Saturday, September 29, 2007

L.W.B.=Living While Black: Updated

"How long will humanity persist in its waywardness? How long will injustice continue? How long is chaos and confusion to reign amongst men? How long will discord agitate the face of society?... The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divideth and afflicteth the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 216)


Some of you have probably heard of the phenomenon known as "driving while black". Like the anguished phrase "suicide bomber" it has become another entry into the 21st century lexicon of a world gone seriously wrong. Basically, it's the tendency of police to pull over vehicles being driven by blacks on the chance that they might catch us doing something we aren't supposed to do. People call this racial profiling, which in some circles has become a four-letter word. I had this experience once several years ago. I was going home from a gospel choir rehearsal in one of those parts of the city usually referred to as bad (translation, large numbers of non-whites live there) when I notice a police cruiser approaching. I always have the same feeling when I see one, my stomach turns into a knot of anxiety. I say a little prayer that they leave me alone. On this night, the answer to my prayer appeared to be "no". The lights flashed and I pulled over. Shortly thereafter I had a bright flashlight beam right in my eyes. Apparently the officer had noticed I had a Connecticut license plate. I thought, did Connecticut declare war on Massachusetts or something? Why did it matter whether or not I had a Connecticut license plate? I asked what the problem was. He didn't answer and asked for my license and registration, all the while with that flashlight searching, searching all around my car. He asked me what I was doing in Boston. I replied "I came here for school." He asked me what happened. I replied "I graduated." I had a moment of crystal clear realization while this was happening, it didn't matter that I was middle class, didn't matter that I had graduated from Harvard, didn't matter that I had no criminal record, didn't matter that I was a Baha'i. All that mattered was that he had a gun and I did not. He could do whatever he wanted and make up some story and probably would be believed. I decided in that moment that getting out of this situation intact was more important than my pride. I gave him what he asked for and waited patiently. He returned and sent me on my way without incident.

In 21st century American race theater, this kind of drama gets played out day after day, night after night with varying degrees of tragic endings. But you don't have to be driving a car or even own a car to be reminded that race still matters in America. You just have to be living while black. I've been reading all kinds of social science that makes this point quite clear, but I'll just share one story with you to illustrate what I'm talking about. One of the things I've gotten interested in recently is racial and ethnic disparities when it comes to health. Here's a little something from the LA Times:

"Statistically, black males in America are at increased risk for just about every health problem known. African Americans have a shorter life expectancy than any other racial group in America except Native Americans, and black men fare even worse than black women. Some of it can be chalked up to poverty, the most powerful determinant of health, or to lifestyle factors. But even when all those factors are accounted for in studies, the gap stubbornly persists. Now researchers are beginning to examine discrimination itself. Racism, more than race, may be cutting black men down before their time. It is possible, they believe, that the ill health and premature deaths can be laid -- at least in part -- at the feet of continuous assaults of discrimination, real or perceived. "We have always thought of race-based discrimination as producing a kind of attitude," says Vickie Mays, psychologist and director of the UCLA Center on Research, Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities. "Now we think we have sufficient information to say that it's more than just affecting your attitude. A person experiences it, has a response, and the response brings about a physiological reaction." The reaction contributes to a chain of biological events known as the stress response, which can put people at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and infectious disease, says Namdi Barnes, a researcher with the UCLA center. That protective response includes the release of cortisol, often called the stress hormone. It increases blood pressure and blood sugar levels and suppresses the immune system. Those are all good things when it comes to fleeing a wild beast or a suspicious sound in a dark parking lot. But for many African Americans, these responses may occur so frequently that they eventually result in a breakdown of the physiological system. "This whole phenomenon of cumulative biologic stress is real," says Nicole Lurie, director of the Rand Center for Population Health and Health Disparities." Read the whole thing here

Ironically I recently joked with someone that I didn't succumb to violence or stress related disease (the stats are just not on my side) I might actually live a long time. Then I read this article and it was hard to laugh about anymore. One of the things that amuses me in 21st century America is the chorus of voices who claim loudly that racism is no longer really a problem. Blacks should just get over it and take advantage of their "freedom" and acquire as much material wealth and social status as they can and then drop dead (this is the American way). This view is usually voiced by white Americans. This is my question, why should those who have suffered the least from the impact of racism, get to decide when it is over? It's like an abusive spouse getting to decide whether or not his/her behavior is abuse anymore. This is my suggestion, when there is no longer a negative correlation between a person's skin color and their quality of life, then we might be able to say with confidence that racism is no longer a problem. Until then, we have some work to do.

"If ye stay not the hand of the oppressor, if ye fail to safeguard the rights of the down-trodden, what right have ye then to vaunt yourselves among men? What is it of which ye can rightly boast? Is it on your food and your drink that ye pride yourselves, on the riches ye lay up in your treasuries, on the diversity and the cost of the ornaments with which ye deck yourselves? If true glory were to consist in the possession of such perishable things, then the earth on which ye walk must needs vaunt itself over you, because it supplieth you, and bestoweth upon you, these very things, by the decree of the Almighty. In its bowels are contained, according to what God hath ordained, all that ye possess. From it, as a sign of His mercy, ye derive your riches. Behold then your state, the thing in which ye glory! Would that ye could perceive it! Nay! By Him Who holdeth in His grasp the kingdom of the entire creation! Nowhere doth your true and abiding glory reside except in your firm adherence unto the precepts of God, your wholehearted observance of His laws, your resolution to see that they do not remain unenforced, and to pursue steadfastly the right course."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 252)

UPDATE: Orlando Patterson, a fellow Harvard man, weighs in on the Jailing of Black America