Blackbird singing in the dead of night

The title is from a line of The Beatles song “Blackbird” which is a tribute to the struggle for African-Americans for their civil rights. The song was sung by Paul McCartney with writing credits to both him and John Lennon, although McCartney was the lead.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Here is what McCartney said about the origin of the song in an interview in 2002.

“I’ve got a poetry book out called Blackbird Singing…..I was in Scotland playing on my guitar, and I remembered this whole idea of ‘you were only waiting for this moment to arise’ was about, you know, the black people’s struggle in the southern states, and I was using the symbolism of a blackbird. It’s not really about a blackbird whose wings are broken, you know, it’s a bit more symbolic.”

I added McCartney’s quote as I wanted the clarity around what the song means. African-Americans are still fighting an uphill struggle for their civil rights. What has happened in Ferguson, Cleveland, New Jersey, Charleston, Charlotte and Baltimore is tragic, but evidence of the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. The lack of opportunity, the malaise, the maltreatment, the deterioration of the neighborhood, the lack of respect given to people of color in our country continues.

I have noted before that Warren Buffett has said he was born lucky. He was born a white male in America. All three components of that phrase are important – white, male and America. Yes, he worked hard, but he was afforded opportunities that African-Americans do not get.  Not only do many whites like me have a hard time knowing the challenges of being black, but we also do not fully realize the advantages of being white. As I wrote recently, as a white man, there are not too many places I cannot go no matter how I am dressed. But, there are far too many stories of how a black man can be dressed in his Sunday best, yet still be stopped by the police and think “be careful as this may be the last thing I do on earth.”

I would encourage three things. First, please do not look at those committing violence and rioting as indicative of the African-American community. The community knows this is not the path forward. Second, people who look like me need to do our best to understand the challenges we have in America for people of color, but also for all people in poverty. Third, as always, talk is cheap. These issues are complex and solutions have to address many underlying concerns. There are no sound byte answers as some politicians have espoused.

I mention this last point as we must address the wide disparity in American between the “haves” and “have-nots.” This is not just an African-American issue. It is an American issue, as most people on food stamps are white. Please re-read this previous sentence. Poverty exists in urban areas, in rural areas and even in the suburbs. We have to stop the “war on poor people” and make this a “war on poverty.”

We must invest in our infrastructure and deteriorated assets repurposing them. This will spawn jobs as well in places where it is needed. We must revise our minimum wage to be consistent with a living wage for one person, which varies, but is just over $10 an hour. We must invest in education at all levels. We must embrace the Affordable Care Act as it is helping so many people and fully implement it through Medicaid expansion in the remaining 20 odd states. For some politicians to say we have a poverty problem and be against the ACA is hypocritical and shortsighted, especially when it is working pretty well.

Remember McCartney’s words and lets help these folks with broken wings learn to fly. To do otherwise, goes against what our country is all about and any of the teachings found in religious texts.

A disproportionate response

What does this mean you may be asking? It has a couple of contexts. When I first think of it, I usually think of well-meaning people who want to help someone in need. A church or employer group may adopt a family who is going without. This is not uncommon around the holidays. Unfortunately, what happens is the family is over-provided for stripping them of any dignity that remains. Plus, neighbors who are in a similar boat, may ask why them? This is one reason I do not care for the “move that bus” show where they over provide for a family.

This may sound callous, but it is an example of what is called “Toxic Charity” as defined by Robert Lupton. In his view, charity should be reserved for emergencies. We should be transacting with those in need to help them climb a ladder. If we over do, then the family’s dignity suffers. He likes to ask churches, “Is what you are doing more for you or the people you are helping? If it is the former, then you may want to rethink your outreach.”

A former executive director of a family homeless agency calls these exercises a “disproportionate response” to a crisis. He said we need to help people in a sustainable way. The goal is for you to help them stand on their own. That is the premise of the family homeless services agency I have the privilege to serve with on their Board. We do not want to do for our clients what they can do for themselves.

The other context is when controlling a hostile situation. We are beginning a discussion where police officers have on occasion used force when it was not needed or when the crime they were apprehending the suspect for was not that serious. Recognizing the tough job they have, police officers need to be trained and retrained on the art of handling delicate and difficult situations. The predisposition to act with violence needs to be managed, so that it is not used as often as it is with men of color or in less strenuous situations.

Yet, part of the issue is using an aggressive manner to apprehend a suspect of a petty crime. There is a disproportionate response when a violent apprehension is deployed with someone over a petty crime. This is akin to chasing a runaway vehicle through traffic endangering others drivers and pedestrians for running a stop sign. The safest response for the community would be to forego the chase. This has to be part of the new paradigm where training can keep officers alert, but not predisposed to act with violence. There should be a difference when apprehending someone suspected of a burglary or murder versus someone selling illegal contraband like cigarettes.

We need to approach situations with an appropriate response. Some folks will say that a suspect who is gunned down is justified if they committed any crime. I find fault with that. Someone should not be killed for stealing candy.  Further, a child with a pellet gun should not be gunned down in less than ten seconds, when a man with a rifle threatening violence is talked out of it, as he is white and the child was black. The other key question is should someone shoot to kill every one? What happened to shooting to wound? I know in the movies they do this to keep a clean end to a story and to punish very bad people that we can see as bad through our omnipotent viewing. Yet, this should not be the case in real life as much as it is.

I recognize these contexts are very different, but I believe we should be thinking and planning how we should respond to various issues, whether they be someone in need or someone who needs to be apprehended. We need to be more proportionate in our responses. More people may be saved as a result.

As a white man with a few years under his belt

I wrote recently about context being lost in the discussion about Ferguson and the many other cities where dark-skinned males were killed by uniformed officers. I mentioned it is difficult for a white man, like myself, to understand what a black man goes through on what should be more routine occurrences. But, let me start with what I do know. As a white man, I have witnessed if I dress cleanly and neatly, I pretty much can go anywhere I please and not be questioned. The older I have gotten makes it easier as I look I am above-board in today’s society. Even if I look less than my best, I am typically not viewed as a threat, even when stopped by a patrolman.

The converse is true for a black man. Many black men of wealth and success have written when they are stopped today by a patrolman, even if well dressed, the thought that they need to move very deliberately comes to the forefront of their minds. The thought that this might be the last thing I do on earth comes to mind. I wrote recently about the example of a successful black man dressed for a funeral was stopped and treated as a potential felon. Black men or youth who are not clean-cut do not stand a chance at being treated fairly. They are profiled before they open their mouths.

Being profiled places a law officer on an alert status. As a result, they may be more prone to act with violence to apprehend a suspect. There is a predisposition to act. This is where the training needs to come in – how do I remain alert, without thinking violence is an inevitable action. Leonard Pitts, the national columnist who writes for the Miami Herald, noted a comparison to an older white man who was threatening people with a rifle. Over 45 minutes, the officers talked him into giving up his weapon. In Cleveland, a twelve-year-old black boy with a stun gun was killed inside of two minutes.

Think about that for a few minutes. That is context for why black men and women feel there is unfair treatment in the eyes of the law. They do because there is. And, that is what needs to change.

Context gets lost in Ferguson Discussion

In the wake of the tragedy over the Michael Brown shooting and the grand jury declining to pursue an indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, context for the discussion seems to have been lost. Some who look at the failure to indict as vindication for a beleaguered police officer are focusing more on the event and not the underlying causes, in other words, the context. I am not going to sit in judgment over the people serving on the grand jury. They saw testimony and information the larger public did not see, so for me to question their decision, would be an uninformed or partially informed opinion. I do lament that a young, imperfect man is dead and that is unfortunate.

The part that should be looked at more is the expectation of the African-American community that an indictment would not be forthcoming. They hoped for an indictment, but knew in their hearts that Wilson would not be so charged. What does that say? It validates that there are two Americas, one where opportunity exists, and one where opportunity is limited or non-existent. It validates that African-American people expect to be maltreated. We should be asking why have these people lost hope.

Yet, it is not just race that is a factor, although a high percentage of those disenfranchised are of color. We have a poverty problem in this country that impacts people off all races, ethnicities, political persuasions and geographies. Poverty exists in rural towns, just as much as it does in urban and suburban settings. And, America is no longer the land of opportunity like it used to be, as we have greatly fallen in the ranks of socio-economic class mobility. So, this context is important. This type of disenfranchisement is debilitating.

Also, we seemed to have lost sight that we live in communities. The law enforcement officers should represent and reach out to the communities. There are great examples where community policing has done marvelous things to reduce crime. The proactivity and accessibility of law enforcement officers provides a calming service to the community. I read a great example as it relates to drunk driving which applies here. Rather than stop and cite drunk drivers once they got behind the wheel, a community police force started positioning officers outside of nightclubs and sports bars. These officers would suggest to obviously inebriated people that they should not drive and would call them a cab.

Right now, with more Americans armed, the police have to be more armed and more adept at using the weapons. Per Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book “Blink,” officers need to be taught to be judicious with the use of force when confronted. The premise of “Blink” is there is a predisposition to act based on gut instincts and it is crucial that officers are trained and re-trained to not act rashly or based on biased expectations. This is a key reason why African-American males are at greater risk than other males. This is key reason African-American mothers have the “talk” with their male children (that white mothers do not need to have) about being extra careful with any movements when approached by the law.

This issue is complicated and deserves good dialogue about the underlying context and potential solutions. It does not deserve politicians, pundits and leaders arguing over misconceptions and innuendo. I do not like that some have resorted to violence, looting and destruction. This does not serve a good purpose and the wrong people are punished. I do not like that Brown’s body was treated so poorly after his death. I do not like that questions may still exist about the circumstances of his death, but smarter people than me will need to look into what the grand jury may not have seen. And, I do not like people short-changing the disenfranchised, by not understanding fully the context of their disenfranchisement. Unless someone has walked in their shoes, they truly do not understand why hope can seem lost.

And, it should not be lost that other African-American youth have died recently, as before, at the hands of the law no matter how justified the act. So, Michael Brown has not died alone. Let’s remember that context, as well.

 

 

 

I might not survive this encounter – racial injustice lives on

Last week on “Real time with Bill Maher,” one of his panel guests was actor/ director Wendell Pierce, who has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies. I should note that Pierce is an African-American male, as this context is important for his viewpoint. During a discussion on domestic violence, Maher introduced the concept of race playing a role in how people perceive alleged perpetrators. Pierce’s opinion was very informative and well thought out. But, there was one particular commentary he made that needs to be stated again and again, as there are some who believe racial injustice does not still exist and is blown out of proportion by the media.

Pierce was dressed in a suit and tie for the show, which is important for his example. He said people who are not an African-American male do not and can not appreciate when he is stopped by a police officer or patrolman, that the thought goes through his head that “I might not survive this encounter.” He used a recent example where he said he was driving to a funeral in Mississippi, dressed like I am tonight, with two young children in the backseat and another passenger up front. He noted he was pulled over by a patrolman.

Pierce said he did what he always does when stopped and pulled his wallet out of his pocket and set it on the dashboard awaiting the officer’s arrival. African-American men do this to avoid the perception of going for a gun as you get your wallet out. He said it was a very hot day, so he turned the car off and left the AC running. After a few minutes of waiting, he looked in his rearview mirror and saw an officer pointing a rifle at his car mouthing the words to get out of the car, #$%&#$. So, a situation that did not need to be tense, was because the officer presumed malintent.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Blink,” he notes that there is a predisposition to act that is based on our experiences. The theme of the book is we make subconscious decisions all the time based on our experiences. These hunches have been formed over the years. He notes this can be good or bad, and cites as an example of the latter in the story of “41 Shots” that Bruce Springsteen made famous in his song “American Skin.”  In essence, an “English as a second language” person was perceived as a perpetrator as he did not understand questions officers were asking and, feeling in jeopardy, ran. Not condoning this flight, Gladwell notes the person was trying to pull out his wallet and was shot 41 times on a stoop. 41 times!

The recent death of Michael Brown in Ferguson is another example of this predisposition to act. As a result, someone is killed with his hands raised as confirmed by several sources. Trayvon Martin died because self-appointed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, presumed he was up to malintent and pursued him even when told not to by the police dispatcher. Something similar happened at a gas station where a civilian shot into a car and killed an African-American teen because they were playing their music too loudly.

As a white person, let me state the obvious. While I can empathize greatly with Pierce and other African-American males, there is no way I can walk in their shoes. There is no way for me to know what it is like to fear for my life in circumstances which should not warrant fear. There is no way for me to fully understand how racial injustice continues, when it is obvious that it still does. I have read the excellent book by Michelle Alexander “The New Jim Crow” which speaks to the higher preponderance of incarceration for African-Americans for drug crimes, when whites are equally guilty as indicated by the data. The book also speaks to the number of African-American teens who are in adult prison and, as a consequence, are being taught more to be a better criminal rather than a better citizen. So, they leave prison with few opportunities and may resort to a life of future crime.

Per Pierce and others, the solutions lie in education. The solutions lie in better after school programs.The solutions lie in providing opportunities. The solutions lie in better parental guidance. The solutions lie in better training of police officers to handle confrontations. The solutions lie in community based policing where the efforts are to reduce crimes through positive interaction. The solutions lie in better remedial sentencing where kids can be taught an education, skills and how to be good citizens. And so on. Racial injustice may have lessened, but it is alive and well in America. Anyone who thinks otherwise, needs to do some more homework or look to better sources of information.