My son left the United States for a job in Japan last week. Even though he’s always had an interest in other cultures, I can’t help but wonder how much the pressure of living in America as a Black man influenced his decision to leave.
Today, the stories are so frequent, the headlines so repetitive, the loss of life at the hands of police or others acting under the color of law so steady that we know the next one is as sure to come as Monday will follow Sunday.
These things weigh heavily on the Black community. I only wish they’d weigh as heavily on the rest of the nation. Maybe things would be different. Maybe I wouldn’t have to talk to my son via Skype instead of across the dinner table.
Yes, I’m going to miss him but I’m glad he's far away from this madness and now living in a land where he is safer—maybe safer and freer and happier.
A couple of years ago, after researching an article I was writing about a young black man who was shot by San Bernardino Sheriffs—an admitted case of mistaken identity that still resulted in the young man being thrown into jail—I learned that there are over 18,000 police departments in the United States. Surprisingly, none of them is mandated to submit an accounting to the Department of Justice when one of its officers takes someone’s life.
At the time, I found this lack of reporting requirement mind-boggling. But as I've come to learn more about our broken justice system, I now see that so much of what exists today is a legacy of our ugly past, a past we've never come to terms with—and by extension have yet to really change.
Over the past two years, with the help of cell phone technology, social media, and the persistent voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, mainstream media has been forced to report stories of racial murder that historically have been ignored and unprosecuted.
Over the past two years, with the help of cell phone technology, social media, and the persistent voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, mainstream media has been forced to report stories of racial murder that historically have been ignored and unprosecuted. According to the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, there are scores of decades-old racial murders of Black people that remain unsolved, uninvestigated, unprosecuted, and untold because our broken justice system could leave those cases unattended without suffering negative consequences.
Dredging for Bodies
Award-winning filmmaker, David Ridgen, a contributor to the Cold Case Project, talks about his initiation into the world of these unprosecuted racial murders. In “Cracking a Mississippi Cold Case,” Ridgen describes the moment that altered the trajectory of his life. In 2006, working on an assignment for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Ridgen was reviewing old footage from a 1964 documentary about the search for the bodies of the three murdered civil rights workers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The documentary showed footage of the actual dredging of the Mississippi River for their remains.
“a curious silence descends in the 1964 documentary when cigar-smoking white men in shirt-sleeves fish decomposing body parts out of the Mississippi River with sticks and bare hands. We see ribs and a femur, knotted loops of wire or twine, and a transparent body-size bag being emptied of fetid water. The lazy, ever-present Southern droning of katydids is silenced by the penetrating voice of the late, great CBC narrator John Drainie: ‘It was the wrong body. The discovery of a Negro male was noted and forgotten. The search was not for him. The search was for two white boys and their Negro friend.’”
The statement “it was the wrong body” caused Ridgen to pause the film. He says he had to let those five words sink in. Anyone reading this should also stop for a moment and reflect on what those five words -- "it was the wrong body" -- meant.
In 1964, everyone in America knew the story of the three murdered civil rights workers -- mostly because two of them were white. But how many news outlets reported the number of Black bodies found in the Mississippi while searching for Chaney, Goodman, and Swermer? And then, right in the old CBC footage, Ridgen sees actual human body parts that were given the same level of attention we’d give roadkill—no investigation, no identification, no prosecutions. (That changed after the 2007 release of David Ridgen's award-winning documentary, “Mississippi Cold Case”.)
Watching that footage changed Ridgen's life and led him to create his 2007 documentary. Today he is the host of a popular true crime podcast “Someone Knows Something.” I've listened to it. It's pretty good.
I bring up this story to press the point that we are living with a legacy. It is this legacy that sets the stage in 1964 for the late CBC narrator to matter-of-factly utter the words, “It was the wrong body” and last week for the Chicago police officer to utter these words “I'm gonna be on a desk for thirty goddamned days now,” moments after the fatal shooting of the unarmed Black teenager Paul O'Neal.
Like roadkill, Michael Brown’s body was left lying in the street for at least four hours with his family looking on after he was shot dead by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson—more evidence of this legacy.
A Pervasive Lack of Empathy
The callous disregard for Black lives is part of the legacy. The pervasive lack of empathy for the Black people found in the Mississippi River decades ago or—in contemporary times—for the lives of people like Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddy Gray, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and so many others lead me to believe no amount of policy changes, body cams, police trainings, citizen oversight boards, or police chief firings will make a major difference for Blacks if we don't also address the underlying issue that is at the heart of this behavior.
It seems to me that the lack of empathy coupled with unbridled power has historically found a way to express itself, whether it’s 1776, 1964, or 2016.
The remake of the 1977 mini-series “Roots” recently aired on the History Channel. There's a scene in the series that, although difficult to watch, sends a powerful message: Kunta Kinte, the African ancestor of author Alex Haley who was captured in Africa and brought in chains to the South, is caught after escaping from the plantation.
After recapturing Kinte, the plantation owner’s sadistic overseer tortures the African, flogging him until he forces Kunta Kinte to answer to the slave name, “Toby”—something Kunta Kinte had successfully avoided doing up to this point. It is in this scene that he is "broken", or “brought to heel" so to speak. While appearing to enjoy the breaking of Kunta Kinte, the cruel overseer—comparing his own contribution to the plantation to that of the owner—brags, “you can't just buy a slave—you have to make a slave.”
As I watched the heart-wrenching scene, it occurred to me that the same could be said for the cruel overseer and the countless thousands of others who witnessed all manner of brutality and inhumane treatment yet did nothing during slavery, Jim Crow, and now when daily we see unarmed Black people losing their lives. Heartlessness has to be learned. The United States profited handsomely from slavery for much longer than it has been a "free" nation. A culture of heartlessness is one of the legacies that seems to linger, still today.
I don't believe that treating others inhumanely comes naturally. I don't think sadistic overseers, brutal police, unfair judges and their lot were born cruel—but I do believe they were conditioned to be that way. I think the same is true for those who don't directly do harmful things to others yet knowingly look the other way and do nothing to stop it even when they've been made aware of the harms. Like the overseer in "Roots" said, "you have to make them". Cruelty and the callous disregard for those who are victims of that cruelty are part of the legacy handed down to us.
A Peculiar Institution
The peculiar institution of slavery did more than break the minds, bodies, and spirits of men and women to make them into slaves, it also conditioned a nation of unenslaved to lack empathy— to turn the other way, to have deaf ears or to demonstrate what Martin Luther King Jr. famously labeled “the callous disregard for human suffering.” That legacy is still with us but it must be addressed if we are ever to come to terms with this nation's racial issues.
At this point, any reasonable reader will likely think I've lost all hope. And, if I'm being completely honest, there are times I come pretty close. This week, as I adjusted to the idea that my son now lives in another country halfway around the world, I began to feel a bit of that hopelessness. But something usually happens to change my perspective.
Sometimes what gives me hope is the amount of support I've seen for the Black Lives Matter movement from young people who are not themselves Black. While not reaching the levels of support that would be indicative of a nation coming to terms with its problematic racial past, the younger generation is doing a lot more than the generations before them, or so it seems to me.
And this week, I stumbled across a gem of a couple who really touched me. In fact, it is because of them that I’ve written this piece.
Their names are Phyllis and Gene Unterschuetz. They’ve co-authored the book, “Longing: Stories of Racial Healing” and founded Race Story Rewrite.
Below you'll find what I listened to them say this week that lifted me. If you've read this far and still stick around to listen to the videos, please share on social media. The Unterschuetz couple should be heard far and wide.
Publisher, LA Progressive
and this. . .