Pop Stuff: The American Myth
Whilst the organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement have made incredible strides with their organizing and activism, everyone should recognize the ignominy of asking for Black lives to simply matter. How awake are we as a society where this is the ask?
Axel Foley sold me on America. He was the cool, hip, sunny, funny, fast-walking, smart-talking, no shit-taking, crime-busting Black cop played by Eddie Murphy in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise that made Murphy, already a revered stand-up comic, a household name and a bona fide movie star. I was not yet a teenager in the eighties when I wore out my brother’s VHS tapes of the Beverly Hills Cop films, despite their R ratings, in a win at blindsiding my parents. Foley, a rebellious Detroit cop, goes to Beverly Hills, under the auspices of taking a vacation, to investigate the murder of his (White) childhood buddy. Initially a thorn in the side of the Los Angeles Police Department, he wins them over with his smarts and charm as they give chase to him around LA’s ritzy, palm-lined boulevards and enticing, seedy joints. The film, initially written to star Sylvester Stallone, was so winningly played by Murphy that it became the box office hit of the year. America loved it. But what Americans loved most was buying into the myth that a Black man can walk with ease in the California sun, get the bad guys, seduce the police and come out a hero. It was another just another smokescreen.
Along with a string of Black-White buddy comedies of the era, many of them cop duos, such as the Lethal Weapon series, Hollywood, America’s brochure, was peddling a lie. The movie that first busted the mirage was only eighty-nine seconds long and shot on a Sony camcorder on March 3, 1991. This was the footage that civilian, George Holliday, took from his balcony of L.A. citizen, Rodney King, being shot twice with a Taser (an electric stun gun) and beaten mercilessly by a surrounding group of all White members of the L.A.P.D. The police had chased his car over eight miles after he was caught speeding and refused to pull over. When they eventually cornered him and had him exit the vehicle, he was slow to lie on the ground and was subjected to brutal force. Unaware that this was being caught on camera, the officers filed a report that said he suffered only minor cuts and bruises. The footage was played repeatedly on national and even global news channels resulting in an early case of citizen journalism, before phones became smart and a viral video before the world had the language for it. In 1992, two years before I began college in the U.S. the officers were tried and acquitted. This, coming on the heels of the consistent violent policing of Black Americans, resulted in the worst riots the country had seen in the 20th century.
At the time of Rodney King ‘public opinion’, that is to say public opinion outside the Black community was cumulative shock and horror that unwarranted violence against Blacks ‘still’ happened or happened at all. For Black Americans, it was simply on-camera evidence of a terror they have carried in their bodies in a constantly mutating, but never resolving, form since the slave trade brought Black lives to America under duress over four hundred years ago. White America has largely wanted to tell the story that the consistent subjugation of Blacks ended with the Civil Rights Movement. The movement, in the 1960s, put an end, on paper if not in practice, to the legalized racial discrimination, disenfranchisement and segregation which existed decades after slavery was abolished a century prior.
Meanwhile, the lived reality for Black Americans is that this movement, which came to a shattering close when its most powerful voice, the great activist and scholar, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, was simply the beginning of an uphill battle against racism that was deeply embedded in the White power structure and its systems of educating, policing, hiring, housing, voting, providing healthcare and so on. These systems that continue to prop up racial inequality are the reasons why it is far harder for a Black person to get a bank loan that their White counterpart, why Black college graduates are about as likely to be unemployed as Whites with a high school diploma, why Blacks who are 13% of the population are almost 40% of the prison population, nearly half of the homeless population and only 1% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies and why Black people who live in poorer, more confined neighborhoods and suffer poorer health, in general, are twice as likely as Whites to die due to COVID-19. Even without mentioning the seemingly endless parade of Blacks dying at the hands of the police, it is safe to say that systemic racism in America is killing her Black population.
If the election of Barack Obama in 2008 gave America another illusion to hide behind – the collective salve of the landslide victory of the first Black president and finally a Black family in the White House, a structure built by slaves, this was soon shattered. In the same month that Obama was inaugurated, twenty-two-year-old, unarmed, Black man, Oscar Grant, was fatally shot in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 at a train station in Oakland, California by a White police officer who said he mistook his gun for a Taser. The footage, which was captured by numerous bystanders, and inspired protests both peaceful and violent, had echoes of Rodney King.
In the ensuing years, the first Black president issued condolences to Black family after Black family as more deaths at the hands of police of unarmed, Black men, women and even children – Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Yvette Smith, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling – made it from real life to national news, often with accompanying footage too vivid to ignore. In an era of the now ubiquitous camera phone, there was simply no room for the hypothesis that Oscar Grant was an aberration. The more pertinent question wasn’t about the deaths on camera but about the many deaths that went uncaptured, the violence that inflicted scars that lasted until death and the racist micro-aggressions that had no such visible proof as a scar and simply resulted in Black people being given the all too common label of ‘angry’. The country failed to connect the dots that where anger was present, it certainly wasn’t baseless.
In spite of the Obama administration’s efforts on prison reform and against police brutality – some said that they didn’t try hard enough, others that they simply ran into too many hurdles and out of time – the public parade of Black deaths continued into the Trump administration under a leader that fanned the flames. In May this year, things reached a breaking point that has seen public protests overtake the nation and the globe. The shocking video of the killing of a twenty-five-year-old Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, in February, by a former police officer and the officer’s son was released in May. The video shows Arbery, who is out for a jog, being trailed in a car by one man until the two others confront and then shoot him. The men claimed that they thought he was a burglar. The news came on the heels of the death of Breonna Taylor, a twenty-six-year-old Black emergency medical technician, who was shot while asleep when police entered her apartment with a no-knock warrant and exchanged fire with her boyfriend, who believed the police to be intruders. These events inspired horror. However, it was the killing of forty-six-year-old, Black man George Floyd on May 25 that sparked a national uprising.
George Floyd was arrested in Minneapolis outside a corner store where the clerk had called the police because Floyd had attempted to use a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. The video of the arrest shows a White police office kneel on the handcuffed Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while three other officers stand by and bystanders plead with him to stop. Floyd cries out that he can’t breathe, echoing the words of twenty-seven-year-old Black man, Eric Garner who died mouthing the same last words at the hands of police in New York in 2014. It is a moment that signifies that these deaths are common enough to share a language. In an ultimate expression of distress and helplessness and a signal that he knows he is coming to her, Floyd calls out for his deceased mother before he appears lifeless on camera.
It should not take an explicit video of a Black man being killed, the value of his life a mere twenty dollars, for America to express collective outrage at the systemic racism that disproportionately dogs the Black community. It should not take death upon death during a pandemic that is affecting Black lives unequally, a pandemic where seemingly all other activity ceases but this continues, for people to realize that even as All Lives Matter it is Black Lives that are under active assault. It should not take a modern-day lynching. And whilst the organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement have made incredible strides with their organizing and activism, everyone should recognize the ignominy of asking for Black lives to simply matter. How awake are we as a society where this is the ask?
The unresolved tension underlying this ask is that in a society that calls everyone equal and free yet fails their most vulnerable, everyone is complicit. For those not living the experience of being Black, fully understanding anti-Black racism is impossible, but a nod of self-assurance that the work is done simply because you are not exhibiting racist behaviour, doesn’t even hint at a resolution. There can be no grey area between inequality and equality. It is not possible to be partly free, mostly free or almost free. Or as Martin Luther King more eloquently put it, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.’ For America’s promise to be true it must hold for all and until that happens, everyone who is not doing their part to understand and help dismantle systemic racism is simply a thread holding the fabric in place.
This is something that took me years to really grasp. When I came to college in 1994, I entered a majority White Ivy League institution. Having thankfully, perhaps startlingly, escaped racism in my childhood in England, which was followed by high school years in India, cloaked in a safety blanket of privilege and sameness, even though I had shed the naiveté of the myth of Axel Foley, I still hoped that Rodney King was an anomaly. My closest friends at college were four Black women who sensibly, patiently and above all generously gave me a crash course in racism and graciously allowed me to understand what it was like to live in their skins. They taught me that affirmative action and diversity, flashy buzz words during the corporate recruiting process of the nineties, were often no more than tokenism and that White Americas were afforded an ease that Black Americans lacked simply by virtue of a system built on the history of the nation, a bright, shining, nation built, nonetheless, in large part on the backs of Black slaves. I was fortunate enough to take a class led by the formidable Black Philosopher Dr. Cornel West and dip my toe into the teachings of great Black minds from Malcolm X. to Toni Morrison.
The things I learned hit home in theory but not in practice until I moved to New York in 1998. Just a few months later, a twenty-three-year-old Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo was shot and killed outside his apartment by four New York City plain-clothed police officers who mistakenly assumed he was reaching for a gun when he was simply reaching for his wallet. They fired forty-one shots. The idea that a White American might be shot while reaching for their wallet seemed absurd and stung in the face of this reality.
On a micro level, I saw racism affect Black friends outside the walls of the Ivory tower, where I could tell myself nepotism and elitism, not racism, were at play. In fact, the two are inextricably linked in a system of banks, corporate ladders and closed doors that keep Black people poorer. It took time to digest my shock and embarrassment at repeatedly having to hail a cab for a male, Black friend from college, reduced to the stereotype of the ‘large Black man’, as cabs, mostly driven by South Asians (my ‘people’) wouldn’t stop for him. I heard people absorb Black music as they complained about Black people making noise and taking up space. I watched my friends straighten their hair and chop off their dreads, one of many toll payments to be on the accepted American economic highway. I saw that I could not compare racism in America to the hangover of colonialism in India because it is something deeper and more ingrained more similar to the caste and class system that keeps people in India in unequal positions of opportunity and power. I realized that even this didn’t account for the economic reverberations of emancipation without reparations. I learned that racism is pervasive and rooted. Twenty years later, I’m still learning.
That Americans of every race and demographic showed a mass mobilization around anti-Black racism in the days and weeks following Floyd’s death is unquestionable. By mid-June over one hundred and seventy cities in America had held protests, with thousands of people, in a scale not seen in decades. The protests have been buoyed by marches, held in solidarity, around the world and most remarkably have already resulted in changes to policing norms that had not shifted for years. The anger, brewing and boiling over for centuries, is widely seen to be justified. The sentiment which one young activist, Kimberly Latrice Jones summed up in a viral video, that Black Americans are ‘looking for equality and not revenge’, seems to have come at a time when the penny has finally dropped.
In many larger cities where mostly peaceful protests were accompanied by instances of violence and looting, leaders heard the protestors and resisted conflating the two. New York City’s Mayor Di Blasio announced a curfew when violence erupted and initially asked the police to take a firm stance. In the ensuing days the protests only grew until the police appeared to soften their stance and the Mayor, who has a lackluster record on police reform, pledged to cut the police budget, increase spending on social services and repeal a long-standing law that kept officers’ records confidential. Later he announced disbanding the plain-clothes police units that patrol majority Black communities and stoke an atmosphere of fear. Similarly, other cities and states, including protest hubs of LA, Minneapolis, Houston, Atlanta, Seattle, Washington D.C, and Boston, made and continue to make, major changes such as banning the use of police chokeholds, decreasing police funding that contributes to the increased militarization of forces and diverting spending to programs that help communities of color.
In an ostensible awakening unlike anything that had happened or rather failed to happen in the wake of previous police killings, the furor after George Floyd sparked promises of a shift from a slew of corporations including those that had been resistant to change in the past. While I put little stock in the email after email I received from seemingly every corporation, organization or store that I had interacted from Banana Republic (who also needs a name change), to the YMCA, to my local grocery story, assuring me of their commitment to Black life, I was encouraged by other swift public actions and statements which albeit grand gestures are steps in the right direction.
NASCAR banned the Confederate battle flag (a symbol for many of those who supported slavery) after their only Black racecar driver, Darrell (Bubba) Wallace Jr, made calls to do so. Confederate monuments in many cities are being removed by governing bodies where they are not being actively torn down by citizen protestors. A wave of American companies including giants such as Nike and Twitter made Juneteenth (June 19th), a day which celebrates the end of slavery in America, an official paid holiday. Others such as Facebook designated the day as a day of learning about Black history and culture. The National Football League, the most powerful body in American sports, publicly apologized for its previous failure to support Black athletes who protested oppression by taking a knee when the national anthem was played at games. Powerful leaders at organizations from magazine Bon Appétit to Crossfit gyms were forced to resign over racist statements. Companies including behemoths like Apple, Comcast, Walmart and Twitter announced pledges in the tens of millions of dollars to combat systemic racism.
What is most striking, even if overdue, is the aha moment that has come for many individuals, particularly White Americans, who are grasping more comprehensively, the insidious nature of racism and privilege. Even as people debated whether posting a black square on Instagram really meant anything, for many it was a real sign that they were doing the work behind it – reading to understand the nature and history of racism, giving to organizations that seek to address it, having hard conversations with their children, partners and family members about it, supporting Black-owned enterprises, consuming Black artists and reforming their businesses to align with racial equity. For proof that at least liberal-minded people across the nation are thinking about how to dismantle racism and recognizing that to ask their Black friends or colleagues for a primer only adds to an already heavy burden, look no further than the top ten non-fiction books on the New York Times bestseller list. As of June 21, every title deals with race. The top three titles, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, are more than a sign of the times. They are a sign that a country in denial of her division along racial lines is having the equivalent of a break-through in a therapy session. In a marker that here lies the kernel of a shift in collective consciousness, the Merriam Webster dictionary is revising its definition of racism to reflect its systemic nature; that it is not prejudice alone but prejudice backed by social and institutional power.
It would be pleasant but complacent to believe that this moment then is an enduring sea change in the hearts and minds of all Americans. The data points in that direction with several polls showing that there has been a major shift in the past two years, most markedly in the recent weeks since George Floyd, suggesting that the majority of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement, believe that racism is a significant problem and that police are more likely to use deadly force against Black Americans. In a show of real unity, early data shows that protestors in cities like New York and LA have been over fifty percent White and that across the board White Americans have shown unprecedented support. Moreover, younger generations are increasingly diverse and coming out in huge numbers. While those pushing for change are a large, unified and mixed demographic that those in power cannot ignore, many conservatives are steadfast in their beliefs to the contrary. Conservative commentators such as Terrence K. Williams or Ben Shapiro or right-wing activists such as Candace Owens have all had anti-Black Lives Matter posts go viral in the last few weeks, in some cases being viewed tens of millions of times.
Considering the ‘why now?’ of this moment presents a confluence of factors that have come together to bring about protest and change in size and scale but may not retain momentum over time. In many ways the same pandemic that was keeping everyone at home also provides the ideal environment for protest. Thousands of people are home from work and have spent weeks making basic sacrifices to protect elderly parents or immunocompromised family members, driving them to think about prioritizing human connection. Many have had experiences of loss that might allow them to feel the ever-present trauma of Black families more plainly. Even those that haven’t have realized that it is disproportionately Black lives who provide essential services in supermarket check-out lines or nursing services. Moreover, the Trump-effect cannot be overstated. Local leaders have sought to oppose a President who stokes racial division. It was after Trump had the National Guard reign in protestors around the White House and began tweeting at mayors to ‘take back your cities’ that many local leaders across the U.S. distanced themselves further by showing stronger support for protestors. For many Americans, having a leader who has made racist remarks and frequently crosses the line on issues of race, provides a flashpoint urging them to push back where they may previously have been complacent around anti-Black racism or disbelieving of its prevalence.
In addition, America may be feeling a burden of proof. Just a few days prior to the killing of George Floyd, a White woman, Amy Cooper, was caught on video in Central Park by a Black man, Christian Cooper (no relation). He was bird watching and asked her to put a leash on her dog (required by law). The woman reacted by threatening to call and then calling the police, telling the 911 operator that an African American man was threatening her life. Eventually, she leashed her dog and both people had left the site by the time the police arrived. If Floyd’s death is anything to go by, this kind of call could have had a very ugly outcome. Any Cooper is college-educated, held a prominent position at a financial firm (she has since been fired) and lives on New York’s Upper Westside, a bastion of intellectual liberalism. For many, this smaller-in-scale incident was the pointed example that showed that anti-Black racism exists everywhere, even whilst birdwatching and that White privilege can be and is easily trotted out. It put the onus on many Whites to show that even if racist actions are unthinkable to them, they must grapple with and outwardly condemn them. It remains to be seen how long people whose very lives don’t depend on it, will continue to make this their fight.
In the end, protest fatigue is bound to set in for the majority. The near or even medium-term momentum of a pandemic or a Trump backlash won’t last long enough to outlive the long history of racial division. The NFL may have apologized but Colin Kaepernick (the quarterback who began taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016 and was subsequently shunned by the league) still doesn’t have a job in American football. Just days after speaking out about the Confederate flag, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace found a noose in his garage. Even in the few weeks since George Floyd’s death, one more Black man, Rayshard Brooks, was killed after a struggle with police in Atlanta. Old videos continue to surface such as that of Elijah McClain who died in police custody last year after he was arrested for simply looking suspicious while he was walking with a spring in his step and 2020 will not pass without new unwarranted deaths. As bad apple, police officers are charged more swiftly, it remains to be seen if they will be acquitted less easily.
Lasting change is going to require a follow-through and a lifetime commitment. This means consistently making decisions that dismantle systemic racism whether it is decisions about where we work, who we hire, who we purchase from and who we vote for. It means appreciating that the path towards a more racially just society involves a near-constant reckoning and learning that is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it a passive process – whether it is going out into the street, having difficult conversations at home or plunging into a revisionist history of America that gives equal weight to the emancipation of slaves as to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 where hundreds died as Black-owned businesses were burned to the ground and the issue of reparations. It means recognizing that we only have a right to expect the same justice from society that we allow for its most disenfranchised members. The burden is on everyone and specifically on the most privileged amongst us as the others bear too much of the burden as soon as they are born.
As America begins the work of re-writing history on the streets, Hollywood is already re-imagining it on the screen. With the exception of The Wire, Hollywood has been awash with TV shows that valorize the police. In the aftermath of Floyd, two ‘reality’ TV shows were canceled, recognizing their farcicality when citizen journalism was telling a different story. Outside of news and sports, Live PD was the number one show on U.S. cable and Cops was the longest-running, having first aired in 1989. In the aftermath of Rodney King, these shows developed as a facelift of sorts for police departments. Right now, there is no facelift that will do, the mask has come undone entirely. There is nothing left but to overhaul storytelling through new representation in writer’s rooms, different faces on screens and by being true to existing racial dynamics. As Hollywood pauses to fashion new American models and ideals, Gone With the Wind, the highest-grossing film in American history, was amongst the films ushered off screens. It returned with an introduction that provides historical context for the story and its romanticizing of the antebellum South, particularly the Oscar-winning depiction of Mammy, a slave who, in a lasting echo of America’s denial, is portrayed as perfectly happy with her lot in life. Off-screen, Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, sat at a segregated table during the 1940 awards ceremony.
Life is not the movies. We cannot similarly update our hard drives and reboot to come back all anti-racists, but we can walk away from the myths of Mammy, of Axel Foley, of police procedurals and post-racial politics and of an America that exemplifies freedom and come back to the table ready to really work towards it. We can dismantle the American myth to build something true.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani