In the universe there is a substance that has long eluded direct detection by astrophysicists and astronomers, but which has a profound effect upon the universe: Dark Matter:
Dark matter is non-luminous matter that cannot be directly detected by observing any form of electromagnetic radiation (light), but whose existence is suggested because of the effects of its gravity …
Yet, dark matter is not be completely unobservable. We just have to look for its effects on visible matter. We have to make the effort to see what has previously been unseen.
Understanding these invisible particles is now considered a priority among cosmologists and other scientists who study the universe. There is another form of dark matter, however, that much of white America does not wish to look at or understand, the dark matter of the existence of African American lives and the manner in which they have suffered, and continue to suffer death, imprisonment, discrimination, poverty and indifference to their plight at the hands of their governments, local and federal, and their fellow citizens. As Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, arguably the greatest American Novel of the last century, has his fictional narrator state at the beginning of the novel:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
In the hagiographic history of America, a pastiche of iconic images and legendary tales that fill the pages of our history books, books predominately written by white men, black lives have often been omitted except in those rare instances where their existence is necessary to highlight the exceptional qualities of our nation, or to be more precise, the exceptional qualities of white America. So, African American slavery is acknowledged in order to elevate our civil war to a moral crusade to end it. Lincoln, with his genius for speechifying, became an American immortal. The (mostly white) abolitionist movement and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and an abolitionist ‘champion’ are granted heroic status.
Meanwhile, Frederick Douglas, the escaped slave, self-educated man, tireless advocate for black America and one of the prime movers for ending the institution of slavery, is shoved into a shadowy corner, along with the the sacrifices made by black Union soldiers who literally fought and died for their freedom, though they’re efforts were little regarded at the time and even less rewarded.
Martin Luther King Jr. is (now) viewed as a saintly figure. As the best known leader of the Civil Rights Movement, the words from his greatest speeches are frequently quoted today, even by conservatives who would undo his legacy. MLK is viewed as both a symbol of racial progress and the catalyst for the enactment of the civil rights laws of the 1960s. Those laws that supposedly enshrined the principles of justice and equality in our justice system, and (according to many Americans) embedded them into the fabric of our society.
Glossed over and elided are the many, many violent murders of black men, women, children and civil rights workers, the bombings of black churches and the brutal treatment of African American teenagers peacefully protesting their subjugation by the laws of Alabama by racist police forces. Not to mention our prior history of Jim Crow, lynchings (both judicial and non-judicial), domestic terrorism by white supremacists and the massacres by whites of African American communities in Tulsa and Detroit, among others.
Why has so much of this, our history, been ignored, or worse never taught to the children of America in their still segregated schools? Why do so many white Americans act surprised at the recent rash of murders of African American men, women and yes, children by the very police that are supposed to insure their safety. Why do so many whites contest the notion that the mass incarceration of blacks is a de facto violation of their equal rights under the law?
None of those white people are among the people here, you might respond. They are Republicans and racists and conservative whites. We, on the other hand, are the good ones. We rally around our black community members in times of need. Heck, the Orange Satan went out and signed up Shaun King, a black activist, specifically to highlight these continuing injustices, these symptoms of a society beset by individual and institutional racism.
Fair enough. So, to you, the good guys, let me pose some different questions. Why did so many of us celebrate the removal of the confederate flag from the grounds of South Carolina’s Capitol, figuratively high-fiving ourselves and lauding, in part, our efforts, when the impetus for that action was the slaughter of nine innocent black people in a church at the hands of a young white man who hoped to incite a race war? Why has there been such an uproar here on this blog over the actions of Black Lives Matter to vocally and visibly challenge the Democratic candidates for President who appeared at Netroots Nation 2015 on this last Saturday?
All right, I can hear some of you saying, that’s enough. You, Steven D, are simply trying to stir up more trouble. Bernie Sanders has a great record on supporting the black community and human rights for all people. The Black Lives Matter activists hijacked the event at which he and Governor O’Malley spoke. Their tactics were uncalled for and disrespectful and did a disservice to their cause. They acted as if we, their allies, were their enemies. They had no fucking right to do that!
Here’s my response. I waited a few days to post anything about this matter because I wanted to think about what occurred carefully, and not just react reflexively. Because, to be honest, my initial response was one of defensiveness. I support African Americans. I’ve written diaries about the unjustified and frankly criminal shooting and other killings of black men and women at the hands of police forces across the country. I support Bernie Sanders. I’m one of the good guys, dammit! How dare you attack my motives and good faith.
But that was wrong of me. In the words of the another fictional character, Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird (one whose reputation some feel was unjustifiably sullied by the
posthumous release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman):
“First of all […] if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
And that is the trick, isn’t it. In fact, I believe it’s a trick that cannot be pulled off without a great deal of time and effort, more effort frankly than most people want to make. And even then, the skin you end up walking around in is, at best, only a simulacrum of that person’s life experiences. It’s an approximation, and far from a complete appreciation of what they feel and why they feel what they do.
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
My wife was a rising mid-level executive in a major (at the time) Fortune 500 corporation when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June, 2006. Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers which can afflict someone. She was fortunate. They caught it early. Her cancer had not metalized, and her tumor was confined to her pancreas. She had the surgery to remove her pancreas and spleen, followed by joint chemo and radiation treatments, and then a second course of chemo. She’s been cancer free these last nine years, and that is a blessing. However, she didn’t escape unscathed. The first chemotherapy drug stripped the myelin sheaths from her neurons (think of myelin as similar to insulation around electrical wiring), effectively short circuiting many of the connections between the various regions of her brain.
The effects came on gradually, but were continuous and the damage was cumulative. A woman with a brilliant mind suddenly couldn’t find the car keys she was holding in her own hand. She kept forgetting appointments, missing deadlines, and thus, she took early retirement and disability. She lost the ability to concentrate and focus on mundane tasks. Even reading became a chore because it took so long. She couldn’t remember what was told to her verbally because her short term memory stopped making – well, memories.
And god forbid she found herself in what we now call a “stimuli rich” environment. Her mind could no longer filter out extraneous information to focus on what was essential. Any place a crowd gathered became a living hell for her. Add to that peripheral neuropathy, which includes severe pain and muscle cramps, crashes when her blood sugar dropped too low (she often forgot to give herself insulin shots), nausea and other symptoms of Type 1 diabetes (they took out her pancreas, remember).
You can imagine the frustration and the fear and panic and sheer overwhelming sadness she felt at these losses, yes? No, no you can’t. I know you can’t because I still can’t, and I’ve been working on it for nine years. I thought I understood her based on my own health issues. I knew about sadness. I knew about chronic conditions that force you to retire early. I knew about constant pain, nausea, anger and frustration, but in truth I had no clue how she felt, what she endured. It’s taken a long time for me to begin to reach some comprehension of what she goes through on a daily basis, and that only happened after I stopped assuming that I understood, when I stopped trying to be helpful and after I started listening more to what she was telling me.
I had to learn to hear her, really hear her, because sometimes she said things I didn’t like. Sometimes her anger and anxiety boiled over and she lashed out at me. No one likes to be the focus of another person’s anger, but she was justified. I wasn’t listening to her as well as I should. I was always looking for a “fix” to her predicament instead of just letting her vent. I kept repeating the same mistakes in interacting with me that she told me were unhelpful.
I’ll be honest. There was an element of arrogance in my reaction to her. And arrogance can be a big problem. Only after I had been humbled was I able to begin to listen, listen and learn. And when I did I learned a lot.
I discovered that for month after month, year after year she constantly feared she would die at any time. I discovered she feared losing her mind, of being institutionalized for the rest of her life. I learned her anger and shouting at me was often a defensive response, an attempt to stop me from overloading her with too much information, too fast, information she could no longer process like she once could. I had to discover her all over again, and find the woman I loved underneath all the trauma she suffered and still suffers.
I cannot pretend I really know what her days are like. I can feel a slippery, illusive empathy for her struggles, but that my friends is not the same thing as understanding. At it’s best, it allows me to focus on her needs and not my own. And that is the key, isn’t it?
My wife is also Japanese American. I have some slight knowledge of racial prejudice from my experiences with her and my children over the years, but nothing as damaging or traumatic as any black person I’ve ever met. Police do not stop my kids for driving while Asian. I don’t have to warn them how to act around white people or white police officers, because – hey – with their Northern European/Japanese genes they aren’t seen as dangerous. They aren’t targeted as a threat. Neither is my wife. Rarely does anyone use racial slurs to their faces. Yes, they are stereotyped by many white people (they even joke about it), but its not the same stereotypes with which black people are burdened.
I do not live in a community with many African Americans. Police cars do not troll the streets of my neighborhood looking for excuses to arrest my children or me. The lawns were I live are green and lush, not dead, brown and full of broken glass like the Cincinnati projects I visited in 2004 when I canvassed for John Kerry. The people here have jobs and enough food for their kids. They don’t have that million mile stare, that utter look of something beyond hopelessness that I saw in the eyes of the people whose doors we knocked upon, people who sat and politely listened to the silly white people telling them how important it was to get out to vote when all the voting in the world had done next to nothing to improve their lives.
So, I’m not going to pretend I understand the anger and frustration and fear and emotional trauma that being black in America evokes. I don’t. But I do know that reacting defensively to that anger is not useful. The folks of Black Lives Matter are attempting to stop an assault on not only their liberty, not only their freedom, but their very lives. An assault enabled by both the entertainment and news media. An assault carried out by government bodies local, state and yes, even federal.
For years black people have suffered out of the sight of white people’s eyes. Whether that was done intentionally, out of malice or indifference, or whether it was done out of ignorance makes little difference. All these years while so many whites have been telling themselves the race problem was fixed because of what happened fifty years ago, these same daily atrocities have been ongoing. It is only now that we have the means to record them, and spread the news of them through other avenues than the narrow choke point of traditional media, that we have suddenly seen the people we made invisible, through our own neglect, our own ignorance, our own lack of understanding. And by we, I mean whites of every political and religious conviction.
The easy path is to reject the display of justifiable anger we witnessed on Saturday, to dismiss it, to refuse to listen to the message the voices of Black Lives Matters are trying to have heard. To feel disrespected. To get defensive. To whitesplain to them how wonderful we are, we few we happy few good, liberal, progressive white people.
But that would be a mistake. The same mistake I made with my wife.
Look, I appreciate that there will be those who feel offended by what I’ve written, or that I’m re-hashing matters that are better left alone. But BLM is not going away. African Americans will still be here, whether we choose to engage with them on their terms or not. We, the white community can remain in the dark and reject them, or we can come out into the light and listen, really listen to their grievances, their experiences, their feelings, their stories.
For my money, I think it’s the better way to go. Condemning them gets us nowhere. Not listening to them, thinking we know what their problems are or that we have the solutions for them hasn’t worked out very well for any of us, black or white. For the dark matter of America’s racism and racial conflict that I speak of here affects all of us, and though we may refuse to look at it, it will still pull us down, individually and collectively. That’s how gravity works.