Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees… Again.
Several years ago I received a call at my workplace from the authorities.
My son and several of his friends had been caught on their school lunch hour stealing from the local Fred Meyers, which is a kind of one-stop discount grocery, hardware, home and garden store on the West Coast. They had each taken items to eat off the shelf, stood lookout for another while they scarfed them down in the aisles (they were not aware that the store had security cameras), and then left the store without paying. They didn’t make it a block before they were caught.
Once detained, some of the boys were cooperative and showed remorse; others taunted the authority figures at hand, offering flip answers to questions, refusing to give personal information, and threatening everyone over the age of eighteen in the room that his parents would have them fired for daring to detain the son of such a fine, upstanding taxpayer.
Now, it should be noted that none of these boys (my son included) stole out of necessity. Each had more than enough money to buy their own food for lunch; several had probably bought lunch from home that day. Nor were these thefts part of some grand long-term strategy, where they would save the lunch money given by their parents until they could afford a kilo of heroin, and from there build some kind of far-reaching black-market narcotics empire. No, they did what they did for the reason that most teenage boys break the law in some way at some point of their adolescence, be it shoplifting, lighting a joint, sneaking in a flask to a the football stands on a Friday night, going to a kegger, or defacing some public building with the name and logo of their favorite musical artist: They were bored, immature, invincible, and hoping to impress teenage girls.
When we parents arrived to pick up our boys, they were released into our custody with no charges or entries on their records. Each of us parents dealt with the crimes of our children in different ways: Some actually did threaten to sue everyone; some apologized on behalf of the families; some said nothing. One parent never bothered to show up, and so the authorities eventually just let that kid go. Later that evening in seven different households, various degrees punishments, warnings or apathy were distributed to each kid. We parents might have all been in the same boat, but we really were all over the map.
Well, almost all over the map.
You see, all of the boys who were caught were white.
Mind you, they all had the “gangstah” look, with hoodies, saggy pants, and tee-shirts pledging allegiance to Tupac, Method Man and the Notorious B.I.G. And not because they were “gangstahs” so much as they were normal upper-middle-class white teenage males, and that’s simply what kids in that demographic wear. They even drove to Fred Meyers in a beater with a obscenely nice stereo system that blared rap music. If their skin were marked by a different pigment, their crime and capture would have been a Geraldo Rivera wet dream, just waiting to be filmed and shown repeatedly on Fox & Friends as Gretchen, Steve and Brian all shook their heads and wondered aloud where my son’s father was. But despite their clothes and car, these boys were white. And because they were white, here’s a place on the map that not one of us parents went that day:
“Our sons could easily have been shot for doing what they had done.”
The general craziness that is The Big Story In Ferguson continues, and as it does we white people have managed to yet again do what we do whenever a news story reveals the depth of the racial divide in this county: We have made it a story all about white people.
How can the police detain reporters from news outlets we read and watch? Are our towns’ police forces overly militarized, and does that pose a threat to the citizens of those towns? (You know, the ones like Fargo, ND and Keene, NH, whose populations skew 92% white and 95% white, respectively.) What is the best way to deal with military surplus? Should police wear cameras, and if so, how much will this cost me? Is it more or less than the upkeep of the military freebies? Oh, and hey! We love talking about Rand Paul and Hilary Clinton — what do they have to say about it? And we also have a whole lot of friends who are looking to 2016 with a wink and a prayer riding on libertarians, Tea-Partiers, moderate Rs, and Christian Conservatives, so we should hurry and ask ourselves if Ferguson helps or hurts them. And lets not forget the real victims of the unrest, like that nice Chris Hayes fellow.
Since the first day or so, white America has gone out of its way to make the primary focus on the shooting of Michael Brown a conversation about What’s Wrong With the Police, the Militarization of the Police, or maybe A Killer Argument for Why Our Political Party Totally Rocks. And why all of those are valid subjects, they very much detract from where our primary focus should be: Yet another enormous, blaring data point that we’re by and large OK with gunning down African Americans for the pettiest of reasons.
It’s hard to remember the way things were back in the old days — prior to August 8, 2014 when we didn’t have Ferguson to obsess about. And why should we remember? All of it seems so immaterial now that we can talk about why Ferguson happened because of the police and not because of us. Now all of that talk about the war on white people, voter suppression of African Americans, and how we allow the incarceration of blacks because “they just commit more crimes” despite constant evidence that they don’t just seems like yesterday’s news.
Now, of course, we can talk about how the real underlying problem is really certain police forces and their absurdist GI Joe-esque gear, despite the fact that — and let’s be honest here — we all know that they aren’t going to use those on us. In the extremely unlikely scenario that someone calls the cops with an anonymous tip that one of my sons is dealing drugs, no SWAT team is showing up at my upper-middle class white home. In fact, I would bet you $20 they would never bothered to come by at all. Why waste all that time, when we know that if they do find drugs they’re going to let everyone off with a warning, a lecture, and an assurance to my wife and I that kids are kids and we really are doing a terrific job parenting overall?
And if you’re a liberal or leftist nodding along about the Fox News set, hold up: I’m talking about you too. And the libertarians. And the Independents. And myself. I’m talking about all of us — Southerners, Mid-westerners and Coastal Elites alike.
Consider: The week prior to Brown’s shooting, Stanford University released a study that looked at two linked experiments concerning white American’s attitudes toward the prison sentences of African Americans. And just to make sure I am being absolutely clear, I want to note that the results were for white Americans in general, not conservative whites or Southern whites. And the results of this study, which you may not have seen due to its incomprehensible non-viral-ness, is as horrifying as it is predictable:
[The Stanford study] suggests that highlighting racism in the criminal justice system is not the answer, and in fact pushes white voters in the opposite direction. Even when whites believe the current laws are too harsh, they’re less likely to support changing the law if they’re reminded that the current prison population is disproportionately black.
The sad truth of the matter is that the plight of black Americans is something that white America is fine with.
I thought about the Stanford study late Friday morning when I was driving listening to the Jim Villannucci show.
If you don’t live in Portland, Oregon (and if you’re reading this blog odds are you don’t), you probably have never heard of Jim Villanucci, but he may be the only radio talk show host in my city whose format is neither red-meat conservative nor sports. The best word I can think to describe him is milquetoast, and since he’s a talk radio host know that I mean that in a good way. I’ve listened to him off and on for two years, and I’ll be damned if I could tell you what his political affiliations are. I’ve never heard him be outraged, nor have I heard him stoke outrage in his listeners. It’s like someone dug up Andy Griffith’s corpse, reanimated it and put it in front of a radio microphone. In a radio-wave sea of conservative talking heads trying to out-crazy one another, he’s a sea of tranquility on the Portland talk airwaves — and so too, for the most part, are his call-in regulars.
On Friday, however, the topic for the entire show was Michael Brown’s death. It was the day after the video pics from the shoplifting had been released, and Villanucci was trying to have a town-hall-like conversation over what those pictures meant. What I heard my fellow Portlanders have to say on the matter made me pull over, take notes, and try to swallow the bile forcing its way up from my bowels.
One man called just to say that when dealing with people “like” Michal Brown, the police had to shoot them in the back. “People like that, you don’t know if they’re running away, or they’re running to get a piece of pipe to come back and get you with later, “ he said.
Another insisted that Michael Brown had it coming to him, and to make that story play better in his own head invented an entire imaginary Michael Brown to fill in the blank canvass that we actually have. “These people walk down the street all day yelling ‘Murder, Murder, Murder,’” he fumed. “When you do that, you’re asking for the police to shoot you.”
Another made a rather strange assumption that the root of black males misbehaving is different from the roots of white males doing the same. “How old were you when you knew that stealing was illegal,” that caller asked Villannucci. When the host replied he had no idea but that it was probably when he was five or six, the caller pounced. “Exactly. The problem is no one tells [African Americans] that things are against the law.”
But here’s the thing: Even these callers are an excuse that allows white people to ignore the problems Ferguson has highlighted. Because when I look back, I would argue that the scariest and most depressing part of my description of Villanucci’s show was this:
It was the day after the video pics from the shoplifting had been released, and Villanucci was trying to have a town-hall-like conversation over what those pictures meant.
Villannucci wasn’t alone in this. It was what all of white America was talking about — that one, singular story that broke the night before that got thrown on the burning embers of the Ferguson story.
Except, of course, that it wasn’t the one singular story that broke the night before. There was also this story, about the history of the white police who released that video footage. It was a story about racially-motivated brutality, and of the creation of trumped-up charges, the destruction of evidence, the falsified public documents, and the perjury that this same police force engaged in when they discovered they had arrested the wrong black man. (All of which, by the way, comes from court records.)
That is white America in a nutshell, at least where black America is concerned: A young unarmed black man is shot dead by the police, and the track record of racism by those same white police officers — or the Stanford study that had just been released — is a story we can’t be concerned to talk about for more than an hour, or really even bring up in our talk radio shows that we’re slavishly devoting to Ferguson, MO. But is it likely that young, unarmed Blackman once shoplifted? That we can talk about for hours on end, as we argue its degree of relevance..
Because tackling the findings of the Stanford study is hard — both the figuring out where to begin and the facing of truths about ourselves we don’t want to acknowledge. But finding a sin — any sin — in a random black man? Well…
Easy peasey lemon squeezy.
 Or at least what they were wearing several years ago. Now it appears that they all wear Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts and boat shoes with black socks pulled up all the way on their calves — which proves, I suppose, that if you wait long enough even the ugly-ass stuff your dad used to wear will come back into style.
 Note: Though I was taking notes, it is possible that my quotes are not 100% verbatim. I wanted to make sure that they were, but the third hour of the show is no longer on KXL’s website.
I actually wrote to the show to see why it had been taken down, and to ask if I could purchase a copy of the last hour. I got this response from Villanucci himself:
i need to ask jordon,
maybe it was really bad?
I have not heard from them since and have left a message for the producer Jordan. If I’m ever able to get a hold of that hour, I will correct the quotes as needed and post a link to the audio.
 And for the record, there was also the re-surfacing story that just last year the county police were forced to fire a Lieutenant after an investigation showed he was instructing his officers to target African Americans.