Controlling Black Bodies

People of color are systematically mistreated in the U.S. both by individuals and by the organizations charged with protecting the people. People of color in the U.S. can’t go to a park, drive a car, play in their own neighborhoods, walk to the homes of their grandparents, hold a bag of candy, go to their prom, wait for a friend at a restaurant, or any number of other pretty routine activities without having to worry that they’ll be singled out and harassed (in the more benign case) or in far too many cases physically abused or even murdered by citizens and government enforcers alike.

White people can do just about anything they like. For example, I routinely exceed the speed limit, sometimes by quite an unsafe margin. I know that if I get caught, the worst that’s likely to happen to me is that I’ll get a brief talking to and a speeding ticket. I feel a little nervous or annoyed if I get pulled over, but it has never occurred to me to fear for my safety at a traffic stop. It’s never occurred to me that I might be removed from the car and restrained or that my car would be searched or that I would be hit or choked, possibly to death. Heck, I might even feel like I can joke around with the officer a little to win them over and see if they’ll reduce my penalty. I don’t imagine that people of color in the U.S. have the privilege of adopting the same pretty casual stance. I imagine they feel pretty vulnerable.

I think that most white people are probably largely blind to this privilege. I know that I was for much of my life to date. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily willful or malicious blindness. You are to some degree a product of your environment. I am a white man who grew up in a racist backwater town in the South. I went to school with black kids and was friends with black kids, but I also fell into the sorts of default attitudes and behaviors my environment taught me were appropriate. I didn’t know any better at the time, but it makes me feel ashamed now anyway. I was a product of my environment, and until I had enough experience and knowledge to begin to see my way out of those default perspectives, I don’t believe I was morally culpable.

But once you are mentally capable of moral culpability and once any blinders have been removed, failing to adjust your perspective and take reasonable actions to correct your behavior is immoral. Acting to keep blinders in place for yourself or for others is also immoral.

In 2016, NFL player Colin Kaepernick started kneeling for the national anthem played before his team’s football games. It was a powerful peaceful protest of police brutality against people of color — the more powerful because players traditionally take a knee when a player is injured on the field of play. Kaepernick’s action eventually led to many other players making the same silent protest, and this collective, public, high-profile protest has been (or should have been) a removal of blinders for any who have observed it. No one familiar with the protest can truly have failed to understand the message now that there has been a lot of public dialogue about the context for his kneeling: People of color are being brutalized disproportionately by our government, and Kaepernick, et al, would prefer to kneel in protest of that injury than to salute the flag of a country that fails to acknowledge or abolish institutionalized racism that causes that injury.

You can disagree with Kaepernick’s position, but you can’t at this point say that you don’t understand it. You can claim to be a patriot who reveres the flag and the anthem, but to do so in a case such as this is to revere the veneer of patriotism rather than the substance of patriotism, such as the precept that all people should be treated equally and are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Suggesting that Kaepernick should stop his protest is like suggesting that a rape victim not call for help. To willfully prevent Kaepernick from protesting (whether by force or implicitly by collusion or penalty) is to gag the rape victim yourself.

This week, the overwhelmingly white NFL owners instituted a policy that any players or staffers on the field must stand for the national anthem, out of respect for the anthem. Failure to do so will result in penalties for teams and/or players. Players are of course welcome (the owners allow) to stage their protests out of sight without penalty. The owners are not preventing the rape victim from calling for help, but they’re making sure the call cannot be heard. It’s a difference without a distinction. I suppose this felt to the owners like a clever concession, but I believe it is morally bankrupt. It is of course their right to conduct the business of the organization as they see fit, but they are morally culpable here and should feel ashamed, as should anybody who supports them.

When I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me a couple of years ago, I didn’t fully understand his emphasis on the black body, but the more I’ve read and the more black people I’ve seen treated as bodies to be manipulated rather than as people, the more I’ve begun to understand his emphasis.

The NFL is led by wealthy, mostly white, owners whose enterprises rely for their profit on the physical use and abuse of what are effectively owned bodies, many of them black. It’s easy to think of these millionaire football players as autonomous, empowered human beings who could do more or less what they like, but this move by the NFL really underscores that these men are still black bodies to be manipulated by the white people who own them.

The owners have here said: You may protest if you wish, but your body must be hidden from view while you do so. This to me seems not so very distant from pushing black bodies to the back of the bus or to their own restrooms or away from the lunch counter. These behaviors in turn were driven by racism that led to brutality (mob and police) against people of color, which continues today in the form of disproportionate police brutality against people of color. What we see today isn’t so terribly different from the use of dogs and fire hoses to control black bodies in the 60s. Some of what we see today — some of what Kaepernick and company have protested to the chagrin of the owners — isn’t so terribly different from hanging black bodies from trees, and a failure on the part of those of us with white privilege to acknowledge this and to push back against it renders us complicit and morally culpable.

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