Wednesday, June 10, 2020
by Co-Editor, Prof. Jeremiah Ho, UMass Law School
One lucid memory from my Southern California childhood was that of watching from our family living room the live TV newscasts of civil unrest in the days following the verdict of the first Rodney King beating case. Koreatown and South Los Angeles stretched some considerable, and yet short miles west from where we lived in the valley. So out of an abundance of caution, school was cancelled during the Los Angeles riots, and my younger sister and I, both in junior high school then, were under strict parental orders to stay indoors at home. The endless news footage of revolt-turned-rampage became the regular daytime programming we absorbed continuously from our living room couch during those stay-at-home days. We watched with our homework laid out on our laps and with questions of whether such violence might end up at our doorsteps superstitiously suppressed within our imaginations.
Twenty-eight years later, while still sitting on the edge of the same living room couch that my parents have kept in our living room since the 1990's, and locked down in the same house during these new stay-at-home days, I viewed with eerie, heightened familiarity as an incident of police brutality and racial violence then resulted into days of outrage, protest, fire, and destruction that spread not only to the streets of Los Angeles but worldwide as well. I blinked in 1992, and now decades later, my eyes open only to pick up watching the same live narrative. The single patently obvious distinction seemed to be that these images of urban fire, ruin, and anger were now unfolding from the digital tablet on my lap.
In the immediate days after the L.A. Riots, Rodney King wearily pled for peace on television by asking, “Can we all get along.” He exhorted this sentiment after having been beaten on the side of a freeway in 1991, after watching the officers who had assaulted him dodge criminality in the first trial, after the fires in the city were finally smoldering down. After Mr. King died in 2012, that famous question was set on his grave. In raised metallic, all-cap letters, “Can we all get along” was bonded distinctly without a question mark at the very bottom of his gravestone plaque, deliberately rhetorical and open-ended, reminding us specifically of what Mr. King imposed upon our humanity in his televised soundbite. Without the interrogative punctuation, “Can we all get along” also seems, in a disembodied way, to urge us imperatively to grasp for unity in our current world. In 2020, that question (or directive) is being implored from a lonely grave in a Hollywood Hills cemetery to a world alive with (or dying from) vast income inequality, tribalist politics, alternative facts, social media hate-mongering, and selfish individualism. I want to believe in a hopeful answer to Mr. King’s question. I want to believe that the affirmative is possible.
In order to get to that affirmative, we must first demand that the brutality against African-Americans and other people of color, as exemplified in the past and present incidents of Rodney King, George Floyd, and many others, was wrong and must end. Racism and racial violence nullify a just and equal society. From the unrecorded deaths of millions of enslaved people in our common history to the horrific lynching of African-American men during the 19th and early 20th centuries, we’ve had enough. The riots I watched as a child in 1992 was not the first for Los Angeles. Had I been alive in 1965, I would have witnessed the Watts Riots, an incident of civil unrest that also began with a police stop of a black man that went awry.
And while we’re demanding an end to racial violence and overt acts of racism, we must also confront deeper obstacles keeping us from fully getting along. At this juncture, the brutal conversation about white supremacy fueled by privilege must finally arise, even if it feels uncomfortable (as it should), even if it chokes us for the moment (unlike George Floyd or Eric Garner, we’ll survive, I promise). A few days after George Floyd’s death, the heated Central Park exchange between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper illustrates just how our racial tensions and inequality are multi-layered. And so we must arrive at finding fault with the more subtle and entrenched ways our society disregards and devalues people based on differences such as skin color, gender, sexual preference, national origin, disability, income, class and the like—a practice so habitually pernicious that it is, in fact, institutional, structural, and systemic.
In terms of race, white supremacy is not defined solely by deplorable acts of racial dominance and hatred that extremist groups such as the KKK exert against different people. It also exists subtly in the deep-seated, privileged determination for a white person to not have to see color, and thus permitting the default norms of racial hierarchy to provide cover for that choice—to afford protection under the shield of plausible deniability that, for example, using the phrase “color-blind” seem to convey about a so-called tactic of egalitarian political correctness. What actually happens when we purport not to see color under this paradigm? More likely than not, we unconsciously dial our attention back to seeing the way things ought to be from the vantage point of whiteness because that has been the default normative perspective all along. That’s what the plausible deniability is protecting: that we do end up seeing color and that color is white. At heart, this is the innocent presumption of whiteness—the benefit of the doubt that society would have been more prone to bestow upon Amy Cooper had she falsely cried harassment against Christian Cooper in Central Park and had no contradicting smartphone video existed to protect him.
The same plausible deniability can also attempt to justify a white person’s choices to see color when it conveniently serves a purpose. Ignorance cannot be blissful here. It’s not enough to black out your Facebook or Instagram profile photo for Black-Out Tuesday only to replace it the following Wednesday morning with a selfie because the short-lived moment of respect and acknowledgement for the cause has appeared to have metabolized and you think you’ve done your part for racial justice. As long as race construction continues to separate us, the ability to choose when to see color only reflects the privilege that veils and obscures deep insensitivity. Until we abolish race construction in our politics, every day ought to be a Black-Out Day. True virtue here can’t be earned through social media gesturing or other comparable shallowness, but rather through actively sustaining works of contrition and alliance by continually understanding our biases and confronting them before we again consciously or unconsciously marginalize based on race.
As it is turning out, the fiery images from last week’s initial street violence isn’t repeating of the riots saga of 1992. This time, it’s a little different. Across the country, the numerous and widespread rallies that have outlasted the store-front wreckage and fire-bombed cars signal that it might not be danger that has arrived at our doorsteps, but dialogue and acknowledgement about race, including the subtleties of privilege that contribute to racial disparity and white supremacy. Together, we must learn how to unravel these nuanced forms of racism so that we can all finally give Mr. King, and ourselves, an overdue response.