Despite my white skin and blue eyes, as a Jew I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my whiteness. This is true now more than ever. My people have suffered at the hands of xenophobes and bigots for as long as we’ve been around. My great-grandparents survived the pogroms of Europe only to arrive in the US and be told they’re not welcome here. They were denied jobs, housing and basic human decency. They were relegated in ghettos here to match the ones they left behind in Europe. They did not (and I still do not) enjoy many of the privileges that white Christian Americans have been afforded. But they stayed and here I am.
Now, after reading that title, please don’t tell me there are no laws in the USA, federal, state or local that ban African-Americans from existing. I know that’s the case. I know Barack Obama is black, and I know he was elected president. But when one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime and police are routinely killing unarmed black men at the same rate they’re killing armed black men, I have to come to the conclusion that yes, it’s illegal to be black in this country; and it’s a crime often punishable by death.
Before he was murdered by law enforcement, (and left to rot in the August sun) Michael Brown surrendered to police. It is illegal to be black in the country.
The executions of Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Walter Scott and thousands of others (Over 100 in the first half of 2016 alone) make it clear that it is illegal to be black in this country.
And now we add Alton Sterling’s name to that list. Killed while being pinned to the ground by officers. It is illegal to be black in this country.
It goes without saying (I hope) that this situation is disgusting, deplorable, and needs to be remedied. But it hasn’t. After all those people and all that outrage it still hasn’t. It still keeps happening. We haven’t changed anything, we haven’t fixed anything.
I’m white, and I am cloaked by the warmth of my white privilege, of knowing well into adulthood that a cop is always your friend. But I have black friends. I don’t make this statement to give myself credence or validity, I say it because I am scared for them. I know they face a very different threat, a very different terror, than I do. I know there’s a chance I may wake up tomorrow to read their names on the news, to see their side by side photos (happy and smiling along side bloody and broken) splashed on the front page of the papers, to hear strangers chant their names at protests, to add them to a list of victims in what feels like an un-winable, neverending war.
They, like those before them, could be killed by the very people we’ve asked to protect us, by the very people who protect me, because I am not black. Because I somehow deserve this protection that they don’t have access to because of the color of my skin. Because it is illegal to be black in this country.
Last night Patricia Arquette won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. The film itself was beyond reproach. A triumph of modern filmmaking. Arquette did a masterful job and her award was much deserved. She’d prepared ahead, reading a pre-written speech. After the general thank yous and a plug for her charity, she said,
“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights, it’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
Which is terrific. It’s elegant and eloquent. Short, succinct and accurate. She played it well, not calling anyone out or blaming anyone in particular but asking everyone to fight. In a dreary awards show that celebrates the exact same kinds of people saying more or less the same things year after year, this was brilliant and lovely. Unquestionably one of the evenings highlights. It even prompted this reaction, which was tailor made for the pop-feminists of the internet:
But, sadly, it of course did not end there. After leaving the stage she was swept off to answer reporters questions in front of a step-and-repeat where she said:
“It’s inexcusable that we go around the world talking about equal rights for women around the country and we don’t have equal rights for women in America. When they wrote the Constitution, they didn’t intend for us to be equal. It’s time for all the women, all the men who love women, all the gay people and people of color, who we fought for equal rights for, to fight for us.”