If you ignore the tropical humidity, you can almost feel the arrival of autumn. The sun is setting earlier and earlier, the streets are filled with the blare of football from every TV set, and the air is ripe with talk of … white supremacy?
OK, the national conversation about race and racism is always simmering, but not since the 1960s has that debate boiled over with such intensity as the last few weeks, a Pandora's box of American fear and loathing that was hurled wide open the moment President Trump raised his right hand on January 20, 2017. The stunning sight of scores of pale-faced Neanderthals, not hiding their faces in KKK hoods but illuminating them with their tiki torches from the outdoor patio section at Lowe's and marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, was the start of a downward spiral made worse by Trump denying three times that their neo-Nazism is the core of the problem.
Now comes the backlash, as ESPN commentator Jemele Hill finds herself in the center of a firestorm for gazing into the president's moral vacancy and concluding that our president is "a white supremacist," while mostly white NFL fans vent their rage at now-unsigned quarterback Colin Kaepernick for protesting racial and social injustice during the National Anthem. Meanwhile, the writer and public intellectual Ta-Nihesi Coates has caused a stir with a major piece calling Trump "the first white president," who defines himself not by his policies so much as by the fact he is not black like the guy before him.
What's happening to ESPN's Hill is a remarkable microcosm of the sorry state of American discourse. On two consecutive days, the chief spokeswoman of the executive branch of the U.S. government stood at the White House podium to urge a private employer to fire a citizen for criticizing the president — one of the most breathtaking abuses of the First Amendment that I've witnessed in my lifetime. But politically, our rogue leadership knows exactly what it's doing, stirring white outrage among his base against an outspoken woman of color to a) deflect attention from Trump's seeming betrayal of what he promised that base on immigration and other issues and b) thwart any real debate about the reality of racism. But to anyone who questions the propriety of what Jemele Hill had to say, I would now respond: Let them go to St. Louis.
Late last week, a verdict in a case of death-by-police that has dragged on for six long years in Missouri's rust-bitten and racially torn largest city exposed a system of injustice that is so corrupt that reveals how our institutions, from the White House to the courthouse, continue to uphold the morally indefensible subjugation of Americans who are not white.
Even harsh critics of American policing will acknowledge that the facts of individual cases of police-involved shooting can get murky … did the dead or wounded suspect pose an actual threat to the officer, and did that officer fear for his life? But the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith by then-St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley was — as even prosecutors slowly came to realize — was seemingly an open-and-shut case.
"I'm going to kill this [mf'er]," Stockley said, as recorded by a police dash-cam as the officer chased Smith for three miles at 80 mph, having allegedly witnessed a drug deal. When he caught up to Smith's vehicle, the officer did exactly that — even though his partner never drew his gun or appeared threatened. Video footage shows Stockley entering the car with his personal bag near the location where he later claimed he discovered a loaded handgun. Prosecutors found Stockley's DNA on the weapon — and not Smith's– and concluded it had been planted.
Still, it took five years to charge Stockley — more proof that justice deferred is justice denied. When the cop finally was charged — in a post-Ferguson climate where leaders called for a closer look at policing — Stockley requested a trial by a judge and was so confident that the system would protect him that he openly talked to the media about what had happened. His confidence was rewarded Friday when Judge Timothy Wilson found the officer not guilty, in a ruling that appeared to be steered as much by the jurist's prejudice — "an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly," he wrote — than by the facts.
It's a glaring injustice, but it's also part of a pattern.
A 2015 study of police shootings in St. Louis found that 92 percent of the intended targets were black, while 66 percent of the officers firing shots were white. This comes in a city that has been divided by race dating back to the Civil War — when pro-Confederacy whites rioted — and before. When the Stockley verdict was announced, the political establishment — one that was so slow to even try to seek justice in the cold-blooded killing of a black man — was quick to flood St. Louis with helmeted riot cops to protect store windows. The city's black leaders wondered whether racial justice would ever be possible.
"This system and all the politicians calling for peace are ignoring the pain this verdict causes our communities," a Missouri state representative, Michael Butler, said in a statement in which he called for non-violence. "Anthony Lamar Smith is dead from a violent act and you want us to be peaceful? You want us to not feel anger? The very people paid to protect us are killing us, paid to make peace are perpetuating violence, and we are supposed to be peaceful?"
Despite that raw anger, most of the two days of protests that have occurred have been forceful but non-violent. Regrettably, other elements came out under the cover of darkness and committed acts that were violent, morally wrong, and undermined the greater cause. Windows were broken, police were injured by hurled objects, journalists were roughed up. Violence is not the answer to injustice — I condemn that and I hope most citizens share that view. Although the wrongdoers were a small fraction of those who took to the streets in St. Louis, they will hog most of the news coverage, ensuring the likes of Fox and Friends — which has no greater friend than Trump — can talk about that, and not the white supremacist regime that gives free rein to the likes of Jason Stockley.
But that was already clear with the show of force to protect and preserve racial injustice in the American Heartland, including the phalanx of officers who mowed down an older white woman in a red shirt in a moment of stunning brutality.
The police later charged this woman with "interfering." How fitting, because if there's anything that the system wants to nip in the bud, it is white people "interfering" with a regime built on racial intolerance.
In the coming days and weeks, the broken windows of St. Louis will be a rallying cry — seeking to make white moderates uncomfortable, to separate them from the real fight, which is against entrenched white supremacy. We've seen this a lot. Consider Eagles' owner Jeff Lurie, a white moderate who does good things for the Philadelphia community — but who openly admits that he's not interesting in signing Kaepernick because the exiled quarterback doesn't protest racism in the right way.
Kaepernick is indeed a flawed vessel who, arguably, has made a few missteps. But why is that more important than either the righteousness of his cause — that men of good conscious cannot see things like the killings of Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice, or Anthony Lamar Smith, and say nothing — or the courage he has showed in risking his career to speak out? And when did a store window start to matter more than a black life?
Every year on the Martin Luther King Holiday in January, political leaders of all stripes trot out Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" — without the slightest inkling of what that 1963 missive from the civil rights leader was all about. His problem that day wasn't so much with the KKK as with the white moderates who tsked-tsked his Birmingham marches because they weren't protesting in the right way. Wrote King:
Fifty-four years later, it's still not a "convenient season" but an open season on Colin Kaepernick and Jemele Hill, whose prominent role on ESPN is hailed as a hallmark of diversity — and yet gets slapped down when she strays from the plantation and actually offers a diverse opinion. As for Trump, at virtually the same moment his flack Sarah Huckabee Sanders was calling for Hill to be fired, he was on an airplane repeating his repulsive "both sides" rhetoric that refuses to come down on his white supremacist base that acted out — and killed a woman named Heather Heyer — in Charlottesville. More proof that Jemele Hill was right on the money.