Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 11: Double Standard of Violence

Hi friends, 

Sunday marked the sixth anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown, which feels like a particularly important way to begin this week’s conversation. If you don’t remember, a primer is this: on August 9, 2014, an unarmed Black teen, two days before he was supposed to move into his college dorm, was shot down on the street on his way home from a convenience store. His body was left on the pavement for four hoursHis name was Michael Brown

Headlines about Michael Brown varied tremendously over the months that followed. His killer was never indicted. I (Emily) don’t remember Mike Brown’s killing as well as I remember the non-indictment of his killer. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling – the way all the hair on my body stood up in a way it hadn’t before, realizing in real time that justice looks so different based on the color of your skin and the social power of the person who harmed you. I remember watching TV footage of protests erupting in Ferguson, St. Louis, and across the country from my cousins’ Atlanta home right before Thanksgiving on a break during my sophomore year of college. The word “criminal.” Videos of storefronts covered in graffiti. The words “Black Lives Matter” conflated with “criminal.” I think that was the first time I heard the resounding chant. Black Lives Matter. I remember sitting at the dinner table with my family feeling so hollow, so angry, so complicit, so conflicted. The term “looters.” The term “what he deserved.” Newsreels of anchors making sure to note that Mike Brown may have had THC in his system when he died. Every headline about Mike’s humanity was met with five more about how he was “no angel,” making sure to qualify his murder with some level of deservedness. And then making sure to give airtime to every single store owner and every single corporate entity, while giving so little attention to Mike, to his family, to who he was, to who he was becoming, and to who he had been robbed of becoming when he was shot down in the street and left face down to bleed for four hours. Four hours. I remember squirming, angry listening to Killer Mike’s Reagan on a constant loop during my 4 hour drive back to Clemson. I remember trying to justify it in my own head – “maybe he was breaking the law, maybe they have a point.” Because as a white girl-becoming-woman, I had always been taught that the cops had a point. That surely people who broke the law should be punished. I’d always been taught to empathize with the people in power, not the “criminals,” even if those criminals would become the powerful people’s victims. 

Readers, at this point in the summer, I think we can all acknowledge that Mike Brown was murdered. Horrifically. Undeservedly. In cold blood. Because he was a Black person whose very existence intimidated a white officer. Because that officer, much like many of us, had been socialized to believe that a large Black man was a threat. Because that officer was empowered by many systems built, predicated upon, and supported by white supremacy. 

And, we think it’s important to acknowledge that even if Mike Brown had a criminal record (he didn’t), somehow had been armed (he wasn’t), or wasn’t supposed to be heading to college 2 days after his murder (he was), that would not make his death less tragic or less undeserved. Black lives still matter when their stories aren’t relatable to you, when they aren’t college-bound, when they’re wielding a weapon or are breaking a law, when they are disabled, jobless, or not housed. Black lives still matter when the media, leadership, or even your own upbringing might tell you otherwise. Black lives matter more than white convenience, white comfort, and white feelings about what is “normal” or “appropriate.” Black lives still matter when they’re imperfect. 

I (Emily) think back to sitting at my cousins’ house watching those newsreels often, not necessarily because of the travesty of Michael Brown’s murder (though it is a travesty), but because the victim-blaming was, and still is, so normal. Diverting media attention to broken windows and burned-down Wendys—the symptoms of a community so deeply hurt—rather than the systems that create the very harm people are protesting, is nothing new. The language around “looting”, “rioting”, and “criminal” hasn’t changed much since protesters in Ferguson took to the streets, refusing to back down to months of tear gasbean bag roundsarrests, or even the mysterious deaths of protesters for the years that followed. 

So often, we hear news reports conflating Gucci’s loss of property with Lesley McSpadden’s loss of her son, as though the property damage is more devastating than the human being. This week, we’re not going to go into the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a riot (though we’d be more than willing to talk about the legitimacy of a riot as a form of protest at another time), but rather the double standard in how we talk about uprisings, protests, and violence in all forms, depending on who’s committing it. 

DOUBLE STANDARD OF VIOLENCE/UPRISINGS

When we talk about state-sanctioned violence (think: police brutality, evictions, tear gassing protesters, use of military force in far away places, etc.) there is an auto-pilot mentality that somehow victims of this violence “deserve” this treatment. Even as two people who are actively working toward anti-racism, we (Ellie and Emily) both can identify times we have heard a story of a cop harming a person and thought “okay but the cop probably had a reason, right?” To be fully transparent, Emily, who works in the criminal legal field and watches body-cam footage of cops brutalizing people during routine traffic stops regularly as part of her job defending the people brutalized then charged with crimes, often thinks to herself, “okay, but couldn’t [her client!!! The very person whose side she is ON!!!] have been a little more polite to the officer?” And that thought pattern is internalized white supremacy culture. This line of thinking, where we assume that victims of *state* violence must have been in the wrong, where we assume that they are bad actors themselves before we can show compassion for the person who was harmed, is absolutely rooted in racism. At this point in the summer, we’ve seen this double standard play out in real time over and over again: as white protesters wielding assault rifles stormed fast food establishments and governors’ mansions across the country to protest lock-down orders orders with zero legal consequence, Black Lives Matter-related protests (which by and large have been weapons-free) resulted in tens of thousands of arrests. We have been conditioned to believe that the only acceptable forms of violence are those that advance the interests of white people, and that responses to that violence from Black peopleIndigenous peopleimmigrantsPeople of Colordisabled peopleLGBTQIA+ folx, and really anyone from a marginalized group will never be seen as “appropriate” no matter how “peacefully” they protest. From the moment we opened a history textbook, we’ve been taught that the American Revolution (including what’s widely known as the riot that founded the USA, the Boston Tea Party) was inherently good and if you’re like us, you probably never questioned that seemingly “universal truth.” We’ve all grown accustomed to phrases such as “Live free or die,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God,” that are etched into our buildings, our license plates, and our entire education system. Force and violence have always been used as weapons to defend this notion of “liberty,” because—as John Adams once said in reference to the colonists’ treatment by the British—“We won’t be their N*groes.” 

However, the language used to refer to protesters of such violence has included looters, thugs, and even claims that (Black) protesters are un-American. White people across the country have always been granted the opportunity to employ force and violence when it behooves their interests (which are often, frankly, only peripherally related to liberty). This opportunity to employ violence is explicitly denied to Black people, and it’s impossible to decouple this double standard from white supremacy culture. Americans are taught to reflect on the civil-rights era as a moment of nonviolence and civil disobedience, conveniently forgetting that this movement was an orchestrated response to the violence that Black people encountered everywhere they went: violence trying to get a sandwich at the lunch counter. Violence trying to vote. “Violence that bombed a church with four little black girls inside. Violence that left a bloated black boy in an open casket. Violence that left a black husband and father murdered in his driveway. The movement ended with the violent death of Martin Luther King Jr. And his death ignited riots in more than 100 cities.” 

This week, we want to challenge ourselves to reflect on times we’ve held Black people protesting the police killing their loved ones to a higher standard than we hold college students after winning a big football game. We want to reflect on the role that racism has played in our understanding of what kinds of force and violence are “appropriate” and challenge that double standard when we see it, constantly reminding ourselves that people will always be more important than property. It’s “obscene…to accus[e] a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting.” -James Baldwin

WORDS OF THE WEEK

Word we are learning
Black (vs. African American)
Somewhere along the path of political correctness, African American was assumed by many people to be the most correct and inclusive term, while calling someone Black was thought of as “taboo,”  politically incorrect, or even a slur. The reality is, however, not all Black people are African descendants, so assuming all Black Americans identify as such is to exclude countless other countries and cultures that have Black citizens. Additionally, discomfort with saying Black demonstrates internalized anti-Blackness and calling someone Black is only a slur/insult if we believe that Blackness or being Black is inherently a bad thing. 

Word we are unlearning
Aggressive (when addressing Black people)
Along the lines of this week’s topic, the term “aggressive” is often used to describe Black people and it is rooted in White peoples’ fears of Black bodies and the harm they are stereotypically believed to cause. Black men are being “aggressive” when they speak out about injustice, while White men are being “assertive” and “dominant” when standing up for what they believe in. The connotations are different, and White men are looked to as leaders, while Black men are feared as if they are animals.

But I call white people aggressive?
I (Ellie) personally experienced a huge learning moment when I first moved into my apartment with two Black women, my first time living with anyone who wasn’t White. We were attempting to furnish our apartment and I felt my roommates were being harsh to me over text about a couch we were debating getting. I told them I thought they were being “aggressive.” I said it mindlessly, responding to them in the same way I might have to former White roommates of mine. I felt defensive and “attacked” when they explained to me that my comment was rooted in racism. “But I’m not a racist,” I said. “I call White people aggressive, too.” What I have come to understand since this incident is that calling a White person aggressive is personal. It’s rooted in that individual’s actions and it is a reflection of that individual only. Calling a Black person aggressive, however, is rooted in a centuries long belief that Black people are dangerous. 

What should I say instead? 
It is better to avoid this accusation altogether. There are other ways to convey your frustration with a Black individual whom you are having a conflict with than to call them aggressive or label them as an aggressor. In the same way that we are working towards unlearning our own biases, we are working to unlearn language that is harmful and historically oppressive. Calling someone aggressive implies that you are in danger, so if that is not actually the case, engage in the conflict knowing that (as a White person)  you might be entering into it with preconceived notions or unconscious biases that sway your beliefs. 

A HISTORY LESSON: THE USPS

Many of you have probably already read some of the widespread concerns with what seems like a concerted effort to dismantle the United States Postal Service (USPS), but in case you haven’t, here’s our brief explanation:The USPS used to be an ideal model of success by a governmental agency. It generated billions of dollars of surplus revenue each year from stamp sales and postal deliveries. And in 2006, a lame duck Republican Congress passed the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, requiring USPS to pre-fund future retiree health benefits for 75 years. This would mean fully funded health benefits for workers who hadn’t even been born yet (and it’s worth noting that not a single other agency or employer does this. For obvious reasons). All of a sudden, this otherwise financially stable entity was hit with a wave of debt. This law placed an unmanageable financial strain on USPS, which was understandably unable to pay over $100 billion dollars of their money in that health benefit account in a few months time. The law itself, not the actions of the postal service or its workers or its partnerships with other companies, has bankrupted the agency. On top of that, the current Postmaster General has personal financial investments in FedEx and UPS, the USPS’s main competitors and privatized providers of shipping services. 

Okay yeah this law made it complex and the Postmaster General sounds sketchy but why is this such a problem?
A few reasons:
* Privatized services prioritize profits, not access. FedEx and UPS won’t have the same centralized hubs as USPS post offices and therefore won’t be accessible to low-wealth, rural, and often predominantly Black and Brown areas. In fact, there is a real concern that private competitors may not deliver mail to rural areas at all, because the majority of mail delivered the last mile of its journey is carried exclusively by USPS, no matter who you paid to ship it. Last year, the Postal Service delivered 1.4 billion packages for FedEx and UPS
* The USPS is the third-largest provider of jobs of any federal agency, employing over 618,000 people across the country, which are some of the best jobs in high poverty areas. To dismantle the USPS would result in hundreds of thousands more job losses in an already economically unstable time. 
* USPS provides services that don’t otherwise exist in rural areas – it serves as a bank to cash money orders in places in the 40% of zipcodes that don’t have a local bank. And it could do even more — “34 million American families live in places without traditional banking services. High-interest payday lenders and check-cashing services charge low-wage working families in those communities an average of over $2,400 a year. Experts estimate that low-cost banking services could save American workers a trillion dollars a year.” (You can read this helpful foreffectivegov.org blog here!)
* The election. – Trump has long stirred the cauldron of election fraud conspiracy theories and his “concerns” about mail-in voting are no different. However, the concern about people physically getting their ballots in to be counted in time for the election is real, especially as the Trump administration refuses to bailout the Postal Service or its workers amid coronavirus.

Which leads us to our usual refrain: register to votecheck your voter registration statusrequest your absentee ballotfind out where your polling place is (if you still prefer to vote in person), and apply to be a poll worker if you are physically able. 

This week, we’re putting our money into stamps and buying exclusively from the USPS (we are loving these Harlem Renaissance designs) and sending postcards to voters and signing up to phonebank in our home states. Ellie and Emily are writing to voters in SC about Jaime Harrison! If you’re not from a battleground state, you can pick a state and write to their voters, too!You can also text USPS to 50409 and the Resistbot will help you generate a letter to your elected officials urging them to protect the USPS. We recommend calling, too!And to support USPS (and because we love snail mail) we will send YOU, yes YOU personally a handwritten postcard this week if you reply to this email with your mailing address 🙂

RESOURCES
Primary Resource
Note: during this week’s dialogue, we will be discussing a little bit of last week’s Primary Resource and a little bit of this week’s, to have a robust conversation about double standards in both everyday life and in protest.
The Double Standard of the American Riot

Secondary Resources
* Dorian Johnson, Witness to the Ferguson Killing, Sticks By His Story
* They Don’t Know What I Know: Cori Bush Is Poised to Change Politics

Other Resources We Loved
* The Role of the Police in Gentrification – a lawsuit about Breonna Taylor’s murder sheds light on how eviction raids, much like the raid that police were attempting when they barged in Breonna Taylor’s house and shot her in her bed, are common in neighborhood “renewal” projects. “Employees with the city’s department of economic development vehemently denied a “grand secret” between police action and the redevelopment initiative, but acknowledged wanting to return the block “to productive use” by tearing down some properties.”
* Biden’s Disability Plan Could Close the Equal Pay Loophole – “Although the Americans With Disabilities Act, passed 30 years ago this summer, protects people with disabilities from employment and pay discrimination, a little-known loophole allows employers that hold a special certificate to pay disabled workers less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. These employers can even pay workers with disabilities according to how productive they are, or at a rate per piece… The same rules do not apply to nondisabled people: An employer cannot pay a nondisabled worker less for performing below peak productivity on an “off day,” because they, unlike some disabled workers, are guaranteed a minimum wage.”[Also, surprise! This newsletter endorses the Biden-Harris ticket! Not because of who either of them are personally (though there is something SO amazing about having the daughter of two immigrants, the first Black, first South Asian woman nominee for Vice President) or a Blue Wave or even Emily’s political mantra the past few years “the lesser of two evils is still less evil,” but because they have *actual tangible plans* that really could make life more equitable, more livable for people across the country. We’re not going to turn the other way re: their shortcomings in prior policy decisions, but we think it’s important to note that there is a meaningful difference between their ticket and the Trump-Pence one. We will both be the first to tell you that this presidential race isn’t our *dream scenario* but we think it’s really, really important to give credit to policy ideas and leaders that will push those. We believe that the Biden-Harris ticket is the obvious choice if we want SCOTUS nominees that reflect our values, cabinet appointees that reflect our values (Goodbye Betsy DeVos! Goodbye Ben Carson!), a graduate of an HBCU in office (SO cool), leaders that value necessary government agencies like the CDC and the USPS, and people that might just listen to the people’s demands, even if it happens incrementally.]
* What It Is Is a WAP – Kaitlyn Greenidge tackles the music video that’s breaking the internet with a take that Emily is obsessed with (sorry to her mom, personally, who we are advising to NOT watch the WAP video but who might benefit from this article at least!)”To write to a group of most likely white abolitionist readers, who despite their antislavery stance still held racist views about Black women. To still write “there is something akin to freedom” in a woman giving consent, specifically sexual consent. Its a sentence that is still radical today… When we render something unspeakable, we erase it from history and experience, among other things.”

A COOL OPPORTUNITY NEXT MONDAY NIGHT
What Now: An Anti-Racist Teach InEllie found this very cool opportunity to learn alongside modern civil rights leaders Ibram X. Kendi (author/professor of Stamped from the BeginningHow to Be an Antiracist, and Anti-Racist Baby) and Bryan Stevenson (founder of Equal Justice Initiative, author of Just Mercy). We will both be tuning in next Monday at 8PM EST/6PM MDT. If you sign up, you also get a free copy of one of their books. Join us if you can!Well that’s it for this week! We’ll see everyone on Sunday to discuss the double standards of racism in language and in violence and per usual, we’ll send the zoom link and the discussion questions this weekend. Until then, we’ll be listening to Jorja Smith’s By Any Means and rewatching Black Is King on Disney+ (have you seen it yet? It is stunning). 

Stay safe, hydrated, and healthy ‘til we show up in your inboxes again. 
In solidarity,
Ellie and Emily

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