A White Girl Like You

Forgive me. I have not yet fully worked this all out. But Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes the prisoners headed to the Soviet Gulag as waves flowing underground. These waves “provided sewage disposal for the life flowering on the surface.” I understand this to mean that the gulag was not just mindless evil—was not just incomprehensible insanity—but served some sort of productive and knowable purpose.

Could it be that believing our police to be constantly under fire is not mysterious—that it serves some productive function, that society actually derives something from its peace officers engaged in forever war? And can we say that the function of the war here at home is not simply a response to violent crime (which has plunged) but to some other need? And knowing that identity is not simply defined by what we are, but what we are not, can it be that our police help give us identity, by branding one class of people as miscreants, outsiders, and thugs, and thus establishing some other class as upstanding, as citizens, as Americans? Does the feeling of being besieged serve some actual purpose?

Ta-Nehisi Coates


The SAT curriculum that I tutor recommends a handful of “academic” topics to research and write about for the essay portion of the test.  One of those topics is US internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  In the wake of 9/11, my grandmother – now a nonagenarian – defended the practice to me over dinner once, in DC.  No student of mine has ever broached a similar argument.  In their practice essays, with abstract, philosophical prompts culled from past exams, these high schoolers – invariably – press for a rational humanism (even if not so named), even – especially – during moments of fear or siege.  Theirs is the historical view, while to my grandmother the war, and the patriotism and fear it brought to her, were lived experiences, and we always seem to be so much more adept at moral decision-making when it is distant from our own lives.


Survey after survey shows that the majority of Americans believe violent crime to have increased in recent decades, even though the precise opposite is true – and dramatically, overwhelmingly, ridiculously true; beyond margins of error and statistical doubt, we are a safer society than we have ever been.  But trusting in one’s own safety remains a radical act.  It seems an instinctive reaction to assure one’s safety, with weaponry and body armor and legally endowed power of others.  But police, it turns out, are just as prone to disbelieving their own good fortune as the rest of us.


We are a fear-powered economy, in so many ways: the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the diet-industrial complex – the fear of physical imperfection is different from the fear of a malevolent Other but less so than we might imagine, rooted in the same imagined, reactive insufficiency.


“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin Roosevelt, nine years before he signed Executive Order 9066 and imprisoned tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans out of nothing more than unproven racist paranoia – the mythos of America’s salvific role in World War II has rooted most deeply in the European theater, in frankly absurd notions that the British would be speaking German today if not for our intervention (much more likely that their postwar imperial overlords would call Russian their mother tongue), but it was in the Pacific that our military victory was totalizing, though harder to romanticize against the blunt facts of internment and atomic bombs.


Our power is less moral than we would like to imagine it.  But it need not be so.


Richmond, California, is too small to make most lists of “most violent cities” in America, but on a per-capita basis it has historically outpaced my larger home of Oakland by a wide margin, and Oakland is the most violent large city west of the Mississippi.  Richmond made national headlines about five years ago for a particularly gruesome gang-rape case; it’s the headquarters of Chevron and when I need to reassure my mother that I don’t live in the worst part of town I tell her the story of when, in 2007, I was driving from Berkeley to San Rafael, which necessitates crossing the Richmond Bridge, a structure whose name derives from its eastern point.  It’s a toll bridge, and one exit away from the booths (well into the City of Richmond by that point) I realized I was two dollars short.  I pulled off to find a gas station ATM; perhaps it was 8 PM, maybe even 7:30, dark but not late, and I was well-attired from a day at a job new enough that I was still dressing to impress.  Two blocks from the freeway I found a gas station, stopped, walked to the ATM, found it broken.  In a contemplative pause I was approached by the attendant: What was I doing there, he wondered, curt?  I explained that I was short two dollars for the toll and he hurriedly bid me to follow him into the tiny station convenient store, opening the cash register and tossing me the money.


“Now get back on the freeway,” he said.  "A white girl like you shouldn’t be here after dark.“


Richmond has changed in recent years, in no small thanks to a police chief who rejects the politics of us-versus-them division.  It is still a challenging place, still economically depressed and essentially owned by Chevron, but crime rates have dropped dramatically and in contrast to Oakland – a safer city that periodically insists on lining its streets with riot police, with SWAT teams from across the state in shoulder-to-shoulder readiness just in case we civilians should rise –Richmond’s police have broken down long-standing hostility and regained community trust.


However Catholic or un-Catholic I remain today it was through the language of Christianity that I first encountered ideas of justice, redemption, and freedom.  Christ did not threaten the political order of Roman-ruled Jerusalem because of his soaring rhetoric or his public platform of moderate reform but because he rejected material possessions and his best friend was a prostitute, because radical love was not an idea he preached but one that he lived.  Contemporary America is wealthy in many things but perhaps none so rich as our paradoxes – that in our ever-increasing abundance we feel only more and more insecurity; that as we "protect” ourselves more and more dramatically we perceive greater and greater threats yet looming.  We defend freedom with torture and surveillance, and export democracy with hegemony.  We are purportedly a Christian nation but one terrified by both the radical and the loving.


These are not attitudes and practices that an individual can single-handedly change, except in themselves.  So let us start where we are and do the work that we can: let us free ourselves from fear, find refuge in the sufficiency of ourselves and others, and end the siege of our own hearts.


Let us send the waves of our liberated love aboveground, to flood the world.

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