Black suspects or Black victims? Will someone dig deeper?

Maine is an overwhelmingly white state. At 94.4% white, according to the 2010 Census count, Maine remains one of the whitest states in America, which is no small feat given the shifting demographics in the United States.

As such a white state, it means that it is not uncommon, especially in Northern Maine, to encounter living, breathing human beings who have had little to no interaction with non-white people. People whose worldviews about people of color have been shaped by media. People who assume the absolute worst based off nothing but what they have been fed by others and whose lack of lived experience gives them no reason to counter the images that are fed to them.

This is why when Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, stated back in 2016 that “guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” come from New York and Connecticut to sell their heroin in Maine, and “half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave,” it wasn’t based on any actual facts, just half-cocked assumptions that were both racist and insulting to Black folks—especially the ones who call Maine home.

A quick Google search  will reveal that Maine’s governor holds questionable views on Black people and given that he is the governor of this state, that is very problematic. Maine, like many states, is in the grips of a drug epidemic. But to lay the blame for that at the feet of Black people is simply a tired and worn-out trope that can have real-life consequences for Black and Brown people in this state.

Which is why when this story came across my desk, it made me stop in my tracks. In the Portland Press Herald, a major newspaper in this state, the headline reads “Maine man, 2 women from New York accused of dealing crack in midcoast” and in this story the headline reads “Mainer swept up in drug bust with NY twosome.”

A quick read of both pieces tells us that Raquel Renfro, 18, of Rochester, N.Y., and Shaundrea Fuller, 20, of Rochester, N.Y., were charged with aggravated trafficking in drugs, according to paperwork filed in Knox County Unified Court. Meanwhile, Joseph Malburg, 51, of Warren, was charged with trafficking in drugs. All three were taken to the Knox County Jail in Rockland. Bail for Renfro and Fuller was set at $50,000 cash; Malburg’s bail was set at $2,500 cash.

Two young adults and a man who is old enough to be their father or even grandfather are arrested for drug trafficking but the two young people get the sky-high bail and the 51-year-old gets the $2,500 bail. Seems rather a stark inequity to me. Perhaps it’s just me, but the alarm bells are ringing, especially because these two girls are extremely young and—I am sorry, but I have a hard time believing that a barely-adult and barely-out-of-her teens pair has the connections or means to move drug weight at that level without someone else being behind this. I also know that sex trafficking is a very real thing that happens in Maine and in communities of color. So the possibility that they are being manipulated or forced into this work is rather high.

I also know that the media is very selective in how we frame suspects. Too often, white suspects in the 18-21 age range are still viewed as youth, but that framework is rarely applicable to suspects of color. In fact, too often Black children and tweens are viewed as being adults by white folks, particularly when they are suspected of doing something wrong. And even beyond the skewed perceptions, let’s just talk about being 18 or even a couple years older. Technically, one is an adult at 18 but the science tells us that the  brain is still growing and to be frank, I think this is one of the many reasons that white suspects in this age range are presented as teenagers rather than adults because while they are legal adults, they are also teenagers.

Look, I don’t know the suspects, I don’t know the case and I am not an attorney but I do know that this case isn’t passing my smell test, I know that Maine is a state where race matters and that we have a governor who has on more that a few occasions been very clear about who he sees as the enemy: people of color, whether native to Maine, immigrants to Maine or visitors from other states. I also know that implicit bias is a real thing and that all these factors together means that it is less likely that these young women would be seen as anything other than a problem. It means that if they are in fact part of something they were forced to be a part or were somehow brought here to work, what is the likelihood that someone will see them as victims and not predators? Black girls going missing and ending up in bad situations is a reality in this country. Too often Black girls go missing and their stories rarely even touch the national conscience; Black children are targeted at early ages and deemed to be problems.

Perhaps it’s just the mother and grandmother in me, but I hope that the powers-that-be dig deeper in this case before throwing these young women away.


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Media is feeding the toxicity; this needs to stop

I recently posted online about a toxic experience I had during a presentation in Kittery, Maine, on encouraging conversations about race and racism. Also recently, a story was run about the incident, and while me and my co-presenter and friend Debby Irving were quoted (in terms of our comments from the talk), I find it interesting neither of us was interviewed regarding the man who disrupted the event and worked very hard to remain menacing to me up until the end of the event and past it. He was given voice; I, the person who was made to feel under literal threat of harm, was not.

The problem with interviews like these with people who feel threatened by talk of racism (or feminism or LGBTQIA rights or Islamophobia or whatever)—which have become so commonplace now on cable news, in magazines, at online media venues and more—is that it gives space to people with abhorrent viewpoints that are manifestly unjust.

Now, am I saying one should never write about people like this and never interview them? No. There are times and places. But so-called “journalism” (and a lot of the journalism nowadays seems to be more and more about generating page clicks and viewers and boy does controversy and bile help that along, which is part of the circular problem we have now) is not just covering the white supremacists. Media is elevating them. Giving them forums and a voice, often entirely unchallenged. Empowering them and making them seem reasonable.

Richard Spencer dresses well and doesn’t scream at the top of his voice and avoids racial epithets on-air, and so he seems “well-meaning.” And yet he espouses white supremacy and racist policies. He see non-whites as inferior. What is well-meaning about that?

Or writing human-interest pieces on people running Nazi websites. Let’s talk about how this person who hates Black, Jews, gays and/or a heap of other “non-mainstream” folks shops at Whole Foods and loves his kids and is warm and friendly. He hates large portions of the American population for being different from him. That is not humane; why are we humanizing that kind of person with a feel-good piece?

Media stories keep justifying the views of people who literally want to oppress other people or keep them from gaining equality in life. What is justifiable about that? To do so only makes such people feel more empowered. Making them seem reasonable when they hold unreasonable views only helps make it easier for such people to insidiously sway more people toward white supremacy and making America more racist.

And people like the guy who tried to disrupt the talk I was part of in Kittery who say they are “pushing back.” Pushing back against what? I am pushing for people to be treated according to their abilities and the content of their character rather than to be judged and held back (or shoved away) because of the color of their skin or their gender or their sexuality.

White straight Christian men have long held most of the cards in the deck and still do. For them to “push back” against people like me calling for equality means they are pushing back against people being treated the same no matter what their color or gender or sexuality. To push back against equality is to push FOR supremacy. White supremacy. Male supremacy. Cis supremacy. Christian supremacy.

And when has pushing to be supreme over other people and control their lives ever been something we should cheer for—or even give the time of day in the average news story? Supremacy and control are something we are supposed to fight against as a matter of basic decency.


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Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Let’s not make a supercharged new Mammy trend, ok?

During the recent Golden Globes broadcast, Oprah Winfrey was honored with the Cecile B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement and, in accepting the award, she delivered a helluva speech. Given this current horrid moment in history, we needed her words and her energy—we needed a momentary respite from the fire and fury of the “very stable genius” who on a daily basis continues to lead our nation down a very dark path.

However, that moment of respite that earned the right for loud applause and a collective “thank you” has turned into very vocal calls for Winfrey to make a run for the White House in 2020. While there are murmurings that she may very well be considering such a step, I have to admit that waking up to a nation pinning its hope on Winfrey isn’t quite sitting right with me (and not just because of the risk of elevating someone else to the highest office in the country based on celebrity like we did with Donald Trump, no matter how much more stable the theoretical next celebrity president might be).

Our nation’s relationship to Black women is complicated at best. Since the first African woman was brought to this country against her will, Black women have been expected to produce for others and take care of others before caring for themselves. Often to the detriment not just of themselves but of their own loved ones. One of the first roles that was designed for Black women in this new country was that of “Mammy.” Traditionally Mammy was the caretaker for the white children and household but over time, even after the legal ending of slavery, there is a vision of Black women that looms large in the American psyche and it is that of the Black woman as caretaker: savior, self-sacrificing and all-giving.

In the past year as this nation continues to grapple with the fallout from the 2016 election, and albeit without intentionality but doing it all the same anyway,  we keep tapping into our psyche for comfort and reassurance and too often, we are looking to Black women to save us. Whether it is the calls for Michelle Obama to consider a run for office, “Auntie” Maxine Waters or now Oprah, we look to Black women to save us from ourselves.

Make no mistake, as a Black woman, I can say that the strength and the grit that is embedded in us as the descendants of a people who endured the unspeakable over and over does not make us unqualified; in fact, we are often far more qualified than our white and male counterparts. But the national conscience that demands our service is far too happy to take away our agency. Michelle Obama has explicitly stated that she has no interest in running for office and yet among progressive/liberal whites too often you will hear Michelle’s name bandied around to this day as if they can draft her to the presidency.

Despite the daily challenges we are facing as a nation, this is an exciting moment where we are potentially poised for a true shift where women—women of color and specifically Black women—are positioned to take the reins and potentially make some real systemic change. But rather than exalting Black women who are not asking to be exalted (and perhaps are not much more qualified to hold certain offices than is our current tangerine nightmare-scream), let us look to the Black women who have already entered politics or have been consciously building their resumes to do so and decide how we can support them.

When we try to exalt those who have not asked to be exalted or press them into public service, we need to examine why we are doing so. Yes, Black women have continued to show up and oftentimes as Black women we do hold a mirror to the collective American face to raise awareness or highlight flaws. But we cannot blindly expect Black women to lead us or to save us from the worst in ourselves if they have not explicitly said that they will play that role. And we must stop asking Black women, explicitly or unconsciously, to wear themselves down to save everyone else, whether at the grassroots level or the top offices of the land. Otherwise we risk reducing Black women to tired tropes and continue the dehumanization of them that for too long has been part of the fabric of our nation.

Better that we respect Black women for what they choose to do and embrace them in their work (rather than use them up and spit them out). Better that we provide the same kind of space for Black women as we do white women (and hopefully one day everyone will get the same room as white men) to be encouraged and uplifted to embrace things like political or other public service from early on. Better that we treat Black women as fully human and give them agency rather than cherry-pick from their ranks someone whom we think will magically save us because of celebrity or personality or reputation.


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