Current Events

The personal and systemic become one again…thanks Donny!

I wish that I could say that growing up, I knew that I wanted to fight racial injustice, but that would be a lie. If someone had told me that by my mid-40s I would be gaining a reputation as a “race relations” expert, that would have been downright comical to me. My childhood dreams were pretty standard-issue (actor and/or lawyer) and my early career was spent working with the economically disadvantaged, no doubt a nod to how I had been raised and knowing the difference that one person could make.

Circumstances and rage brought me to this point in my life and, while it is an honor to be recognized for this racial equity work, it is also at times a burden because once you open the door and see just how race factors into every existing system in this country…well, it becomes hard to turn it off. Ever.

Which is one reason why I have tried to avoid talking at length about the 2016 presidential election.

I will start by saying that for the first time in my adult life, I understand why people sometimes just don’t vote. You want to believe in hope and change, but the reality is that one person is not going to magically make it better for all. Instead, you realize that the middle…those places filled with shades of gray…is where most of life is lived. At that point, you look for the brightest spots in that gray. Or at least many of us do.

However, after watching the first presidential debate a few nights ago, it has become abundantly clear to me that while one person may not be able to magically make it great for all, one person can (and has already) started to make it terribly uncomfortable for many, even dangerous. In the past year or so, we have seen the tide of civility and pretense change in the United States. The ugliness that so many once thought was a relic of the past has become chic again and no matter who becomes the nation’s next president, as I have said before, we aren’t closing that door again. Racism is right back out in the open for a great many Americans, and they are happy to express that racism.

Donald Trump, in my humble opinion, is not qualified to be a dog catcher, much less the “leader of the free world.” His thoughts are disorganized, he has no intellectual (or policy) curiosity, he is crude and cruel, he is bombastic and he is bravado on steroids. Ans yet he appeals to almost half of America if the polls are any indicator. Trump’s platform is “making America great again,” which at this point goes beyond dog-whistle politics. Trump is appealing to a demographic who longs for the days when the women, the queers and/or the non-whites “knew their places” and that place was under the thumbs of able-bodied, Christian, heterosexual, cisgendered white men.

Even more disturbing is Trump’s use of stereotypes during this campaign season in his attempt to reach out to minority communities. Trump keeps reiterating that Blacks and Latinos are all living in Hell with no jobs, bad schools and astronomical crime. Trump most certainly isn’t speaking to any Blacks or Latinos that I know. Yes, there are minority communities that are struggling and many in the darker-hued middle class are far less solidly placed than white people, but in almost all instances you can see how systemic inequity created those situations.  Even Trump’s trotting out of my beloved hometown of Chicago is offensive, and given that Trump dodged questions related to race with responses such as “Law and Order” and “Stop and Frisk” (otherwise known as legally sanctioned racial profiling), the idea of a Trump presidency scares me enough to seriously ponder how fast can I save my pennies and start my retirement in Belize ahead of schedule.

It is easy to downplay Trump’s rise by saying he was up against a batch of weak characters during the primaries but that would be a lie. Trump himself is weaker in every way that matters for a president than the least of the GOP candidates he faced off against. We are here because people like what Trump is saying or, better put, they like what Trump is selling. Period. Yeah, the turnout may have been low during the primaries but we are here because people liked what he was selling and many are fed up with the status quo and figure any change is good change. I suppose it is easy to feel that way when it won’t be your children who are already at risk whose risk of state-sponsored violence will almost certainly increase under a Trump presidency.

Xenophobia, racism and outright hatred are on the rise and it’s not just because social media emboldens us to talk about the previously taboo. It’s because somewhere along the line, we as a collective decided to stop even pretending and decided to just let our inner ugly hang out, sort of like how after the second serving of Thanksgiving dinner you just have to unfasten your pants because you can’t hold that gut in any longer.

The so-called melting pot that really all along had been a tossed salad has now morphed into that pot of nasty when it’s left on the stove too long, and burning odor is growing stronger. Just this morning, I heard a piece on NPR that, despite knowing the fact already, still broke my heart. Implicit bias starts as young as preschool. In plain talk, it means preschool teachers walk into classrooms and decide who the troublemakers are and more often than not the troublemaker wears Black skin even when the white kids are the bigger troublemakers. Yet no matter how many times folks like me say this or studies confirm these uncomfortable realities, too many refuse to see that reality. Is it any wonder that Black and Brown people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system? Where Chad gets a break for youthful indiscretions, Jamal gets a record that starts early and marks him for life.

Systemic racism has never gone out of style but now that personal racism is starting to flourish again, and with the likes of Trump running around, I don’t see any end in sight.  But I will say that if racial justice is important to you, the decisions you make or don’t make this November do matter.
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Misattributing LePage’s actions to a breakdown, or He was always a bigot and a racist

I dislike having to continue to talk about my state’s governor, Paul LePage, because he’s not going to change, the legislature is probably going to continue to not really act against him in a substantive way (though they may end up surprising us), and to malign him is to preach to the choir for much of Maine’s population (and to spit into the wind when it comes to the less-than-half of Mainers who truly support him…let’s not forget he didn’t win by a majority of the vote in either of his elections).

So, why are we here again, when I just talked about him a few days ago?

Well, in a way it’s not really LePage I’m talking about. He’s more an avatar of a problem I’d like to address: People’s continuing reluctance to call out his (and others’) racism and to deflect from the fact he’s a toxic bigot. And, in so doing…over and over…those who do so show their own anti-Black (and anti-Muslim, and anti-lots-of-other-things) biases and bigotry, however subtle or deeply hidden they may be.

When LePage talked about his binder of dealers and left a profanity-laden voicemail message for a Maine legislator (Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook) whom he thought had called him a racist, there were legislators and other citizens of the state who cried out that LePage was showing himself unfit to hold the governor’s office because of his actions.

Except the actions that people called him out on—the actions that really set them off and made them feel he was unfitwere being insulting to a white legislator and, as some maintained, that some of LePage’s remarks showed him to be homophobic. Precious few people were focusing on the fact that LePage had just accused non-white people, particularly Black and Latinx people, of being the enemy. Accusing them, in denial of all the statistics that say most drug traffickers are white, of being the source of drugs in Maine and of impregnating white girls before they leave.

He did it before now, though perhaps in less dramatic a fashion, as he didn’t paint Black and Brown people as military-style enemies who presumably should be dealt with violently back then—at least not as obviously. But he’s said multiple times how non-white people are the problem. And not just with regard to drugs. He’s blamed African immigrants for disease in this state as well as accusing them of being financial leeches. He’s gone so far as to blame them for diseases that are carried by insects and not people.

In Boston on August 29, just after the latest “binder of dealers” brouhaha, he doubled down and said: “The heroin-fentanyl arrests are not white people. They’re Hispanic and they’re black and they’re from Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, Waterbury, Connecticut the Bronx and Brooklyn.”

Never mind that FBI stats say fewer than 15 percent of drug traffickers arrested in Maine are Black or Brown. Are we to believe less than a fifth of the traffickers are responsible for all of the heroin and fentanyl in the state?

Since the very start of his first term after the 2010 election, LePage has worn his bigotry openly on his sleeve.

Now many people want to say he’s having a breakdown or that he’s lapsed into booze. Hell, I’ve said as much with regard to the latter, but not the way I think most people are. I just think he drank too much the day he called Gattine and let his true self spill out even more. Most people want to attribute his latest comments and actions to a breakdown or to alcoholism. They make out like he’s just gone over the deep end.

But he’s always been over the deep end. He’s always been steeped in a white supremacy, bigot-minded world of his own. And it’s not, in my opinion, because of any illness of his mind or weakness for liquor. It’s because he was evil from the start, and he’s still evil now.

Except that people aren’t focusing enough on the fact that he’s always spouted racist filth and is just doing so more boldly now.

To attribute his actions now to anything but willful ignorance and vileness when he’s shown us what he is from the beginning is to distract from how racist he is and how much his words invigorate other racists and help contribute to an insidious creep in the minds of anyone who’s not racist but is just biased. Because we all have biases and, when it comes to Black and Brown people and the threat they supposedly pose, those biases run deep in most white people everywhere. Anything that deflects from the sheer evil of LePage’s words is one more chance for the idea that Black and Brown people are a threat to seep into more minds, even ones that consider themselves open and progressive.

LePage may be having a breakdown. He might be hitting the sauce. But all that is irrelevant.

Because he’s always been a racist, and the majority of Maine (and the nation) has turned a blind eye to that fact from the start. Some have pointed out he’s racist, but not the majority of his detractors. They’re too often afraid to use the word “racist.” Even Gattine stressed that he didn’t recall calling LePage a racist but rather said his remarks were racially insensitive. From my standpoint, Gattine should have said, “I don’t think I called the governor a racist exactly, but now that I think about it, I really should have.”

Not nearly enough people have said what needs to be said, and no one should let him get out from under the fact that he is a racist, through and through. And if you haven’t recognized that before now, there might be a chance you are too…or that you are at risk of becoming one.

I’d rather that this moment in time be the eye-opening one that lets people truly admit what they’ve been to afraid to say all along.

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When Paul LePage went full-on racist, or Paul’s binder of dealers

I really had no intention of ever wasting any more words on Maine’s governor, Paul LePage. I thought I had said all that I needed to say several months ago in my open letter to the governor but then the past several days happened. The quick-and-easy version is that several days ago at a local town hall meeting in North Berwick, Maine, LePage once again stated his belief that Black men are bringing the drugs to Maine and he once again insinuated that these same Black men end up with Maine’s fair maidens, aka white women. Oh boy! Here we go again! But wait! LePage was only getting started. Turns out that the governor who has publicly admitted to not reading the newspaper has been keeping his own private binder of who’s who among Maine’s drug dealers (makes you almost long for Mitt Romney’s “binders of women” instead). And in this private binder of his, there are an awful lot of Blacks and Latinos who are driving up Interstate 95 from exotic locales such as Waterbury, Conn., and Brooklyn, N.Y. to sell their poison to unsuspecting Mainers. According to him, this is an accurate representation of arrests of drug dealing fiends, and he says 90 percent of them are Black or Brown.

Oh dear! But wait! We aren’t even halfway through this week’s adventure in Maine politics. Nope, after receiving blowback from many across the state, the governor decided to ratchet things up by calling a Democratic lawmaker and in a profanity-laden voicemail that sounded suspiciously like a man who was under the influence of something more than a triple Venti mocha, he used homophobic slurs, swore profusely, threatened the lawmaker and basically buried himself in a very deep hole that caught everyone’s attention. When’s the last time a sitting governor told called a lawmaker vile names, left it on a voicemail and essentially said run and tell that? I am from Illinois, the land of governors who end up doing federal time (Rod Blagojevich anyone?), but even in the land of Lincoln and a side of criminality, at least our governors don’t go get that gully.

So just when everyone is looking askance and wondering what the hell is wrong with Paul LePage, in trying to defend himself, he pretty much hit the nuclear option by statingLook, a bad guy is a bad guy, I don’t care what color it is. When you go to war, if you know the enemy, the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, you shoot at red, don’t you? You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy. And the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority right now coming in are people of color or people of Hispanic origin. I can’t help that. I just can’t help it. Those are the facts.”

While a large majority of Maine’s media was still trying to unpack LePage’s drunken tirade, the unfortunate fact is this: For hours, most people seemed to have overlooked the fact that Maine’s sitting governor essentially called people of color enemies of the state of Maine. News of the tirade has hit the national media circuit yet few are willing to even touch LePage’s latest words in the midst of his attempts to explain his actions.

Where do we even start? For starters, none of this surprises me. Since day one, LePage’s verbal blunders and gaffes have been largely overlooked, yet as a person of color who happens to live in Maine, I  haven’t missed a thing (and they aren’t blunders or gaffes…they are intentionally crude). Over the years, LePage has increasingly pushed a narrative that others anyone who is not white, from his refusal to attend Maine NAACP events that are customary for governors to attend to telling  Barack Obama to kiss his ass. The handwriting has been on the wall since LePage introduced us to his imaginary Black criminals (better known as Smoothy, D-Money, and Shifty) that he was setting the framework for complete vilification of Black and Brown people in Maine.

The thing is that LePage is essentially an unrepentant asshole who is a racist despite having “adopted” a Black Jamaican. And this moment didn’t happen in a vacuum. Every time people brushed off LePage’s racialized comments and attempted to soften his harsh and direct language by instead suggesting that LePage is “crazy” or “nuts” (or “just speaking his mind”) we allowed him to more or less continue without consequences.  The Maine House voted against impeaching him months ago, instead passing a resolution calling for cooperation and civil behavior. I think it’s safe to say that resolution meant very little to LePage and, well, now we are here.

There are many levels to this story and I won’t even begin to delve deeper but I will say that for Black and Latinx people in the state of Maine, the sense of fear is real. When people hear their governor say that Black and Brown people are the enemy in a state where 95 percent of the residents are white, what is the real impact on actual residents of color? It’s tense interactions, it’s fear. Fear that if you wander outside of whatever happens to be your safe zone, that you are essentially a walking target (and perhaps not even so safe in that zone). A drive in the country on a beautiful day might be just a little less beautiful as you encounter watchful eyes who wonder if you are bringing poison into “their” state. Never mind that the state has a rich history that does indeed include non-white people, because the implication of LePage’s words and those unspoken ones of his supporters serve to de-legitimize the presence of people of color in Maine. For people like LePage, if you’re Black or Brown, you must be bringing drugs or diseases to the state, or at the very least are leeching off the welfare system.

The thing is when people don’t speak up, this is what happens. And it happens most of the time. White people trade on white politeness and civility rather than speaking truth to power. They overwhelmingly remain silent and allow the weasels and the dreck of humanity to gain a foothold.

Though it may be that LePage’s attack on a white, male lawmaker could be his downfall, which once again speaks to how white privilege and anti-Black bias works. You can say the most horrendous things about people of color for years and while it’s bad, you still get re-elected and never really see any consequences. However, it’ suddenly beyond the pale when the object of attack is another white man. Granted, if LePage’s expletive-filled tirade somehow results in his leaving office sooner than later, I doubt that too many of us would drop any tears. But if we are serious about being a truly racially inclusive state and country, we must look beneath the surface and see how our own silence can contribute to the creation of even greater problems.
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If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

 

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