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God Damn America

Jason Thibeault over at Lousy Canuck brought up a pretty tragic story of a 13 year-old child who was shot and killed by a neighbour in the states while he (the boy) was taking out the garbage. The neighbour apparently (mistakenly) believed that the boy had stolen something, and that the appropriate response was murder. The conclusion Jason drew from this unbelievably horrible story is that greater gun control was needed to prevent these kinds of incidents form happening. I’m sure he’s right, but of course that’s not the whole story.

Unless you were living under a rock in 2008, you’re probably familiar with Jeremiah Wright’s infamous “god damn America” line, taken wildly out of context from a longer sermon about the need for government priorities to be in line with biblical priorities. Now even when I first saw the excerpt from the speech, I knew where he was trying to go with it. It’s no different from when a wingnut pastor calls the President the antichrist, except that when a black pastor does it, all of a sudden it’s a threat to America as we know it. Obviously, as an atheist, the whole idea of bringing the government into line with biblical principles is terrifying to me, but there was another message in that sermon that I understood quite well.

What Jason didn’t touch on is the other thing that this killing represents. Yes, it speaks to a gaping hole in United States gun policy – that any random psychopath can get access to a gun pretty much anywhere, and that one of the country’s most powerful lobby groups is fighting to make that easier. However, far more than that, it speaks to a fact about life in the United States: being black is a liability. It’s not just that you’re less likely to go to a good school, or graduate from that school even if you do go, or get hired for a job if you do graduate, or make the appropriate amount of money if you do get a job… all of those things are true.

So when Jeremiah Wright said “god damn America”, what I heard was the refrain of someone who recognized that America exists as a country that does not think its black citizens are people deserving of the same respect. It certainly doesn’t grant them justice:

[Rekia] Boyd and her friends were hanging out at Douglas Park near 15th and Albany when off-duty Police Officer Dante Servin, who lives in the area, allegedly drove up in a BMW and told the group to “shut up all that m—–f—— noise,” Sutton said witnesses told him.

Antonio Cross yelled back “f— you,” at which point Servin allegedly stuck a gun out of the window and opened fire, wounding Cross in the hand and shooting Boyd in the head.

Police officials initially claimed Cross had a gun, but no gun was found, and Cross has been charged with aggravated assault, a misdemeanor. Forty days later, Sutton still does not know whether Servin will be charged with anything for shooting his sister in the head.

That article goes on to describe an off-duty police officer who was charged for animal abuse and issued a fine. Justice was served for the dog. Not for the woman.

But hey, she shouldn’t have mouthed off to a cop, right? That’s what you get for being uppity. It’s not as though a police officer would kill someone for no other reason:

The summary execution of 18-year-old Alan Dwayne Blueford happened near 90th Avenue and Birch Street in Oakland early Sunday morning. Mr. Blueford and two friends were standing outside waiting for some young lady friends to come pick them up. According to Oakland police, two of their cops “believed one of them were carrying a hidden gun.” It is unclear how this was determined based on their looks, nor is it clear why that would matter in a country which prides itself on gun ownership rights.

Police say the young men ran (obviously fearing for their lives in the face of paid, constitutionally-protected killers) when they approached them. One of the cops, whose names are being protected by the city of Oakland, ran after Mr. Blueford for two blocks before recklessly firing a gun at the young man, killing him instantly. The cop struck Mr. Blueford three times and shot himself in the foot once. Of course, the killer was rewarded with a paid vacation (aka “paid administrative leave”), despite the long-standing U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), which specifically outlaws police shooting at fleeing suspects without probable cause.

It is worth noting that police did not bother to notify Alan Blueford’s family that one of their officers had murdered their son. They left that job up to his friends after they had been released from police custody. For having committed no crime. Six hours later.

But hey, can’t blame America for that, right? I mean – there are some tragic things that happen, sure. But look at all the successful black people out there! America made them too, didn’t it? And whatever success black folks get in America, there’s no way it can be taken away from them! Well… not exactly:

The blonde wig may be throwing us off, but Rihanna is on the cover of British Vogue’s November 2011 issue and she’s looking much lighter. It could be the actual lighting on set, it could be that we’ve gotten used to her wearing a fire engine-red wig, or it could be that someone forget to tell Vogue’s retoucher that Rihanna is in fact black.

Skin lightening in beauty magazines is an all too common practice. At this point it’s just a question of how severely a person will be lightened. ELLE did it to the most beautiful woman in the world most recently, they’ve transformed Gabourey Sidibe into a much lighter cover girl. L’Oreal whitewashed Beyonce, too.

Rihanna on the cover of Vogue looking decidedly pale

For comparison:

An image of a much darker Rihanna

Now sure, none of these stories on their own is the smoking gun that proves America has a race problem. I’m sure any of these could be explained away – the neighbour is an isolated psycho, the Chicago cop is a macho dickhead, the Oakland cop was simply pursuing a fleeing suspect, the Vogue photoshoot had weird lighting. There’s always another explanation. The issue is that, when taken in context with all of the other indignities America foists on its black population, they’re not exactly overflowing with desire to grant the benefit of the doubt.

Jason didn’t touch on this issue of black exclusion, and how the attitude of the neighbour is a reflection of the vein that runs through the American story that black people are not Americans, that they are thieves out to steal the money and privilege of hard-working, honest, law-abiding white Americans. If they can’t get it through direct theft, they’ll use their foreign usurper of a President to do it by proxy. The only answer is to keep them down somehow – either by murdering the ‘uppity’ ones, or erasing the successful ones.

It’s not hard, therefore, to imagine why black Americans do not see themselves reflected in the priorities of their country. It is certainly not hard to imagine that they may be less patriotic than one might expect. They see a country that seeks to lie about what it cannot hide. They see a country that seeks to erase what it cannot destroy. They see this country, and they say “god damn America”.

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