Tag Archives: Race

‘For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free’

After several hours of peaceful marching in downtown Miami, some vandalism occurred, most of which looked contained. Who started it and “who is to blame” are questions in which I have no interest now unless I rewrite the question as, “How has a police force contributed to racial inequities in one of the South’s most segregated city and counties?Continue reading

2019 as 1649

After coffee and before exercise, I spent a delightful ninety minutes yesterday morning and intermittently the rest of the day fighting rightist journalists, their minions, and sundry trolls on Twitter. I went after Erick Erickson, an unlettered windbag whose self-professed Christianity is unleavened by imagination and empathy — a redundant phrase, for empathy requires imagination. Infuriated by the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a prodigious journalistic feat about which amateur historians can argue in good faith; yet Erickson and his toadies, together with National Review editor Rich Lowry, questioned its very existence. Continue reading

If Trump is a racist, they all are

George Conway, one of the Torquemadas in pursuit of Bill Clinton twenty years ago and husband of Kellyanne, has had an epiphany about the president. Too little too late. No one cares about GOP flaks like Conway outside the Beltway unless a Hollywood producer too cute and clever for his own good builds a cable show around a married couple with different political persuasions. Continue reading

‘Mudbound’ trapped by structural conventions

Mudbound might have been a solid NBC Sunday movie back when such things existed, or, better, a cable show several episodes long. At just over two hours Mudbound has the problems common to such productions: a “Meanwhile, back at…” chronology, performances without arcs that come off wooden, a predictable rhythm. But it has virtues too, including a strong sense of place, the camera work by Rachel Morrison (the South shot as an endless bog), and Jason Mitchell as the young black draftee who after getting warped by service in World War II’s European theater returns to a South that pretends the service didn’t exist.

For no particular reason the film begins in flashback: Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) struggling with burying their father’s coffin in torrential rain. Echoes of As I Lay Dying, of course, but about the only thing this adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel has in common with William Faulkner’s rumination on Southern guilt is point of view multiplicity. Closer in spirit is The Southerner, Jean Renoir’s great 1945 film about farmers having a go at it in hostile terrain. But that film succeeded because Renoir and screenwriter Faulkner treated its characters as types; they were alive like figures in a pop-up book. Mudbound, alas, treats itself as a Serious Movie following well-worn Oscar tropes. “He was my rescuer from my life on the margins,” Laura intones in voice-over. She marries Henry, and because Carey Mulligan plays Laura we know she’s in for trouble. From the start thy are sexually incompatible and she learns to recoil from his weakness – he’s too easily suckered by in-laws, shysters, and that horrible father, Pappy (Breaking Bad‘s Jonathan Banks), seen in that flashback. Incompetent or not, Henry at least is as racist as his neighbors in Marietta. On that farm live the Jacksons, sharecroppers led by Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige, Oscar-nominated), miserably eking out an existence dependent on the mercies of the McAllens.

This is where the literalism of director Dee Rees’ approach sinks the material. By cutting frantically between the Jacksons and McAllens as if the families were equally important, Rees implies that a cycle of poverty dependent on the weather and exacerbated by the quotidian evil of Southern racism traps both families. I haven’t read Jordan’s novel, let me admit, but I call nonsense. The friendship between Ronsell Jackson and fellow PTSD survivor Jamie blooms as a kind of heterosexual Romeo and Juliet, making the town turn their heads everywhere they go, is the device by which the screenwriters connect the families in bonds of intimacy, but as charming as Hedlund is playing the rascal – he and Florence also engage in a movie-length flirtation – it’s unconvincing. Simply put, Ronsell would not have even dared to ride in the front seat with Jamie. In 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodward, Jr. had his eyes gouged out by a white sheriff and his deputies days after receiving his discharge papers. While Mudbound acknowledges the routine violence perpetuated by Pappy and his type, the casual racism of a dull, stupid man like Henry, and the reality that a black man with ambition – James Baldwin, say – must leave his own country to find self-respect, its structural equivalences undermines the bleakness of its conclusions.

Yet I can’t disregard the details over which Dee Rees pauses with an attention that comes from lived or shared experience: Florence breaking the smallest piece from a chocolate bar Ronsel gives her as a gift, intending to make this gift as long as necessary; the casualness with which Jamie lets his arm rest on Ronsel’s shoulders. Mudbound disappoints because I wanted more from the material onscreen, not less.


‘Get Out’ a shrewd probe of white liberal self-regard

For most of its running time, Get Out is one of the slyest, most daring pictures about American race relations. In an excellent debut, writer-actor Jordan Peele shoves every liberal piety into its white audiences face; Get Out is the movie to show the relatives who insist they’re not racist because they voted for Barack Obama and have a black friend. It’s as much Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as it is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepfather, and John Carpenter’s They Live yet the synthesis — the tonalities — are Peele’s own. On a $4 million budget Get Out has grossed more than $120 million. I understand why.

An early hint that Peele’s script and direction won’t follow the usual grooves occurs early in the picture: watching boyfriend Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) pack for their weekend trip upstate to visit her parents, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) mentions that she hasn’t told them he’s black. Chris’ reaction — a weary I-should-have-guessed expression — is perfect. He’s all too familiar with this scenario yet willing to drop some of his wariness because Rose is so, well, liberal. So are Dean and Missy Rose. As played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, they’re so rich that they can’t bother with the stereotypes that inhibit poorer people. “We’re huggers,” Dean says to Chris on meeting them. Giving them a tour of their remote palatial manor Dean offers Chris the surest sign of his racial solidarity: he would’ve voted for Obama “a third time if he could.” Younger brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) offers a suggestion of menace. A long-haired, freckled, bloated shoe-in for a young Steve Bannon, he gets surly when Chris won’t wrastle with him after dinner. Another is the chilling subservience of maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel, playing obsequiousness like a master) and belligerence of groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson).

Peele puts his film making to pragmatic ends, undercutting the usual developments. Instead of shooting the Armitage family’s greeting of Chris in medium shot, he isolates them in extreme long slot and pans back, back until we realize it’s a POV shot of Walter, glowering. At first we think Peele is stressing Walter’s isolation as the only black man within ten miles of the house; developments later in the film erode even the idea of Walter’s existence itself (no spoiler coming). Those who’ve seen the picture will get why I laughed in the theater when Peele frames Rose in the kind of fussy composition that Kubrick or Tarkovsky adored — until the audience realize she’s googling “NCAA players.” The piece de resistance is a garden party for Rose’s grandfather, populated by Caucasian horrors in tweeds, hats and sports jackets; it’s the kind of affair at which guests get their jollies with sparklers and Bingo. Chris keeps his cool while he’s felt up, sized up, and praised for his athleticism (he’s a black man, you see). The eeriest encounter is with a martini-swilling black guest accompanying an older woman, whom Chris approaches with too obvious relief. Instead, Logan King (LaKeith Stanfield) comports himself like a parody of a Sidney Poitier character — that is, until Chris takes a quick photo to send his TSA buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery) dog sitting in the city.

Get Out‘s script depends on “untils.” What ensues is a grand joke on white moneyed isolation — a joke that sticks in the throat by the time the last fifteen minutes play. Peele aims Get Out at people too old for hip hop, who wince at black clothing, who are too damn uptight to admit what it’s in their hearts: they wish black people were more white. Hence why Catherine Keener’s Rose using hypnosis to, take an early benign example, kill Chris’ urge for nicotine is a delicious conceit: one morning Chris will wake up with no memory of being the person he once was (Keener uses her crinkled tones for wittily malicious effect). Kaluuya, whom I’ve never seen before, is a terrific hero; Chris’ can-you-believe-this-shit skepticism at the depths of white fatuity gets tested with each new horror. For a while I thought Howery was overacting the part of Rod, the audience surrogate putting together the pieces of mystery; then I realized I was responding like Dean and Missy might.

I suspect Get Out would have kept its resonance with Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office, for her Chappaqua garden parties must be terrifying things too. In the Trump era, though, a body snatching tale in white suburbs sounds like an item I’d read in tomorrow’s Washington Post. For about an hour after I walked out of Get Out I thought the ending a disappointment. But Peele’s movie doesn’t forget how the sight of a blood-soaked black man standing over the corpse of a white woman can set every kind of historical alarm bell ringing. To watch a movie in 2017 made for less than Bradley Cooper’s asking price not just reject the self-regard of white neoliberals but affirm the righteousness of a government-run department, as Rod never stops doing, and to do it in so insistently vulgar an approach, is as impressive in its own way as the spontaneous rallies outside legislators’ offices. Flawed, deft, and very necessary, Get Out is the film I needed in March. I can’t wait for Peele’s next picture.


Human beings are awful, part #4562


Even if white and black men are the same heights and weights, people tend to perceive black men as taller, more muscular and heavier. So said a psychological survey, published Monday in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, exploring stereotypes about perceptions of male bodies.

What’s more, the study found, nonblack participants believed black men to be more capable of physical harm than white men of the same size. The results also indicated that nonblack observers believed that police would be more justified to use force on these black men, even if they were unarmed, than white male counterparts.

“Unarmed black men are disproportionately more likely to be shot and killed by police, and often these killings are accompanied by explanations that cite the physical size of the person shot,” John Paul Wilson, an author of the study and a psychologist at New Jersey’s Montclair State University, said in a statement Monday.

Then again, I’ve heard what white gay men say about black men.

Freaks and androgyny

In “The Misunderstood Ghost of James Baldwin,” Ismail Muhammad analyzes how writers have taken the James Baldwin most commensurate with their own obsessions. His hook is a review of Raoul Peck’s 2016 I Am Not Your Negro:

But rather than erasing distinctions between the past and present, I Am Not Your Negro gestures toward a disjunction between Baldwin’s moment and our own. Peck’s decision to have Samuel L. Jackson narrate the movie, for example, points to an antiphonal ethos: It structures its relationship with Baldwin as a conversation that might produce new knowledge. We hear Jackson reading Baldwin’s unfinished project, as if Jackson and Peck were helping the dead writer finish a thought he couldn’t quite complete. In finishing that thought, Peck also allows a new, composite voice to come to the fore. The film asks us to ponder what we can know about our contemporary moment when we stop ventriloquizing our ancestors, and begin to speak in our own voices.

Muhammad reminds us that Baldwin, like every great writer, engaged in a struggle to kill his forebears. His essay is subtle; despite the reference to “ventriloquizing our ancestors,” he accuses no one of swallowing Baldwin’s legacy whole.

Barely getting a mention is the “gay” part of the “gay black writer” moniker. In 2017 we’re still reckoning with “Here Be Dragons,” one of the last essays Baldwin wrote, a cold-eyed mediation on the discontents of masculinity and the sociopolitical forces that shaped it:

Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated — in the main, abominably — because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.

Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks — though we are rarely what we appear to be. We are, for the most part, visibly male or female, our social roles defined by our sexual equipment.

But we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.

Again, these are words not often written by a writer, and only in the last few years have we begun the conversation about what constitutes masculinity.

My review of I Am Not Your Negro.

‘A person does not lightly elect to oppose a society’ — Baton Rouge and St. Paul


By the time James Baldwin published No Name in the Street in 1972 the American left was heaving from the fissures created by a movement that had so rattled the political elites that not only had a fealty to exposing truths about race, class, and sexuality splintered any notion of solidarity but a president declared unofficial war on all of these groups. To write that the Left were Victims of Its Own Success denotes submission to those same elites; it accepts their terms of the debate. Amid the tumult Baldwin realized how little fundamentals had changed:

To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no ways honorably defend — which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn — and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life. Whoever is part of whatever civilization helplessly loves some aspects of it, and some of the people in it. A person does not lightly elect to oppose a society. One would much rather be at home among one’s compatriots than be mocked and detested by them. And there is a level on which the mockery of the people, even their hatred, is moving because it is so blind; it is terrible to watch people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction. I think black people have always felt this about America, and Americans, and have always seen, spinning above the thoughtless American head, the shape of the wrath to come.

The hopes raised by the Freedom Summer and the Great Society legislation a decade ago had been reified by a system assuring that even the most efficacious reforms would crash against the recalcitrance of a white ruling class whose aggrandized notions about itself as liberal and compassionate could not outpace its instinct to resist the unfamiliar and the foreign. Over the next two decades this class would accept integrated classrooms and boardrooms so long as their white children resided in condo communities behind guarded gates; increased turnout so long as they didn’t vote for legislators and presidents who spoke their language; and police departments employing men and women of color if they didn’t condemn the imprisonment or murder of black boys and girls for petty offenses on terms set by that ruling class in the early nineties.

Here we are in St. Paul and Baton Rouge, marveling at the number of police departments with the budget to buy body cameras, part of a civilization which we can in no ways honorably defend, struggling to make it honorable and worthy of life.

‘”Race is not a sober-minded description of peoples. It is casus belli’

“Race has never been much about skin color, or physical features, so much as the need to name someone before doing something to them,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes. “Race is not a sober-minded description of peoples. It is casus belli.” He refers to the oft misunderstood Toni Morrison line about Bill Clinton as the America’s first black president. Pundits, who don’t read novels and wouldn’t know Toni Morrison except as the originator of that line, still repeat it:

Most Americans understand race as indelible—as a thing which you really are—and thus Morrison’s point went right over the heads of even relatively educated people. This is convenient. As long as “race” can be considered as who you are, and not what someone else did to you, then Americans can see themselves as heroic do-gooders in struggling against our more ignorant and animalistic impulses.

Morrison’s argument sprang from another worldview—one that sees race as a choice, as an action, as a made thing. This worldview is less convenient. For if race in America is a “made thing,” an action, then it is not sufficient for people who wish for a world without such categories to simply sigh in self-congratulation.

Morrison’s clarifications, included in the original link, remind me of a passage in Beloved:

The more colored people spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle the whitefolks planted in them.”

TNC: Dylann Roof ‘correctly understood’ what the rebel flag ‘stood for’

Sometimes Ta-Nehisi Coates interviews provide as much satisfaction as his essays. For example:

Q: Your book is a lot about people who are victims of circumstance and history. Do you ever look at Dylann Roof like that, as a victim of history from the other side?

A: Sure I do. Dylann Roof is not the only person who bears responsibility. The Confederate flag represents an attempt to perpetrate a lie about American history, to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery. That is a part of our history. When you bury that history other people take control of it and use the flag for their purposes, and to ennoble their own hatred. Putting off the discussion allows the narrative of white supremacy. We really empowered that dude. It is very, very sad. But wait, I want to go back and make a point, it is a very important point and I want to make it as clear as I can.

Q: I am going to edit it out.

A: [Laughs]. OK, you see these black folks who are disproportionately poorer and prone to crime and suffering crime, live in neighborhoods where it doesn’t appear that folks are keeping stuff up, and there is a steady background white noise saying that these people kinda deserve it, that they are lazier than you are, not as intelligent as you are, and when you receive some history about how folks ended up in that state you get two things: first, you’re told that it happened a long time ago, and second, that it has no impact on what it does right now. That’s a lie. That’s poisonous. That myth about black people is deeply tied into the Lost Cause. Nikki Haley says Roof perverted the flag. No, he correctly understood what it stood for. It stood for the right to take people’s bodies. We have a responsibility for the perpetration of that lie.

Q: The history of the world is more powerful people repressing less powerful ones, whether it is men and women or colonialism. Do you think America is unique? Is slavery unique? Or is it our version of something every society does?

A: I don’t think it’s unique. I say that in the book. But pleading human error can’t really save America. We have no humility. We believe we are exceptional. That’s fine. But if that is the standard, then I have the right to hold you to that standard. We don’t go to Iraq saying we are doing what every country does. We are the deliverers of democracy. But this is a human problem.

The drug war and ‘social control’: David Simon

Using his experience as a cops reporter, David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” analyzes what has happened in Baltimore, addressing the comment I’ve read about What To Do about a city whose police force boasts a black chief and most of whose officers are black. I’ll paste the lengthy response:

What did Tom Wolfe write about cops? They all become Irish? That’s a line in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” When Ed and I reported “The Corner,” it became clear that the most brutal cops in our sector of the Western District were black. The guys who would really kick your ass without thinking twice were black officers. If I had to guess and put a name on it, I’d say that at some point, the drug war was as much a function of class and social control as it was of racism. I think the two agendas are inextricably linked, and where one picks up and the other ends is hard to say. But when you have African-American officers beating the dog-piss out of people they’re supposed to be policing, and there isn’t a white guy in the equation on a street level, it’s pretty remarkable. But in some ways they were empowered. Back then, even before the advent of cell phones and digital cameras — which have been transforming in terms of documenting police violence — back then, you were much more vulnerable if you were white and you wanted to wail on somebody. You take out your nightstick and you’re white and you start hitting somebody, it has a completely different dynamic than if you were a black officer. It was simply safer to be brutal if you were black, and I didn’t know quite what to do with that fact other than report it. It was as disturbing a dynamic as I could imagine. Something had been removed from the equation that gave white officers — however brutal they wanted to be, or however brutal they thought the moment required — it gave them pause before pulling out a nightstick and going at it. Some African American officers seemed to feel no such pause.

What the drug war did, though, was make this all a function of social control. This was simply about keeping the poor down, and that war footing has been an excuse for everybody to operate outside the realm of procedure and law. And the city willingly and legally gave itself over to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what are known on the street in the previous generation as ‘humbles.’ A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn’t like somebody who’s looking at him the wrong way. And yet, back in the day, there was, I think, more of a code to it. If you were on a corner, you knew certain things would catch you a humble. The code was really ornate, and I’m not suggesting in any way that the code was always justifiable in any sense, but there was a code.

The trouble with unspoken codes is that no piece of paper will prove their existence, corroborate Simon’s account.

But I’m less interested in the politics of code than fealty to a policy that grinds everyone from chiefs and district commanders to the kid busted on a possession charge into dust you can’t even sell on the street. Simon’s Howard Colvin put it best in “The Wire”‘s Season Three: “But policing? I mean, you call something a war and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors. They gonna be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And when you at war, you need a fucking enemy.”