In the spring of 1964, the New York Timesreported that six young Black men were indicted for the murder of a shopkeeper. The article is short on context, clipped, half-said.
Two years later, James Baldwin, in his essay “A Report From Occupied Territory,” would famously tell a broader story of the arrests: The young men were dubbed “the Harlem Six”; there was little evidence that they’d done it. Two of them a week or so earlier had been brutally beaten by police officers (spit on, cursed at, taken to the hospital for X-rays because of the beatings and then beaten again) for the crime of defending children that police were also attempting to smash with billy clubs—in the children’s case for the prank of overturning a fruit stand. Marked by the cops, the two young men were among those pinned for the murder of a shopkeeper because it fit a narrative the police and the New York Times had stoked about the upheaval: A “gang” of 400 “rebel Muslims,” called the Blood Brothers, was determined to kill white people.
Daniel Hamm—one of the six men arrested—later told author Truman Nelson (whose The Torture of Mothers, a book written to present the story of the Harlem Six, prompted Baldwin’s piece) that the police beat him so badly he could barely walk but that the hospital would not admit him because he wasn’t actively bleeding.
“I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them,” Hamm explained.
I’ve heard that sentence countless times. It haunts me. And it likely will haunt you, too. It is at the center of a powerful piece of music that not only addresses complicity even amid rebellion but enacts it: Steve Reich’s “Come Out,” a song I have been playing continuously since the killing of George Floyd.
Steve Reich created “Come Out” in 1966. It is a simple song, in some ways. It begins with the quote “I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” This sentence is repeated. It is Hamm’s voice, again and again. That is all. There are no other instruments. And then, it is cut short. It is placed at a slight lag and repeated again. Over 13 minutes, there’s a process of cutting, clipping, lagging, and repeating. The sentence develops a rhythm. The sentence becomes impossible to parse. The sentence becomes just noise.
And, in the end, it echoes everywhere and yet you cannot even hear the words. In this idyll, are you forgetting about the violence of the sentence?
Reich is chiefly known as a leading minimalist composer, a master of an ambiance that can be miscategorized as ambivalence. He is known for creating repeating rhythms that induce a haze, sometimes a calm. If you didn’t know his work deeply, you could guess this is background music. It is “chill.” But Reich has never shied away from the political; “he has addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American racism, the Holocaust, the encroachment of technology, and, now, Islamic terrorism,” notes Alex Ross. His point, it seems, is that this is the background of American life. He is confronting white listeners: Your calm is built on a violence done to someone else. Either the violence becomes a monotone drone or you were never really listening at all.
Reich is one of the few composers to bring a listener through the process of how white people become complicit. Baldwin takes a similar journey in his piece, playing out a long sequence of explaining why Black people are disenfranchised and how it is ignored and how it leads to violent summers of upheaval. “Of course, we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer,” Baldwin concludes. “Of course, the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.”
At the end of “Come Out,” the sentence is bouncing off itself like an explosion. And yet one you can ignore, as it fades.
A day after cameras caught him and his wife waving guns at peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters walking near their gaudy $1.15 million mansion, Mark McCloskey went on local news and dropped the analogy of the year. “I really thought it was storming the Bastille,” said McCloskey, who like his wife Patricia is a lawyer. “I was terrified that we’d be murdered within seconds. Our house would be burned down, our pets would be killed.”
In fact, the protesters were headed to city hall to rally against Mayor Lyda Krewson, who had recently released the personal information of people who had sent letters calling for the local police to be defunded. But that doesn’t really matter, as far as the law is concerned. What matters is that the McCloskeys—Mark shoeless and in khakis, gripping an AR-15; Patricia in capri pants, brandishing a pistol—were afraid. And that fear gave them special rights.
Much of our gun rights regime is built on the consecration of a landowner’s anxieties into law. When the McCloskeys padded out onto their driveway with their guns, looking like country clubbers newly deployed into the fields of An Lộc, they could count on the impunity extended to them under what’s known as the Castle Doctrine. This was a common-law principle, only recently enshrined into civil law, that says that one’s home is one’s castle, and that an owner has the right to defend it with force. Because protesters were on private property, the McCloskeys could freely take aim. In fact, after the incident, the police told the St. Louis Dispatch they were investigating the protesters—not the McCloskeys—for trespassing and intimidation. The Castle Doctrine is how the Bastille storms back.
As lawyers have pointed out, it’s a bit more complicated than property owners having carte blanche to kill. The McCloskeys would still need to meet the requirements laid out in Missouri’s self-defense statute. But the larger point, as Adam Weinstein writes in the New Republic, is about what the Castle Doctrine represents: an excuse to kill people because you’re scared of someone harming property.
The legal doctrine has underpinned the expansion of racist self-defense legislation, like Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law, which stopped police from arresting George Zimmerman after he shot Trayvon Martin. While the Castle Doctrine “has for centuries generally immunized people from homicide convictions if they resorted to deadly force while defending their home,” Weinstein wrote for Mother Jones in 2012, “Florida’s law was the first to extend such protection to those firing weapons in public spaces—parking lots, parks, city streets.”
The origins of the Castle Doctrine go back to 1604, when a court case carved out an exemption to the English common-law doctrine of “duty to retreat,” which held that people were obligated to retreat if under attack. In the United States the exemption “turned into a very expansive set of notions about who is allowed to fight back lethally against whom,” as Caroline Light, a historian who traced the history of self-defense in the United States, put it in an interview with the Harvard Gazette. On American soil the Castle Doctrine was adapted to the prevailing racial order. “When people in the U.S. said, ‘A man’s home is his castle,’ what they actually meant was, ‘A white, property-owning man’s home is his castle,’ and he’s allowed to fight back,” Light said. “[L]ethal self-defense has been legalized for the most privileged even if, rhetorically, we celebrate self-defense as something universal to all citizens.”
In 2017, Missouri’s legislature used the Castle Doctrine to expand gun rights in the state, doing away with any obligation to retreat before using deadly force. At the time, law enforcement opposed this expansion, feeling it could be reckless.
One of the state legislators who spoke up against it? Kim Gardner, who was elected to be St. Louis city’s attorney in 2016. “We’re lowering the standard. We are creating the perfect storm,” she said at the time, according to local station KSDK. She is now presiding over how the McCloskey matter will be adjudicated.
Gardner, as city attorney, puts the blame squarely on the couple, despite what police said to the local paper about investigations. “We must protect the right to peacefully protest,” she said.
It’s unclear what sort of investigation Gardner’s office is conducting into the McCloskeys, but the couple have nonetheless hired legal representation: Albert Watkins, a “self-centered, egotistical, and a self-proclaimed expert in all matters,” according to himself.
In a statement to the St. Louis Dispatch, Watkins said that his clients, “as melanin-deficient human beings, are completely respectful of the message Black Lives Matter needs to get out, especially to whites.”
Watkins’ bio is a marvel of self-proclaimed racist and misogynistic accomplishments. His list of noted legal accomplishments include defending the man at the center of controversy involving a rodeo clown wearing a racist Obama mask, successfully defending a “white elementary school principal accused of felonious sexual misconduct involving African American third-grade students,” and driving a survivor of sexual assault to suicide. He also hosts a radio show in which he “waxes poetically about the news and events of the day, employing a decidedly conservative Midwest American mindset…born of ‘rugged individualism.'” This is a quote from the biography on his own website. It’s not hard to see whose ground he’s standing.
On June 12, almost three weeks after the police killing of George Floyd sparked massive protests for racial justice throughout the country, the long-running reality show The Bachelor announced that Matt James would become the first Black bachelor on the show’s 25th season. The announcement came 18 years after the creation of the show, three years after Rachel Lindsay became the first Black bachelorette and repeatedly called out the franchise for systemic racism, two years after Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss called his own audience Trumpishly racist, andfive days after a Change.org campaign—which is now 135,000-plus signatures strong—called for anti-racist changes within the franchise. It appears that the seismic national reckoning with racial injustice has finally reached the cosseted world of reality TV.
The awakening at The Bachelor is the picture of calm in comparison to the real reality-show drama that unfolded in June at Vanderpump Rules, a Bravo spinoff from TheReal Housewives of Beverly Hills.Vanderpump Rules follows a group of aspiring mactors—that’s models/actors—who work in Lisa Vanderpump’s empire of bars and restaurants in Los Angeles. The cast members have spent the past eight seasons fighting, partying, hooking up, breaking up, cheating, gossiping, and getting so drunk that you can feel their hangovers through the screen. They have also served countless goat-cheese balls and pump-tinis to the residents and tourists of West Hollywood, including celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence (who is also a huge fan of the show).
I’m with Jennifer. I was one of the 1.1 million people who tuned in to the eighth season of Vanderpump Rules (VPR) this year, the culmination of my loyalty over all eight seasons, some episodes of which I’ve watched multiple times. In fact, I’ve been on record calling VPR “the greatest reality show of all time.” Sure, other shows let me vicariously experience a California sun-dappled life filled with day-drinking and botox and photoshoots. But Vanderpump Rules is special because the drama is real. The show follows a group of friends and lovers with interpersonal dynamics as complicated as a Tolstoy novel and as soap-operatic as the original Dallas. Coming from someone who’s watched a lot of reality TV, trust me, it is *chef’s kiss* reality gold.
But these entertaining mactors of West Hollywood were not exempt from the historic national reckoning with systemic racism and racial injustice. In mid-June, all 19 cast members—a majority-white group—posted their support of Black Lives Matter on social media. Then four of them were called out for personal histories of racist behavior, and they were fired. Two were not just cast members; they were what passed for the supernovas in the Vanderpump constellation, having been with the show for all eight seasons.
Like all American institutions, reality TV has a history of racism that predates cancel culture. Rooted in documentary film, the genre as we know it today—unscripted but heavily produced, peppered with confessionals, fueled by booze and beautiful people—was introduced to mass audiences in 1992 with MTV’s The Real World, which, unlike its successors, intentionally cast people from many cultures and racial backgrounds. The Real World has been criticized for tokenizing racially, sexually, and regionally diverse groups, but it also had a social mission rooted in the multiculturalism of the 1990s and gave a platform to voices that had been sidelined in the mainstream media.
In the first decade of the 2000s, reality TV shows exploded onto the screen with the appearance of Big Brother, Survivor, American Idol, and The Simple Life. While most early reality shows filtered new casts in and out every season, around 2005 MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and MTV’s Jersey Shore successfully adopted more of a docuseries style that focused on interpersonal relationships within groups of friends, families, and lovers over the course of multiple seasons. These shows usually glorified extreme wealth, partying, and problematic behavior that stoked drama and kept viewers coming back for more.
Bravo hit the jackpot in this vein with the 2006 launch of its Real Housewives franchise, which follows the lives of wealthy women in cities around the United States as they attend charity events, go on lavish vacations, host dinner parties, engage in elaborate beauty rituals, and fight fight fight with husbands, ex-husbands, soon-to-be-ex-husbands, boyfriends, best friends, and service personnel. Bravo’s brand became affluence, glitz, glamor, and venal conflicts. The franchise spread from the original Real Housewives of Orange County to eight other cities and birthed spinoff shows like Vanderpump Rules. Bill Langworthy signed on to be executive producer of Vanderpump Rules after one season on The Real Housewives of Orange County.
When it comes to race, The Real Housewives are segregated. The casts in Orange County, Beverly Hills, Dallas, New York, and New Jersey are almost entirely white. There have been two women of color in all those five cities combined after over a decade of filming. The franchise also expanded to Atlanta and Potomac, Maryland, where the casts are almost entirely Black. In a comment to the New York Times, a spokesperson said the lack of diversity in Bravo’s shows was due to the fact that the “docuseries follow groups of friends who are organically connected, often through long, pre-existing relationships but in some cases only casually through a wider social circle or six degrees of separation.” In other words, the racism isn’t Bravo’s problem. It’s America’s reality.
Bravo’s lack of diversity is part of the vast ecosystem from which these shows emerge. Bravo is essentially a platform for selling advertisements. In the case of Vanderpump Rules, brands like Procter & Gamble—the same company that’s now calling on white people to “use your power” to combat racism—have bankrolled the cast for years, essentially subsidizing them to behave in ways that now justify firing them. Are these “woke” commercials from huge brands—many of which have a long and deep history of perpetuating racism—just a form of crisis communications or are they a genuine reckoning with changing times? In an industry in which Black people have been misrepresented, ridiculed, tokenized, and just straight-up absent for years, do the firings of four cast members signal any meaningful progress?
In the first season of Vanderpump Rules, we met three best friends: Stassi Schroeder, Kristen Doute, and Katie Maloney-Schwartz, and Jax Taylor, Tom Sandoval, and Tom Schwartz, their three respective boyfriends and also best friends. Even though only one of the three couples remains together, these six people and their long, deep, tormented, drama-filled relationships have anchored the show for eight seasons. A typical episode of Vanderpump Rules is cut like a dramatic series, with A, B, and C plotlines. For instance: Jax tries to win Stassi back by getting her name tattooed on his arm. Tom Schwartz tries to get a job at the Vanderpump restaurant SUR, but Lisa Vanderpump rejects him because he’s dating Katie. Tom Sandoval and Kristen try to improve their relationship by building a coffee table together. Stassi gets mad at Scheana for bad-talking her to Lisa Vanderpump behind her back.
In the fourth season of this mix appeared Faith Stowers as a new server and best buds with the new hostess Lala Kent. Stowers’ arrival marked the first Black core cast member on Vanderpump Rules. Kent was courted by multiple men on the show while Stowers’ main interaction with men was when the two Toms gave her a hand-me-down couch. Kent was attacked by the women for taking her bathing suit top off and swimming half naked near their boyfriends, while Stowers, who also took her top off, was essentially ignored. Kent got confessionals—which translates into more screen time. While Kent’s star rose, Stowers pretty much faded into the background.
Stowers’ Vanderpump Rules contract was not renewed after that one season. Stowers returned to the center of the drama on the sixth season when she and Jax Taylor had an off-camera affair when Taylor was in a relationship with his now-wife, Brittany Cartwright. She was not part of the show then, but Stowers was skewered by the women on Vanderpump Rules, who attacked her with a vehemence that was somewhat surprising given that Jax Taylor cheated on his girlfriends all the time. Now, five years after her appearance on the show, after a stint on the first season of MTV’s The Challenge and Ex on the Beach, Stowers was interviewed by Floribama star Candace Rice on Instagram Live. In response to a question from a viewer about racism displayed by Stassi Schroeder and Lisa Vanderpump, Stowers explained: “I was the only Black person on the show. It was a lot.”
“A lot” is an understatement. She described how Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute had reported her to the police after they had seen photos in a 2017 article in the British tabloid Daily Mail of a Black woman who went to a Hollywood party, drugged men, and stole their watches, cash, and jewelry. The woman was still at large. Most important, she was not Stowers. “She looked very, very light-skinned and had these different, weird tattoos” Stowers told Candace Rice. “They thought it was me because it was a Black woman with a weave.” Schroeder and Doute called the police and reported that Stowers had committed the crimes. Jax Taylor also piled on, making a loosely veiled accusation on Twitter that Stowers was stealing cars and AWOL from the military.
In a 2018 episode of the Bitch Bible podcast, Schroeder recounted the event from her perspective: “We are like, we just solved a fucking a crime,” she said. “We start calling the police. The police don’t give a fuck. It’s really hard to get in touch with the police unless it’s an emergency.” Doute tweeted something to a similar effect in April 2018. The police ignored their bogus charges, Schroeder and Doute remained core cast members, and the entire incident probably would have remained buried were it not for the timing. The interview with Candace Rice took place on June 2 when the world was exploding with demands for racial justice on the heels of a white police officer killing George Floyd on May 25.
Stowers’ instagram interview blew up. An instagram account called Accountability4Stassi collected all of Schroeder’s racially insensitive actions, including a clip from a now-deleted 2017 episode of her podcast in which she criticized the #OscarsSoWhite movement, saying, “I’m like, really sick of everyone making everything about race—I’m kind of over it.” Photos of Schroeder dressed as “Nazi Chic” with Doute dressed as “Tupac Chic” started circulating. In an interview with AfterBuzz TV on June 11, Stowers said that Cartwright had also allegedly called her a “nappy-headed hoe” following the cheating scandal between Stowers and Jax Taylor.
The retribution extended beyond social media. Within a week of the June 2 interview Schroeder and Doute were dropped by their publicists and by all of their brand sponsors, and fired from Vanderpump Rules. Max Boyens and Brett Caprioni, who were both new cast members in the most recent season, were also let go after old tweets in which they used racist epithets emerged last January. Back then, they were acknowledged by the show’s executive producers and ignored. Boyens tweeted in 2012 that the n-word is his favorite word and said he wanted to punch Asians “in the suck hole.” Boyens later explained on Instagram that he is “BLACK” and wouldn’t have to say he’s “a quarter black” if people would just believe him, but he “didn’t express [he] was black when the tweets came out because [he] didn’t want to justify them.” Caprioni’s tweets date from 2011 and also use the n-word.
Coincidentally, June 2 was also a Vanderpump Rules reunion episode. Andy Cohen, the executive producer of the Real Housewives franchise and public face of Bravo on Watch What Happens Live, asked Boyens and Caprioni about the tweets. They both gave solemn apologies. Lisa Vanderpump said she forgave them (though how this became Lisa Vanderpump’s offense to forgive I have no idea), and it seemed like it would all pass as water under the bridge.
Except, the Stowers interview dropped that night. Bravo decided to appear tough on racism and fired the four of them. Lisa Vanderpump released a statement saying, “I love and adore our employees and I am deeply saddened by some of the lack of judgment that has been displayed.” Andy Cohen, who has been doing interviews with Black Real Housewives cast members about racism, said he “absolutely support[s] Bravo’s decision. I think it was the right decision.”
But these reality shows are not just stages for a few exhibitionisticcast members. There is a large infrastructure of advertisers, producers, showrunners, story editors, publicists, and network executives supporting them. And while firing some prominently offensive cast members may appear to address the problem, it doesn’t address the root causes. I reached out to a veteran Bravo producer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid serious retributions for breaking their nondisclosure agreement. They told me that Bravo’s target audience is semiprofessional women in their 20s to early 40s and gay men.
“Were we asked as Bravo employees to cater to a certain demographic and marginalize people of color?” they said. “Yes. Because it didn’t fit the brand.” They told me that on an early season of Vanderpump Rules there were two major storylines involving people of color; both got cut because they weren’t “marketable,” which was in keeping with the instructions to producers and editors to “cut for our audience.” The producer recounts not being allowed to include hip-hop music cues for the club scenes because it was “not the tone for the show.”
The cast members who appeared on the show were given the spotlight, incentivized with more screen time, and praised for having no filter while saying deeply troubling things. The producer said that even more offensive comments than the ones that have come into public view recently hit the cutting-room floor over years of filming. “We have to make them seem human,” they said. “We cut out that shit to make them seem not like sociopaths and relatable…We have to think about them like characters.” The producer notes that there are people of color with prominent roles on Bravo’s crew. There are also many people of color working at Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurants. And yet, season after season, the cast of Vanderpump Rules are almost exclusively white.
Stowers is happy about the firings. She says that Bravo did the right thing and showed that they cared, though Stowers and Billie Lee are both asking that Jax Taylor get fired too for his racist and anti-trans behavior. Stowers told ET Canada, “I’m seeing change, and that’s what this whole thing is about.”
Well, yes. Accountability is important. Zero tolerance policies in the workplace for sexism, racism, or any other kind of harassment is a long-overdue step forward. And for reality TV stars, whosefame, power, and lucrative paychecks come from exposing all aspects of their existence, their lives are their jobs. Meanwhile, brands are going into overdrive to post their support for racial justice and Black Lives Matter, and everyone with a social media account seems to be using this moment to virtue-signal.
Schroeder, Doute, Boyens, and Caprioni are all being punished for things they did years ago and behavior that’s been out in the open for eight seasons. Boyens’ and Caprioni’s tweets were uncovered in January. Schroeder openly bragged about calling the cops on Stowers back in 2018. When it comes to reality TV and social media, the line between authenticity and appearance, reality and performance, has never been fuzzier. “Wokeness” has the potential to awaken hearts and minds, whether it comes from a genuine place or not. These people were not cast in spite of their problematic behaviors, including racial profiling, slut-shaming, and all the other judgmental prejudices that ooze out of our mainstream white heteronormative culture. They were cast because of them.
I like reality TV for a lot of the same reasons that I like journalism. I’m nosy. I like to learn about people’s lives and how people live. On a good day, this kind of work fosters understanding and compassion, a sense of human solidarity. On a bad day, we point fingers and say, “Look at those beautiful-pitiful-hilarious-disturbing people over there.” And that’s exactly why I’m uneasy about what is likely to follow this most recent spate of firings. Sure, reality networks will continue to get called out for racism and lack of representation, and people will continue to get fired. Meanwhile, viewers can relax and judge all those racist people over there. After all, it’s much easier than looking in the mirror.
The events that transpired in Washington, DC’s Lafayette Park on June 1—in which US Park Police assaulted peaceful protesters so that President Trump could pose for a photo op in front of a church—have drawn universal outrage. But during a House hearing on Monday to investigate the incident, Republicans used the opportunity to defend Trump’s order to attack peaceful protesters, repeatedly downplaying the incident and using misleading video clips of unrelated protests to justify the police response.
Kishon McDonald, a Navy veteran who was among the protesters attacked by police in the June 1 demonstration, testified before the Committee on Natural Resources that demonstrators had been neither violent nor confrontational before police began firing rubber bullets and chemical irritants into the crowd. “Using weapons on us was ridiculous and just made the situation dangerous, even though before the officers charged us or fired their weapons it had been peaceful,” he said in his testimony. “It’s citizens who are being attacked by our own government just for asking and protesting for change.”
In response to McDonald’s testimony, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) turned to a video that deceptively used footage from other protests—including footage of ones that took place weeks after the June 1 demonstration—to argue that there was a precedence to expect that protesters would turn violent. “Describing the protests in DC as mostly peaceful protests is like describing Scott Peterson as a mostly faithful husband,” McClintock said, making a weird comparison to the man who was convicted in 2004 of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, because of his affair with a massage therapist.
When examining the events that occurred in Lafayette Square, it is important we recognize the full picture.
Among the other witnesses who testified in the hearing was Rev. Mariann Budde, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, who spoke about the experiences of the parishioners at St. John’s Church—the site of Trump’s now infamous photo op—who were supporting protesters prior at Lafayette Park throughout the day. Budde called out the popular GOP talking point of justifying violence against protesters because of the instances of rioting, looting, and vandalism—including the small fire that was set at St. John’s. “It would be unforgivable to allow this moment to slip away because our building was damaged,” she said. “We care deeply about our churches—many of which are older than our nation itself. But in the end, buildings can be re-built. Windows can be replaced. Pillars can be re-painted. We can never bring back the lives that have been lost due to senseless police violence.”
Amelia Brace, an US correspondent for Seven News Australia, testified about her experience on June 1. As police began push back protesters in Lafayette Park, she described how officers attacked her and her news crew even after they identified themselves as members of the media and were trying to get away from the chaos. “As I was running away, I felt something strike me hard across the back and shoulders,” Brace recalled. “I now know, from seeing the local news crew’s footage, that a third US Park Police officer reached around the second officer to smack me with his baton in a backhanded motion as I was running away.”
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley—known for his role as the House GOP’s legal witness during Trump’s impeachment inquiry hearing—again testified on behalf of Republicans to argue that the Park Police’s operation to clear Lafayette Park for Trump’s photo op was lawful. But even Turley conceded that what happened to Brace and her news crew, which caused an international rift with the Australian government, appears to have been unlawful action. Still, that didn’t stop Rep. Dough Lamborn (R-Colo.) from clumsily arguing that the police’s treatment of journalists in the Lafayette Park incident pails in comparison to how some protesters have treated media at other protests.
“Journalists should be able to do their job,” said @RepDLamborn.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the committee’s ranking GOP member, called the hearing “political theater” because no members of the US Park Police were present to testify. “The Democrats here have now produced something that’s not going to be substantive, that is not going to be historical, that is really a distraction,” Bishop said. But Lamborn later cited a letter from the Park Police explaining that no one came to testify because they didn’t feel it was legally appropriate for them to testify on the same panel with someone suing them (McDonald is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of DC and Black Lives Matter DC against the Trump administration over the Lafayette Park incident).
Protesters block the Golden Gate Bridge on June 6.Vivian Lin/Getty
Just 7 percent of the population of the San Francisco Bay Area is Black, yet 27 percent of the people killed by the police in the region since 2015 were Black, according to a new investigation by the Bay Area News Group. In their examination of 110 police killings, reporters found that officers were disciplined in only 8 cases. None were prosecuted.
The report also found racial disparities in police killings of Latinos, who make up 20 percent of the area’s population but were 27 percent of victims. Its analysis found that 20 percent of victims of police killings were not armed; of those, 40 percent were Black. In 45 percent of the cases, the reporters found no evidence that the victims had been committing a crime before they were killed. In 97 incidents, police used guns. In 8, officers killed people with carotid restraints, wraps, or by dogpiling on top of them.
The investigation gathered data from the Bay Area’s five counties, which include San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. The print editions of the East Bay Times and Mercury News ran a list of the names of the 110 people whose deaths were counted in the report.
The reporters cite a recent study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that found that the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward area has the nation’s second-highest rate of Black victims of fatal police violence, after Oklahoma City. The report also found that the region has the nation’s second highest ratio of Black to white victims of police killings, after the Chicago area.
The article focuses on the story of Chinedu Okobi, a Black man who died in October 2018 after San Mateo County deputies repeatedly tased him and then piled on top of him. Like many of the people whose cases the Bay Area News Group reviewed, Okobi, was experiencing a mental health crisis when police tried to restrain him. His death, which was recorded on video and led to no discipline or charges for the officers involved, is depressingly familiar:
Like Okobi, Roy Nelson Jr. was an unarmed Black man with a history of schizophrenia, suffering a mental-health episode and committing no crime when his ex-wife called 911 to report he was hallucinating and needed psychiatric help. He was later found to have methamphetamine in his system.
“I can’t breathe,” Nelson insists on a video recorded by Hayward police after a group of officers pulled him from a patrol car because he wouldn’t stop kicking the door. The officers handcuff the 300-pound man, face down on the ground, then try to wrap him in a restraint similar to a straitjacket.
“I can’t breathe,” he says again, in a plea that feels even more harrowing five years later, after George Floyd repeatedly uttered that same phrase and died under a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis.
Roy Nelson died too. So did Rakeem Rucks, who also yelled, “I can’t breathe,” while face down in the dirt as Antioch cops piled on top of him in 2015 after finding him in an altered state, high on methamphetamine. According to a lawsuit filed by Rucks’ family, officers put their knees on his neck as he struggled until his death.
None of the officers in any of those deadly encounters were ever disciplined.
On June 4, a little over a week after the death of George Floyd, a Wilmington, North Carolina, police sergeant conducting routine checks of dash-cam footage found video of two cops discussing, among other things, the arrival of “martial law.” “We are just gonna go out and start slaughtering them fucking ni‐‐‐‐‐,” one of the cops, Michael “Kevin” Piner, said. “I can’t wait. God I can’t wait.”
Piner was fired on Wednesday, along with two other white officers—James “Brian” Gilmore, and Jessie E. Moore II—with whom he had conversations filled with racist threats of violence. Video of the conversation has not yet been released. But the comments are quoted in the sergeant’s report about what she heard on the video.
According to the report, Piner also said, of a Black officer, “Let’s see how his boys take care of him when shit gets rough, see if they don’t put a bullet in his head.” He also complained that he saw videos on social media of people “worshipping Blacks.”
Moore gets in on the racism, too, calling someone he’d arrested a “negro” and the n-word, saying she “needed a bullet in her head.” He also calls a Black judicial official a “fucking negro magistrate.”
The conversation broadened out into a discussion of genocide. Per the sergeant’s report: “Officer Piner then explained to Cpl. Moore that he felt society needed a civil war to ‘wipe ’em off the fucking map. That’ll put ’em back about four or five generations.'”
The report notes that, when confronted about their comments, each officer “pointed to the stress of today’s climate in law enforcement as a reason for their ‘venting.’ Each officer also denied being racist.”
Last Tuesday, at a Students for Trump rally in Phoenix, Arizona, a Turning Point USA ambassador explained the ultimate significance of Aunt Jemima. “She was the picture of the American dream,” Reagan Escudé told the crowd, referring to Quaker Oats’ decision to retire the brand logo that is based off a racist stereotype of a “mammy,” an always cheerful subservient Black woman as cook, just waiting to serve. “She was a freed slave who went on to be the face of the pancake syrup that we love, and we have in our pantries today. She fought for equality, and now the leftist mob is trying to erase her legacy.”
First let’s fact check a little history here. In 1889, Chris Rutt, heard the song Old Aunt Jemima at a minstrel show and decided to name his pancake flour after the song. In 1893, after Rutt sold the company, the new owner hired Nancy Green, a former slave who was working as a cook for a judge, to act as Aunt Jemima and sell the pancake flour. Escudé was likely referring to the misinformation that Nancy Green, the woman whose likeness Aunt Jemima is based off of, died a millionaire. There is no evidence of that. What’s important here is that the Aunt Jemima pancake and syrup image is based off a racist trope that depicted Black women as docile and happy to serve their white owners. It has gone from an offensive 130-year-old brand logo to American heroine in a matter of days. But not without a few other racist detours on the way.
As part of the racial reckoning that is occurring in so many industries and sectors of society, everything from brands to bands are being renamed and rebranded. Schools named after confederate soldiers will get new names. The country music sensation The Dixie Chicks will now simply be known as The Chicks. Mars, the company that owns Uncle Ben’s rice has also vowed to change its logo, who’s gently smiling elderly Black man has long been criticized as a racial stereotype. And despite the president’s threats to jail protesters, they’re toppling statues to racist men across the country.
For some, these changes are long overdue and may even feel a little hollow, not to mention opportunistic. Did you just now notice your band name referred to states that had seceded from the United States to fight a war in order to preserve slavery? But for white conservatives, the racial reckoning has exposed their own brand: Denying America’s racist foundations while fighting like hell to preserve them.
The rush to transform Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from racist logos that should be removed to historical legacies that ought to be honored started last week. That’s when Quaker Oats announced they would be retiring the smiling logo and looking for a new name to accompany syrups and pancake mixes on grocery shelves across the country. “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America, said. “As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations.”
The subsequent social media meltdown was unintentionally hilarious, at least at first.
Aunt Jemima. Uncle Bens. Mrs. Butterworth’s. This country is now on life support.
Social media lit up with the demise of Aunt Jemima. How could the company remove the face of someone who is so important to, get this, the Black community! The character serves as a role model to children everywhere, and removing her is actually the real racism!
Getting rid of the faces of black cultural icons on food packaging sure is a weird way to show you’re “not” racist…
In fact, the image of Aunt Jemima has provided a convenient shorthand for all kinds of racists over the years. A quick Twitter search for “Aunt Jemima” and the name of any prominent Black woman, like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) or Stacey Abrams, reveals that it wasn’t that long ago that conservative white people were using the logo as an insult and not as a sign of affection, much less respect.
It’s also worth noting that the same phenomenon occurred when the butter company Land O’Lakes recently removed the image of a Native American woman from its packages. Conservatives, who once parroted their president and used Pocahontas as a slur for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), were now claiming Land O’ Lakes was the real perpetrator of injustice for changing this racist logo. I guess I can’t expect much from the people who think the Civil War was fought over states’ rights.
The role of Aunt Jemima and what is happening now with reactions to her image is the inevitable consequence of our segregated society and the whitewashing of history. It is likely that many people who are mourning her untimely departure live in completely segregated communities, not by law but by choice.
When you don’t have to learn about actual Black cultural icons, or the legacy that America chattel slavery left behind, Aunt Jemima can be conveniently deployed for whatever cause you’ve decided to embrace at a current moment. Black history can be sanitized for the comfortable consumption of white people, protecting the lies they’ve been sold about Blackness and American history.
But now, for the first time in generations, those lies are being exposed to a mainstream audience, and whiteness as the default culture is being questioned. It’s reflected in the protests against police brutality, in the realization that despite being the wealthiest country in the world, we have failed to contain the coronavirus that has disproportionately affected people of color, and that the socioeconomic crisis caused by the pandemic could have been avoided if there were less income inequality.
It may seem contradictory, but the rush to defend Aunt Jemima as a symbol of American exceptionalism, the idea in which one can be born a slave and die a millionaire, is a last ditch attempt to save the flawed ideals that are imperative to renounce. And yet, in some ways, it makes perfect sense: If the core tenet of your ideology is preserving white supremacy, you’ve got to go to the mat for anything that threatens it—even racist syrup logos.
Theodore Roosevelt's equestrian statue has stood in front of the Museum of Natural History since 1940. It will soon be removed.Vanessa Carvalho/ZUMA
The uprisings sparked by George Floyd’s death are, ostensibly, about the war on Black lives. Protesters demand that we say the names of the deceased, that their murderers be brought to justice, that the institution of policing be re-thought, defunded, dismantled. Yet as the anger and grief simmer, a deeper purpose has crystalized: dismantling white supremacy in all its various forms.
Days after Floyd’s death, protesters defaced Confederate memorials and torched buildings connected to slavery. Within another week, more than a dozen racist statues were toppled, removed, or beheaded, sometimes with municipal support. Collective consciousness evolved in a frenzy; long-resisted changes suddenly felt like no-brainers. The Marines banned displays of Confederate flags on their bases, while brands raced to retire dated symbols. It’s been nothing short of a reckoning—and not just for Aunt Jemima and Robert E. Lee.
In Boston, Richmond, and St. Paul, it was Christopher Columbus’s turn to fall. In New Mexico, two cities removed monuments to Juan de Oñate, a colonial governor who ruled so brutally that he was exiled by his Spanish overseers. Monument fever quickly spread overseas: English activists drowned the statue of a slave trader in Bristol, while protesters in Belgium assailed effigies of King Leopold II, who presided over a genocide of Congolese people in the 19th century.
At the New Republic, Sappony writer Nick Martin called for the tide to also sweep away less egregious colonizers, since Roosevelt, Washington, Jefferson, and “countless others still honored across our landscapes are [also] responsible for genocide, land theft, and forced assimilation” of Indigenous peoples. His piece was called “Now Do Lincoln.”
Why take down Honest Abe, “the Great Emancipator,” who we celebrate on Juneteenth for ending this country’s (overt) enslavement of African-descended peoples? Because we’re not just reckoning with the value of Black lives—we are re-evaluating our history as a country built on stolen land with stolen labor.
The histories of Black and Indigenous people are inseparably intertwined. In their essay “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor” (which argues that anything less than the return of Native lands should not be considered “decolonizing”), scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang define settler colonialism as “built upon an entangled triad structure of settler-native-slave,” in which laborers brought from other countries become “deathlike monsters in the settler imagination,” while Indigenous peoples are erased.
The connection became further entrenched as enslaved people and Native tribes, both hunted by settlers, hid and protected each other throughout US history, frequently mingling their cultures and bloodlines. Alongside thousands of Black people, an untold number of Native Americans were lynched throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Abraham Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in US history in 1862, when he had 38 Dakota men hanged for inciting a small rebellion as the government starved their people. Tellingly, only a handful of Confederates were executed after the Civil War.
A CNN analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Native Americans were slightly more likely than Black people to die at the hands of law enforcement between 1999 and 2015, though the rates are often neck-and-neck….In 2011, Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd, was involved in the shooting of an Alaska Native named Leroy Martinez. (A witness claimed Martinez had surrendered his gun and had his hands in the air when he was shot.) Recognizing their common experience of police brutality, Native youth stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Black protesters throughout this year’s Minneapolis uprising.
That’s why Washington’s NFL franchise was called a hypocrite for tweeting in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, while clinging to a team name that’s a blatant anti-Indigenous slur. It’s why Joe Biden, in an NAACP town hall earlier this month, raised the question of whether reparations should be paid to Native Americans, too. And it’s why Natives standing in solidarity with Black lives sometimes express frustration with the present moment’s focus.
“Indigenous women, men and children go missing and are murdered every day,” an Assiniboine and Sioux activist told the Great Falls Tribune in Montana. “Where’s the outrage for them? Where’s the outrage for the generational trauma that people are still dealing with on reservations?” A Blackfeet tribal member added, “It seems like we get forgotten because America is ashamed, or embarrassed about its treatment of us.”
Giving Native American communities their due might seem even more difficult than defunding the cops—but in a time when police stations have been torched and abandoned, everything is up for grabs. A country finally ready to confront the brutality of its policing is one also prepared to dredge other skeletons from its past, to have hard conversations and begin the work ofradical reimagining.
Migrants and refugees from all corners of the world encounter our system’s brutality; white supremacy makes sure of it. But Black and Indigenous people experience specific forms of racism that run all the way back to the founding of this nation, a nuance often lost in the catch-all “people of color.” You can’t end racism without also challenging white supremacy, colonization, and empire. One remarkable thing about the uprisings over the past month is that they’ve readily connected those dots.
Over the weekend, it emerged that the statue of Theodore Roosevelt at the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History in New York would be coming down. After years of complaints about the statue, the museum finally decided to take action, citing “the ever-widening movement for racial justice.” The monument depicts Roosevelt towering over a Native American and an African—white supremacy, colonization, empire. May its removal become a monument to end of these interlocking oppressions.
To someone who grew up in New York City, the NYPD will always be synonymous with Amadou Diallo. One of the first protests I ever attended was at City Hall in 2000, after the police officers who shot at Diallo 41 times were acquitted and the city erupted in anger. His killing solidified and reaffirmed a generation of New Yorkers’ understanding of who the police really were, who they served and protected, and who they did not.
People called for change, and politicians promised that the police would be reformed. Instead billions of dollars flowed into the NYPD as they racially profiled countless youth through stop and frisk, shot at Sean Bell 50 times, choked Eric Garner to death, and denied justice to the family members of Delrawn Small, Elvin Diaz, Ramarley Graham, Jayson Tirado, Mohamed Bah, Shantel Davis, Iman Morales, Kimani Gray, Alberta Spruill, and Rexford Dasrath—all men and women who have been killed by the NYPD over the past 15 years. Year after year, from New York to Missouri, police continue to kill Black and Brown people with impunity, all while serving as the most powerful apparatus of racist violence in the United States.
After the killing of George Floyd, 25 days (and counting) in New York City have been marked by hundreds of protests and marches that have spread out across so many neighborhoods it seems like they might reach every person in the city. Young people, around the same age Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown would have been if they were alive today, are leading marches with confidence and strength. Older residents and young children stand outside their stoops and windows cheering from a safe distance, thanking them for putting themselves on the line. Just a month ago, the hospitals were overflowing. So many lives were lost, and just as with police violence, the victims have been disproportionately Black and Brown.
Some of the protests are enormous and others are small, some are joyful and others mournful, some are run like campaign events organized by local politicians and others more like DIY actions scraped together by high school kids. What they all have in common is their power—the way people are feeling it, and the way people are showing it. This is a movement, not a series of protests, and within weeks it has already put politicians on the defensive, pressuring them to enact reforms that have been long overdue. And still, the movement knows that this is not enough, and it is not backing down.
Floyd’s killing is infuriatingly nothing new or different. But the outrage, activism, and protest it has inspired, the Black Lives Matter movement’s spread and influence, the calls to defund and abolish the police that are going beyond more of the same placating reforms, and the momentum of a movement that simply will not stop—all this is new. From my one small lens in this great big city, this time feels different.
At his first public rally in 110 days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a day after Juneteenth, President Trump did not mention George Floyd. He did not mention Breonna Taylor. He did not mention Ahmaud Arbery. He did not mention Rayshard Brooks. He did not mention Tony McDade. He alluded to the protests that have erupted in their names—or, more specifically, to the protesters. He floated the idea of throwing flag-burners in jail for a year, and he spoke of rioters and looters. But he couldn’t bring himself to mention the deaths that have brought so many Americans out into the streets.
He did spend five minutes talking about almost falling down a ramp during a speech at West Point.
Tulsa police have arrested a woman for trespassing in the arena where the Trump rally will take place later today. The woman, who told an MSNBC reporter that she had a ticket for the event, was wearing a shirt that said “I Can’t Breathe” and was apparently there to peacefully protest police brutality of Black people.
Trump’s first campaign rally since the pandemic began is taking place in Tulsa at 7pm central time today. The rally was originally scheduled for Friday, June 19, but was moved after criticism that it conflicted with Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the last slaves in the United States were freed. That conflict, paired with the massacre of Black people that took place in Tulsa in 1921, raised concerns that Trump is pandering to white supremacists.
Protests are expected at the event, and a curfew has been instituted.
Black feminists have led the movement on defunding and eventually abolishing the police, and gradually the idea has gained momentum across the country. Since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department on Memorial Day, people in the United States have witnessed a constant stream of images depicting the kind of police violence Black and brown communities have known existed for centuries. Those images have spurred demands for police reform, and then for defunding and disbanding police departments.
In recent polls, 59 percent of respondents support major police reform. But when the questions concern defunding the police, a Morning Consult poll showed only 28 percent of voters were in favor. As they weighed in on the conversation concerning what to do about the current state of American policing, pundits have taken great pains to explain that defunding the police is not popular, so it’s not a worthwhile movement.
Lots of support for various reforms that would save lives and improve America.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a majority of Americans support changing the way policing is done in the United States. But remember, police departments across the country have already implemented a lot of the reforms that are being touted right now like body cameras, or more Black and brown officers, or increasing de-escalation training. States and municipalities have added body cameras, police departments have ramped up hiring of Black and brown officers, and the cop who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, had just completed a nine hour de-escalation course in April.
Still, reform rather than defunding is still the way the majority of Americans want to go. Take the Morning Consult poll I mentioned earlier. Yes, only 28 percent of voters were in favor of defunding the police, but when broken down by race, the picture changes radically. Only 25 percent of white voters support defunding the police, while 50 percent of Black voters back the movement. Historically, Black people’s views of civil rights struggles have differed sharply from their white counterparts.
The rush to dismiss defunding the police because it’s a polling failure reveals that we haven’t learned much from our own history. Those who consider defund the police activists as too extreme and undermining their own movement, sound eerily similar to those who dismissed civil rights activists in the 1960s. Despite the whitewashed history repeated in schools, most white Americans did not support the movement at the time. “Time passes and people can start to intentionally or not rewrite history, particularly around something that seems as amorphous as public opinion,” Kathleen Weldon, the director of data operations and communications at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research told the Washington Post in 2016.
Much like police reform, the Civil Rights Act, the sweeping bill signed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 enjoyed broad popular support at 58 percent and a 1965 Gallup poll found that 76 percent of Americans approved of the proposed Voting Rights Act of 1966. But after the 1964 act became law, 68 percent wanted only “moderate” enforcement of its mandates. In fact, 42 percent thought the government was moving too fast to bestow voting rights and the right to be served in public places to Black people.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who is now honored as a Civil Rights icon even by people who continue to deny Black people their voting rights, was deeply unpopular before he was shot and killed. In 1966, the last year Gallup measured America’s perception of King, 63 percent had a negative view. But by 1983, the United States honored him with a federal holiday. (And even then, many legislators opposed the posthumous honor.) Today, MLK has been weaponized by white people who use his name to silence Black protesters. “I think [King would] be appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others,” Mike Huckabee, former Republican governor of Arkansas and twice failed presidential candidate said about Black Lives Matter protesters in 2015.
Not that long ago, interracial marriage was a fringe idea with dismal polling numbers as well. In 1967, when the Supreme Court decided to legalize interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, 19 states had laws criminalizing marrying someone of a different race. Forty-eight percent of Americans approved of such laws. And in 1968, when asked about their personal feelings, 72 percent of Americans said they personally disapproved of interracial marriage. Approval for interracial marriage did not cross the 50 percent threshold until the 1990s.
History shows us that positions that once seemed radical, often become the norm. But only if we shed this idea that whiteness is the neutral observer and the ultimate arbiter. If police violence affects your everyday life and your surrounding community, polling statistics become a cudgel. Racial violence may be destroying our communities and our confidence in this country, but how can we entertain a notion of radical reform if white people don’t approve? When you say it’s not a popular slogan, or suburban women don’t like it, or the polls in support are simply not high, you’re signaling to marginalized communities that while Black people are dying in the streets, you’d rather repeat history than learn from it.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at the rollout of a GOP police reform bill.Caroline Brehman//CQ via ZUMA
On Wednesday, in the midst of nationwide protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) accused Democrats of having failed to take up police reform during President Barack Obama’s administration.
“I’m getting a little tired of being lectured to by my Democratic colleagues, that all of this is Trump’s fault,” he told reporters at a press conference announcing a Republican police reform package. “You had eight years!”
President Donald Trump expressed the same sentiment on Tuesday, when he signed an executive order focused on police misconduct. “President Obama and Vice President Biden never even tried to fix this,” Trump said. “The reason they didn’t try is because they had no idea how.”
In fact, the Obama administration and Democrats—as well as some Republicans—did embrace some criminal justice reform efforts in those years. After the high-profile deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Freddy Gray in Baltimore, Obama’s administration took steps to tackle police brutality; Both those cities are now under court-monitored police reform agreements negotiated by his Justice Department. And while there was bipartisan support in Congress during Obama’s presidency for some police reforms, Republican legislators ultimately blocked the efforts in the final months of his administration, partly, as the New York Timesreported, to deny him a “legacy victory.” Today, they deny that he even attempted it.
In 2015, Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia unveiled a criminal justice reform plan that included incentives to adopt body cameras and provide de-escalation training. While a much more modest proposal from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that lacked reforms targeting police moved forward, in 2016, as Trump ascended with the help of tough-on-crime rhetoric, Republicans backed away.
Another bipartisan criminal justice bill presented in the fall of 2016 would have kept juveniles out of adult prisons. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which provided funding for gang-intervention programs alongside a ban on shackling pregnant girls, passed the House of Representatives with a massive bipartisan majority. But in the Senate, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, who recently advocated deploying military troops to violently suppress the protests, blocked it.
In 2018, under Trump, the bill finally passed, but only with a concession extracted by Cotton that judges could lock up juveniles for offenses like truancy if they violated a court order. (His home state of Arkansas does this a lot.) Just three days later, Congress passed the First Step Act, a sentencing reform law. Even as the bill permitted a few thousand inmates to leave prison, the Trump Justice Department worked to undermine the legislation and keep as many people locked up as possible.
By comparison, under Obama, the Justice Department was where the administration’s most important progress on police reform took place. As Mother Jonesreported in 2017, Obama’s Justice Department “began to aggressively enforce a 1994 law that grants it the power to probe local police departments accused of racial bias, excessive force, and other civil rights violations. Its investigations led to 15 reform agreements in large cities as well as smaller communities.”
When Jeff Sessions became attorney general in 2017, Trump’s Justice Department ceased attempts to investigate police departments and shifted its focus to rounding up and prosecuting people. Sessions required prosecutors to seek the harshest sentences possible, erasing progress toward more moderate punishments and reverting to the sorts of lengthy incarcerations that destroyed many Black and poor communities in the 1980s and 1990s. Before Trump fired him, Sessions made sure to issue guidance making the department’s de facto end to consent decrees official policy, signaling that police departments would no longer be burdened by federal oversight. Meanwhile, Trump cozied up to police unions and spoke openly about his support for excessive force. In 2017, Trump told a group officers on Long Island to go ahead and rough up suspects. The message sent, through both words and policies, was clear: the administration was not concerned with police brutality—it even invited it.
That message was received. When the head of the Minneapolis police union got on stage at a Trump rally last year, he thanked the president for unwinding police reform efforts. Trump “got rid of the Holder-Loretta Lynch regime and decided to start letting the cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of us,” Bob Kroll said just a few months before protests would prompt the Minneapolis city council to begin efforts to dismantle his police department.
There are plenty of valid criticisms of Obama’s criminal justice legacy, including many lodged by activists now demonstrating in the street. It’s clear that the consent degrees his administration fought for didn’t end police brutality. And 2015 and 2016’s bipartisan attempts at reform of look meager compared to what Black Lives Matter and other activists now call for: a wholesale rethinking of law enforcement in the United States and drastically reducing the role of police.
There’s a reason today’s protesters are wary of embracing Democrats: the brutality against Black people does not abate during Democratic administrations or under Democratic reforms. While Obama fought to advance this cause, he did not champion it as aggressively as he did others.
The narrative pushed by Lindsay Graham and others that Obama and Democrats did nothing for eight years is not true. But today, it’s easier to make this false claim because Republicans either blocked their attempts, or have since dismantled their accomplishments.
Britain’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who unexpectedly stepped in for Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson after he contracted the coronavirus, is in the limelight once again. This time, he’s taking a different page from Johnson’s leadership—one that’s rife with discriminatory and racist statements.
“I’ve got say on this take-the-knee thing, which I don’t know, maybe it’s got a broader history, but it seems to be taken from the Game of Thrones, feels to me like a symbol of subjugation and subordination, rather than one of liberation and emancipation,” Raab said in an interview with Talk Radio Thursday morning. “But I understand people feel differently about it, so it’s a matter of personal choice.”
Raab’s assertion, while confident, is wrong. The act of taking one knee was started by Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, to protest systemic racism in America. The powerful gesture, which sparked years of debate since Kaepernick’s first kneel during the national anthem in 2016, has been widely used throughout the current police brutality protests. (Other athletes had similarly refused to stand during the national anthem over the years.)
Raab’s extraordinarily dismissive tone continued when he was asked if he would ever adopt the pose to demonstrate solidarity with the protests. “I’d take the knee for two people: the Queen and the Mrs. when I asked her to marry me,” he responded, prompting a boisterous laugh from interviewer Julia Hartley-Brewer.
The comments from Raab, a key figure in ongoing Brexit negotiations, attracted praise from the country’s far-right set, with Britain’s official Leave campaign calling them “refreshing” amid the backdrop of global protests against police brutality.
Refreshing to see the foreign secretary Dominic Raab speaking sense on taking the knee – "I take the knee for two people: the Queen, and my missus when I asked her to marry me!" Brilliant!
Raab is the latest member of Johnson’s cabinet to stir controversy with a take on the Black Lives Matter protests that exploded in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis. As the demonstrations have gone global, with thousands marching across the United Kingdom in recent weeks, Johnson has claimed that protesters are engaged in a sense of “victimization,” while denying that Britain is a racist country.
Garrett Rolfe—the former Atlanta police officer who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks last week, kicking him after as he lay on the ground—was charged with felony murder, the Fulton County district attorney announced Wednesday. The shooting already led to the firing of Rolfe and the resignation of Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields.
The encounter began Friday night when officers found that Rayshard Brooks, 27, had fallen asleep in his car at a Wendy’s drive-through, causing other customers to drive around him, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigations. Police gave Brooks a sobriety test. After he failed, the two officers tried take him into custody, but he “resisted and a struggle ensued.”
An eyewitness video posted on social media overnight shows cops trying to pin Brooks on the ground, one of them with his taser drawn. Brooks grabs the taser and runs away with it, off camera, after which gunshots can be heard. On Saturday evening, the GBI released a surveillance video in which Brooks can be seen running away. He turns as he runs and aims the taser at one of the officers, at which point the cop shoots him with his gun.
According to the DA, video evidence shows Rolfe saying “I got him,” after shooting Brooks. Rolfe faces 10 other charges, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and failure to render timely medical attention.
Devin Brosnan, the officer on duty with Rolfe that night, faces three charges, including aggravated assault. The video shows Brosnan standing on Brooks’ shoulders as he lay dying.
Brosnan is currently on administrative leave. Rolfe has already been fired from the police force, and now faces charges that, if convicted, could lead to the death penalty.
Protesters gathered last weekend at the remains of the Wendy's restaurant on University Avenue in Atlanta where police shot and killed Rayshard Brooks.Steve Eberhardt/Zuma
After spending the last decade covering America’s criminal justice system, one thing is clear to activist, journalist, and lawyerJosie Duffy Rice: a grab-bag approach to incremental policy reform isn’t going to fix all the problems with American policing. The kind of radical changes to policing that the United States needs to build safer communities and protect Black Americans? That will take a wholesale reimagining of public resources—root, and branch.
As the president of The Appeal, a non-profit news publication focused on criminal justice, and the co-host of the podcast Justice in America, Duffy Rice has been working in the weeds on issues that many Americans are now paying attention to in the wake of George Floyd’s killing—issues like police brutality, bloated police budgets, surveillance, pre-trial detention, cash bail, and the disproportionate police presence in communities of color. “The officer who killed George Floyd didn’t do that because he thought, ‘I’m allowed to kneel on his neck for 9 minutes, so I’ll only do it for 8 minutes and 46 seconds’,” said Atlanta-based Duffy Rice, in conversation with Jamilah King for this week’s edition of the Mother Jones Podcast. “It’s not going to be a policy reform that eliminates the [deaths of] future ‘George Floyds’. It’s going to be reducing the power of police, which is really only possible by reducing their budgetary power, at least in part.”
Speaking just days after the death of Rayshard Brooks, the unarmed Black man killed by police in Atlanta on Friday, Duffy Rice provided a user’s guide to the differences between a range of activists’ demands, including the definitions of defunding, divesting, and abolishing the police. She argues that, sure, shaving down police force budgets bit-by-bit is an important first step, but ultimately Americans should be working toward a total rethink of criminal justice—something that goes farther than anything that has been attempted or proposed in the United States thus far. “I think that ‘defund’ is a step on its way to ‘abolish’,” said Duffy Rice. “We’re a society that really relies on backend punishment, instead of trying to solve frontend problems.”
And, Duffy Rice notes that American policing cannot be separated from the issues of racial justice that have catapulted to the forefront of debates over the past three weeks. “It is rooted in a history of racial subjugation, of slavery, of Jim Crow, of classism and racism that is unlike anywhere else on the planet,” Duffy Rice said.
Listen to the full interview below on this week’s episode of the Mother Jones Podcast:
Mourners watch the funeral procession of George Floyd in Houston on June 9.Johannes Eisele/Getty
Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 sparked nationwide protests and jumpstarted the Black Lives Matter movement. His death also opened a conversation about the startling lack ofgood data on how often police use force and on whom. Nearly six years later, amid a massive new wave of activism, it’s become apparent that we have a long way to go toward fully quantifying the human toll of police violence. More bluntly: Does George Floyd’s death count?
In 2015, then FBI-Director James Comey noted that there was better data on movie ticket sales than the use of force by cops. “It’s embarrassing and ridiculous—that we can’t talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force,” he said. While there is more data now than there was then, it remains incomplete and uncentralized. At a US Commission on Civil Rights hearing in 2018, Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist and professor at the University of South Carolina, called the lack of federal data on the use of force by police a “national embarrassment.”
The practical challenge is undeniable: With 18,000 police departments across the country, collecting meaningful data from all them is a gargantuan task that requires immense human resources to obtain, verify, analyze, and visualize data, and hardware infrastructure to host and maintain the data.
The Center for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics System and the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Uniform Crime Reporting program and both log police killings, but their data are known to be incomplete. CDC’s database reported 539 deaths from “legal intervention” involving a firearm discharge in 2018. This is an undercount, since other sources have recorded many more deaths by police shootings. And this count does not include people who were not killed by gunshots, such as Floyd, who died after a police officer restrained him with a knee on his neck.
The FBI’s database records “justifiable homicides” of “felons” by police, a flawed metric since what counts as justifiable is defined by police departments and the definition of a felon in this case isn’t someone who has been convicted of a felony, but rather someone who is perceived to be committing felony act at the time of their death. The FBI recorded 410 “justifiable homicides” by police officers in 2018. It is possible that Floyd, who was killed after officers suspected him of committing forgery by passing a $20 counterfeit bill, could counted as a “felon” in this database?
In the absence of reliable, complete federal data on the use of force, the task has been picked up by journalists, advocates, academics, and citizens. One of the most comprehensive, easy to use, and well-maintained data sources on police shootings the Washington Post‘s database, which its reporters built after Brown was killed. It has documented twice as many killings as the FBI or CDC databases. According to its count, since 2014, nearly 5,000 people have been fatally shot by police officers; a third of them were Black. Black people are killed at more than twice the rate as white Americans, according to the Post. But since this database only counts shootings by officers, Floyd or Eric Garner, who were both killed by chokeholds, would not be included in its data.
The Guardian published comprehensive data on fatalities caused by police use of force (including shootings) for 2015 and 2016 but has stopped since then. At a Department of Justice’s summit on violent crime reduction in 2015, Comey said, “It is unacceptable that the Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper from the UK are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between police and civilians. That is not good for anybody.”
Another detailed data source is Mapping Police Violence, created by data scientist Samuel Siyangwe and activist Deray McKesson. It tracks data based on news reports and three crowdsourced databases: FatalEncounters.org, the US Police Shootings Database, and KilledbyPolice.net. It counts the deaths of people who die by any means used by police and also describes the circumstances that lead to the deadly use of force against them. But it still may not be a complete count since it doesn’t pick up deaths that aren’t mentioned in the media.
These databases only count people who are killed by police. There remains little data on instances where police use force and the victims are hurt or otherwise harmed but do not die. New Jersey Advance Media collected every instance of use of force by police officers from every police department in the state over five years. It’s a rare dataset that not only collects deaths by use of force, but also injuries. Moreover, the oldest data from all of these databases only goes back to 2013. For researchers to meaningfully analyze trends in police violence, they say they need data that goes back further and has more detail.
“I want to know the decision to shoot. That’s what’s most important. Why did the officer decide to use deadly force?” says Alpert. “We know there’s some issues with racial disparities, but there are a lot of things about the situation we don’t know. And that’s where we’ve got to get good data. We’ve got to understand when force is used, how force is used and then we can start to go about fixing it. “
Last year, the FBI finally announced that it would start collecting comprehensive data on police violence. This new database would not only count police shootings but also “serious bodily injury” caused by the use of force. It would also count and the number of shots fired by a police officer in the direction of a civilian, even if the shots miss. But only 40 percent of the police departments nationwide are reported to have volunteered to share data and contribute to the initiative. In contrast, 18,000 local law enforcement agencies (nearly all of them), contribute to FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system, which collects detailed crime statistics.
Researchers say this initiative should have come much sooner. In 1994, in the aftermath of the Rodney King protests in Los Angeles, Congress gave the Department of Justice the authority to sue police departments for unconstitutional practices. It also gave the attorney general’s office authority to collect data on police misconduct and use of force from law enforcement agencies from all over the country.
Joanna Schwartz, a professor of law at the University of California Los Angeles, says the department never fully exercised its authority to compel police to turn over this data. “They essentially asked local law enforcement to produce information and there was never any consequence for agencies that that didn’t work with the attorney general’s office on these efforts,” she says. “The attorney general’s office had this power for 25 years and not used it.” She says that Congress should take matters into its own hands and fix this problem.
Local police agencies collect detailed use of force data, but many resist sharing it, Alpert says. Both Alpert and Schwartz say the only way to get them to be more transparent by mandating data collection and sharing as a condition for receiving federal funding. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has excellent data because state transportation departments have to agree to collect data in return for federal funding.
“The notion that you can’t manage what you don’t measure has been something that has been a foundational concept in law enforcement,” Schwartz says. Police departments already use COMPSTAT, software that tracks crime hotspots and arrest rates. Similarly, there should be data to “track hotspots in police accountability,” she said.
Of course, whether or not it appears in any of the existing databases, George Floyd’s death will count. As his memory fuels the campaign to change American policing, it should also help change the way we record and remember all those who have died or been injured under similar circumstances.
In a quest prove to the public that they have been under attack over the last several weeks, New York City police officers have spread stories that attempt to perfectly illustrate their plight. Except the stories are too perfect. So perfect that they’re not even true.
On Monday night, the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association released a statement that three officers had been poisoned by bleach-spiked milkshakes purchased at Shake Shack.
Within 12 hours, police investigators found that “there was no criminality by shake shack’s employees.”
After a thorough investigation by the NYPD’s Manhattan South investigators, it has been determined that there was no criminality by shake shack’s employees.
The weird and seemingly baseless tale of milkshake malfeasance came just two days after a different New York police union, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, sardonically tweeted “NYC – Community Policing Dividend pays off big! This was tonight Flatbush Ave Brooklyn” on top of a video showing a police car window being smashed with a trashcan.
The tweet left two things out: that, as journalist Noah Hurowitz pointed out, the video was not from “tonight” but from May 30, two weeks earlier; and that just moments prior to the video being shot, officers, in an incident that quickly went viral on social media, had driven into a group of peaceful protestors, threatening their lives.
This police union account is lying. This video appears to have been shot shot on May 30, a block down Flatbush from the now-infamous video of two NYPD SUVs driving thru a crowd of protesters at St. Marks and Flatbush https://t.co/pHsWt4uXjw
The falsehoods spread by New York police organizations is part of a larger pattern of police seeding bad, misleading information or outright lies, often on matters of even greater consequence, to the public. But Tuesday’s milkshake misinformation, in particular, is not the first time police have incorrectly being fixated on the threat of dairy.
In early June, NYPD put out an internal report covered by the New York Post, warning hardened concrete made to look like “chocolate chip ice cream” had been discovered at protests following the police killing of George Floyd. People on social media pointed out that the concrete, which was in cut-up espresso cups with M160, the name of a type of industrial mix, written on them, looked like samples that contractors use to test mixtures. It’s possible that someone went through the trouble of putting concrete in espresso cups and then writing the type of concrete on the outside—which, you have to agree, would undermine any “ice cream” disguise—just to throw them. But is it likely?
In August, Portland Police spread their own milk-based misinformation when they tweeted, without evidence, that Antifa protestors had thrown milkshakes that “contained quick-drying cement.” They were never able to verify this, and no one on the ground found proof. Even Fox News, who had initially run with the police misinformation, quietly retracted the claim.
Good stuff from Fox News who quietly changed its headline that amplified the hoax that antifa was throwing cement milkshakes at the Proud Boys in Portland without issuing a correction, or even acknowledging it pic.twitter.com/TxEN4H12xe
Raven Baxter, as told to Jackie Flynn MogensenJune 15, 2020
Mother Jones illustration; Getty
Over the past few weeks, a new hashtag has emerged on Twitter: #BlackintheIvory, a reference to being Black in the ivory tower of academia, which was first shared by two Black women in communications research. It has been posted thousands of times as the racial reckoning sparked by the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 spreads far beyond policing into industries like media, entertainment, food, tech, and more. Most of the tweets are from Black students, professors, researchers, and scholars sharing their stories of experiencing racism in the workplace and classroom: Getting passed over for jobs, or confused with maintenance staff, or called by the name of the one other Black person in their department.
Among the most widely shared tweets were those from Raven Baxter. “Raven the Science Maven,” as she is known on the internet, is currently the director of collegiate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) initiatives at a charter school in Buffalo, New York, the founder of science advocacy organization STEMbassy, and a musician whose rap music, she hopes, inspires other Black women in science. (Her music video, “Big Ole Geeks,” is a treasure.)
Here, in her own words, she recounts her time as a corporate research scientist at a drug company in western New York—a job she left in 2017 in part because of its toxic culture. Afterward, she went into academia as an assistant professor of biology at a community college, also in western New York, where on her first day a white co-worker threatened to call the police on her. Today, she is hopeful the uprising we’re seeing across the country will bring real, lasting change, including in higher education. Her story here has been edited and condensed.
I’ve always been into science. I was a very curious kid. I mixed together chemicals from around the house, like nail polish with sugar with baby powder, just to see what would happen. I excelled in the sciences in school. I eventually made my way to Space Camp, a week-long NASA program where we explored concepts in space and did astronaut training. And I went on a scholarship, which was even cooler because my mom was a single parent and couldn’t afford to send me at a cost. I was grouped with kids who came as far as Australia, who had come to America just to go to Space Camp. From that point on, I just decided that I thought science was so cool.
I went into a STEM-focused school for college, I got a biology degree, and I ended up getting a master’s in biology. I worked as a corporate research scientist for some time. I had some experiences there that really pointed me away from that field—just really a bad culture. So I decided to go into academia.
As I was finding my way, I didn’t always have super-positive experiences. I’m really fortunate to have gotten through my undergrad and my graduate career as a biologist unscathed. It wasn’t until I started working as a corporate scientist that I started to have major issues with not feeling accepted or welcome in science. And it was a huge shock to me. I wasn’t expecting it at all. Because up until I entered corporate, the notion was always, “You’re welcome. As long as you can do the science, you can stay here.” But when I got to corporate, it wasn’t enough. There was an even smaller box that I had to fit into for people to accept me. And it seemed like nobody really was going to accept me as is. Few people talked to me, and those interactions were very brief and rarely personal. People would go out to have their lunch breaks and I was never invited. It was very obvious that I was intentionally excluded from many out-of-office get togethers. I would make every effort; I was trying my best to make it clear, like, “Hey, I’m your friend. I want to be with you guys. Please include me.” And that was never the case. I was really depressed at the time because I’m a very social person. And when nobody is really like talking to you, it just feels like an empty space.
At my job, there were two other Black people. This is in a seven-story building. The security guard worked on the first floor; he was a Black male. And then there was me; I worked on the seventh floor. My lab hired a custodian who turned out to be the third Black person in the building. When he was hired, I don’t know why she said this to me, but my co-worker, she turns to me and she says, “Good, did you see the new hire? You won’t be the token Black girl anymore.”
I laugh now. I was literally crying when she said that to me. Nobody saw me cry. I just went back to my desk and—I can do a silent cry if I try really hard. No one had ever said anything like that to me. I grew up in suburbia—Williamsville, New York, which is an upper-middle-class neighborhood, not a lot of Black kids at my school. I went to predominantly white institutions for my undergrad and master’s. I’ve never had any problems like this. So I was shocked. I’d never experienced racism like this before.
What happened after made it even worse.
I wrote to HR. They had an anonymous report line. I wrote, “This was said to me. It hurt my feelings.” And I think I said, “You guys should probably come in here and do diversity training.” Instead of handling my report as anonymous, the head of HR drove out from Albany and pulled me out of the lab to have a meeting with me in the conference room. They automatically assumed—I’m the only Black woman working in the lab, so it had to be me. It was so uncomfortable. They made me identify who said this to me. Then they pulled her into a meeting. Mind you, I wasn’t planning on having this conversation with anybody because it was very traumatic for me. I didn’t want to talk about it, I just wanted them to have a diversity training just so that I could be more comfortable at work. They didn’t even do that. They didn’t even invite me into the conversation with my co-worker. They talked to us separately, and then they left.
My doctor was the first to recommend that I leave my position in corporate because I was exhibiting severe physical signs of stress. I had to sit back and think, do I want to make a career in this space where I’m not being included? After speaking with other people in my field, other Black women, they’re like, “Hey, this is how it is everywhere. No matter where you go, that’s going to be your experience. And you’re either going to suck it up and stay, or you’re going to figure something else out.” I ended up leaving. And I hate to be a part of that statistic of Black women who leave STEM, but the reality is, it’s not that we can’t do the work. It’s just that we’re not being included enough to feel like we should stay.
So that’s one of the main reasons why I went into academia. It was because, based on my experiences as a student, I felt like going into academia was a safer place for me. But as soon as I got to the other side of things, as a faculty member and as a staff member—oh my gosh, I faced some of the same challenges that I did in corporate.
I was so excited to start this job. So, I get to work early. I didn’t know where to go, so I went to see if there was something for me in the office that I should pick up. I say hi to the secretary, and she says, “Oh, let’s go check your mailbox. Your mailbox is around the corner, walk down the hall, make a left, and it’s room such-and-such.”
As I’m walking down the hall, I see another person. They’re walking towards me. And I waved because I’m the new kid, you know, the new hire, and I’m excited to meet people. And the person just did not wave, did not smile. They were looking at me, but there was no acknowledgment of my existence, which was crazy. It’s already awkward when you wave to someone and they don’t wave back, but if they also don’t smile, and they’re looking right at you, it feels very personal.
We ended up going in the same direction. And it became obvious to me that we were going to the same room, the mailroom. I’m fumbling, trying to figure out the key because I want to test out the door myself. So I’m walking behind this woman. We get to the doorway to the mailroom and she turns and looks over her shoulder and she doesn’t move. She stops, she turns around in the doorway. And now we’re facing each other and I’m like, “Hi?” And she’s like, “What are you doing?” I explain I’m gonna go check my mail. And this isn’t verbatim, but she says, “You don’t belong here. This is the faculty mailroom.” I told her, “I work here. I’m gonna go get my mail.” And so she opened the door, we go into the mailroom, and I’m looking for my mailbox. I’ve never been in the room before. And so it looks like I’m searching for something, and I don’t know where it is. If somebody was working there, they would know straight where to go, right? So I gave her that benefit of the doubt.
She says, “No, I’ve never seen you before. I’m gonna need to see your identification.” And I’m like, fair, you know? I pull out my ID. It says assistant professor of biology, the name of the school, my picture, the year. Also, there was a copier machine in there and I recognized the scanning pad. I scan my card and hey look! It buzzes me into the printer. And she was like, “I don’t think that’s real. I’m gonna have to call the cops.” I’m like, “What? Wait a second. No, I work here.” She asks me where my office is, and I didn’t know because nobody had shown me where my office was. It was so overwhelming.
I couldn’t find my mailbox. I was too frustrated. Too surprised. Too shocked. I was only about 23 years old when this happened, and so I didn’t have enough of a voice. I was still pretty young to say, “Hey lady, get off my back. I work here. I just showed you my ID. It’s my first day. Leave me alone.” Instead, what I did was walk with her to the department office so the secretary could vouch for me—another white woman—so that they could communicate to each other that I am an actual person and that I exist and that I actually work there. And so the suspicious woman said, “Oh, well, why didn’t you say anything? You just don’t look like you could work here.” And she walked away. There was no apology. It was so uncomfortable. And I don’t know if the worst part about it was the secretary was just like, “All right. That’s solved. And now go about your day.”
When I made the #BlackintheIvory post, people said, “Oh, well, you’re probably young.” Yes, but there’s a difference between a misunderstanding and threatening to call the police. You don’t threaten to call the cops on somebody that you think is too young to be somewhere, unless they’re at a bar. I was checking my mail. I had a suit on. There was nothing violent going on, there was no reason to call law enforcement. Professors send students in the faculty mailroom all the time to run errands. To make copies. To go fetch things from the printer. So it didn’t even occur to her that I could be even one of those students. She didn’t ask me, “Are you somebody’s student?” It just went straight to, “I’m gonna call the police.”
This is the Black experience. Because being a professor in higher education is a privilege. And when people see that a Black person has that privilege, they automatically are suspicious.
I’ve been making music since high school. After I shifted careers and completely changed my life path around, I thought, “Oh my god, I gotta just sit down and take a second and just regroup.” I started thinking about music again. I thought I was going to have a career in the lab. I love teaching, but I really had to sit down and reassess. And one of the things that came out of that was, I wanted to make sure that there was some type of message out there for Black women that said they belong in the space. And it’s not them—it’s literally everything else. It’s the culture. It’s the lack of diversity. So my music is really a tool. It’s a medicine. It’s a Bible. It’s what I think Black women need to hear to be encouraged to stay in their STEM fields, especially if they don’t have somebody around them on a day-to-day basis to really empower them and make them feel like they’re competent, that they’re welcome, and that they’re accepted.
I believe that in STEM, we really have to make spaces for people to be their unapologetic selves. A huge reason why Black people leave STEM is because we feel like we have to be the whitewashed version of ourselves at work, to be very honest with you, just so that we’re palatable. And it’s not to say that we’re not palatable as ourselves, but the current state of STEM culture is that you have to speak a certain way. You can’t be goofy because then people won’t take you seriously, especially if you’re Black, because people think that you’re a token hire and that you can’t actually do your job that you were hired to do, even though you have the qualifications for it and the credentials. It’s very stressful. And a lot of Black people have to actively maintain this false identity when they go to work in STEM spaces just to exist.
All of the different things that people are bringing with them when you hire them—their values, their identity, their cultural identity, their background, their experiences—those are all valuable. And if you’re inviting diverse people into your STEM workspace, you have to make sure that you’re making it a comfortable and inclusive environment so that they can do the work and make those important contributions. Because if you had the experience that I had, where you’re constantly feeling like you’re less than everybody else, there’s no way that you could do your best work in that type of environment.
A lot of Black women like me are experiencing this trauma, but we stay in these fields because we need to be in these classrooms so that we can break the cycle. Sometimes we just take the beating. Our ancestors did it for us, literally.
Right now, we’re really calling on white people to be just like, “Hey, wake up. You’ve got nothing else to do. COVID’s got you at home. You’re not at work. Listen.” I also think there is so much pressure right now for marginalized communities to scream as loud as they can: “Hey! We’re here.” It’s kind of like, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, where everybody’s really small and they’re trying to get big people’s attention. Then all of a sudden the big person looks down. “Oh! Little people!” That’s how it feels right now. We’re like, “Hey, we’re here. Now while you’re looking, look at all this stuff we’ve been through for 400 years.” It’s like we’re doing a crash course. It’s really exhausting.
What keeps me going is knowing that people like me, and countless others, are working so hard to make sure that the next generation does not have these experiences. And I’m really grateful for the #BlackintheIvory hashtag because it’s really brought to light all these issues. I was shocked to read other people’s stories. I thought my story was bad. And not that it was the Trauma Olympics, but we have a first-hand account of the work that we need to do to make academia a safer and healthier place for Black people. Having that evidence, those first-hand accounts of things that have happened, we know that there’s progress to be made and that there’s work to be done. We have proof. Now we have to do the work.
On Sunday morning, Ben Carson, the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the only Black member of Donald Trump’s cabinet, declined to back up Trump’s oft-repeated claim that he’s done the most of any president for the African American community since Abraham Lincoln.
In an interview with George Stephanopolous on ABC’s This Week, Carson said it’s not “productive” to have the debate about whether or not Trump has been the best president for Black people. The remarks came after the president’s interview with Fox News on Friday, where he once again made the claim: “I think I’ve done more for the Black community than any other president, and let’s take a pass on Abraham Lincoln because he did good…although it’s always questionable,” Trump said.
Carson said it was more important to highlight what the president has actually done, as he launched into a modest list of administration initiatives that he said had benefited African Americans. “The opportunity zones were designed to bring money into areas that are traditionally neglected,” the secretary said. “It has been quite successful. Prison reform has been quite successful.”
But Stephanopoulous pushed further, asking Carson if Trump should stop making the claim altogether. “It’s hard to compare that to Lyndon Johnson passing the Civil Rights Act, Ulysses Grant sending in troops to take on the Ku Klux Klan, President Eisenhower sending in troops to enforce Brown v. Board of Education,” the host pointed out.
While Carson didn’t answer directly, he conceded those historic presidential actions were noteworthy while stopping short of admitting they outstrip his bosses’ accomplishments. “All of which is a significant part of our history,” he responded. “We should be willing to look at what we’ve done collectively to make progress.”