Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Long Overdue Post

Hello, dear reader. It has now been nearly two years since my last post, so please accept my now standard apology for the very long lapse. Since I last posted, a few big things have happened in my life, not least of which is that I'm now married. But as much as I'd love to write all about my lovely wife in this overdue post, I'd like to write about something that's even more overdue.

For 11 days now, this country has been rocked from coast to coast, on account of the latest wrongful death of a Black American, George Floyd. I hesitate to use "death" in the singular, because there is some regular cadence to news like this in America. In fact, this country had not even finished processing the deaths of Amaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor before the profoundly disturbing video footage of George Floyd's arrest, choking, and death flooded the airwaves. What a horrific scene.

While my wife and I are both immigrants in America, we differ in that she didn't grow up in this country, while I (largely) did. Even before the latest news, I've frequently found myself talking to her and frankly struggling to gather some semblance of an answer to questions like:
  • Why are so many encounters with law enforcement in America lethal?
  • Why is there such a quick escalation to the use of (lethal) force?
  • Why are Black Americans disproportionately affected?
Throughout all these questions, a terrifying thought emerged. As the more recent immigrant, my wife was viewing the issues of racial injustice taken to the extreme through a "fresher" lens, but what about me? In my adult life in this country, I witness racial tension in one form or another every day. But did I see injustice? Or did I just assume that it's a part of life, and carry on about my business? Had I become numb? Did I turn a blind eye? Am I a part of the problem?

A couple nights ago, my wife and I watched a movie called "Mad Money", starring Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, and Katie Holmes. It was a rather prescient but otherwise forgettable movie released in early 2008 about a woman with a laid-off husband who hatches a plot to recruit some fellow lady coworkers and rob the Federal Reserve Bank of its horde of retired cash. One scene involving Queen Latifah's character Nina, who is a single mother of two young boys, stuck with me in particular. I'll describe and paraphrase:

[at home, Nina preps boys to get ready for school. Boys are watching CNBC's Mad Money / Jim Cramer on TV --- (never mind that Cramer's show doesn't come on in the mornings)]

[Cramer on TV] ... the CEO has lost his mind! If you ask me, the whole board outta get 20 years in jail!"
[Nina's elder son, watching the show] Yeah right, like a white guy's gonna do time. 20 years? We'd get that for stealing a candy bar from a convenience store.
[Nina, stern response] Hey! You listen to me. Ain't no men making jokes about crime. Ain't no men in prison. Just corpses who don't know enough to lie down. Now that is not who you gon' be. I don't care what I gotta do, you ain't goin' that way, do you hear me?
[Nina's elder son, shrinking] Yes ma'am. (Joking) I was going to steal a candy bar, but now I won't.
[Nina, hugging her sons] Come here, gimme some love.

I don't really think of Queen Latifah as a character actor, but for some reason the scene felt immediately cliché. Here's a black woman in America, trying to make ends meet but working hard to get a better life for her kids. Most pointedly, not afraid to use a heavy hand to ensure that her sons stay on a path to success. Here, in this movie from 2008, was a kid whose snarky comment was an acid test for a sense of racial injustice.

But of course there are so many more examples of the same story, over and over.

The first place that my family lived after coming to this country was a majority black neighborhood in Fresno. At six years old in a new country, I wasn't allowed to wander outside much. So my first interactions with Black Americans and black culture was through TV. I remember watching sitcoms like Fresh Prince and Family Matters. Even though they were both "mainstream", there was an occasional episode that didn't shy away from issues of racial injustice. In one episode of Fresh Prince, Will and Carlton got pulled over at night. Will (who always embodied "the real world") cringed as Carlton said all the wrong things during the interaction with the police officer, prompting a foreseeably bad outcome. Uncle Phil ends up saving the day. In an episode of Family Matters, Eddie was racially profiled while driving in a white neighborhood, prompting a shivers-down-the-spine response from Officer Carl when confronting the bad apple cop. Over and over again, I would have seen the same motif, the same plot line appear in countless other shows and movies.

Seemingly with the rise of reality TV in the 2000s, this pattern of injustice was no longer confined to scripted entertainment. For George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor, or the likes of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and so many more whose names I am embarrassed to admit I either forgot or I may have never known — they met their fates in the real world, with real police officers. And for Ahmaud Arbery and Treyvon Martin who were killed in racially-motivated violence by their fellow civilian citizens, that was in the real world, too. For all I know, these could have been my neighbors.

But this isn't about me. And for whatever racial profiling and injustices I might have faced for being a Yellow American, I see now — perhaps not 20/20 but clearly enough — that what Black Americans face is next level. Wearing my face in America, I may be mistaken for being a bad driver. I may be mistaken for someone who doesn't speak English. I may be mistaken for someone who is good at math and science. I sometimes see a glint of anxiety as I walk past someone else's car, prompting the owner mistake me for a young car thief and hit the [LOCK] button on their keyfob a couple times. Bad, yes, but that's it. I don't get cops called on me for looking suspicious. I don't worry about getting pulled over when I'm driving a Mercedes/BMW/Audi/Lexus. I don't worry about being mistaken for a criminal suspect. I don't worry that a police officer may accidentally shoot and kill me during my normal course of life.

What I know now is that the reality Black Americans face is too often and very literally life and death. So for those who use "All Lives Matter" as a retort to BLM, consider that it's not about saying that non-blacks don't matter, or that Black Lives Matter more than yours, but rather that black lives must matter more than the status quo, more than they do today, and that Black Americans are being pointed out specifically because this gap of injustice has been proven over and over again on every metric of consequence (education, employment, net worth, life expectancy) for a very long time.

So yes, this is a post that's long overdue. I don't yet know what the solution is — I suspect that many of us, of any and all colors, are still very unsure about this part. But I do know where it starts as of today. It starts with something very small that I can do, that I can say: that Black Lives Matter, that I see the injustice, that it's not just supposed to be a part of life, that I will not just carry about my own business, that I will not become numb, that I will not turn a blind eye, and I will not be a part of the problem. I will be a part of the solution.

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