Many years ago, I got into a conversation about Thomas Jefferson over dinner with a man I had just started dating. Turns out we were both reading Jefferson biographies. It didn't take long to reach a point in the discussion where it was clear our racial backgrounds were leading us to a fork in the road of sorts – we certainly held different opinions on Jefferson. Ultimately, our discussion took a turn that made me decide this would be our last date.
When talking about race -- or specifically about racism -- it's difficult to bridge the gap between white and Black people. It's not impossible but all too often our vastly different experiences lead us to draw conclusions that are hard to reconcile and even harder to dismantle.
It's been my experience that trying to bridge this gulf frequently leads to a type of dialog that I can only characterize as “talking past each other." And although we each may have a deep and abiding desire to understand and be understood – it takes time, a real commitment, and still it can be hard as hell to accomplish.
The best way to shed light on what I've experienced, I believe, is to use an analogy.
A couple of years ago a story broke that grabbed the nation's heart. Two U.C. Berkeley police officers met with a man who was inquiring about using the Berkeley campus facility to put on an event. The man brought along his two young daughters. Something about the girls' demeanor and overall appearance led the officers to be suspicious. The police did a little checking and discovered that the man was Phillip Garrido, a convicted kidnapper and sex offender.
The campus police took action. Their actions led to the arrest of Garrido, who had kidnapped Jaycee Lee Dugard and held her captive for 18 years. From the tender age of 11, Jaycee Lee Dugard had been locked up in a shed in Garrido's backyard where she was routinely raped and abused by Garrido. For almost two-thirds of her life, she was his prisoner and sex slave, giving birth to the two girls Garrido brought with him to Berkeley that day.
Because of the actions of those U.C. Berkeley police officers, the nation learned of the horror this beautiful little girl experienced for 18 years – often just feet away from adults who could have and should have protected her or, at the very least, rescued her had they done their jobs with any degree of competence. We watched and read about the number of times this convicted rapist and kidnapper opened his home to parole officers and other authorities, all the while little Jaycee was locked up in a shed in the backyard just feet away.
ABC News reported that two decades of failures by three separate governmental entities were at the heart of this story: the United States Parole Commission, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the local Contra Costa Sheriff's office.
I watched Diane Sawyer of ABC News interview Jaycee Lee Dugard all the while thinking, “How could this have happened?” I doubt there is a sane person in America who wasn't horrified when hearing this story. I doubt there is a sane person in America whose heart doesn't go out to Jaycee's mother. And I doubt there is a sane person in America who wasn't overjoyed when Jaycee Lee Dugard finally came home.
What we learned, when we look at this tragedy, is that our systems failed. In fact, I don't think it's a stretch to say that the systems were Phillip Garrido's accomplice, along with his wife Nancy. But for a network of failed systems, like the ones that existed during those 18 grueling years, Jaycee Lee Dugard would not have had to endure those horrors.
I tell this story because as I sat misty eyed watching the Diane Sawyer piece with mixed feelings of happiness and disgust – happiness as I watched this incredibly strong young woman, Jaycee Dugard, tell her story and complete disgust hearing what she endured. I also felt a tinge of sadness for a nation that doesn't seem to have the capacity to experience the same level of horror, outrage or even regret when equally terrible things happen to children or people who don't look like Jaycee Lee Dugard.
A term coined about a decade ago, “Missing white woman syndrome (MWWS),” comes to mind. According to Wikipedia, MWWS is “a vernacular term for the alleged disproportionately greater degree of coverage in television, radio, newspaper and magazine reporting of a misfortune, most often a missing person case, involving a young, attractive, white, middle-class (or above) woman, compared with cases concerning a missing male, or missing persons of other ethnicities or economic classes.” There are great many cases I can cite that illustrate this point but in the interest of brevity I'll list a couple.
- Sherrice Iverson -- Sherrice Iverson was a 7-year-old Black girl who went into a public restroom at a casino in Nevada. She was sexually molested and murdered in that restroom by an adult male while his companion stood watch at the bathroom entrance. The story of this child's sexual molestation and murder got scant coverage compared with another tragic story that happened at about the same time - JonBenet Ramsey.
- LaToyia Figueroa – LaToyia Figueroa was a young Black Latina who went missing when she was five months pregnant. LaToyia was later found, murdered by the father of her unborn child. LaToyia Figueroa's story was barely a footnote in the local news. But a similar story -- one just as horrific -- the Laci Peterson story dominated the national print media and airwaves for months.
In a rare departure from the norm, the Los Angeles Times published an article on the disparate coverage given to missing or murdered women and children of color. Quoting University of Southern California Professor Todd Boyd , the article said, "I don't think a media director is sitting around saying, 'Hey, there's this Black woman in Philadelphia and she disappeared and we don't care...' " Said Boyd, "It's an unconscious decision about who matters and who doesn't. In general, there is an assumption that crime is such a part of Black and Latino culture, that these things happen all the time. In many people's minds it's regarded as being commonplace and not that big a deal."
I can't imagine that it's not that big a deal to the victim. But perhaps Boyd is shedding light on what's at the heart of what I see as America's lack of empathy or what Dr. Martin Luther King frequently referred to as indifference to the suffering of others.
But let me get back to the night I broke up with the guy who loved Thomas Jefferson and why that story is relevant here.
As you might have guessed, the man I broke up with is white. I am Black. I listened that evening as he extolled the life's work of Jefferson and the other founding fathers – his adulation barely containable. I'd always found it curious when people who have actually studied history continue to hold Jefferson in such high esteem. I asked how he could revere a man who well into adulthood and during his early career condemned slavery, took affirmative steps to end it – yet abruptly changed his tune and then over the remainder of his life held more than 650 humans captive, exploiting them for labor and sex – as in the well-documented case of Sally Hemmings who he began having sex with when she was 14.
My dinner companion brushed my comment aside as though it were meaningless. Contending that I could not judge Jefferson through a contemporary lens, he insisted that Jefferson's behavior was well within the norm for that era and that Jefferson's greatness should be judged on that basis.
What my date didn't understand was that I wasn't judging Jefferson – I was taking a good long look at him -- my date -- or more specifically his exuberant reverence for a man who committed atrocities that by today's standards would be abominable. Or are they?
That was the question that led me to end the date and the budding relationship that night. But over the years, I've thought about that conversation more times than I can count. A century and a half ago, what was conveniently deemed "normative behavior" – keeping humans in bondage, often torturing and exploiting them for sex and labor -- is today an abomination. I began to wonder what people of the future will see as abominable in 150 years when they look back in history at the world we live in today.
So, now I'll jump back to the Jaycee Dugard story. That story broke many years after the debate I had about Thomas Jefferson but, as I said, over the years I often thought of that conversation so naturally I began to make connections. What I experienced when I learned of Dugard's 18 years of hell was empathy. And this is where I suspect there is a major gap in many of the discussions around race in this country. There seems to be an empathy deficit.
Before I end, I want to stress that I, in no way, believe that all whites are unempathetic towards the plight of Black people in America. But I do believe this country has systematically minimized or sanitized the reality of being Black in America in ways that lead those who do not have meaningful connections with Black people to be out of touch often believing they have an understanding of what it means to be Black based on the depictions they've seen in the media.
To highlight what I've characterized as an empathy deficit, I've created a few alternate scenarios using the Jaycee Dugard story as a starting point with the hope that my message will be made clearer.
Scenario 1: Over the years, several movies are released about the Jaycee Lee Dugard story but in each, the plot's focus is on Campbell and Jacobs not Jaycee. Who are Campbell and Jacobs you ask? They are the U.C. Berkeley police officers. --- Wouldn't this seem odd? But this is just what I often see when I go to a movie about the civil rights era -- the lead and focus of the story is frequently a white hero. This has become such a norm that it's unnoticed and rarely discussed. There is a name for it. The "white savior" – think about movies like “The Help," “Mississippi Burning," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "A Dry White Season," "A Time to Kill."
Scenario 2: Wouldn't it be strange if Phillip Garrido were found not guilty and never served a day behind bars even after admitting that he committed the crimes. --- How many of you know that at least one of the murderers of Emmett Till sold his story to Look Magazine, admitting -- even bragging he had done the heinous acts. And he was paid for the story so he benefited financially.
Scenario 3: How about if shortly after Jaycee Dugard was found, the media began to report that she had gotten a D on her report card the month before she "encountered" Garrido. --- The nation would be in an uproar over that kind of non sequitur. But isn't that what is frequently done when the victim is a Black boy. In the case of Trayvon Martin, a judge found that Martin's grades would be allowed into evidence in the Zimmerman case.
Scenario 4: What would people think if Garrido's home with the shed still intact in the backyard became a national monument -- a place the nation holds up as a thing to be proud of. --- Unthinkable right? But Mt. Vernon, Monticello and other national monuments have just this kind of disgraceful treatment of humans on display not as something to disdain but as a depiction of normal life back then -- not a bit of shame in the game. I recently visited George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. The estate has been preserved reflecting its original appearance, including the slave quarters where over 300 people were held in bondage, forced to work without compensation from dawn to dusk, and then tortured if they tried to escape or "misbehaved" in some other fashion.
Scenario 5: How about if talking heads began to question why people are up in arms about a single case of kidnap, rape, and pedophilia when the real issue, is white-on-white crime, which represents approximately 86% of all crime experienced by whites. --- Wouldn't this seem bizarre? What the heck does white-on-white crime have to do with what happened to this poor girl. But wasn't this the focus of mainstream media when the Trayvon Martin case was in the news? In what I interpret as an attempt to minimize the racial component of the Martin case, George Will of ABC said of the case, “about 150 Black men are killed in the country every week and 95% are killed by other Black men”. He neglected to mention that in the vast majority of all murders in this country, the victim and the assailant are of the same race or ethnicity -- this is true for Blacks, whites, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders etc. But do we ever hear about white-on-white crime or Asian-on-Asian crime?
Scenario 6: What if this case was cracked, but instead of Garrido being arrested, Jaycee Lee Dugard was arrested!! And to make bad matters worse, there was no media coverage because the powers that be decide the story isn't "newsworthy" -- They claimed Jaycee Lee just wasn't a sympathetic victim. --- I doubt America could wrap its head around that but this is exactly the kind of treatment young girls receive in cities across the United States every day. I'm talking about children who are held as sex slaves. According to the FBI, most of these children are Black girls. Most are brutalized, held against their will, raped and forced into years of sexual servitude - some are as young as 10 yrs old. The media knows about this but rarely reports this story. The FBI released a report in 2004 stating that Black children make up 55 percent of all prostitution-related arrests in the U.S. Instead of being rescued and cared for, these children are being arrested and prosecuted.
In an attempt to bridge the gap that I talked about earlier in this piece I created these scenarios -- the chasm that exists between the Black and white American experience has as much to do with perspective as anything. If this was helpful to you, please share it. I wish I could be more optimistic but I suspect it'll take another 150 years before we can look at current conditions like those that exist within the prison industrial complex or the economic inequality that runs along racial lines and be able to see the gross injustices in our "justice" system.
What will our grandchildrens' grandchildren think when they look back to 2013 in their history books? Somehow I think they will be as appalled as I am when I look back 150 years.