As African-American males in Arizona, we are stunned, though not altogether surprised, at the bold assumptions, presumptions, and downright racist stereotypes Linda Turley-Hansen offers in “Not racism, and not guns; it’s moral absence that’s doing the killing” (East Valley Tribune, Sept. 1; also available at evtnow.com/5ua).
We, the undersigned, are not gang members, we are leaders in our various communities, most of us are fathers, our moral compasses are activated, our families are intact, and we know personally and professionally how much of the world perceives and responds to black males in America with fear, suspicion, and doubt. Not one of us is invested in “guilting” white Americans about anything. If there’s guilt, it may well have to do with “discouraged Europeans... who built the greatest nation ever” on the stolen lands of Native Americans and on the bruised and beaten backs of black slaves and subsequent waves of cheap immigrant labor. What we do care about, however, is unveiling ignorance and misinformation such as that contained in Turley-Hansen’s short-sighted commentary.
On the surface, Turley-Hansen’s morality monologue appears to be non-racialized and plausible, as out-of-wedlock births and violent crime have indeed adversely affected black Americans for a host of complicated circumstances, not the least of which are indeed associated with education and personal responsibility. “The problem,” however, argues our professor colleague William Jelani Cobb, “lies in the theory that this ‘morality’ would somehow vanquish racism — which has as its underlying premise the inability to recognize any black person as moral in the first place. And ‘morality’ has frequently been conflated with a simple, assimilationist ideal of white behavior.” The Christopher Lane case is horrific on every fundamental level, and it is most unfortunate that Turley-Hansen would seemingly keep a running racialized tally on such events in an adult game of “I know you are, but what am I.”
While recent years have brought a spate of mass murders and school shootings, largely committed by middle- to upper-class white males, there is no rush to classify white males as dangerous. Likewise, the case earlier this year of teen Skylar Neese being murdered by her best friend and an accomplice (all are white teen girls) is equally horrific, yet white parenting has not been indicted. And despite the largest recipients of food stamp beneficiaries being white children, no one has declared a crisis of entitlement in “the white community” and indicted its families and leaders. (For an excellent parody highlighting this double standard, see http://tinyurl.com/upworthyparody).
America’s history is one of brazen attacks on black male bodies long before Trayvon Martin became a household name for all the wrong reasons. Apparently, Turley-Hansen thinks only in black and white. Among the three teens involved in this heinous Christopher Lane crime, one self-identifies as black, one as biracial, and the third as white. The naked truth is that the vast majority of killings in America is committed by members of a victim’s own racial group. There is no “race war against white people;” black social ills continue to be tethered to white supremacist notions, policies, and practices, and Turley-Hansen’s thinking is clouded by stereotypes about black pathology that belies the dynamism of black life and black leadership. Turley-Hansen’s remarks are also maternalistic and condescending. Black people strategize to confront our particular challenges daily. Looking in the mirror, driving across the state, walking into a classroom or board meeting, walking in a parking lot or across the street mean that we as black males must strategize for our own safety and the safety of our fellow brown sons, nephews, neighbors, and brothers who look like us. This daily living or “combat breathing” is not optional and is not paranoia. Given that “about 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race, according to an ongoing Reuters/Ipsos poll,” we are curious about the breadth of Turley-Hansen’s knowledge of black people, “the black community” — as she terms it — and of black leadership beyond sensationalist headlines and the pontificating of Bill Cosby and a relatively small number of black loyalists, who choose to turn on their own communities rather than risk exile from the table of white wealth, position, and power.
Is it a convenience to blame all black leaders, black parents, and black men for an isolated incident and not at least keep gun laws in the conversation? When Sandy Hook and the Tucson tragedy occurred, the nation humanized the young white male killers as suffering from severe mental illness, as persons society had failed to assist. There are real issues that need to be addressed within and beyond African-American communities, but criticizing a whole group with whom Turley-Hansen most probably has little or no connection is wrong and enables her and others who think like her to skirt serious systemic problems.
In a moment when many blacks, whites, and others are desperately striving for racial healing, it is divisive and unproductive to point shaky fingers at one episode to declare blame and to accuse “black leaders” of not taking and promoting personal responsibility among our communities. We are disappointed that Turley-Hansen makes no effort to imagine a world through another’s eyes. Henry David Thoreau asks: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” We see and know well Turley-Hansen’s world. We are more than happy to let her borrow our spectacles of lived experience for a closer and more accurate look at ours.
Neal A. Lester, PhD, is a foundation professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.
Matthew C. Whitaker, PhD, is a foundation professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University.
Jeremy Brown-Gillett is an MFA candidate in performance at Arizona State University.
Rashaad Thomas is a United States Air Force veteran and student at Arizona State University, majoring in justice studies and minoring in African and African-American studies and women and gender studies.