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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  1. audiolight says

    with biblical principals is terrifying to me

    I’m sure you meant to write “principles” not “principals” here. 🙂

    Good post. The US’s soaring political rhetoric for equal opportunity (“The American Dream is for everyone!”) versus how their minorities are actually treated within the framework of their society is always so baffling to me.

  2. Konradius says

    Not just that. It seems to me a lot of the successful black people in America have distinctly caucasian features. Sure, there are some exceptions, Whoopi Goldberg comes to mind. But Rihanna would ‘pass white’ if not for her skin color.
    And I probably don’t have to remind people here that genetically seen black and white ‘races’ in America (or rather outside Africa) are very similar. More similar than different black populations in Africa in any case.

  3. says

    No! I am deeply concerned about a country where the high school administrators are simply human effigies built out of stacks of holy scripture.

    Heh. Thanks. Fixed.

  4. cortex says

    Not trying to jump down your throat or anything, but if non-Caucasians also have those features, they’re not really “distinctly” Caucasian.

    Given the weirdness that comes into play when cognitive systems socially categorize people, I think it’s more likely that once a black person becomes “successful,” and starts to be surrounded by cues that generally only accompany white people, they start to seem more white than other black people.

  5. Pteryxx says

    Konradius: there’s research showing correlation between cultural standards of beauty (US centric at least) and white-race-specific features, of which skin color is just one. Lots of black feminist bloggers cover this; see also the Doll Test.

    Thought experiment: how many famous black men have more Caucasian-looking features, compared to famous black women?

  6. carlie says

    As horrific as the whole thing was, what made it even worse was the bit of info that came out after – the police questioned the boy’s mother for two hours, leaving the boy’s body in the street the entire time. And then arrested her other son on a couple of truancy violations.

    Two hours.

    Some bigoted asshole racist piece of scum had just shot and killed her baby in her own driveway, and the police left him lying there and grilled her for two fucking hours.

  7. Gilian says

    Regarding the ‘adjusted’ cover photography:

    There’s a technical reason to make dark-skinned people lighter in print, it has nothing to do with actual skin colour and/or racism, it has everything to do with dot-gain, the so called ‘Brunner’ colour area’s, paper and ink specifications.

    Simply put, there’s a contrast problem in the 3/4 of the colour curve. (say roughly the colour areas between 65% and 100% density). Since a black persons face will appear even darker then reality if not enough light is used* during the photo-shoot, all colour ranges in the persons face will be in the high 60%+ , and the end result will be a really black/brown/dirty face with almost no detail anymore. (i.e lines, wrinkles etc will be lost)
    Now, if we lighten those skin-tones, suddenly we see cheeks, skin, nose and other such details appear again.

    I’m not saying there’s no racism in advertising, but things ain’t always what they seem 🙂

    * And if the proper lightning for a dark skinned person is used, the photo will be *drumroll* also lighter in tone!

    Note: I’m talking about Printing here, and CMYK colours. Digital images don’t suffer from this effect, but they got their own problems. (Put the same digital image on 5 different computers and see for yourself)

  8. says

    Except that photos of Rihanna would be uniformly lighter if that were the case. They’re not.

    That is interesting info though.

  9. Rieux says

    Ian, from your personal perspective, do you think Canada is better in this respect?

    (Honest, non-rhetorical question; I’m not trying to imply any particular answer to it.)

  10. says

    There are parts of the States that are better than parts of Canada, but on the whole Canada is far and away less overtly, extremely, violently racist than the USA. We have our own racial issues to struggle with (liberal colour-blindness makes things really difficult to talk about), but there are far fewer incidents, and we take them far more seriously.

  11. says

    This. This is the kind of thing that fills me with panicked anger. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to tell my children that they are simply not safe. Not around cops. Not around their white neighbors. Not in their schools. Not even in their homes, sometimes. They are not safe if they ride the subway or take out the trash or walk into their house with a cop following them or go to school. And they have to know that, if some vile, racist piece of shit–cop or civilian–murders their child, then they will be the ones who will be grilled by the police and in the public eye. The weight of responsibility and that ever-present low hum of panic would be paralyzing to me because I don’t have to live with it because I’m privileged; these parents have to have hearts and guts of fucking titanium to live with it.

    God damn America indeed. God fucking damn it.

  12. Rieux says

    Okay. That’s also my (inadequately qualified) sense, living 300 miles south of the border. Thanks.

  13. Sassafras says

    If this does account for lightened-skin photos, then fashion photographers are aware of this effect and yet still not shooting to compensate for it, so they still deserve no slack for it.

  14. says

    My photographer father has a whole slate of books about techniques for taking pictures of black-skinned people. It is possible, albeit difficult. I think it is far more likely that it is passive inattention rather than intentional malice. Not that it matters with respect to the result.

  15. Elly says

    White Americans are in denial – and our ignorance is aided and abetted by the mainstream media and our educational system. Although I grew up during the struggle for Civil Rights in a moderately liberal (non-religious) family, and have an above-average education (graduate degree), I was a mature adult before I started to really learn the ugly truth about white supremacy in this country. It’s knowledge that’s hiding in plain sight, but it has to be actively sought.

    So I understand “God Damn America” (at least to the extent that I can as a white person). The reason Rev. Wright became radioactive was because he spoke the truth… and that truth isn’t compatible with our “national religion” of American exceptionalism.

  16. says

    This reminds me of the difference between the South(east) and the North(east) in the United States now. (What we traditionally call “South” and “North” are really the Eastern section; the West has its own thing going on. I can’t speak to the Midwest, except that it is extremely white and probably also, shockingly, racist as hell, but in the quiet way that an area with little diversity will be.) In the South, things are more openly racist, but they are also actually discussed, and it is hard to segregate things with so many POC about (and it gets even more mixed in places like Texas, where I am, where there are a lot of Latin@ folk). In the North, although it is less overtly racist, it is also discussed less, which permits a de facto segregation that is simply impossible in the messy South. Everywhere has its own issues and everywhere, in the end, is racist as hell in its own unique, special-snowflake way.

  17. Sivi says

    Side note: can people stop saying “Causcasian”? It’s not accurate, it has a racist history, and it’s really better to just say “white”.

  18. Sivi says

    I was just talking about this with a friend, since a former mutual acquaintance had moved back to the US and posted some racist stuff on their blog, and it had never come up out here, and we were joking that moving to the USA makes you more racist.

    Both of us think Canada’s generally less racist, but I’ve seen this used to enable and dismiss Canadian racism, and you only have to glance at the comments section of any Canadian news article on Native peoples to see the same vicious racist crap you’d see in the States.

    I feel like it’s less publically acceptable, maybe. Then again, Toronto voted for racist Rob Ford, so maybe I’m just being hopeful.

  19. says

    I think moving to the States makes you less afraid to express racist sentiment. It is more normative there. I doubt that living in Canada makes you less racist, but it certainly makes you less likely to opine about it. Canada’s inability to discuss race is part of the reason I started this blog, because as you point out it leads to some pretty frightening and damaging behaviours that are often not vocalized (or vocalized only in code).

  20. LicoriceAllsort says

    Simply put, there’s a contrast problem in the 3/4 of the colour curve. (say roughly the colour areas between 65% and 100% density). Since a black persons face will appear even darker then reality if not enough light is used* during the photo-shoot, all colour ranges in the persons face will be in the high 60%+ , and the end result will be a really black/brown/dirty face with almost no detail anymore. (i.e lines, wrinkles etc will be lost)
    Now, if we lighten those skin-tones, suddenly we see cheeks, skin, nose and other such details appear again.

    If this pattern of contrast is characteristic of dark-skinned faces, then why is it a “problem”? Aren’t these standards for contrast, themselves, based on light skin?

    And in the second photo of Rihanna on this page, the contrast among her cheeks, nose, forehead, and other features is much sharper than in the first image, yet her skin is darker (and presumably closer to her actual skin tone).

    Also, I don’t see why it’s a problem that a black person’s face might appear darker than reality if not enough light is used, any more than making her skin lighter if too much light is used. These standards of “too much” and “not enough” light, again, seem to be based on the assumption that darker = less desirable. If dark skin was truly not an issue in itself, we’d see equal numbers of cover models whose skin is darker/lighter than reality. Instead, models’ skin is more frequently made lighter.

  21. frog says

    Or that people categorize others assuming the likeable ones are more like themselves.

    I have a friend who is 3/4 German and 1/4 black Tanzanian. I think the best description of his appearance would be “generically Mediterranean”: dark, curly hair; mostly light-skinned and ruddy, but tans easily; narrow nose; full lips. He thinks of himself as white and identifies himself that way on census questions, college applications, etc.

    He works in the UN. People from everywhere assume he is from their country and start talking to him in their own language. And by “everywhere,” I mean everywhere–his stories are hilarious, and frequently people refuse to believe he isn’t from their country. About the only folks who don’t try to claim him are far east Asians.

    American black people assume he is black; American white people assume he is white; American Latinos assume he is Latino. I would love to follow him around all day and do an anthropological study of the people he interacts with.

  22. carlie says

    can’t speak to the Midwest, except that it is extremely white and probably also, shockingly, racist as hell, but in the quiet way that an area with little diversity will be.)

    Very center-midwest here. The town I grew up in is 97% white, 2% black. The next major town over (7 miles away) is 98% black, 1% white. When I was in middle school, I participated in a STEM initiative for minorities (women were put in as a minority) at a nearby college, and for the first time heard from a (black) teacher that when he was growing up (about 15 years prior), it was common knowledge in the local black communities to never risk being in my town after dark. So there’s that data point.

  23. carlie says

    because as you point out it leads to some pretty frightening and damaging behaviours that are often not vocalized (or vocalized only in code).

    That’s most of what I experienced in the midwest, just from my vantage point. Of course the kids who were black had explicit (and often personal) information about the racism and bigotry of people and police in my town, but I never noticed a thing. If you had asked me then, I’d have said we were a very open and accepting place because there was one black kid in my class (of 600) and he was popular. *headdesk*

  24. frog says

    I think the point is that while undoubtedly some of the whitewashing is deliberate and stupid, some of it may simply be thoughtless people going overboard with something they have to do to a photo anyway.

    Even white girls get lightened for cover photos. Now, I strongly suspect the underlying reason is an unexamined belief that “whiter”=”prettier.”

    But it’s also crossing with a beauty standard that says “high contrast”=”bad” because when printing CMYK on the thin paper of a magazine, dense areas of ink will make a person look old or splotchy. Old and splotchy is not considered pretty for any woman of any color.

    There may be differences between cover photos and interior photos because of time/budget constraints (they are less concerned about the look of the interior than the cover). And of course different standards exist at different venues because the art directors are different people.

    We don’t know what color anyone actually is unless we see them in person. I’m sure that Gabourey Sidibe is very brown, but the contrasting photos in the linked example don’t tell me much. The lighter photo is probably lightened; but the darker photo may also be darker than reality.

    Which is to say, I wish art directors would give more thought to the situation instead of just mindlessly following a routine. The more people speak out against whitewashing, the more it will come to the attention of art directors and editors, and more of them may start to look for solutions that allow women to look closer to their actual color.

  25. Gilian says


    It’s a problem with detail/contrast in the darker area’s of a print. (as from a printing press or a magazine.) It has absolutely nothing do with race/humanity and everything to do with colour. It’s solved by makeing things lighter. If it’s not a black person face but a black ferrari or a black coffeemachine I’d have the same problems. So no, the standards of contrast aren’t based on skincolour. Also, a photo’s resolution is many times that of the maximum attainable print resolution, things that look great on photoprint look not so great in print. Things that look good on magazines may look shitty in newspapers, etc.
    If I take the same image and translate it to Magazine, Newspaper and post those 2 files with the orinal RGB you’d see enormeous differences, however if they’re actually properly printed they should match each other quite close.

    The 2 Rihanna shots can’t be compared. The Vogue cover is a lithograped and retouched image that’s supposed to print without hassle at speeds of 30000 copies per hour and look the same from print 1 to print 30000. I’d love to see the original studio shot of the Vogue cover, I’m more bothered by the insane need to smooth everything over and slim everything down than the fact that she’s lighter then she should be.

  26. F says

    Any such “identifier” has a racist history. But, certainly. there are loads of peoples identified as caucasian who are not remotely white at all, and don’t, on average, share other white features. IOW, it would be inaccurate for purposes of the discussion, at least.

    If you would point to something discussing how “caucasian” is inherently more racist than “white”, I’d appreciate it, but I’ll go looking for education myself for now.

  27. F says

    Ah, I see already that the original coinage was done in a racist manner, yet still more inclusive than “white”. Racism sure can be weird.

  28. Sassafras says

    I think it is far more likely that it is passive inattention rather than intentional malice. Not that it matters with respect to the result.

    Oh, I don’t doubt inattention is at the root of it; even they way they often use Photoshop for this is sloppy by Photoshop standards (there are so many more options than just hitting the Brightness slider but they would take two minutes rather than one).

  29. F says

    Thanks for pointing this out about Jason’s piece. I didn’t particularly notice it was missing, as I took it as given (i.e., I didn’t even need to consciously note the racism angle, although it was the first thing that went through my mind and affected the reading of the article). These things do need to be pointed out, directly. Otherwise, some people won’t get it or have to confront it.

  30. ender says

    The KKK held a little rally in my town once… rural Ohio. They were vastly outnumbered by counter-protestors, not that that really matters.

  31. M Groesbeck says

    It was depressing when the Wright clips first came out how much of the public discussion just took for granted that Wright was using “America” as a “them” — when in the context of the whole clip he was clearly including himself and his audience in the “we need to do better” of his sermon. It was just so easy for so much of the (white) media to assume that Wright wasn’t part of “America”…

  32. Sivi says


    Yeah, the origin of the term is pretty racist. Also, there is a place called the Caucasus, obviously, and “white” is maybe better since it’s partly about the privilege of skin colour, doesn’t have the same historical complications, and serves as a reminder that just because someone is relatively pale it doesn’t mean that they’ve historically been considered by power groups to be “white”, like the Irish or Italians.

    And yeah, racism is particularly weird sometimes. For example, some early racial classifiers included “Lapps” (Sami) as their own racial group, and you’ll note that the definition of Europäid types under the Caucasian article on wiki included Austrians, Southern Europeans, and Balts, but not Slavs (except maybe Ukrainians?), and includes some Turks, Bedu, and Afghans, but not Jews or Persians.

    It’s kind of neat to read about, if only because racial classification schemes are so arbitrary and idiosyncratic.

  33. says

    @Sivi: Yeah, it’s really weird to me that my covered-in-freckles self would have been most distinctly not white a hundred years and change ago (where my daughter would be, and my part-Mexican, part-Slavic son would likely not be, either). Like, I love the Louis CK bit on being a white male at any point in history, but the irony is that he wouldn’t have been white, either, not too long ago. Funny how the goalposts keep moving.

  34. msm16 says

    America has a massive race problem. We, white American’s, kind of checked out after MLK was killed an assumed it was all fixed. Your piece on the importance of affirmative action speaks to the lengths we still need to go to rectify the deep economic fissure that still needs to be corrected.

    After all drug prohibition is effectively a modern system of apartheid, hell it even gives ‘credible deniability.’ I am embarrassed by my country.

  35. carlie says

    From Wikipedia:

    The highest proportion of confirmed sundown towns are in the state of Illinois

    Aaaaand that would be my state. That explains a lot.

  36. carlie says

    Shit. I just found a database of known sundown towns, and mine is on it. That explains everything.

  37. Pteryxx says

    Wow… thanks to carlie for the resource. That database is here:


    I know the rural town I’m *in* wasn’t technically a sundown town – it was strictly segregated with a black ghetto on the railroad tracks, and it’s mostly remained that way to this day (oh joy. not.) – but several of the neighboring towns were, according to oral history. (Why am I not surprised that records are scarce when the targets were often illiterate…)

    Here’s one of them:

    Grand Saline, TX:

    Nearby TX Resident. “we used to play them in sports. They were a very well known as a ‘sundown’ town to me as a child. Our coaches used to threaten to drop the black kids off in Grand Saline (as a sick joke) for misbehaving on the school bus to and from games…

    Apparently Grand Saline PURGED its black residents. It’s listed as “probably” still a sundown town TODAY. Gaaah…

  38. Pteryxx says

    Further reading. I’ll just leave this here…


    The reluctance to discuss what happened continues to this day. Linda Ledbetter, a Forsyth County high school government teacher and a county commissioner, says she does not teach anything about that county’s 1912 racial expulsion. Although she says she knows the story, if students ask her about it she claims not to know.

    In the black community the memory of these racial expulsions is kept alive through a series of warnings passed from parents to children.

    Lillie Nash, 65, a school teacher who lives in Atlanta, says she learned about Forsyth County’s past when her parents and grandparents talked about the night they fled. Growing up, she was warned never to go near the county and it wasn’t until a few years ago that she dared to venture back.

  39. thisisaturingtest says

    Ian, I had an interesting conversation on-line not long ago (in a Yahoo article comments section) with a guy who was maintaining quite obstinately that racism in America is dead. His points included the end of overt segregation, the laws ending discrimination in employment, etc- and, of course, to him, the clincher was “we have a black President” (but he couldn’t resist pointing out Mr Obama “is half-white.”) I tried to point out to him that the fact that he had to trot these things out was itself an indication that the problem was still there, but he couldn’t get it (though I will say, to his credit, he seemed reasonable- his tone wasn’t outright nasty, and he actually seemed to be considering the points I raised).

    Finally, I decided to use the ploy Matthew McConaughey use at the end of “A Time To Kill”- I asked him to picture a group of people who, for no other reason than their race, was liable to all the things you list in your article (schools, employment, getting shot, plain damn disrespect as individuals on their own account),and that Rev Wright was trying to reference. Now, I said- imagine those people are white. His response was a rather plaintive, “Jeez! What do ya’ll want? An apology? Fine- I apologize!” At which point I had to tell him- I’m white (in Gautier, Mississippi, if you can dig that). And it kind of hit me- I was talking to a guy who believed, for whatever reason, that you could only believe in, and espouse, equality for all if you’re a member of the group being denied it. His assumption that I’m black is an indictment of a mindset that can’t understand the other.

    But, see, here’s the problem- that goes both ways. I don’t understand, simply cannot comprehend, that way of thinking any more than he could mine. And this will always be. I think this sort of tribalism is hard-wired into the human brain, and racism, as a way of thought, will always be with us. Some folks are educated into it, as in “raised to think that way,” and these folks, if rational, can be reached. But the others? You can eliminate the more overt and odious manifestations of it, but you will always have people who will think that way.

    My apologies for such a long and seemingly (even to me) pointless comment- I don’t have a solution, and don’t really think there is one, for the problem at the root of the problem. Maybe the best we can hope for is to so marginalize these people that their problem remains with them. I feel a little pessimistic about it, after reading Jason’s (and your) article- but, FWIW, I think your (and Jason’s) articles are part of whatever solution there may be to at least the outer problem.

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