Walking While Black

Walking While Black

I still remember the first time it happened.  I was dropping off my 17-year-old cousin at a friend’s house in the wealthy, white Massachusetts suburb in which I lived and where my father is still a professor.  We knocked on the wrong door. Minutes later, I was pulled over by the police. Slight, young and scared, I was interrogated about my activities, whether I was delivering drugs and what I was up to.

I remembered. My parents had sat me down months before when I got my license.

It doesn’t matter that you’re female. It doesn’t matter that you’re an honors student. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never been in trouble a day in your life. It doesn’t matter that you are leaving to start attending Stanford this fall. When most of these police officers see you, all they will see is a young black girl and that can be dangerous. So, when you are harassed — and you will be — try to stay calm. Try not to be afraid, and call us as soon as you can.

A black teenager’s rite of passage.

Since then I, a minivan-driving soccer mom of three, have been stopped because I “looked suspicious.” My husband, a partner in a Dallas law firm, has watched white women clutch their purses in the elevator out of fear of him. One of my best friends from college, a Wall Street banker, was stopped last year after leaving a midweek choir rehearsal at his church and arrested for “looking suspicious” in his own tony Westchester suburb, and was forced to spend the night in jail. And my 26-year-old brother-in-law, a Princeton honors graduate, an ordained minister, and a Habitat for Humanity staff member living in Harlem, was stopped and questioned while walking home from work by four white police officers just six weeks ago because they thought “he looked suspicious — like he was looking into a van.” Thank God none of us were shot out of “self-defense” since our brown skin made us look so “suspicious.”

I am scared. It is not a new fear, but one that has never gone away and is heightened as I look at my three beautiful boys. These precious ones, for whom my husband and I have lovingly and willingly sacrificed much; with whom I have stayed up countless nights, wiping noses and reading bedtime stories; for whom I have visited dozens of schools and spent hours of research, trying to secure them the best education; in short, the sons for whom I have given my life could find themselves in danger through no fault of their own.

Now they are growing up from babies into fine young men. And that should be nothing but pure joy. Yet, in our society, that also means new danger for them. Not just from the random violence that can touch any life, but due to the particular violence that is visited upon black boys  — especially as they begin to look like young men.

We have to prepare them for what they will encounter because of someone else’s perception of what they are, based on media images that portray black boys and men as predators, pimps, and thugs — even though my sons have no personal reference for this. No, the black men in their lives are loving, responsible, and hardworking fathers, uncles, teachers, and friends who model courage and conviction, values and virtue, family and faith.

So, how could Trayvon Martin’s tragic slaying last month in Florida not break my heart, trouble my soul, and compel me to action? How can it be that, a month later, his shooter has not even been charged with a crime? How can it be that we live in a country that we fight to defend, but where the taking of our sons’ lives does not even warrant their killers’ arrest? How can it be that this child’s life was taken simply because he was walking while black? How can this be the America that I love?

Sadly, so little has changed.

My well-meaning white friends have no idea why so many African Americans distrust or fear the police who have vowed to protect and serve. And they have no idea what it is like for black parents to have to prepare their children to deal with a public that often still judges them by the color of their skin. They are so committed to the idea that we live in a color-blind society that it is hard for them even to perceive, let alone help change, the reality that impacts our lives and the lives of our children daily.

I learned in law school, and it is still true today, that it is the color of the victim, not the perpetrator, that is one of the greatest determinants in criminal sentencing. The harshest penalties are given for crimes against white women and the least harsh, even for the same crimes, are meted out when the victim is “only” black.

So, I can’t make nice. I can’t pretend. The murder of Trayvon Martin could be the murder of any black boy going to the store for iced tea and candy, including my sons.

The clock is ticking, and justice has not been served. The clock is ticking, and my boys will be young black men soon.

The clock is ticking, and my husband and I must prepare to have the same talk with them that our parents had with us: You are bright. You are funny and smart and sometimes silly. Your laughter and smiles fill up the room when you enter. And your warmth and your hugs fill my heart with more happiness and joy than any one person has a right to expect in one lifetime. You are capable of being anything you want to be in this life — even President of the United States. But when you walk out of the safety, protection and loving arms of our home, you are walking while black, and only our prayers can protect you then.

KONY 2012’s Fame Problem

KONY 2012’s Fame Problem

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 
— Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.”

STRAIN OF FAME: Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and director of the "Kony 2012" documentary, suffered a nervous breakdown after the video went viral. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Newscom)

If you haven’t already seen it, San Diego-based not-for-profit organization advocacy group Invisible Children recently launched a video campaign called KONY 2012, designed to raise public awareness and attention toward their goal of seeing U.S. forces capture abductor and child-soldier-exploitationist Joseph Kony .

Now that the KONY 2012 video has already reached over 80 million views in a really short time, the campaign has entered the national conversation. As such, there is a commonwealth of informed voices coming out of the woodwork to shoot it down offer informed rebuttals to their strategy. (Here are several such examples, including  two right here on UrbanFaith.)

Most of these criticisms are, rightfully, engaging the biggest questions concerning the issues of what is best for Uganda, the limits of awareness and advocacy work, and the role of NGOs in Central Africa in general, and how these interact with the larger economic and foreign policy interests of the U.S. government. These are some of the most important issues surrounding the KONY 2012 campaign, and should be debated fiercely.

But I have a much more fundamental issue with the campaign, and it’s with the word “famous.”

Taken from the YouTube page, here is IC’s own description of the KONY 2012 campaign:

KONY 2012 is a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.

Can you see the inherent contradiction there?

Fame can’t be tamed

Now, more than ever, perception is reality. And in today’s hyper-saturated world of media, I’m not sure how possible it is to make Joseph Kony famous without inadvertently celebrating him. When in the history of public activism have people ever rallied around a personified symbol of opposition without raising the profile of that person?

After all, there’s a reason why, if we go back to the obscenity controversies surrounding 2 Live Crew in the early ‘90s, Luke fans and anti-censorship activists never went around wearing T-shirts or putting posters with the images of former attorney and censorship zealot Jack Thompson. They never wanted to give him any more exposure than necessary. (And believe me, if there’s anything Jack Thompson wanted, it was more exposure.)

So even if, after painstaking research and deliberation, one were to decide that another military intervention to remove Joseph Kony would be in everyone’s best interests, it’s still a huge leap in logic to conclude that the best way to make that happen is by affixing posters and stickers to public structures with his name and/or image on them.

Because even if we ignore the potential social costs of such civil disobedience (going in at night and blanketing our cities with propaganda could be viewed as overly aggressive or even illegal depending on how and where you go about it), the question must be asked — is making Kony famous even a good idea?

Famous for being famous

It used to be that fame was desirable as a consequence of living a life of significance or achievement. You wanted to be famous for something. Curing cancer, winning the Super Bowl, writing the great American novel, et cetera. “Baby, remember my name,” right?

Over time it became clear that to be famous in the 21st century doesn’t require any particular skills or achievements. People like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have made whole careers out of being famous for being famous — in their cases, being born into famous families. But now, with the KONY 2012 campaign, what we’re seeing is the term “famous” being used in a totally opposite way, to be famous for something really bad.

If only there were other words in the English language that could express this idea — oh wait, there are. Words like “infamous” and “notorious” do the job quite well. To paraphrase a scene from a favorite Sports Night episode, there’s a big difference between famous and infamous. One’s famous, the other’s infamous. That’s why they have those words.

That’s why this whole “make Kony famous” thing doesn’t sit well with me.

Considering how much Twitter has been incorporated into today’s political process, part of me wonders if the biggest reason why the KONY 2012 went viral so fast was because the name “Kony” makes for a great Twitter hashtag. I know he’s a terrible man and has been brutalizing children for decades, but still. It’s no secret that they deliberately chose an election year for this campaign, because it should be the kind of thing that politicians across the aisle should be able to agree on.

But what happens after 2012, especially if he doesn’t get caught?

I suspect he’ll become the new Che Guevara — just another polarizing, countercultural figure whose actual life will become distorted in order to fit the dominant political or social agenda of the day.

And not to pull a Jesus Juke, but every time I see or hear “make KONY famous” I keep thinking about the Chris Tomlin tune “Famous One.” If Kony is our new standard for fame, then maybe Tomlin needs to record it again under the title, “Famous (For-All-The-Right-Reasons) One.”

Maybe that wouldn’t work on Twitter, but I’m a big guy — I could probably fit it on a XXL T-shirt.

Fame bites back

And just when it seemed this story couldn’t get any more controversial, news broke of the bizarre detaining and subsequent hospitalization of IC founder and filmmaker Jason Russell, who was reported to be wandering naked and yelling obscenities on a Los Angeles street. The latest reports say Russell is suffering from a brief reactive psychosis due to exhaustion and stress and that he’s expected to remain hospitalized for weeks. (I join others in offering up prayer for his recovery.)

In general, I’ve resisted the rather cynical argument that KONY 2012 is more about the filmmakers than the children for which they purport to be advocating. Because even though there is an air of White privilege about the whole thing, it’s undeniable that Invisible Children has been successful at bringing awareness of these complex issues to a generation of affluent teenagers who wouldn’t have known or cared otherwise. On balance, I consider that a good thing.

But given the public nature of this latest indiscretion, Jason Russell is flirting with this new oxymoronic definition of fame himself. And if he was only just an entertainer, you might just chalk it up to the axiom of there being no such thing as bad publicity. But that’s clearly not the case here. Even though Invisible Children is not an explicitly Christian organization, Russell has roots in the Christian establishment. So in the light of eternity, the stakes are a lot higher for how he conducts himself, and it’s clear that he has not been able to handle all of the pressure and attention. And despite Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey’s impassioned plea for folks to give his friend some space, I’m sure that privacy will be much harder to come by now that this has happened.

The good news for Jason Russell is that, whether through the buzz surrounding KONY 2012 or because of the TMZ coverage, he now has an even greater balance of attention currency — and after his recovery he gets to decide how to spend it. Hopefully, it will be used with an honesty and humility different from the slick, professional marketing that we’ve seen so far. Hopefully, we’ll witness an organization so humbled by circumstances that it’s willing to admit its missteps.

That, more than the viral video, would impress me greatly.

But if Invisible Children expects everyone to pretend that nothing has happened and go back to being inspired to stop Joseph Kony … well, it doesn’t understand how fame works these days.

A Lament for Trayvon Martin

A Lament for Trayvon Martin

On Sunday, February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man, argues that he was acting in self-defense. Incredibly, Mr. Zimmerman has not yet been arrested. However, due to the organizing efforts of his parents, civil rights groups, MSNBC shows, and concerned citizens, the latest racialized miscarriage of our criminal justice system is now getting the widespread attention that it deserves. On Monday, March 20th, it was announced that the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are embarking upon an independent investigation into the causes and circumstances of Mr. Martin’s death. Many important commentaries have been written on the death of Trayvon Martin: in particular, Mark Jefferson’s piece on the Urban Cusp merits special attention.

My aim in writing about Mr. Martin emerges from a threefold motivation. First, Christians ought to publicly lament when a young black man receives a death-dealing blow — or in this case, gunshot — due to an unjustifiable use of force. The occasion for lament intensifies when one considers that local law enforcement, as of today, has not yet arrested Mr. Zimmerman. This apparent disregard for one of our most cherished legal precepts — equal justice under the law — is a principal reason why Mr. Martin’s family, along with hundreds of thousands of citizens across this nation, are protesting and petitioning on behalf of Trayvon Martin. While all of the relevant facts of the situation are not in, it seems highly probable that engaging an unarmed teenager with deadly force will exceed any legal appeal to self-defense. Lament, as Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann notes, is a profound, prophetic indication that something is out of joint socially — a visible acknowledgement that God’s just and peaceable dream of shalom has been shattered in the world. Speaking frankly, a multiracial lament concerning the murder of Mr. Martin might help reduce the cynicism many black and brown Christians harbor about where racial justice stands within evangelical movements for racial reconciliation.

Second, Mr. Martin’s parents have started a petition that merits signing. I encourage you to read about the particulars of his case and consider offering your support.

Thirdly, if you reside in the Greater New York City area, I invite you to attend “A Million Hoody March,” which will be held at Union Square starting this evening at 6 o’clock. The hoody signifies Mr. Martin’s article of clothing at the time of his death.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, the moral arc of Florida’s criminal justice system is bending towards injustice. We can, if we will, play a part in tilting it towards justice.

Click here to read and sign the petition demanding that justice be done in the Trayvon Martin case.