This is America
In 2018, Childish Gambino released the single This is America and the video that was meant to not just supplement the song, but to be part of it. The video and lyrics are a powerful statement about how blacks in America live in a state of constant fear of the potential for institutional failure, whether that failure is with the government that is supposed to create a safe environment, or with the law enforcement agencies that are supposed to enforce the laws fairly and equally, or with the members of the general community, who say they want to live in the land of the free but who often act like the land of the free was only meant to belong to certain groups.
Interestingly enough, when the single won the Grammy awards for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Music Video, and Best Rap/Sung Performance, Donald Glover, the creative force behind Childish Gambino, was not there to accept the prizes. He was nowhere to be seen. Of course, I can only speculate as to what led to his decision not to attend, but if I had one guess, it would be this: he didn’t care about being recognized; he just wanted people to listen to the message.
I’m troubled by the repeated reminders, so many over the last few years, that a lot of people not only haven’t listened, they don’t even want to hear it. When people of color complain about the systemic inequities, pointing at extreme but repetitious examples, those who should be listening default to their echo chambers and shoot off false axioms (“there must have been a good reason”, “cops lives are hard”, “maybe if the person hadn’t done...” and on and on).
So it’s already started with two very notable stories in the news yesterday.
In the first, a black man wisely decided to start recording a white woman who was becoming aggressive towards him in a relatively secluded portion of Central Park called The Ramble. There are a few things to note:
1. The encounter began when Christian Cooper, the man, asked the woman, Amy Cooper (same last name was only coincidence), to leash her dog in accordance with posted rules of the park. Other areas of the park allowed dogs to be off-leash, but he was there specifically to bird watch, a known hobby in that area of the park and exactly why the leash rule was posted.
2. In the video, Ms. Cooper tells Mr. Cooper that she is going to call the police and “tell them that an African American man is threatening my life.” This, to me, requires the most unpacking of the whole event. First, instead of leaving (which is what any sane person would do if they felt their life was threatened), she took the time to call the police on her cell phone, while holding her dog up in the air by its collar, and tell the police exactly what she said she would. But before the call, she didn’t say “I’m going to tell them that YOU threatened my life” but “an AFRICAN AMERICAN MAN is threatening my life.” That distinction should be clear to anyone: it was an unveiled threat to use racial profiling as a weapon. This is the “white privilege” that people talk about in disgusting clarity.
3. She kept approaching HIM while making ridiculous comments about how threatening he was (which was clearly the trigger for him to start recording). And STILL people say “well, we don’t know what he said to her. She may very well have felt threatened.” No, she was angry that HE didn’t feel threatened by HER. Her control mechanism wasn’t working, and so she resorted to threatening to call the police. And when that that threat didn’t work either, she DID call the police.
In the second story, a black man named George Floyd was killed on video by a police officer who refused to lift his knee off of the man’s neck, even as the man pleaded with them to let them know he couldn’t breathe, even after Floyd became non-responsive, even as onlookers pleaded with the officer to take corrective action, even after the cop looked directly into the camera and knew he was being filmed. A couple of notable things:
1. Video taken from a surveillance camera shows the police detaining the man with handcuffs and walking him to the side of the building. At no point on this video does Mr. Floyd appear aggressive, confrontational, or resistant.
2. The alleged crime? Forgery. He wasn’t suspected of violence, he wasn’t suspected of carrying an illegal firearm, and nobody in the surrounding area could attest to him behaving violently.
The message to be heard from these events is this: we have to honestly ask ourselves if we hold a different standard for people who look different. Why is it okay for police to treat one person brutally but if they do it to someone with lighter skin, they’ve overstepped their bounds? What gave that lady the idea that a black man needed to do what she wanted (to let her break the posted rules) or she could call the cops on him? What was she hoping for? That he be treated the same way that George Floyd was treated?
Another thing to remember: both of these incidents occurred in cities in the historic Union, not in the south, where racism seems to be more expected. Minneapolis and NYC are both very liberal, filled with the types of people who like to virtue signal on this type of thing.
Apparently, when it matters, signaling virtue is not the same as having it.