I do not know what it means to be black. I also do not know what it means to be a woman. What it means to be Chinese, I do not know, either man or woman. I do not know what it means to be another Asian, one not Chinese. I do not know what it means to be Jewish or Hindu or Muslim. I do not know if I know what it means to be Italian, as we say in America when we mean Italian-American. I do not know what it means to know what it means to be Italian American. I rarely understand what we mean when we say things like I know what it means to be black or You do not know what it means to be black. I do and do not agree with the former assertions about being black, just as I would with the like assertions about being white or Italian American. I can say the same for Irish, French and Swiss–I do have a French Swiss Great Grandmother who was born in Geneva, Delphine, was her name, something I used to assume was associated with the Oracle at Delphi, but then I would. I know nothing about what it was like for her to be her, to be Swiss to be from Geneva. Yes, I do not know what it is to be Italian-American except in the way I am when I am where I am however I am, and a lot of this has to do with my becoming Italian American the ways I become Italian American; life is a symbiosis of being and becoming, a dialectic of mutually exclusive yet contingent states of being and becoming. No other Italian-American knows what it is like to be me, or any other Italian-American, which brings me to a point I think is important to make for all people. Each one of us is terribly alone, unique, separate, as much as, if not more than we are ever together, part of, included in . . . No one really knows what it is like to be any other person, not exactly, specifically in all the details of another person’s humanity, inhumanity, his troubles and triumphs, his joys and his fears, or his loves and his losses–although I do insist that generalities have a validity for our understanding, even if only limited, and i mean highly so.
Of course, I could say that I do not know what it means to be black in this city, in this state, in this country in this world–moreover, we know this as a fact as I accept this as one; but we also say this because we believe only black people can understand another black man or woman. We do think this way: only women can understand women, only Asians, Asians, and so on and so on–all of us deferring to a baser form of cultural relativism, the latter being a premise for cultural observation, whereby no one from outside a culture can condemn the cultural mores and values of that culture (of course I insist this be limited to an analysis from within by an outsider). These are stairs turned into a slippery incline plane.
I am here to make the assertion that no other black man, if we will, knows what it is like, exactly, for any other. It is true, of course, within its own limits, to say that no one from anywhere knows enough of anyone of any group to say he can say anything about them in the way that would point to knowing . . . a black man lives on Fulton Street in Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn and knows who, when, where . . .how many other African-Americans does he know, actually? He does not even know most people in his building, or does he? How many Italian Americans, and Italian-Americans who are also Irish American, French American, Swiss American–know all Italian-Americans or most Italian Americans? This is not an invitation for us to adopt the horrid rebuttal Who’s to say? in response to any issue we cannot have direct experience with or for. We do, though, have to examine the limits of our knowing and just what it is we can say about what we think in fact of our limited knowledge. What is it that I can say about Italian Americans comes down to how I say it, how I write it, develop it, articulate it, face and handle the limitations of it and around it. Effectiveness and appropriateness are always dependent on a level of intelligence we rarely foster, a level of education we seem unwillingly to sustain and a level of literacy we are clueless we need. What do I know, actually, specifically about being Italian American–yet, each of us does know himself, even if not in the way Socrates infers by his command. Do I then know Italian-Americans because I know myself? Perhaps I know something; maybe more than I might assume in a fostered doubt which can be used to gain sobriety in my reflections on my observations. But do I know everything experientially that I would need to know; I do and would need to know the limits of what is knowable in this way. Moreover, this would be sound epistemology, if I were to examine the limits of my knowledge and exactly what I can say and how I should say what I indeed can say.
What evidence do I have that points to knowledge of Italian Americans? There are, though, generalities that are valid, that possess veracity; however, each of us is an exception to the general rule and only indicative of the general rule when not exceptional. What can we say other than general rules are general rules and have their veracity generally, but that every single separate person stands as an exception or simply apart from the general rule. In fact, every simple separate person I insist is not only an exception, but also macrocosmic to all generalities that govern his or her categorization, and there are categories we make and use, effectively or ineffectively in our governing or in our personal decision making.
I do and do not know what I can say about race. I know I am not black but then the question is raised: does another man being black make him an expert at being black generally or only being black specifically? Moreover, being black specifically, uniquely, individually has a lot to do with his individuality, his uniqueness in the entire history of humanity, his specific choices and actions that are his own and no one else’s. In these, this black man is a lot like me, a white man, an Italian American who is also unique in the whole history of humanity, individual as every person is in-dividual, as each person is also a product of his or her singularly derived choices. In fact, as individuals, we might have more in common with each other than either of us has in common with another one of our race in those ways we try to define race, or what it means to be a part of a race. I am talking of degree. I know there is uniqueness and that there are categories mutually exclusive; yes, there are many, many criteria we could draw up to divide us, or simply draw the lines of what we like to call our human diversity–and I am not set against diversity except when it is unnecessarily divergent, which is something we have to address about diversity: diversity does sometimes lead to acting divergently, as university or universality can determine the kind of unity we achieve, if handled, yes, I am going to say, appropriately. I do insist there needs to be a healthier and more intelligent as well as articulate understanding of our common universality and our diversity, together in a dialogue.
I wish I lived in a society that could address issues of the abuse of power and authority and the rights and security of citizens apart from obfuscation in the issues of race relations, but I do not. Unfortunately, we never get to the issues of power and how it is exercised, or what it means to arm policemen, or exactly what armed police officers can and cannot do. We only seize on the myopic–yes, the horror of existence is that in matters that concern humanity, freedom and personal security, focussing on race is a form of myopia. I have heard many say, don’t think that police officers would not shoot a white kid who was trying to take an officers gun away. I have heard others say, there is no place in the world where anyone engaging a police officer as Michael Brown was witnessed doing would not be shot. Yes, there are others who have said like things to me, mostly non-natives from China, Russia, Albania, Morocco et cetera. There is a consensus of opinion the media does not want to address. I am not saying the consensus in America needs to be changed; but there is a false optimism–yes, optimism–present in the rhetoric of the media when it assumes there is a universal consensus.
Yes, there were African-Americans who testified in corroboration of Officer Wilson, and again, forensic evidence has suggested Michael Brown was not surrendering quite the way some testimony alleged. I am not as quick to discount forensic evidence as some are within the rhetorical hop-scotch many people in America like to play. Can I say that anybody anywhere most likely would have been shot under similar circumstances? I do not know if I can assert most likely. I do know that I have the feeling that this interaction, the one between Mr. Brown and Officer Wilson, would not have ended less horribly than it had in Ferguson if it were played out in Shanghai or Naples or Cairo, or Istanbul or Moscow or Prague or Mexico City or Santiago, Chile. This, of course, is not to say we should feel grateful it does not happen more often–but I am always amazed that it does not happen more often. I do mean by the above analogies to other countries and how police officers there might react to citizens in similar curcumstances–Chinese to Chinese, Italian to Italian, Turkish to Turkish, et cetera, et cetera–that power is power acting powerfully everywhere its power has authority; of course, this is not exactly the situation that was played out in Ferguson. This is a feeling, and I know that feelings are not in themselves reason, and what both points in this diametric opposition need is reason. The anywhere factor would rest on certain facts of power as power and how power is used, imposed against people likewise everywhere in the world; for the United States, it is a mater of degree. If we want to change the Kind, we need to address this issue more broadly, less myopically, more penetratingly than we have up to know. We have only scratched the surface, the racists we are on both sides of this issue.
How has power been used everywhere against everyone for all time is the chief point to understand, and the one we must understand first. Power is something that can be analyzed in its paradigm apart from the particulars of time, of society, of historical circumstances. There is something paradigmatically the same about Augustan Roman Power, Pericelan Greek Power and the power enjoyed by the United States, or how politicians are all of a piece when we compare the dynamics of power and the essentials of its use and imposition in Ancient Rome, contemporary China and the United States. In facts, all states have more in common with each other in their dynamics of power than any state anywhere at any time in history has had with its people.
I do not have the opportunity to test this hypothesis against Roman Centurions and their swords, but I do suspect that the result would not be any less terrible. We could examine how blacks in other predominantly white cities–or in facing predominantly white police forces–do fare. A more specific breakdown of the ethnic and racial make up of a force like the NYPD might not reveal an overwhelmingly dominant white presence; perhaps it might in the upper echelons of the force, but with an increase in the representation from one or another Latino community, what do we have now in our Police force here in New York. But we were talking about Ferguson and not New York, although perhaps we should. I want to leave the Eric Garner case, incident, media event, for another essay. We could talk about Paris and the Berber Muslim and Arab Muslim populations in that city; this might be of benefit for other analyses.
What we have been saying here in America, explicitly or implicitly, is the only reason Michael Brown was shot was because he was black, and that had he been white, he would not be dead. That is what we are saying, isn’t it? If we are not saying this and are saying something else, then we are saying that something else badly, so badly that the inherent ambiguity points in another direction. I am not so certain that we can say what has herein been alleged, that Mr. Brown was shot firstly and lastly because he was African American. I know that this can be thought, more so, felt, viscerally, and many emotions play into perpetuating this idea as the most important one for everyone if not principally and ultimately for African-Americans. No matter how many African-Americans or White people you get to say that the only reason Mr. Brown was shot was because he was black, though, it still cannot be pre-determined that if Michael Brown had ben white in this interaction he would not have been shot. Someone could just as easily assert that he might have been shot sooner, more quickly if he had been white because there would be a lot less backlash. Officer Wilson would probably still have his job; there are like instances in America where white kids are shot by police officers, whether black or white officers, where nothing is made of it by the media. The media picks and chooses stories to promote based on their sensational effect, this correlative with sales and sponsor money. The media are not interested in justice for African-Americans or white people so long as they can keep interest peaked in order to garner more sponsors and higher ratings. This has more in common with the premise and the plot of the movie Network than it does with Justice for All. And everything we have come to understand about the media and their imaging, the media and their bottom lines of dissemination being found in their ledger books. Michael Brown was a money story. All merits with respect for justice or law were irrelevant. This, of course, is the same media that keeps all Israeli atrocities in Gaza from leaking. Practiced in the art of deception and other forms of sleight of hand. The Media is not adverse to lying for sales, to manipulating facts, to editing video for the maximum shock effect or sensationalist driven scandal mongering.
I know the Grand Jury has decided not to indict Officer Wilson. I have seen the outrage. I know that all possible charges will not be levied. I understand the confusion because I see the media making no attempt to help people understand except in their carefully manipulated sound bites that help everyone continue to be strung along. Sound bites that are not too deep and are shallow enough not to interfere with the sponsor’s messages when the newscast, for instance, goes to commercial. One fact, though, must be brought out and that is the fact that there was African-American testimony corroborating Officer Wilson’s testimony. I have not heard much about this from the media and I wondered if that was because the “endemic racism” the media were selling would take a hit from that fact?
The fact that race was made the prime issue in the media detracted from any intelligent handling of this case in the minds of the people–and a perception on this author’s part is that the race card as we like to say is often too quickly played. The media handling of this case was and remains a diversion by power supported by a media elite aligned with monied elites keeping the People–Black, White and Other–separated, alienated, suspicious of one another. The responses to the testimony are telling, how most of us pick and choose facts to use like we do food at our favorite smorgasbord. We are horribly situational about our ethics and then we wonder why we might still have a race conscious society, a situation we are seemingly unable to escape or correct.
Are we to say that there were some African-American witnesses who invented testimony that corroborates Officer Wilson’s testimony? We would have to be if we are to ignore their testimony. Are we to discount testimony based on the premise, the hypothesis, that they are inventing a story? Are we to assume that those who testified that Michael Brown did none of the things others saw him doing are more credible? They do not have to be lying to say what they said about not seeing him do any of things he was alleged to have done. Those things could have been done and not seen by those who testified they did not see him doing any of the things the officer alleged Mr. Brown had done. In fact, no one testifies that a suspect, let’s say, did not do what he is being alleged to have done, but that they did not see him do it. Is the testimony in question without contradiction by the testifiers themselves, and, does their testimony fit the timeline as established and corroborated by other testimony? To say Michael Brown did things he did not do in the commission of what I am assuming would have been felony charges would in fact be perjury. A hundred people who say they did not see me assault someone does not refute four people who did. If I am at the scene and evidence puts me there and forensics corroborates actions committed in the assault, then those who saw me do what I am alleged to have done trump all who say they did not see me do anything.
Let us assume that all the testimony is unreliable. Throw all testimony out including Wilson’s. Wouldn’t we love to be able to do so? Forensic evidence would then be all the evidence that we had to make a determination. The forensic evidence suggests there was a struggle, and that Michael Brown had had his hand on the officer’s pistol. Michael Brown lunging or simply and slowly putting his upper body into the squad car is enough for him to have been shot according to any police protocols anywhere in the world. What world are we living in that thinks this kind of aggression is okay; and it was aggression, unless we are going to say that, what? We are going to say perhaps that white people just do not understand black people? Are we going to say this, and then say that putting your whole upper body into a police vehicle is normal behavior? Are we going to allow emotions to twist our thinking around the idea that we have to read Mr. Brown’s actions as absent of any aggressiveness? Is that what we are saying? If that is what we are saying, am I to understand that if Mr. Brown stuck his head in another African American’s car and took a swing at the driver, that driver would have responded to him with, “What’s up, Brother. Let’s go for a drink”???????? But maybe we are not saying this. Maybe we are saying something else and because our passions are so high what is being said is confused and confusing. People twisted up by their emotions and their frustrations are often unclear about what they are trying to say. It does not serve Justice or Truth to fix on the more grotesque responses to the Grand Jury’s decision.
An investigation of police shootings around the world should be conducted. This could be telling. We should also see if it is not only or principally in America where young men divided from any larger community by the images and ideas disseminated by a media bent on keeping black and white divided in a Machiavellian ploy for the power elite, that this kind of interaction with law enforcement happens. I’m curious, hypothetically, what would have happened to Michael Brown in Ghana if he had engaged with an officer there the way he did with Officer Wilson? What was it about the Michael Brown shooting that had more to do with how State Power acts everywhere all the time than it did with race? Does anyone think the outcome would have been different had the interaction happened in Haiti? Was Mr. Brown’s actions motivated by race? Would he have done what he was witnessed doing if the officer were black? We do not have the answers to these questions, and any kind of response is speculation. White people are in love with speculating through the prism of prejudice and fear as much as black people are–and let’s not imagine that African-Americans do not suffer from our alleged endemic racism–alleged only in whether it is endemic or not. Racism does exist, I am just worn by the assumption from the media and the bureaucracy that only white people can be racist, and that all white people enjoy a privileged position in our society, one that is not corroborated by my place of employment or in any of my interactions with any institution. Yes, I know about racism in ways African-Americans never will because they are not in a position to be caught in a cordial conversation with a racist, just as I am not in a position to be in a casual circumstance with an African-American racist, the kind I imagine African-Americans will not admit exist or they know. Let’s stop playing hop-scotch with the truths of race in America, and our misinformed and misunderstood notions of what privilege is and who is and is not privileged where and when. (Mayor De Blasio’s City Council is quite deluded.) Privileges are not reserved for the elite; they are offered to some of the oppressed and are used to maintain the inequality; privileges offered to oppressed groups by the elite arise out of a necessity for the elite; they are maintained inside systems of inequality because some of the oppressed are always used to reinforce the inequality against the rest of the oppressed. If there are ever privileges maintained beyond endemic inequality, the illusion of systemic inequality must be created, fostered, managed and manipulated, most effectively in our society, by the media.
The question of how race plays out in the roles we adopt, roles given to many of us by the media, and how race plays out in the actions and interactions between African-American youth and white police officers should not be a question we need to raise if we were a society that disregarded the sensational manipulation of people’s emotions by our media outlets, but we are not. We raise it and make it more important than the larger and interestingly more individually poignant relationship of an individual to power; moreover, we address it not in-depth but in media packaged sound bites that get at nothing but the superficial layer that can be repeated and repeated until we are numb like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Advertising is as intellectual as we get.
The media has to take responsibility for selling a set of images that convince young African-Americans like Michael Brown the system is set against him and that there is endemic prejudice everywhere that makes his life, not only more difficult, but virtually impossible when considering his future.
Is it a valid question to ask, would a white man not have been shot? There are too many African-Americans who shout no, too many whites as well, and yet, if the chief question is, did Officer Wilson shoot as many times as he had because Michael Brown was black? then it follows in turn of logic, Would he have shot fewer times if it were me? And if he had shot fewer times and still struck me in the head, would the African-American community have been okay with the shooting? Would they have even cared? Is it only unacceptable in the minds of African-Americans if an African-American is shot? I do wonder. Does anyone say Good or That’s a shame when a white kid is shot by the police? I’m sure you can find someone to say either anywhere about anyone from any group. Tribal politics are the best we muster.
Where we are as a society–and let’s stop listening to media and entertainment personalities as if their popularity gives credence to whatever inanities exit their mouths–but the media does manipulate images into sets of values and our understanding of the world, one we often keep in spite of our personal experience to the contrary. I know that there are people who can only care for their own people, as if humanity is not everyone’s people. I do not know the answers to many of the questions raised herein because I cannot know the answers and I will not assume them. No one else can know the answers to many of the questions raised in these pages, including African-Americans on the questions directly relevant to African-Americans, or those that infer special knowledge of what white people think and say when black people are not around. The only thing I take away from this shooting is how horribly divided we are–and it often seems, never the twain . . . and how differently we see the world is only on the increase. Nonetheless, how we see the world is still a subjective view and mostly filtered through our choices after the facts, after what we call experience.
We cannot say what we hope we can. I know that my wife insists that if anyone in Russia had done what Michael Brown was alleged to have done, that that man would have been shot sooner. I know police officers who have been trained to understand as aggressive acts what no one in his or her passions set against police officers or white people are going to accept. There is a circumference around a set radius after which any movement that penetrates is to be considered aggressive. An officer extends his arm with a baton and inside that circle, any movement must be okayed by the officer. There is no reason on earth that a sane person would be approaching an officer with any aggression, verbal or physical–and this is the point. As soon as Michael Brown stuck his head in the police vehicle, he was understood to be crazy. As soon as he put his hands on the police officers weapon, he was deemed dangerous. Assault and battery; trying to take a police officers weapon; fleeing the scene of what was then understood to be a felony . . . Check how many times felony suspects are shot and how many bullets are spent. This is available from the United States Department of Justice.
This horror does not regularly happen in England, Germany and France because people in these countries teach young men have a different attitude toward police????? Are young African-Americans taught to have a different attitude or response to police officers than young men, white or black, in other countries????? I know I have heard that black mothers and fathers talk to their children on how to respond to police officers. I know my father taught me how to respond to the police, how to talk and what not to do, how not to move in a manner that might be seen as aggressive. Young men in other countries are not raised to think that the society is endemically racist? Is that true? Who is and who is not? Where are the lines drawn in other societies? Here in America a young black man is raised to believe he does not have a chance? Is this true? Does the media help this perception? Is it a received idea accepted because it meets with the existence of certain privileges such as Affirmative Action? I am genuinely asking, more specifically asking the questions that never seem to get asked except by the nuts and the racists themselves toward another agenda.
Is it necessary for the State to keep young black men undermined in this way to help rationalize the large social welfare bureaucracy? Do we systematically under educate, across the board, in an effort to undermine the People in their role as the only institution with enough density and weight to counterbalance the weight of the State? How has Affirmative Action been used to undermine the confidence and performance of young African-Americans, while it has been used and manipulated to help the black bourgeoisie? Are these questions relevant to a discussion of race and the politics and the use of power in race relations, in all or some interactions between black people and white people in America? Is it true that America is an endemically racist society? Endemically–can we say that it is endemic? Young men in other countries are raised to understand that if you move with any sign of aggression toward a police officer in his vehicle and grab his gun, you will be shot? Are we to establish a double standard and say that because Michael Brown was black he was not acting aggressively. Is this a valid critique of what happened, of what we are saying after the fact without the words themselves? Are we to assume we take license instead of liberty with our actions in America? Are there people in America too licentious about their freedom? Is this another thing we are saying? Are we–all of us–too free? Power always sides on this elemental rationalization for its actions–we are too free–, and this licentiousness is opposed to peace and security. But this is the State in itself for itself always by itself. The State is never your friend. Even the President of the United States swears an oath to protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Domestic. The People are potential enemies always.
Why is everybody, though, discounting and ignoring forensic evidence presented to the Grand Jury, evidence that contradicted alleged eyewitness testimony that Michael Brown had not attacked Officer Wilson and did not have his hand on the officer’s pistol? We prefer emotions to reason. We allow the media to pull the strings of our passions and we suffer because it is only reason that will win the day in any court. Why do we discount the fact that testimony that was supposed to help the side of Michael Brown was not only contradictory of each other, but was in fact, in some instances, contradictory of itself successively? Alleged eyewitnesses contradicted their own previous testimony. If anything, this points to a serious lack of preparation on the part of Michael Brown’s camp–and yes, we still use metaphors from warfare in matters of legal conflict. But we are in love with spontaneous responses, untempered, visceral–and this is never going to win in any court of Law. But again, the American media needs young black men to be shot by white police officers in order to sell the idea that we are endemically racist and keep black men and white men separate and divided so as not to unify in any real challenge to the Power and Monied elite.
The media through one or another conduit disseminates the idea to young black men that the only authentic way to be black is to be one or another stereotypical version of what it means to be ghetto or gangsta. Everybody responds or adopts or adapts to the received ideas of the culture, and we do look to the media constantly for clues about how to act, what to say, how to behave, who we are, what expectations we should have.
The horror; the horror.