Discover more from UnfairNation by Ehsan Zaffar
😔 One Violent Month
And what it tells us about ourselves
Many tragic incidents have taken place in the United States in the past three months, a six year old shot his teacher in Virginia, and the LAPD tased a school teacher to death, but three stand out in particular: two mass shootings targeting the Asian-American community in California, and then the brutal beating and death of Tyre Nichols by police officers in Memphis, TN.
Many are pointing to the fact that the perpetrators in each of these three cases were of the same race or community as the victims. In California, the suspects in both cases were older, Asian men. In Memphis, several of the police officers charged were Black.
The identity of the perpetrators is irrelevant in many ways, and it doesn’t make the murders any less heinous. But it does uncover a story.
We internalize racism, even if we are the targets.
W. E. B. Du Bois said that among the worst tendencies of racism was that it made its victims see themselves through the eyes of people who hold them in contempt.
In a 2010 study of 130 children in New York and South Carolina, white children associated whiteness with positive attributes at a “high rate” while the Black children made the same association. This study affirmed considerable prior research, including the infamous “doll study” mentioned in Brown v. Board of Education, which demonstrated that Black children internalized systemic biases, finding Black dolls to be less competent, attractive and desirable than white ones. Intragroup conflict can often be a manifestation of psychological identification with the aggressor, in this case white Americans generally.
My own anecdotal experiences tell the same story. Brown people are more likely to hire a white attorney over a South Asian attorney because they feel a white attorney may be more competent and effective. This may be the case even if the South Asian attorney went to a better school or works at a better law firm. The South Asian attorney may be hired over a white attorney but only because it would be too embarrassing to pay the white attorney less, or pay them late, or ask them for a discount.
These feelings of embarrassment hint at an underlying and subconscious acceptance of white supremacy and a “colonized mindset.” Indeed, the true impact of American racism and western colonialism is seen in the absence of those who first perpetrated it.
These ideas don’t absolve the murderers - they are, at the end of the day, responsible for their own actions, for the considerable planning, forethought and minutes of time they spent killing each person. However, they speak to the “system of violence” in which we all live - one that seeps into our actions and those of the organizations in which we work.
Individuals in violent systems behave violently
We live in and amongst violent systems.
Just look at how fearful we are of this violence. Today, many Americans carry weapons, ostensibly to “protect themselves” but weapons which only a few hundred years ago would have been capable of wiping out entire armies. We are monitored in public places and we increasingly monitor ourselves and our neighbors, funding a growing industry of connected home security cameras and smart speakers. When we travel we are treated with suspicion and fear - screened and scanned every step of the way.
“The greatest purveyor of violence in the world : My own government, I cannot be silent.” - MLK
We incarcerate more of our population than any developed nation. In parks and playgrounds we remain subconsciously tense, on the lookout for someone who may run off with our kids, irrespective of how illogical it seems. Viscerally violent language pervades our social media, tweets and comments which in many “real world” contexts would be considered emotionally abusive. Even the analogies we use for our just causes - “The War on Drugs,” or “The War on Poverty,” - speak of violence.
Importantly, marginalized and low-income communities experience this kind of systemic violence far more than their more privileged counterparts
“Devastating, but sadly unsurprising,” said Ben Crump, the Nichols’ family lawyer, when discussing the assault and murder of Tyre Nichols. His statements underline the point that Americans have both the means and the cultural permission to engage in violence. It is modeled for us everywhere on a daily basis. It should not be shocking that this violence shows up everywhere, irrespective of the community.
So what can we do?
This is a fraught question with answers that are complicated and difficult to capture in one edition of UnfairNation. Yet, there are still a few lessons we can learn from this past month:
Create space for discussion. This can be done as part of employee affinity groups or student groups. While doing this, avoid being performative and if you are an organizational leader, try to listen, don’t lecture. The time for solutions can come later.
Encourage institutions to respond swiftly to institutional violence. Seems like common sense, but time is of the essence when delivering justice. Justice delayed, is justice denied so the saying goes. In Memphis, the police officers who murdered Tyre were investigated, fired and charged within 20 days. This is not the norm, but it should be.
“This is the blueprint going forward. Whether a cop is Black or white, when you see a cop committing a crime on video, using excessive force … (it shouldn’t) take six months or a year. You can’t say that anymore, because we can say, ‘You remember those five Black police officers in Memphis? Y’all arrested them immediately.’ ” — Ben Crump
Build new, community-driven institutions. It is insane to me that you can choose your car mechanic, but not who polices you. Why can’t those who are policed build their own public safety institutions? Ones that have guardrails in place for systemic violence. We’re starting to do this kind of work at The Difference Engine in Los Angeles and have plans to build a brand new police department, from scratch, built by and for a local LA community that is policed.
Up Next on the UnfairNation Podcast
Next week: My interview with Amy McGrath (I know, I said this last week too)
✈️ Catch Me If You Can
Phoenix, AZ | Feb 13-14
Lisbon, Portugal | March 22-30
Coming Soon: 📡 Signal Boost! I’ll be expanding this opportunities section into something more comprehensive and hopefully more valuable to all of you.
📅 Reading & Watching
Homeland, Two Decades of American Life Under the Department of Homeland Security (I’m a masochist).
One of the coolest initiatives I’ve heard of in years: barbershops have long been a way for men, especially Black men, to build community. And now its a way to talk out what’s on your mind in a more formal, therapeutic way.
Room service? Send up a larger room.