When I was a preteen I was an avid believer that UFOs were spaceships occupied by visiting space aliens, and I mourned with my deluded fellow travellers the common absence of cameras. We’d run those fellows to ground if only everyone carried a camera, we collectively lamented.
Now everyone carries a camera, and not just any camera either, but a camera sharper and crisper than the best 35mm SLR on the market, circa 1968, and a movie camera to boot. Despite all that filming power the elusive UFO became even more elusive. The unintended consequence of such cinematic firepower is people started filming other people instead of spacemen, and some of the people they filmed included officers of the law.
When the 1991 Rodney King beating occurred, I, like many of my white privileged ilk, thought of it as a fluke. Little did we know that what we were seeing was the consequence of the common proliferation of video recording devices and the criminal lawlessness they unveiled. As time progressed and the devices became more common, more sophisticated and smaller, they revealed to our collective horror a deep social injustice that had been with us all along. People of color were being routinely beaten and murdered by officers of the law under color of authority, and they were getting away with it. We just didn’t know about it because it wasn’t being habitually filmed. We refused to listen to the victims because they were black.
One would think that the beatings and murders would stop, what with all those cameras around these days, but they haven’t. Many cops apparently haven’t got the memo that it’s a bad idea to kill people of color these days. Maybe they continue to do it because they largely get away with it still, even to this day.
The recent murder of George Floyd doesn’t just tell us it continues to go on, it also ought to alert us to the inescapable fact that it goes on all the time. The bastard who casually kneeled on Mr Floyd’s neck for nine minutes until Mr Floyd died didn’t even look like he was trying to hide it. He and the cops with him were pretty casual about the whole thing. For them it was just another day at the office, and, swathed as they were in the systemic racism of their department and their own personal white privilege, it clearly didn’t occur to them that anything would come of it.
The truth of the matter is it’s not going to stop until we change. There’s a lot wrong with us white folk that we just don’t comprehend yet, and cops like the ones who murdered George Floyd depend on our lack of self-knowledge for cover. For example, quite a lot of ink is being spilled about the damage to property caused by the so-called rioting and looting. I find that personally disgusting, not because looting isn’t wrong, but because we all seem to think it’s our job to say so and endlessly harp on it. We all think it’s our job to speak out against looting and to imply that it’s diminishing the cause of the murder of Mr. Floyd with a tut-tut-tut of our lily white tongues.
Sure it’s too bad, but insurance money will pay for it and St. Paul, Minnesota, will heal and carry on. But George Floyd is never coming back. They’ve taken his life away from him, and all we can do is lament at how it’s all getting spoiled because of some lousy minor league looting. I hope you’re appropriately sickened by that narrative, because now that it’s being promoted by the president of the United States it has suddenly become the official American narrative.
It’s almost like we look for reasons to victim-blame and fault-find when black people are involved. For example, I am an admirer of Martin Luther King, Jr., and whenever I mention that fact to a white person, as often as not they will mention that Dr. King was a womanizer and a plagiarist. But I can also say that I admire John F. Kennedy and they don’t mention his womanising as often. Or I can say how much I admire his brother Robert, for that matter, who was both a womanizer and a plagiarist, and they don’t say a damned thing about him. The real criticism is reserved for Dr. King alone, who must always answer to a higher standard.
Donald Trump isn’t only a child rapist and murderer, he is also a flagrant racist. He and his father were fined by the city of New York for refusing to rent to people of color in 1973. Trump famously took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the execution of five black men, the so-called Central Park Five, who were alleged to have raped a white woman. Despite subsequent forensic evidence exonerating them all, Trump still refuses to accept the evidence or apologize to the men.
Trump promoted the odious conspiracy theory known as “birtherism” suggesting that Barack Obama was born, not in Hawaii, but in Kenya. Trump called the white supremacist murderers of Heather Heyer “very fine people.” Trump has been cited by numerous people who know him as holding deeply racist beliefs.
We know what he is, so when Trump feigned outrage at the death of George Floyd we can and must call him out as a hypocrite. But there’s nothing really more to say about the institutional racism of the Republican Party in general, or the virulent bigotry of Donald Trump in particular. As I say, we all know who and what they are. We need to clean our own house.
There’s a disgusting old joke that gets attributed to various people but is really wholly an invention. A man at a posh dinner party asks a lady if she would go to bed with him for a million pounds sterling. “Of course,” she replies without hesitation. When he asks the same question for a hundred pounds she rises up indignantly and proclaims, “what kind of woman do you think I am?” To which the man replies, “we’ve already established that, madam, we are merely haggling over the price.”
My fellow white brothers and sisters, we are all racists, and it’s time we stop denying it. The more we deny it the longer it’s going to take to fix it. Of course we are not the same kind of racists that Donald Trump and his gang of thugs are. But when we quibble and endlessly recite that we “don’t have a racist bone in our body” we are really just haggling over the price.
I’m not talking about ancestral guilt. That sounds a little too much like “original sin” for my money — and I repudiate both. I’m talking about how out of touch we are with our very own White Privilege, how we unconsciously take it for granted as our due, how we behave as if it’s our right to claim as one of the Constitutionally guaranteed American freedoms.
Just as the camera has revealed the length and breadth and depth of still extant American systemic racism, the death of George Lloyd has yet again revealed the subtle ways in which we all participate in that racism. We are ever-so-shocked, so lily-white-appalled at some minor league looting that we actually dare to equate it with murder. The fact that much of the damage is actually caused by white supremacists in order to provoke our outrage and start a race war is beside the point. The real shame is that we already possess so much factory-built outrage to provoke. We need to stop lip-syncing to the Milli Vanilli music of white outrage and take a long hard look at ourselves, because that, dear Brutus, is wherein much of the fault lies.
When Trump and his pirate ship of American grifters are finally gone and defeated in November, we still have much work ahead. Our first priority is to make sure such people can never come back and take over again. But in order to ensure that duty is properly discharged, we ourselves must also undergo a spiritual metamorphosis. Forget about what you think, we fall a long, long way short of the racism-free view of ourselves that we so openly cherish. Self-assessment of that kind isn’t up to us. If you really want to know how you’re actually doing in your quest to cast off racism, ask a person of color. We cannot be trusted to figure that out for ourselves. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.