I want to tell you five stories, each rather minor in itself. They lead, I hope, to a larger point.
First story. In 1992 I was attending a social gathering in Berkeley, California. The guests were largely white and middle class. I was especially fond of "Tom." Tom was a SNAG – a sensitive, New Age guy. I was confident that if I went to Tom with any problem, he'd say something compassionate and endearing, and then we'd both tear up and hug. Tom's ancestors had arrived in North America before the US was even a country. I'm a child of Eastern European, Catholic immigrants. Tom was economically comfortable. I was struggling. WASPs like Tom fascinate and intimidate me. I did feel that he had more of a right to be an American than a newcomer like myself. I deferred to Tom.
Our gathering was meant to be low-key and personal, not political. Tom was the first to speak. He spoke with authority. "I know this is not why we are gathered here today,'' he said – rather, he announced. We hushed and listened carefully. "I think we need to devote some time to talking about what is happening in Los Angeles. I know I really need to talk about this, and I'm sure others do, too."
We all nodded. We wanted to hear what Tom had to say.
In 1991, Rodney King led police on a high-speed chase. He had been drinking. By driving under the influence, he was breaking parole for a robbery conviction. Once police caught him, they beat him. The beating was captured on camera. In April, 1992, police officers were acquitted in the use of excessive force against King.
After news of the acquittal was announced, riots broke out in LA. Rioters targeted Korean immigrant shopkeepers. Latino-owned businesses were also targeted. There was armed struggle between shopkeepers and African American looters.
One of the grisliest moments occurred when white truck driver Reginald Denny was tortured by rioters. Denny's skull was fractured in ninety-one places. This was all broadcast via news helicopter.
The following happened a quarter century ago, but I can still see it in my mind's eye. I was seated across a table from Tom. Sun shone through a window behind him. Tom said, "I am so happy to see what is happening in LA. Finally, the people are rising up. I am with the people." Tom insisted that the riot was not a riot at all, but justifiable self-defense, no different from the American Revolution. Actually, morally superior, because the American Revolution was all about slavery and oppression of women.
Others in the room voiced approval.
My world cracked – or a previously existing crack widened, and would continue to widen. If Tom had announced that he had come from Mars, he would not have become more alien to me. Our friendship died at that moment.
Reginald Denny, an innocent working man, a truck driver, was all but martyred, merely for his skin color. Korean and Hispanic shopkeepers had left their home countries, labored dawn to dusk, scrimped and saved, put everyone in their family to work, and opened businesses in neighborhoods someone like Tom wouldn't even drive through. My heart was with the working man and the immigrant strivers. My anger was at those who hurt them.
"But Tom. Reginald Denny wasn't a slave-owner. He was a truck driver. The Koreans and Hispanic shopkeepers just arrived in this country. You can't hold them accountable for slavery." I didn't say this out loud. I was frozen by shock and incomprehension.
Second story. In the early 1980s, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. "Melanie," one of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, was a shy, slender woman. She wore oversize granny dresses and no make-up. She spoke so softly you had to lean forward to hear her. She was raped by a man who broke into her home as she slept. She was white; the rapist was African.
One of our fellow volunteers expressed regret that it "had to happen to a nice girl like Melanie" but "It's inevitable. Read Eldridge Cleaver." Cleaver had written of rape as an "insurrectionary act" against white supremacy. Use of the word "inevitable" rendered the rape as something like gravity. "Inevitable" removed all agency from the rapist. He had to rape Melanie, just as a dropped rock has to fall to earth. No decision-making or guilt is involved in gravity and other inevitable acts.
This attitude nauseated me. Melanie was sweet as a kitten; she had sacrificed the comfortable life her beauty and her Ivy League degree might have granted her, so that she could help poor children in Africa. No matter. She was white; her skin color trumped her individuality and rendered her merely a drop of water in a wave of white supremacy.
Rumors flew – rumors that I heard but cannot verify – that Peace Corps had threatened Melanie with financial penalties if she spoke about the rape or even sought medical or psychological treatment that might draw attention to it. Peace Corps didn't want anyone tarnishing the glowing recruitment posters of volunteers gaily interacting with grateful "host country nationals." The New York Times and the Daily Beast would eventually cover similar accounts of Peace Corps' mistreatment of victims and cover-ups of rapes.
Third story. In October, 1995, I was shopping in Bloomingfoods, a health-food co-op in Bloomington, Indiana. Suddenly one of the clerks, a very pretty white girl, a Hoosier and an IU student, began dancing, clapping her hands, and hugging her coworker, a bearded young man. She told me she was celebrating the news: O. J. Simpson had just been found not guilty of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and a waiter, Ron Goldman. She was ecstatic that a black man had beaten the white racist American system.
Fourth story. In 1994, I was a grad student at Indiana University. I received word that my father was dying. I told my boss. She said I could not leave; she was about to host an important conference and she needed me to type up the programs. I did leave, and missed four workdays. I returned. My boss began to harass me. I reported the harassment to a dean. The dean asked me to testify against my boss. An IU official, "She is a psychopath. She ruins people. Everyone is afraid to come forward because she is a black woman and everyone is afraid of being called a racist or a sexist."
My father had just died. I was on a new campus, taking a full load of graduate classes, and reporting to regular meetings with the most important officials on campus, to repeat, again and again, ugly events that wounded me greatly.
When I spoke of this with friends, they immediately expressed sympathy – for the professor. "Amanda" said, "Well, you know, back in slavery days, they didn't get to take time off when their father died." More than one campus official said to me, "Yes, I know she does things she shouldn't do. But we need diversity on this campus, and you people should keep your mouths shut." Please note the plural: "you people." This campus official knew that this woman had harmed others. And we should all keep our mouths shut, for the sake of "diversity."
One final story.
On July 7, 2016, a Black Lives Matter supporter murdered five police officers in Dallas, Texas. One victim, Patrick Zamarripa, was an Iraq war veteran. His Mexican mother spoke of his death in Spanish to Telemundo.
I mourned Patrick Zamarripa's death on Facebook.
"Max," a Facebook friend who is a well-to-do white male, would have none of it. "White supremacists have been fomenting race war for centuries. Perhaps you didn't notice. But then it's only race war if the darkies object," Max wrote. "Police brutality" was responsible for the Dallas deaths. Officer Zamarripa was part of a "race war" against black people, possibly motivated by "subconscious bias."
What do all these stories have in common? In all of them, people who happened to be black did bad things. If the perpetrators in these stories had been white, we would have no problem identifying their acts as evil, hurtful, anti-social, and possibly pathological. We would face no public censure for sympathizing with the victims of these acts. We would not say, "Melanie is a lovely person and it's horrible that she was raped, but…." There would be no "but."
Tom, the Peace Corps higher-ups, the Bloomingfoods clerk, Amanda and Max all have a few things in common. All are very unlikely to be targets of violent crime. Tom lived in the Berkeley Hills, where the median home price is over a million dollars. The country directors in Peace Corps lived within a compound surrounded by a ten feet high wall topped with razor wire; they were accompanied by twenty-four-hour security. The Bloomingfoods clerk was a hippie Hoosier, growing up in one of the whitest, most rural, and lowest crime areas of the country. Amanda and Max are both white-collar professionals.
I think they have a few more features in common, as well. I think they see America as a land polluted by ineradicable sin. Please note use of the word "sin" and not "error." Please note the word "polluted," not "flawed." I think, unconsciously, these good white liberals see human sacrifice as the best expiation for America's polluted state.
Human sacrifice used to be practiced worldwide. Humans recognized that there was something just not right about existence on planet earth. Worms eat apples. Hail destroys crops. Deformities mar newborns. All life's glorious miracles that hint at perfection are tainted with something from which we recoil. Rather than discovering, and addressing, the factual cause of wormy apples, societies the world over applied pre-approved myths to their woes. Some predictable villain did some predictable bad thing. A ritual, including human sacrifice, would set things to right. A proffered human life would temporarily propitiate the powers that be, and the survivors could enter a grace period.
In modern times, human sacrifice in the classic sense is regarded with disdain, but analogous behaviors have certainly erupted. The 15th – 18th century witch craze was promulgated by agricultural communities beset by the Little Ice Age, crop price increases, the wars of Reformation, and plague. The burning witch was meant to purify and restore the community to previous norms of fecundity and order. It shocks people, but it really shouldn't – the Roman Catholic Inquisition played a significant role in ending the witch craze. Priests like Friedrich Spee and Alonso de Salazar Frías recognized that the witch craze violated authentic Christian theology.
Some interpret Islamic honor killing as a form of human sacrifice. A fragile, mythical commodity – a family's honor – is damaged when a female has unsanctioned contact with a male. Only her blood, spilt when a family member murders her, can ritually "cleanse" the non-existent substance, family honor.
Who was chosen for human sacrifice? Those without power. Typical victims included children, slaves, and war captives. When reports of human sacrifice emerge from modern-day India, victims are often Dalits, or untouchables, the lowest, most disempowered caste.
Note that there is no record of a permanently efficacious human sacrifice, no "once for all time and never again" sacrifice, unless you want to include Jesus' crucifixion. In all other human sacrifice, the world is never set right for any longer than a ritually determined cycle of time. When that period has run its course, the ritual must be repeated. Ritual time never moves forward on a linear trajectory. It always moves in circles. The past is never released or transcended. There is no progress.
That human sacrifice was so widespread indicates how deeply it reflects the "logic" of the human mind. The logic of human sacrifice is completely divorced from actual facts and cause and effect. Human sacrifice occupies a space that completely rejects any real attention to real facts and real potential solutions.
The process worked like this. People encountered a stimulus that disturbed them. If a cow went dry in Early Modern Europe, the solution would be to burn the next door neighbor, a poor and isolated elderly beggar woman whom no one liked. Everyone knew that the post-menopausal woman's barrenness could infect cows and make them go dry. Everyone knew that when a poor person gazed upon those with good fortune, the envy in their "evil eye" sucked out good fortune. When a boy disappeared in Kielce, in post-war Poland, the solution was to stone Jews to death – after all, everyone knew that Jews make their matzah from Christian children's blood.
Today's lynch-mob trigger might be a social media video of a man bleeding to death in the driver's seat of a car while his female companion stridently hammers out a narrative that exculpates her companion and indicts a man she alleges is a "Chinese" police officer. Everyone knows that cops are white supremacists and put on the uniform every day just chomping at the bit to murder an innocent black man.
Viewing such a video, no decent person would not be moved. A careful person committed to truth wants an investigation by legal professionals.
But not everyone is so wedded to patience and facts. A more emotional, less patient viewer itches for the immediate, cathartic rush one can receive from a timeworn myth. The hunger for an immediately satisfying narrative demands villains, victims, and punishment. The lynch mob is unshakably convinced of its own righteousness. It insists on a certifying seal of religious scripture and ritual. For thorough satisfaction, an exchange must be transacted. Mythical gods have their hungers, too. We feed them what they want, and we receive what we desire from the gods – a sense of being cleansed of our pollution. Again, this sense of ritual purity is always temporary, always just until the next ugly upheaval and the next necessary sacrifice.
I think that those I mentioned above who could not bring themselves fully to sympathize with victims of criminals who happened to be black may be motivated by the mindset of human sacrifice.
If I am correct, folks like Tom, perhaps not even consciously, see America, not as a country with problems like any other country, problems that it can fix through investigation, documentation, lobbying, legislation, and elections. That is, folks like Tom don't see attention to actual, concrete facts as being at all helpful. Rather, folks like Tom understand the world mythically, in a manner utterly divorced from facts.
America is ritually polluted by an ineradicable stain of white supremacy. The only solution to America's ritual pollution is seasonal human sacrifice. Someone's life must be destroyed in order to bring America back in tune with implacable, supernatural forces. This sacrifice will serve until the next turn of the ritual wheel. When it is again necessary, another sacrifice must be performed, again to cleanse ritual pollution. This process can never end, because ritual pollution can never be permanently removed.
Tom's mythical mindset's utter divorce from concrete facts is notable in every aspect of human sacrifice.
First, consider the utter lie of the word itself. "Sacrifice" implies giving up something valuable. Folks like Tom speak of "sacrifice" to even the score between blacks and whites. In Tom's worldview, whites must sacrifice something to blacks. But folks like Tom need never sacrifice anything. Tom has lived out his entire life at the top of the social totem pole. It is poor whites and others who must sacrifice, and who are sacrificed. They are the scapegoats who take on the sins of the tribe. Those sins die with them, until the next ritual season.
Korean and Hispanic shopkeepers damaged in the Los Angeles riots, a truck driver, a Peace Corps volunteer alone in an African village, a first-generation, white ethnic, low-income graduate student, a waiter, a cop guarding a demonstration that is part of a nation-wide, presidentially sanctioned wave of anti-police hysteria, all have something in common. They are all ideal human sacrifices. They can be hurt with impunity.
As in all ritual, masks and costumes representing archetypes and scripts working out mythical drama take absolute precedence over factual, authentic, and spontaneous speech by individuals with real, idiosyncratic personalities.
Consider the very words "Black lives matter." This script denigrates every non-black American as a heinous racist incapable of seeing value in the lives of black people. "Black lives matter" announces through its chosen title that it must educate these heinous bigots in simple respect for human life. No white person can respond to the "black lives matter" script without being denounced as a racist.
In December, 2014, Smith College president Kathleen McCarthy apologized for emailing the words, "All lives matter." In June, 2015, Democratic presidential candidate Patrick O'Malley apologized for speaking the words "All lives matter." In July, 2016, Ian Astbury, lead singer for The Cult, while delivering an onstage rant denouncing racism and "dumbasses with guns," shouted, "All lives matter." Astbury was forced to tweet, "I sincerely and deeply apologize to everyone I have offended … Thank you for enlightening me that this phrase is offensive. I shall never use it again." One must repeat the creed without any changes. Deviations are blasphemous and will be punished.
Diamond "Lavish" Reynolds' companion Philando Castile was shot to death by a police officer on July 6, 2016. Reynolds was rapidly elevated, through mainstream press accounts, to Stabat Mater status. The Washington Post was unstinting in its hagiography. As of July 9, one website estimated that donors, often siting Reynolds as an ideal mother, had pledged a quarter of a million dollars to her.
A video emerged of Reynolds smoking marijuana in a car with her daughter, and bumping and grinding to hip-hop while positioning the camera to emphasize her breasts and crotch. The daughter looks pained. In another video, Reynolds threatens to "cut a bitch throat." When a toddler falls, she shouts at him, "Get up, nigga."
No, the point is not that Reynolds is a bad person or that she deserved to watch her companion die. We all wish that that had never happened. We are all flawed people; we all have sworn and lost our patience with children.
This is the point: Reynolds is, like you and me, a flawed human being, not a plaster saint. The media is working very hard to turn her into a plaster saint, not a human being. Note the difference in her clothing, make-up, hair, and speech in her previous videos and in her current public appearances. This manipulation of reality serves Black Lives Matter mythology, a mythology that is getting police officers killed and causing widespread tension and division.
Even as the media mythologizes Reynolds as the perfect mother, it leaps on any factoid to prove that police officers are murderous white supremacists. Daily Kos trumpets that Jeronimo Yanez reported that Philando Castile matched the description of an armed robbery suspect. Yanez said Castile had a "wide-set nose." Those three words: "wide-set nose," are waved as proof that Yanez was a murderous bigot. Darren Wilson described angry, threatening, and very large Michael Brown in these words, Brown "had the most aggressive face. That’s the only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked." Those words alone were enough for Jamelle Bouie to pump out a lengthy article at Slate crucifying Wilson as an unregenerate white supremacist. Bouie's was just one of many articles making the same leap. No media outlet will ever assign an archetypal identity to Reynolds for "Get up nigga" spoken to a fallen toddler, or her threat to "cut a bitch throat."
The media is selling us two myths in place of reality: Yanez as an obsessive, murderous white supremacist, and Reynolds as a pure martyr. We have reason to ask what other lies the media is peddling.
There are many such incidences. Michael Brown was a "gentle giant," not the strong-arm robber a security-camera video revealed him to be. Trayvon Martin was a winsome tot in a Hollister t-shirt, not six feet tall and capable of smashing another man's head into sidewalk. Alton Sterling is repeatedly identified as "father of five," not as a registered sex offender with multiple battery offenses, including previously physically fighting with a police officer while armed with a gun.
No, no sane or decent person celebrates or justifies the deaths of any of these men; in fact I wish every one of them were still alive. Rather the point is that, as part of the ritual, these men have undergone a sort of taxidermy, a sort of second death at the hands of the mainstream press. They are not allowed to be who they really were. And what they really were were unique human beings with individual stories. Inclusion of the real facts of their real lives would show that their deaths were more different than similar, and that their deaths do not offer an overarching justification for the murder of police officers.
In traditional human sacrifice, participants often wore costumes that signified the roles they were assigned. These tragically deceased black men all must wear the vestments of virginity and a mask signifying complete blank slate intellects. They must not be adults who made their own choices.
Police officers must all be ogres and white supremacists, including, bizarrely, Sheriff David A. Clarke and Dallas police chief David Brown, two black men who are both dismissed as Uncle Toms. Merely dismissing Chief Brown as an Uncle Tom is not enough to those who don't like how this good black man and proud police officer confuses their narrative. Brown and his family have received death threats from those who insist on unambiguous mythology, with helpless black victims on one side, evil white racist police on the other, and no confusing mixture between the two imagined, mutually exclusive casts of characters.
The degree to which Black Lives Matter is divorced from facts is evident in reactions to Diamond "Lavish" Reynolds' video. Her video shows the aftermath of a shooting. The video does not show Philando Castile being shot. And yet person after person insists that the video shows a police officer shooting an innocent black man who has done everything to comply with the police officer's directives.
Verquisha Powers stated in a fund-raising announcement that Reynolds and Castile "were pulled over for an alleged broken tail light. The officer approached the vehicle and asked Phil for his license and registration. Phil informed the officer that he had a registered firearm and that the information was in his pocket. The officer requested Phil get it, and when he reached towards his pocket the officer shot him 3-5 times in his left side/arm, killing him. The whole thing was recorded live on Facebook." This statement is false. None of this is in the video. It is, rather, what Reynolds claims in her narration over her video.
A YouTube user titled his posting of the video with the headline, "GRAPHIC Facebook LIVE Video Shows Black Man SHOT & KILLED By Police In MINNESOTA!!" Again, the video shows no such thing.
Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown Law School, said on NPR that "Last week started with horrific images of two African-American men doing everything the police told them to do and still being shot dead at point blank range. And none of this is new. African-Americans have never received equal justice under the law and police have rarely been held accountable … Of course, we saw the same thing just a few weeks earlier, the Latino and LGBT communities were targeted in Orlando." Butler is not telling the truth. We did not see Castile doing what the police told him to do. Further, Butler's attempt to lasso the Orlando jihad massacre into a white supremacist war on "Latinos and LGBT" reaches new depths of shameless exploitation for the purposes of racist hate mongering.
Many choose not to view videos depicting graphic violence. Many believe what commentators are saying: that a black man was pulled over for a broken tail light, complied with officer's instructions, and was shot to death for no reason other than pervasive police white supremacy.
There is, of course, another way to see the recent deaths of black men at the hands of police. One can recognize that each of those deaths was unique, and not part of a wider white supremacist conspiracy. No supernatural strand of pollution connects Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, and Alicia D. White, a black woman officer indicted in the death of Freddie Grey, and Jeronimo Yanez, a possibly Mexican-American police officer who shot Philando Castile. One can acknowledge that in each case, officers' actions will be investigated by teams that will certainly include African Americans, and those found guilty will be punished. One can also recognize that educating all citizens in compliance with police officers' directives is correlated with survival of an encounter with police.
The rational mind will acknowledge that America is exceptional not for racism or injustice, but for its resistance to both and its commitment to equality. Place America in context with India, and its caste system, or Mauritania, where slavery is openly practiced, or China, where the individual's needs and desires serve the group, and the Muslim world, notorious for its low literacy and publication rates, its gender apartheid, deadly homophobia and its rampant use of draconian punishments, and America's exceptional nature is undeniably clear.
Harvard scholar Roland G. Fryer Jr.'s study, "An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force" gives the lie to Black Lives Matter mythology. Heather MacDonald, a Stanford-trained attorney and Manhattan Institute fellow, is the author of The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe. She has published accessible articles like "The Myths of Black Lives Matter." The problem with Fryer's and MacDonald's work is that it is based on facts. It does not satisfy the deep mythic brain or its sense of compensatory bloodlust.
The primitive, rush-addicted, mythic hatreds of those who view the L.A. riots as a righteous freedom struggle, and Patrick Zamarripa as just another white supremacist carrying out an unchanging, white supremacist war against innocent, defenseless blacks will never be satisfied with rational thought. They will never see individual facts unique to a given situation resulting in the death of any African American in any encounter with any police officer, and they will always feel a primitive, unconscious need to see the blood of some human sacrifice – preferably someone relatively low on the social totem pole – splash across what they see as a permanently ritually polluted landscape.