Rage

I find it frustrating to listen to people complain that protesters are angry. Somehow we have in our mind a vision that protestors should be peaceful, calm, and wise, and when we see protestors that are angry and easily stirred into violence, we become critical and fail to consider the ideology, the demands, or the injustices that are at the heart of the protest. When we look back, I think we view the marches of the Civil Rights Movement as being peaceful protests, but only because we have chosen to remember the peaceful movements when sharing the history in our schools and we have collectively forgotten most of the violence that did occur during that time.

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes about the anger that is built up within the activists today who fight for better justice for our minority communities. It is hard to accept mass incarceration and unequal treatment from police officers, prosecutors, and judges without becoming cynical and resentful toward the system and political leaders who have allowed for such inequities. Alexander writes, “Those of us who hope to be their allies should not be surprised, if and when this day comes, that when those who have been locked up and locked out finally have the chance to speak and truly be heard, what we hear is rage.”

Anger and even rage are real human emotions. We should not expect people to ignore their feelings and emotions, especially not when their liberties and futures have been taken away from them with such injustice. We must learn to look beyond the anger, rage, or even violence and rioting of protesters if we want to improve the status quo and create greater social cohesion. By criticizing the poor behavior of protestors, we only increase the anger and rage. We must understand that people are driven to such extremes when they feel isolated and powerless and feel that they have no other avenue to speak out against injustices. This may mean that we listen to people we don’t agree with, and it may mean that we open a floor to people we dislike, but it is a necessary step within democracy, for further disenfranchisement can only build anger and rage while honest discussion and a willingness to hear an argument or a protester’s demands will diffuse the tension and violence.

The Body’s Experience of Inequality

In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats describes the physical toll of racism. He looks at how we make abstractions and create philosophical thought out of ideas, reactions, and prejudices. In his view, violence and physical manifestations of inequality are hidden and explained away in our thought processes and communication, saving us from having to acknowledge the true human cost of racial tribal behaviors.

 

“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

 

Coats’ passage above has numerous points that accurately describe the world we live in today and the state of racial violence and injustice on our planet. In our country we are struggling with how we choose to remember the men and women of the Confederacy who were not just Americans, but were soldiers, mothers and fathers, and even patriots. This is the idea of heritage that is meant to be preserved and honored by their current day descendants, but Coats reminds us that this heritage is built on a legacy of violence against black people. A violence that existed at the whims of men in power one hundred and fifty years ago and a violence that selectively destroyed the human bodies of black men, women, and children. The reality, which Coats’ quote does not directly address, is that the heritage and legacy being protected today, is a heritage of fighting to preserve a place of honor for men who fought to preserve a system in which black men were enslaved, controlled, and tortured for the economic benefit of white men. There was no divine truth or scientific backing for the racist behaviors of men in the past, there was only tribalism, instincts of self preservation, and exploitation.

 

What Coats’ passage is truly meant to focus on, however, is the way in which our prejudices, known or unknown, manifest in the real world, outside of our minds. When we marginalize groups of people, we begin to look at them as less then human, as less than a whole human being. In this context, the human rights that we defend in our Bill of Rights and claim to protect for all people, are discounted and discredited for those who we view as less than ourselves. This happens to minorities, poor people, and those who serve as scapegoats to pacify the tribal part of our brain that wants to protect our group and denigrate those who are others.

 

Once we have established that the outsiders no longer have rights that matter, and that they are less than human, we can stop respecting their physical body and the space in which they exist. We can physically abuse them because our moral standards do not extend to this person who is less than human. Our excuses about human nature, about economics, and about personal responsibility are just thoughts, but they are brought into the world through our physical actions, landing on the body of the oppressed as described by Coats. Our thoughts may live inside us, fully justified in the echo-chamber of our mind, but our actions (and our inaction) bring about physical realities and consequences stemming from the mental models we harbor.

Emotional Wounds

One of the things I often think about at work is whether I am helping make the office a more enjoyable place for everyone to be. Am I helping to create an environment where people actually want to be, or am I in some ways contributing to an atmosphere that people dislike and don’t look forward to being at? These thoughts require that I take the focus off myself and instead shift it to those around me. It helps me look at my frustrations and move past them or see how they are opportunities for me to help others and make the day better for someone else.

Thinking in that manner is not easy, but I think it is something our society needs a little more of.  Whether we are in the office, on the freeway, at the gym, or in our neighborhood, we can think more of others and focus on how we can make a place better for others rather than selfishly thinking of ourselves.

A short passage from Cory Booker’s United helps me see why thinking of others and how I contribute to the world around me is so important. “For the eight years that I lived in Brick Towers, and during my almost twenty years as a Newark resident, my neighbors struggled with the emotional wounds of violence. This is not America; it is not who we are. It is a cancer on the soul of our nation. Like many cancers, the true peril comes from not detecting it, not recognizing the threat and the thus not taking the appropriate action.”

Our society often recognizes that everyone has problems that they are dealing with, but we never take time to think about the emotional wounds that many are going through. Booker refers specifically to emotional wounds brought on from violent experiences, but we all know people who have suffered intense emotional wounds without necessarily experiencing direct physicial violence. Putting thoughts of others and thinking of how you are helping the world be a nicer place for others helps us begin to heal the emotional wounds that Booker is discussing no matter where those wounds came from.

In regards to violence, we never spend much time thinking about how the victim will move on, continue life, and reintegrate with the world. We become singularly focused on how we wish to punish the violent offender but we don’t spend much time thinking about how we can minimize the emotional wounds that everyone involved will surely experience. I do not have a perfect answer for how we bind these emotional wounds, but I think that a crucial first step is to stop focusing on ourselves, what we want, and what is best for us in any given moment. We need to focus on other people, on how other people will react to our decisions and actions, and we need to focus on showing others that they are just as valuable as we are, and that we care about them. This does not mean we can never be self-centered and do things for ourselves, but rather that we will be more conscious of how our decisions impact other people, and we will find the appropriate time and place for ourselves.

Just as I think about the environment my decisions at work create, we should think about how our actions help to heal the emotional wounds that people in society face, or whether our attitudes further the strain those wounds.

Some Thoughts from MLK

In his book, United, Senator Cory Booker speaks about social activism and racial tensions in the United States. He shares some thoughts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that helped him make sense of the difficult state of race relations in the United States. A passage from Booker with influence from King Jr. reads, ““It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary decent housing conditions. He condemned riots and violence as “socially destructive and self-defeating,” creating more problems than they solve. But he also called riots “the language of the unheard.””

The Civil Rights Movement is looked back at with fondness from both white and black people in the United States today. We have somewhat romanticized the time period, elevating figures like Dr. King Jr. and remembering demonstrations as solely peaceful. In our minds, freedoms were quickly forthcoming and there were no violent riots and protesters had a clear message and simple demands for fairness.

I have not studied the Civil Rights Movement in depth, but I have a sense that this idealized notion of the movement does not match the reality of the time. We want to look back and believe that all demonstrations were non-violent from the start, but I’m not sure that is the case. This is important because how we look back on that period of time shapes the perceptions we build regarding racial minorities today.

In 2017 there seems to be less of a racially charged atmosphere than existed in 2015 when multiple black men died in police interactions as a result of police officer discretions and interpretations of the situation. The response has been demonstrations, calls for greater recognition of institutional racism, and in some instances riots. What I have seen from our society is a lack of understanding of how we should respond when racial minorities call for action, demonstrate, or even riot. I agree with Dr. King that riots become devolutionary and take the focus off of the issue originally being pursued and limit the discussion that we should be having regarding race relations in the United States, and at the same time I agree with the last part of the quote that Booker shared, that riots are the voice of the unheard. I have seen many marches and demonstrations at the University I attend and across the country, but non of the non-violent demonstrations seem to get much attention, and most often the responses I hear from white people are dubious of the claims of solved racial disparities in our society.

Turning to riots and violence seems like a logical response for a group that has been ignored and criticized when demanding acknowledgement of injustice. I think we ought to ask ourselves not just whether we think a group has a right to demonstrate or riot, but how a group should behave when they perceive that they are being victimized. We all love a peaceful protest, but at what point does a group demand more and allow frustrations to bubble over in the hopes that a message is truly communicated or at least addressed?