American Racial Grief, a Reprisal

In February 2016, a colleague of mine, an African-American scholar specializing in constitutional rights, tweeted that she was arrested for an unpaid parking ticket, subjected to a pat down, taken in by the police, and handcuffed to a table. Outrage over police brutality and racial profiling ensued. University faculty wrote a letter of protest and support that many of us signed. In the days that followed, more details emerged. Our colleague was stopped for doing 67 in a 45 mile-per-hour zone; her arrest was due to an outstanding warrant; she was driving with a suspended license. The publicly released arrest video showed the officer to be by all appearances courteous and professional. Outrage, this time by those angry at a black woman crying wolf, erupted.

About the same time in Manhattan, the rookie police officer Peter Liang was being indicted for manslaughter after having accidentally killed a black man with a ricocheting bullet in a dark hallway, becoming the first N.Y.P.D. officer convicted in a line-of-duty shooting in over a decade. This indictment tore the Asian American community apart. Some Asian-Americans, in their eagerness to show their anti-racism and to support the Black Lives Matter movement, agitated to have Liang convicted. Others saw Liang as a scapegoat to appease protesters against police violence -- Asian-American-ness being the disposable term in a black/white dyad. As Frank H. Wu, professor of law at UC Berkeley, poignantly puts it, "How strange, how wrong, it is, that the face picked to represent police brutality toward blacks is yellow."

These controversies differ in scope and scale, but both gave me the queasy feeling that the terrain of racial discourse has just become that much narrower. Is it possible to support my colleague and validate her experience without rehearsing a rigid racial stance? Can we acknowledge Liang's responsibility while recognizing that racial politics haunt his indictment? I only know that the kind of binary positions that our polarized world demands of us do not reflect how I feel or think about these matters.

We are a nation at ease with grievance but not with grief. For me, grievance is a mode of social address that assumes injury can be quantified and verified, and it has its place in the work of activism. But grievance as the only or dominant mode of addressing racial injury has also proven incapable of speaking to a deeper and more tenacious legacy of distrust and hurt for which we have yet to learn how to process.

Any real points that might have been made in either cases -- whether about the larger issue of structural inequality in this country, the variables that complicate the black-and-white equation, or the racial script that seems to predetermine how we approach these eruptions of social relations -- are lost to the noise of position-staking, shut out by racist indifference on one side and racial entrenchment on the other.

I keep thinking about Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's classic 1952 novel. In its opening pages, the so-called "invisible man" bumps into a white man whose angry retort incites the protagonist into physical retaliation. Most people have taken this scene to exemplify the idea of black invisibility: the black man is unseen by white society. But Ellison's writing is actually more ambiguous. If the invisible man runs into the white man, then who is the unseeing one? And since Ellison does not tell us what the white man actually says, could it be that the white man yelled at the black man for his clumsiness and that masculine rather than racist arrogance may be at play? My point here is not to claim this was or wasn't a racist incident but instead to suggest that a racial script sets the stage even before any contact between the two men. Given this script, the invisible man would have been foolish not to suspect racial antagonism on the part of the white man; but he was also himself trapped and blinded by that very suspicion. His response was both perspicacious and paranoid.

Tunnel vision protects us from troubling paradoxes: the lack of diversity in diversity; the haunting similarity between anti-racism and racism. People are eager to deny or uphold "an" identity without dealing with or acknowledging its advantages and disadvantages, its affirmation and its limitation. We have this idea in America that to think about complicated matters is somehow to eschew action, that being political means assuming an uncompromising stance. But action based on single points of view does not get us very far in spite of its guise of clarity. The recurring cycles of violence, discrimination, recrimination, and defensiveness that haunt our nation should tell us this loud and clear. We must go beyond our own passions to have a conversation, not about American racial identity, but about American racial entanglement.