Op-ed Submission: Ignoring Race & Trayvon Martin

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an op-ed piece I submitted. I discuss the importance of acknowledging the role race continues to play in American society in light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. It is the last article on the page.

Justice for Trayvon Martin: Yes, Race Still Matters

For some Americans, especially conservatives, the election of Barack Obama was proof that race no longer mattered. Sure, these same conservatives often conspired that Obama was not legally the president because he was not a real American, and his birth certificate was fake. They questioned if he was actually born in Kenya, which was such an absurd topic, yet one that Obama was required to address on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, the race problem was solved as evidenced by the election of a black president, according to many conservative pundits.

For those of us who realized the absurdity of white Republicans celebrating the end of racism, the murder and lack of immediate charges against George Zimmerman prove that racism continues to exist. Racism changes, as society does, and so racism is not the same today as it was in the 1960s, and advances have been made, but that does not mean the race problem is solved.

If Trayvon Martin was white, would George Zimmerman have been arrested? Certainly he would have. The police would not have believed that an unarmed white child attacked an armed man who was much larger than him, causing Zimmerman to shoot him out of “self-defense.” Zimmerman’s family has defended him saying that he is Hispanic and not racist. The fact that Zimmerman is Hispanic does not disprove the accusations that he is racist; Hispanics can be racist. Zimmerman saw a black kid in his upper teens in a hooded sweatshirt in his neighborhood and immediately reported him as “suspicious” and “up to no good.”  What was so suspicious about the kid? Would a white kid have had the police called on him for acting suspicious? I am white, and I have never had the police called on me for acting suspicious.

Zimmerman is not the Ku Klux Klan type of racist that burns crosses in black people’s yards if they enter their neighborhood. But Zimmerman craves authority and power and believes that he needs to police the neighborhood for himself, and he also believes it is suspicious if young black males are in the neighborhood. Race still matters in that Zimmerman’s reaction to seeing a young black male in his neighborhood is different than his reaction would have been if it was a young white male. Race still matters in the police’s reaction to seeing a dead black male on the ground was different than if it was a dead white male. The police would not have immediately believed Zimmerman’s account if the races were different, and Zimmerman would not have been immediately suspicious of Martin if he was not black.

The other unsettling aspect of the murder of Trayvon Martin is the legal challenge that the “Stand Your Guard” law poses in Florida. The law was first passed in Florida in 2005, and has since been passed in 16 other states. This law is what Zimmerman will cling to as his defense, and it allows one to use force if they feel threatened in a public situation without needing to flee. Unless there are key eyewitnesses to the murder to contradict the murderer’s account, the murderer can easily say they acted in self-defense, and then how do you convict the person? In 2010, the Tampa Bay Tribune found how often this law has been used as a defense in murder charges, and justifiable homicides were definitely up. If an unarmed kid can be chased and then shot and killed, and yet the child is considered the provocateur by the police since they had nothing to contradict the murderer’s story, it shows how flawed the law is. It becomes extremely difficult to prosecute a murderer without key eyewitnesses because how can the jury be convinced that the killer was not acting out of self-defense if no one saw it? It opens a slippery slope of how one defines self-defense then. Hypothetically, one could harass someone at a park, follow them around, spit on them, push them, and refuse to leave them alone, then once the person has had enough of the harassment and fights back, the provocateur could shoot and kill the person and then simply claim self-defense to the police. People need to be required to attempt to flee what they perceive as a threatening scene instead of provoking them if they are going to claim self-defense. But the “Stand Your Ground” law does not require this and it sets up the potential for these violent incidents. Clearly Florida needs to revise their gun laws, as well as the other 16 states to have since passed them.

The tragic murder of Trayvon Martin is so unfortunate that one has to feel horrible for him and his poor family and friends. The only way that any good can come out of this killing is if it sparks a much needed renewed conversation about race in the United States and it also makes states reconsider these “Stand Your Ground” laws. Both of these issues need to be addressed, and hopefully this tragedy can make Americans reconsider these topics. In addition, Watch Groups need to have careful guidelines of what they follow. Watch Groups are not meant to be police officers without a badge or training. They should not be trying to enforce the laws themselves, but to watch for laws being broken, and then call the police to take action without getting involved themselves. Trayvon Martin will never get his life back, but we can at least learn something from his unfortunate murder by taking action and learning lessons from it.

Reconsidering Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 Campaign

(Update: Since originally writing this, I have also come across this: Ugandans are suspicious of the video as well. If you took the time to watch the 30 minute Kony 2012 video, you need to also watch this 6 minute response, which is a brilliant critique that makes many of the same points I attempted to make, but more eloquently and better informed.)

If you are on Facebook or Twitter, you probably have seen someone post the “Stop Kony 2012” video by now. At the time of writing this, the official video has almost 39 million views on YouTube, and #StopKony has been trending on Twitter for the past couple days. If you bothered to watch the video, you will see a well directed 30 minute video by a not-for-profit organization called Invisible Children demanding the arrest of a Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony, who is accused of using children as soldiers and raping women. The directors requested everyone share the video on social media sites, in particular targeting celebrities and policy makers, and as a result the video has gone viral. While Joseph Kony deserves to be arrested, this organization and its method also deserves to be scrutinized.

Several other blogs have raised criticism of the Invisible Children organization, and I encourage you to read them (1, 2, 3, 4). Many point out the poor financial record of Invisible Children, which only provides 32% of its donations to the active cause. Certainly there are better not-for-profit organizations that one could donate to if they want to make a difference in central Africa. The video and its directors deserve further criticism though. I am not an expert on Uganda, Joseph Kony, or central Africa, but the fact that I felt just as comfortable talking about the situation before watching the video than I did after watching it raises serious concerns about its educational value. True, the video raised my awareness of Kony, and as an interested person, I will research it for myself, but the majority of viewers will not do the same, and therefore will learn little from the increased awareness of Kony.

What exactly does wearing “Kony 2012” bracelets and hanging up posters do to solve the conflict in central Africa? There is a difference between bringing awareness to the serious issues in Africa and making it a trendy movement that will fade away as soon as 2012 ends or Kony is captured. The film does not explore the roots of the problem or how large the problems are in Africa. Kony is not the only African warlord, and if he is captured the problem is not solved as another one will simply replace him. Yet the video presents it as a single issue that Kony needs to be stopped, and that is the solution to the problems in central Africa. It simplifies the problem to such an extent that the viewer learns little from it, and hence there is no educational value to it. Nothing is mentioned about the diversity of Uganda, which contains many different ethnic groups without any one being the majority. Nor is anything mentioned about Uganda’s colonial past, which continues to shape the country which only gained its independence fifty years ago. When a country consisting of such a diverse population gains its independence, wars between different ethnic groups are not uncommon. Invisible Children seems to ally itself with the Ugandan government against Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but the Ugandan government is not free from human rights abuses itself. The Ugandan government has considered passing an Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would punish those convicted of homosexual acts with the death penalty. Is this the government that an organization for peace should be allying itself with? Arresting Kony certainly will not improve the government’s human rights record. To understand the problems in Uganda or central Africa, one has to know at least a little about the background of the country or the region. In fact, the viewer learns more about the director and narrator’s five year old son, who is vital to the video, than anyone else, including Kony.

The fact that the narrator and his son play such a major role in the video romanticizes their role in an uncomfortable way reminiscent of the White Man’s Burden. I do not believe the narrator had bad intentions while making the video, and I believe he thinks his organization is truly helping, but the fact that he can create a video with his five year old son pointing to a picture of Kony as saying he’s “the bad guy” that needs to be stopped without recognizing the inherent cultural imperialism behind it demonstrates how clueless the organization is. The idea of the White Man’s Burden is that it is whites noble mission to uplift other “uncivilized” races. It makes me very uncomfortable to watch a video where a white narrator talks to and about his son and how he wants to raise him in a world where (black) children in other countries are not forced to serve in a military. His plan to make sure his son does not grow up in such a world is simply to make videos such as this one, have people share them, spread “Kony 2012” posters and bracelets, and press lawmakers to make sure Kony is arrested. White Americans need to realize that the best way to help solve a conflict in Africa is not to make it into movement using social media. If people want to become true activists and raise awareness of complex issues, they need to first fully understand them themselves (which I do not, nor do I claim to) and second they need to educate others so they understand the problems at hand.

Instead of a video about “Kony 2012” that ignores the complexities of the problem and focuses on his (white) five year old son, the narrator would be better suited to make a video about the war torn region and poverty in it that educates the viewer instead of telling the viewer it is our duty to rescue them.

Shame on you, Georgia.

There is no excuse, none, for a state to kill someone when there is ANY reasonable doubt whether he committed the crime. You have blood on your hands tonight.

Rest in peace, Troy Davis. I hope you didn’t commit the crime that you were accused of, and I hope your death represents a change in the U.S.’s idea to execute people. Maybe then your death won’t be for nothing.

Georgia, do not execute Troy Davis

I do not know all the details of the Troy Davis case, nor do I — or anyone else besides him and whoever is responsible — know if he is guilty or not. But there is beyond enough evidence to question whether Davis committed the murder, and therefore, the state should not take someone’s life in its own hands. With no physical evidence available, no DNA, and nothing but witnesses who later recanted their testimony, Georgia — and the nation as a whole — cannot justify taking a man’s life. Casey Anthony got away with killing her daughter because there was not enough physical evidence that tied her to the crime, so the prosecutors were unable to prove her guilt without a reasonable doubt, even though everyone knows she is responsible for the child’s death. But barring a miracle, in a few hours, the state of Georgia will execute a man who very well may not be guilty. Again, I do not know if he is guilty, but neither does anyone else because the case is based on such flimsy evidence, which means the state should have the moral high ground to allow the man to survive.

It’s simple, Tea Party: want to reduce the deficit? Tax the rich!

While the Republicans and the Tea Party insist on reducing the deficit, they refuse the most logical solution to reducing the deficit: raising taxes on those who can most afford it. The GOP’s strategy is simply irrational and mind-boggling. Never has a minority party been so hard headed and reluctant to compromise on an obvious solution to the problems that they are emphasizing.

The Republicans and Tea Party are the ones making such a major deal out of the budget deficit, and while it is a concern, it is far from the catastrophic problem that the Republicans are pushing the U.S. towards. During a significant economic recession, the solution — as history has shown — is not to slash all spending, but to spend more to create jobs and wealth, which raises more revenue for the government. In addition, the idea that what the U.S. needs to do reduce the deficit is simply cut these “entitlement” programs without raising taxes is absurd! Whether its a family or the federal government, the most obvious solution to reduce debt is to increase revenue.

Nevertheless, when President Barack Obama proposes a tax increase on the wealthiest class, the so called “Buffett Tax”, which simply asks millionaires to pay at least as much as the middle class in taxes, House Speaker John Boehner (Republican) rejects it, saying the only acceptable way to reduce the deficit is to cut entitlement programs. During a severe economic recession, when many Americans are unemployed, why is unacceptable to raise on the most wealthy of Americans? Does anyone truly believe it will hurt the economy if taxes are raised on the wealthy? Why does the Tea Party have so much support? By far the majority of Tea Party supporters would benefit rather than be hindered by a tax increase on the most wealthy, yet they — and the politicians they support — refuse to negotiate on it. The U.S. has performed a lot of irrational policies in its history, but the Tea Party’s stranglehold on the government and the economy is perhaps the most unusual in that it benefits almost none of its supporters.

Studies have shown that “racial resent” is one of the most consistent and popular beliefs among Tea Party supporters, which makes one wonder: are the Tea Party supporters working against their and the nation’s overall benefit for the simple fact that they insist on fighting tooth and nail to a black president, regardless of what he proposes? I am willing to hear other explanations, but I cannot think of a rational reason why Tea Party supporters, who the majority of them are not millionaires, would object to raising the taxes on millionaires so they are at least equal to the taxes on the middle class? If the Tea Party insists on the reduced deficit, it’s completely irrational to think that they would object to a tax raise on millionaires who are paying less in taxes than the middle class!

If any Tea Party supporters read this, please comment and explain to me your logic behind this. I cannot understand your rationale.

Ballad of a Dead Soulja: Remembering 2Pac

And still I see no changes. Can’t a brother get a little peace?
There’s war on the streets & the war in the Middle East.
Instead of war on poverty,
they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.

– 2Pac – “Changes”

Fifteen years ago today (9/13/2011), Tupac Amaru Shakur — 2Pac aka Makaveli — died after being gunned down in Las Vegas. The talented rapper was criticized by politicians, in particular by Dan Quayle who led protests against his first album 2Pacalypse Now (1991) and suggested it “had no place in America.” 2Pac earned a reputation as one of the early “gangsta rappers” and his sound came to symbolize West Coast hip-hop at a time when a violent West Coast vs. East Coast feud emerged in hip-hop. As a result, many who have not listened to 2Pac — and even some who have — fail to understand the complexity and depth of his lyrics and intellect. Beyond just a gangsta rapper, 2Pac was a poet with a strong political and social conscience, which now days you will only hear from underground rappers (such as Dead Prez, A-Alikes, and Immortal Technique).

A few months ago, I gave a guest lecture at a local university on a class about “Race and Music”, and my lecture focused on politics in hip-hop, and one of my goals was to emphasize to the students that there is a difference between glorifying the gangsta life and narrating it as a social problem. While Tupac ended up having some songs that celebrated the gangsta life in his later music, which likely had more to do with his association with Suge Knight than his own lifestyle, his early music focused on social and political issues, and this progressive message continued to influence much of his later music as well. Anyway, to show this class an example of narrating the gangsta life instead of celebrating it, I played the song “Soulja’s Story” from his first album (again, from 1991), which is a song that drew the ire of Dan Quayle.

“Soulja’s Story” is a brilliant song that needs to be listened to while following along with the lyrics to appreciate it, which is what I made this class do. I will analyze the song here, so I will also provide the lyrics, but feel free to just read my analysis instead of the lyrics if you just want the synopsis. The song has two characters, both played by Tupac: Tupac (the person) as 2Pac (the rapper) and Tupac as Soulja (a fictional character with a deeper voice who Tupac uses in a few songs). It starts off with 2Pac softly repeating what is the chorus of the song in the background:

All you wanted to be, a soulja, a soulja
All you wanted to be, a soulja, like me
All you wanted to be, a soulja, a soulja
All you wanted to be, a soulja, like me

Then Soulja speaks over 2Pac with some sound political and social advice:

They cuttin off welfare..
They think crime is risin now
You got whites killin blacks,
cops killin blacks, and blacks killin blacks
Sh*t just gon’ get worse
They just gon’ become souljas
Straight souljas

Tupac, as Soulja, is emphasizing that cutting welfare will only lead to more social ills because the poor blacks, who depend on it due to their low income, will increasingly turn to crime without it. This introduction also reveals what Tupac means by “soulja”: a “gangsta” who turns to crime as a result of the social ills affecting the black community.

This concludes the intro to the song, but then Soulja (again, remember this is still Tupac with a deeper voice) begins the first verse. Here Tupac provides the story of Soulja’s life:

Crack done took a part of my family tree
My mom is on the sh*t, my daddy’s splittin, mom is steady blamin me
Is it my fault, just cause I’m a young black male?
Cops sweat me as if my destiny is makin crack sales
Only fifteen and got problems
Cops on my tail, so I bail til I dodge ’em
They finally pull me over and I laugh
“Remember Rodney King?” and I blast on his punk ass
Now I got a murder case..
.. you speak of heaven punk? I never heard of the place
Wanted to come up fast, got a Uz and a black mask
Duckin f*ckin ‘Task’, now who’s the jack-ass?
Keep my sh*t cocked, cause the cops got a glock too
What the f*ck would you do – drop them or let ’em drop you?
I chose droppin the cop
I got me a glock, and a glock for the n*ggaz on my block
Momma tried to stab me, I moved out
Sold a pound a weed, made G’s, bought a new house
I’m only seventeen, I’m the new kid
Got me a crew, bought ’em jewels, and a Uz’-thick
But all good things don’t last
‘Task’ came fast, and busted my black ass
Coolin in the pen, where the good’s kept
Now my little brother wants to follow in my footsteps
A soulja

Soulja has significant problems at home: his mom is a crack addict and his dad stranded the family, while his mom blames him for the problems. As a young teen (15), he is already being harassed by the cops for being black — as if his “destiny is makin crack sales” — even though he still seems innocent, but these problems at home led him to try gain independence and make a living for himself. As a result of domestic problems and the need for independence, by the time Soulja is 17 he turns to crime (“Momma tried to stab me, I moved out / Sold a pound of weed, made G’s, bought a new house / I’m only seventeen, I’m the new kid /Got me a crew, bought ’em jewels, and a Uz’-thick”). Now that Soulja has adopted the gangsta lifestyle with jewels, money, guns, and drugs, he’s even more of a target by the cops. When he finally gets pulled over, knowing that he is in possession of illegal goods while also the beating of Rodney King is fresh in his memory, Soulja fears for his life and shoots the cop. Of course, I am not defending anyone who kills a cop, nor was Tupac, but he’s discussing the socio-economic and political realities behind why it may happen instead of just accusing the murderer as a no-good thug with no motive. Too often, society focuses on the crimes — which are certainly unforgivable — without considering the causes of the crimes, which also need to be addressed to prevent further instances of them. Tupac clearly realized this and agreed with assessment based on his line early in the intro “they cuttin off welfare / they think crime rising now? / … sh*t just gon get worse.” Returning to the narrative, Soulja was arrested for murdering the cop shortly after, and he’s now in prison. Unfortunately, his little brother looks up to him (having no male head of the household, and his mom is a crack addict, who else would he look up to?), and wants to “follow in his footsteps.”

This ends the first verse, and the chorus that began the song repeats. Then the second verse comes from 2Pac’s perspective (in this song, 2Pac raps as Soulja’s younger brother):

Buck, buck – n*ggaz get f*cked, don’t step to this
Quiet as kept I’m blessed on a quest with a death wish
Tell ’em to come and test, and arrest, n*gga it’s hectic
Here’s the anorexic, I’m makin it to an exit
Walkin through the streets on the black tip
Packed with several gats, cause I’m on some “pay ’em back” sh*t
N*ggaz don’t wanna try me, brother you’ll get shot down
Now I’m king of the block, since my bigger brother’s locked down
I’m hot now, so many punk police have got shot down
Other coppers see me on the block, and they jock now
That’s what I call a kingpin
Send my brother what he needs and some weed up to Sing-Sing
Tellin him just be ready set
Pack ya sh*t up quick; and when I hit, be prepared to jet
N*ggaz from the block on the boat now
Every single one got a gun, that’ll smoke – pow!
These punks about to get hit by the best
I’m wearin double vest.. so aim at my f*ckin chest
I’ll be makin straight dome calls
Touch the button on the wall, you’ll be pickin up your own balls
I can still hear my mother shout..
“Hit the pig n*gga, break your bigger brother out”
I got a message for the warden
I’m comin for ya ass, as fast as Flash Gorden
We get surrounded in the mess hall, yes y’all
A crazy motherf*cker makin death calls
Just bring me my brother and we leavin
For every minute you stall, one of y’all bleedin..
They brought my brother in a jiffy
I took a cop, just in case things got tricky
And just as we was walkin out (BANG!)
I caught a bullet in the head, the screams never left my mouth
My brother caught a bullet too
I think he gon’ pull through, he deserve to
The fast life ain’t everything they told ya
Never get much older, following the tracks of a soulja

As Soulja’s little brother, 2Pac raps in a much angrier and more aggressive style, wanting to get revenge for his older brother. Soulja made clear in the previous verse that his younger brother wanted to follow in his footsteps, so 2Pac picks up as Soulja’s little brother looking to resume the gangsta life that his older brother got imprisoned for. While Soulja seemed more socially conscious of what he was doing, 2Pac’s verse expresses more of an act of revenge to try to make up for what happened to his older brother. So he, with the encouragement of his mother, attempts to break his brother out of prison. While he initially got his brother, as they were leaving the prison, they both got shot; 2Pac got shot in the head, and seemingly died, while his brother also got shot, but seems like he will make it. But for anyone who thinks Tupac is glorifying gangsta lifestyle here, the last two lines make it clear: “The fast life ain’t everything they told ya / Never get much older, following the tracks of a soulja.” Basically, the “fast life” (fast way to riches through crime — the gangsta lifestyle) is not what it is made out to be; it ends up leading to prison or death, hence it is not worth it. Yet, while Tupac warns against it, he acknowledges the causes of it, and it’s due to the social ills in society that primarily affect African Americans.

As I mentioned, I played this song for a class where I was giving a guest lecture on politics in hip-hop, and I had them follow along with the lyrics as I played it. I was surprised by how well they interpreted the lyrics when I played it. They understood the complexity of it and the social and political story that Tupac was telling through these two characters. Yet, this is the song that drew condemnation from Dan Quayle for saying this song had no place in American society. If you actually listen to the lyrics and understand the song, it is just commentary on current events in society, especially in the African American community.

15 years after 2Pac’s death, no mainstream rapper has come close to replicating his revolutionary message. In this post, I just broke down one song, which was from his first album, but there are many more 2Pac songs that can be analyzed in a similar way. 2Pac was a revolutionary poet and musician, who, despite accusations from the media and politicians that he was a mere “gangsta rapper,” had a lot to say and to learn from. For the future of hip-hop, I can only hope more artists embrace this radical message that seeks change in society instead of the majority of the hip-hop artists we are stuck with now who simply glorify the gangsta lifestyle instead of breaking it down and recognizing its causes and flaws. Unfortunately, the radio does not play the politicized artists, and we are stuck with artists who celebrate a damning lifestyle built on selling crack and “pimping hoes.”

America needs another Tupac, and hip-hop needs another 2Pac. We can only hope for the emergence of another “soulja” to reach the masses.