Seeing the Big Picture

I watched Wednesday night’s horrific events at Emmanuel AME unfold on twitter. From 9PM to 1AM, I sat here trying to process what I was seeing as details emerged. Among a variety of voices, three seemed to be speaking to me the most: Austin Channing, Anthea Butler, and Joshua DuBois (twitter handles @austinchanning, @AntheaButler, @joshuadubois respectively).

What I read ran the gamut of emotions; anger, loss, betrayal, pain, disorientation. It was important for me to experience all of that as it unfolded without trying to put things into quick categories of cause and effect. As a white man, I needed to simply see these murders through the eyes of those struggling to process.

As it turns out, all three of them wrote very thoughtful and important pieces in the days that followed. Austin Channing shared her unedited reactions on her blog on Thursday morning. In the Washington Post, Anthea Butler asked why we struggled over using the word “terrorist” to describe the shooter (a question the Department of Justice picked up Friday afternoon). Joshua DuBois posted an excellent and important piece on Friday in The Daily Beast (after doing a fabulous job on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show).

One of the other consistent themes on my twitter feed was a critique of the media and pundits. Why wasn’t this breaking news on the cable stations from 9:00? When the coverage did start, why did commentators immediately go to mental illness and lone wolf? Why was there such an unwillingness to use the phrase Hate Crime?

Hate Crime showed up in air quotes in many publications. Even NPR used the phrase “what many are calling a Hate Crime” late Thursday afternoon. This in spite of the fact that the Charleston police started using the term Hate Crime in their briefings Wednesday night. (I’m not even going to address the ludicrous claim that it was an attack against people of faith in direct contradiction to the killer’s own words!)

This got me thinking about the power of narrative. Is there a larger story people are responding to or a series of isolated and perhaps unrelated events?

seurat-jatte-dots-microdetaConsider the picture on the left. Let’s suppose each dot represents an event related to issues of race in America in the past year. There was that one event that involved Michael Brown (let’s make that the green in the upper left). There was the Freddie Gray death (the pink spot). And so on.

Each event can be seen as independent of the rest and people can focus energies on what that particular officer did or how that teen behaved or why those people burned the CVS. We polarize our views on these questions and somehow consider the situation unresolvable because each group has their talking points.

But there was something else I noticed on the twitter feed Wednesday night and after. People were asking, “how can this happen again?” They weren’t looking at Charleston as a horrific one-time tragedy but as the next instance in a long series of tragedies.

They were wrestling against the broader narrative. The one we don’t like to talk about because it’s harder than pointing fingers at bad cops or black-on-black crime or the rest.

The picture on the right is my attempt to illustrate the difference.

It’s Suerat’s La Grand Jete (Sunday in the Park). If Sueratyou know your art history, you know this painting is famous for the introduction of pointillism: the creation of an image from a series of very small brush strokes.

Consider this simple listing of events since last August:

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 11.24.55 AM copy

To keep my metaphor going, the list above is just a summary of what’s happening in the foreground where the dog is. When I step back and look at the larger picture, a narrative become clear. These events happen on an ever more frequent basis and show signs of moving farther and farther away from direct threat situations. There is a context here that seems to clearly say: Blacks are seen as a threat by the broader society and they are aware of that precarious status.

The comments of the Emmanuel killer bear witness to that narrative: “you rape our women and are taking over our country“.

The story we should be discussing is this one of ongoing marginalization and degradation of Blacks in America.

The curious thing about our refusal to build these narratives is that we do it all the time in other circumstances. The “War on Christmas” narrative requires taking isolated events by individual actors and imagining some grand conspiracy fostered by those in the media who won’t call out the War or those in academe who ridicule people of faith. Never mind that these are also rare and disconnected.

Or the absolutely silly attempt to somehow connect Rachel Dolezal’s passing for black with Caitlyn Jenner’s transgender story. This is like suggesting that the images in Seurat’s Grande Jete are part of the same picture as Monet because they both have water lilies. Or that Seurat and Van Gogh are really pursuing the same style.

The truth is that cable news and the internet love narrative. They create them all the time.

They repeat statements (or don’t critique them) from politicians and pundits saying “who knows why the killer acted?”. But we do know – it’s part of the picture. Then just aren’t looking.

So why not tell the story of race in America? Why not look for the linkages between public policy, mass incarceration, economic disruption, law enforcement strategy, a “Southern strategy”, residential segregation, and educational discrimination?

The big picture is easy to see if we step back and look at it. It just takes some intentionality and a willingness to live in the midst of the realities expressed by our Black brothers and sisters.

It’s a matter of will.

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