paid by the city and the Black brigades were not paid at all. Yet they still functioned. That is until these two companies requested to be paid like the others and in response the city simply banned Black people from being in fire companies.

All of these stories illustrate a couple of different things. First, that there existed qualified and willing Black people since the very beginnings of American firefighting. Second, is that the obstacles to full Black participation in this form of professional, or public life, was not the Black people themselves but a combination of the general American population and the white people who ran city governments.

But despite the obstacles intentionally placed in their way, Black people continuously persisted and fought.

James Brown was Rich

In 1964 when James Brown went on the T.A.M.I. show, he had already earned more than a million dollars. He was rich. He wasn’t only rich, but he was so universally popular that on that show he shared the stage with the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones. A lot of white people loved James Brown- in 1964. That’s kind of a big deal.

The very next year John Lewis’s skull was fractured by a police officer when Lewis attempted to walk across the Edmond Pettus Bridge. The year after that, James Meredith was shot for trying to help black people register to vote. Then, another year later, a song by four black singers, The Four Tops, sat solidly at #2 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. By this time Berry Gordy had been rich for a decade.

All of this, the success of black people and the extreme violent oppression of black people, were happening in the same country at the same time. On the grand timeline of history James Brown and James Meredith are on the same dot. This reality is worth some extra consideration, especially considering where we are right now.

Colin Kaepernick made millions of dollars for playing quarterback better than Alex Smith, in the same year that unarmed Chavis Carter allegedly shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police car. This is the same year that Wiz Khalifa was featured on a song that hit #4. Same time.

While we are not living in the same America that existed in the 1960’s and plenty of things have changed- some things haven’t.  Human nature doesn’t change. That is why history’s lessons are applicable. It is why, despite retrospect, we sometimes repeat ourselves. We think we do, or have, evolved, but we are really still the same types of people as Nathan Bedford Forest or Frederick Douglass. Or maybe James Brown, James Meredith and Bull Connor.

We cannot simply look in the rear view mirror and assume we are safe from whatever it is that’s back there. It is why when solving the problems of today we must persuade ourselves to do what is right, while simultaneously building protections against those who do, or will, choose otherwise. Because our children will be just like us.

In 2008 people started using the word post-racial to describe a supposed new America. They pointed to the elected leader as proof that the struggles of the 60’s had born good fruit and we were now past the season of labor and into the time of harvest. White America looked around and saw LeBron James or Beyonce just like we might have seen James Brown or Jim Brown, but in 2008 we didn’t see, or we ignored, George Wallace.

Perhaps a part of the reason racism hasn’t been solved, why Dubois’s color line remains, is because we white Americans both forget and deny Bull Connor. Some of us might learn about James Meredith integrating Ol’ Miss, but we don’t linger on the lessons inherent in the fact that it was the local Sheriffs who started the ensuing riot. We just rest on the idea that those who fought Meredith were wrong, but we spend no real time wondering why back then they thought they were right. We could ask Trent Lott, he was there, but instead we march forward with pride believing we are past that and thinking we are now somehow individually better. And we aren’t. And because no humans are magically better than all of the humans that came before we will still fall for the same traps as our predecessors unless we look back and learn. And understand. And own. Then grow. And change. And work. Then teach.

I wonder if Hazel Massery, the white girl seen screaming in that iconic photo of Arkansas school integration, liked James Brown and thought this meant she wasn’t racist. I wonder if the man who shot James Meredith resented Meredith’s college education and saw that as proof that people like Meredith were just snowflake complainers. Maybe most of us don’t wonder this because we have no intentions of shooting anyone. So they are nothing like us now, not really, and I guess there is some truth there. But the people back then, the ones who didn’t shoot anyone, who just went about their lives, but thought it was all a ruse by the commies or who dismissed Martin Luther King as an adulterer, might be just like me. Maybe an unemployed and struggling white man back then, marveled that a bunch of black college kids could find the time and money to spend a summer just riding the Greyhound around starting trouble, and he just knew this meant black life wasn’t so bad. Maybe he thought that their time wasting bus stunt earned them the beatings and burnings they received. Maybe the father who simply loved his children and had never even thought the word n****r, only moved away when the black people arrived because his family’s stability hinged on real estate value. What if the PTA president who watched the Watts riots loved the Four Tops, but simply loved following the law even more?

What if today we are all just like them?

And so the color line remains.