Barely a year ago in Portland — surrounded by more people of color than I had met in my seven years living there — I stood in the rubble of a destroyed city block, breathing in the wet fog and acrid dust, blinking back tears. But it was not the buildings which had been destroyed. The Portland Justice Center stood untouched by the fire that raged around it.
The destruction was of people around me, of their innocence and of their naivete, of their belief in the fairness of a system that had evolved over hundreds of years to exploit and destroy their bodies and in so doing, occupy their minds and spirits with thoughts only of survival rather than revolution. I wept openly without a care for who saw me, for I too had been destroyed with them.
I remember thinking: That was the last mistake of the cabal of white supremacy. Young black Americans — of all socioeconomic classes and educational backgrounds — had been forcibly disabused of the notion that the Civil Rights Movement had opened The American Dream to them. We had been told our whole lives that racism was in the past, that we had been made human in the eyes of the powers that be. This had been revealed as nothing more than a fairy tale.
By the awakening of our righteous anger, tension would ripple across the United States, a tension that would ignite a social revolution.
I believed in this revolution, with trepidation, hesitation and qualification, but without the faintest sense of my own irony: an atheist caught believing in the religion of man’s ultimate progress and goodness.
And yet another year has passed and the irony is staring me in the face. I have witnessed case after case after case with one conclusion: Black Lives don’t Matter. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. John Crawford III. Tamir Rice — a 12-year-old boy — gunned down within seconds of officers arriving on the scene, with no words exchanged, no orders issued, no attempts to communicate or to understand, and of course, no justice to be found.
Again I find myself filled with righteous rage, against the system and against its agents. And yet smothering those emotions are others: resignation, hopelessness, and depression.
Black Lives Matter, when I first heard it, struck me as Black Power must have struck those my age in the late 60s: as a defiant declaration of resistance and self-actualization, sending chills down my spine with the power of its transgressive nature. But on some days, I only hear a cruel joke: a credo that is nothing but a false assertion, a desperate plea for validation of self-worth against a system that inflicts dehumanization.
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps there is reason for hope.
In August, Governor Jerry Brown of California banned the use of grand juries in cases surrounding police violence. Only time will elucidate the impact of this change. But to me, it strikes me as horrendously naive to see grand juries as the one key flaw.
Time has taught me one thing, and it is that the black condition is not an exploitation of an otherwise exemplary system, but rather its fundamental result. That is nothing minor procedural changes will ever remedy.
The American Dream itself is still the enemy of blackness, and all we have done is reshaped The Dream in increasingly subtle and insidious ways, that we might pat ourselves on the back and marvel at how “far” we’ve come.
In the year leading up to the Ferguson protests, I had been struggling with my own innocence, grappling with my belief in the fundamental nature of what Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to as “The Dream”. I had long since come to terms with the fact that The Dream was built to perpetuate the comfort of the conglomerate of those we call “white”, built on the backs of those who society calls “black”.
But I still believed — still had to believe — that The Dream could be expanded to include people like me.
Being born of parents both black and white and yet unquestionably seen as black and not white, I should have known better. Blackness and whiteness are not objective realities any more than the borders of countries or the meanings of words; they are arbitrary lines in the sand, social constructs used to divide people, elevating some with the oppression of others.
American liberalism is an exercise in expanding personhood, expanding whiteness. Where once the Irish and the Italians were not white, now they lie safely within The Dream. Women and gays and minorities have all fought for their marginal personhood, earning the right to own property or vote or work, whatever they could scrabble to hold onto amidst a deluge of dehumanization.
We cannot continue to modify The Dream, step by step, deciding which groups we allow beyond the white picket fences and which groups we demonize. This is not solely the work of Trump and his ilk, those who would build a wall to keep out Mexicans or Muslims or other “undesirables”. It is the work of all who tolerate such a system.
By changing the notion of personhood, we merely switch the target of the forces of dehumanization. Only by rejecting the notion of non-personhood wholesale — rejecting ethnicity and nationality, rejecting skin tone and borders — can we create a world without second-class people.
In the struggle between the “give it time” of liberalism and the nostalgia of conservatism that dominates political discourse in America, I find myself standing strangely on the sidelines, espousing a radical departure from a system that has served America — or at least some Americans — quite well.
For now, much like Coates, I have come to terms with the reality that no communication with America — no analogy or metaphor, no movement, no empathic appeal — can ever “close the gap between [their] world and the world for which I have been summoned to speak”.
And yet I continue to do the one thing that has ever distilled together the madness of the world into clarity for me: I write. Ta-Nehisi Coates called writing “a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations”, and so writing seems a fitting reaction to a shattering of innocence.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —