Sunday, March 17, 2013

Steubenville rape case; Old Habits; Being White in Philadelphia

A few hours from now, at 10AM this St. Patrick’s Day, a judge in Steubenville Ohio is expected to announce his verdict in the horrendous case of a 16-year old girl who was allegedly raped last August by the town’s football stars while dozens of her peers condemned not the perpetrators but the victim. They tweeted and texted and Instagrammed and generally celebrated the incident in a viral version of a celebratory community lynching, where crowds vied for parts of the strange fruit that was a burned and hung black corpse.

Nowadays the ethnicity of the victim and the accused is not a part of the news report unless it is somehow germane — the victim’s words, active pursuit of a suspect, a race crime. It is somewhat atypical in this case that the names of the defendants — Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond — are mentioned regularly in the news given that they are 17 and 16 respectively — the victim is also 16 — and the case is Juvenile Court.

Trent Mays, in foreground and Ma’lik Richmond, rear
While I always assumed that Ma’lik was African American, I did not know Trent was Caucasian until I saw his picture for the first time yesterday. The discovery was relief in the sense that it removes race from the equation and puts the focus on the boys’ behavior, where it belongs.

I suspect the boys will be found guilty and placed in juvenile detention, where they could be held until they turn 21.

A fair and balanced summary of the case can be found here.

Old Habits
Old habits die hard. A lot of older black folks are wont to check the race of the alleged perpetrators whenever news breaks of an especially heinous crime. This habit isn’t just idle or morbid curiosity; it has a distinct relationship to self-preservation, for in olden days whenever a Negro went off the reservation and did something crazy or especially depraved, the whole black community might be made to pay. This was particularly true in the South, where often just a rumor or allegation of a Negro’s impropriety could lead to severe reprisals, including lynching or other brutal acts of “justice” or “revenge”.

These seemingly random acts of retribution were actually not random at all. They were part of an elaborate plan of social control designed to keep Negroes in their place, which was under the heel of the white man. The reign of terror was so effective that even where blacks overwhelmingly outnumbered whites, the former were afraid even to register to vote, leaving the political establishment and law enforcement apparatus to the whims of the local minority.

Though I spent only a few of my formative years living below the Mason-Dixon Line, so strong was the color barrier in this country that its residue remains alive with an undeniable potency, all the stronger because the emotions it arouses — pain, anger, resentment, shame, fear, guilt — are so powerful and dangerous.

I was born in Washington DC when that city was culturally a part of the South. Negroes were barred from all manner of public accommodations, including hotels and restaurants. Black parents back then — and I’m talking late 1940s, early 1950s — employed a bevy of strategies for raising their children in ways that protected them from a hostile world.

The strategies of course depended in part on how and where the parents themselves were raised. Some parents spelled things out in black and white: in other words, they told it like it was.

My parents took a different tack, probably in hopes of shielding me from the psychological damage of knowing that most people in the country considered me to be an inferior human because my parents were inferior because their parents were inferior because, … Educated black people — my Houston, Texas-born father and my Richmond, Virginia-born mother each had three degrees before my eighth birthday — often were consumed by trying to prove they were as good as white people. Oftentimes this led to feats of stupendous overachievement. Probably it resulted more often in all sorts of warped notions that privileged white connections or likeness at the expense of substantive achievement. Appearances and imitations, as detailed so well in E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie, became more important in the futile attempt to persuade white folks to like and accept us.

Back in the day, it seemed that whenever a black person got really out of hand, it was a setback for the whole race and this collective struggle for acceptance.

What prompts this extended reminiscence? To tell the truth, I venture to say most black folks carry this stuff around with us all the time. It’s not that we want this extra tonnage on our backs but even today society won’t really let us set it down. If we don’t carry it as a personal handicap, we nonetheless must observe millions of our less fortunate brethren who remain trapped not only psychically, but economically and socially as well. Place matters. Race matters.

It’s Hard Being White in Philadelphia
I have been wrestling for some time with what to say about “Being White in Philly”, this month’s cover story in Philadelphia magazine. The piece is a pathetic example of how not to talk about race, and offers up an especially noxious kind of paternalism to boot.

There have been several effective rejoinders to the cover story. One of the best is Daniel Denvir’s article in the Philadelphia CityPaper. One reason I like Denvir’s retort is his description of Philadelphia magazine as their city’s “most white-bread journalistic institution”. Substitute Cleveland for Philadelphia and you win the prize for naming our city’s whitest publication in complexion, cultural orientation, and voice.

One of my favorite bloggers is Wayne Bennett, a Jamaican American Philadelphia lawyer who writes decidedly un-Philadelphia lawyer-like commentary under the moniker “Field Negro”. In the first of his two pieces on this magazine article he quotes a white woman thusly:

What the writer of “White in Philly” doesn't really have the stones to write about is the poverty that pervades so many neighborhoods in Philadelphia and crushes people's lives, because his subscribers on the Main Line or in Cherry Hill don't want their peaceful dream of entitlement disturbed. So instead, he blends anecdotes into a soothing milkshake of "See, even nice people with the best possible motives can't get along with black people because they're SO DARNED TOUCHY. It's not you, it's them!"

There's a reason why only people in the suburbs subscribe to this local version of SkyMall. They wouldn't want to read anything that actually looks at economic inequality, heavens no.

As noted earlier, almost any interracial discussion is fraught with emotional intensity, whether voiced or suppressed. When my family moved to Cleveland in the mid fifties, the city had an undeserved reputation for racial goodwill. The reality was we moved to a town that was a raging exemplar of de jure segregation and discrimination in housing, education, and employment. In a benign, Northern sort of way.

We shall continue to misapprehend the nature of our racial relations when we focus on the many persons of genuine good will in our communities but overlook the systemic and structural forces that reinforce inequities deeply rooted in our national and local history.

1 comment:

Roldo Bartimole said...

Excellent, thoughtful pieces Richard.
Thank you, Roldo