(Content Note: The following contains descriptions of racial injustice and violence, discussions of the author’s own personal history with racism, and some use of the N-word. It is also written by a white man from the American South, and is an attempt to dicuss these issues with a presumed-majority-white audience, and as such is in no way intended to displace black voices on these issues. If you’re looking for black authors on these topics, may I recommend Ijeoma Oluo’s “Dallas is a tragedy for all of us – and shouldn’t shut down calls for justice,” Bianka Bell’s “How Pseudo-Allies Enable the Killing of Black Bodies,” and Messiah Rhodes’s “Scary Negroes With Guns.”)
“I tried to hold his right arm and use my left hand to get out to have some type of control and not be trapped in my car any more. And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.
“…he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. […] He turns, and when he looked at me, he made like a grunting, like aggravated sound and he starts, he turns and he’s coming back towards me. His first step is coming towards me, he kind of does like a stutter step to start running. When he does that, his left hand goes in a fist and goes to his side, his right one goes under his shirt in his waistband and he starts running at me. […] At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”
— From Darren Wilson’s testimony on the shooting of Michael Brown.
No Way Out (1950) is a strange bird of a film by modern eyes: approximately equal parts despairing film noir, Tennessee-Williams-style social realist drama, and Hollywood harrangue about the evils of racism. Sidney Poitier (in his first-ever major motion picture role) is Luther Brooks, a young medical doctor working in a prison ward who pretty much sets the mold for the character Poitier would spend a career portraying: well-scrubbed, morally forthright men of impeccable ethical standards who abhor violence and serve not as the Magic Negro, but the Good Negro. If Luther Brooks or Vigil Tibbs had been murdered in the street by Darren Wilson, not even the Bill O’Reillys of the world would be able to find much cause for claiming the “no angel” defense.
Opposite Poitier is Richard Widmark’s Ray Biddle, a horrifying snake of a man who finds himself being healed by Brooks after he and his brother are shot fleeing from the scene of a robbery they have committed. When Biddle’s brother dies, he doesn’t buy Brooks’ diagnosis of a long-resident brain tumor but blames “the nigger doctor” for intentionally murdering a white man. Biddle is a white trash resident of “Beaver Canal,” looked down upon by the (white) upstanding characters in the film as a source of great evil and criminality. Late in the film, Biddle will incite a riot against Brooks and the rest of “Nigger Town,” using terroristic, fascistic violence to keep the blacks in their place, but the black residents learn of the plan in advance and launch a pre-emptive strike at the racist, impoverished whites.
Need I even say that Brooks wants no part of this violence, ruefully shaking his head and attempting to use his intellectualism, his status, and his connections within the medical community to allow him to perfom an autopsy on Biddle’s brother, which he believes would confirm his diagnosis and demonstrate to all that he did not in fact intentionally murder the young hoodlum? And that in the film’s grand finale, Brooks finds it within himself to apply a torniquet to Biddle’s wounds, wounds sustained as Biddle attempted to murder the black doctor?
In Hollywood, the mark of the Good Negro is to work hard, to perservere, to rise above the personal racism of bigots and to prove themselves secular saints. Turning the other cheek is not the mark of high moral standing, but a necessity for full humanity. Those other blacks, those who decided to fight fire with fire and respond to the threat of violence with violence, are not to be afforded fully human status within our narrative. Racism, also, is marked by poor white trash, criminals to a person, who manipulate the feelings of the dead man’s widow Edie (Linda Darnell, whom regular TMBDOS listeners will know I harbor a bit of a crush for), herself having recently (and barely) escaped the social status of Beaver Canal, by calling her a “nigger lover” for not immediately wanting to murder Brooks.
Systemic oppression is nowhere to be seen. A hospital administrator, portrayed as a good man but with the desire to put practicality above soft-hearted ideology, praises the decision to retain Brooks and says that next year, he’d like to have another Negro doctor on staff, maybe even two. The film does not pause at this or in any way comment on it; nowhere in the film is a white person not resident of Beaver Canal portrayed in a negative light regarding their racial attitudes. Racism is a function of personal prejudice, of ignorance — a personal, not social, failing.
My father was three years old when this film was released. He was born outside Birmingham, AL, and passed away last year; I can tell you that he was a fundamentally decent man, but a small man. We were lower middle class (if that), and he worked long hours out of town in a job he mostly hated to keep his family cared for. We were not wealthy, but there as always food in the fridge. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank, loved John Wayne and Gene Hackman, and joined the Air Force during Vietnam as a way of avoiding being drafted into the Army. We rarely spoke politics, but I know he voted for Bush in 1992 and Obama in 2008. A quiet man, who idled away his life with work and mediocre television.
He was the kind of man whose favorite curse word upon hitting his thumb with a hammer or stubbing his toe was “Fiddle-faddle!” but who as late as my high school years would use “nigger-rig” as an adjective to describe shoddy workmanship, before ruefully correcting himself. And he didn’t like guns. “Not in my house,” he’d say; he once described having to pass shooting exams in basic training the way I’d describe a life-threatening experience. I think he nearly threw up once when, at the funeral for one of my cousins who had killed himself with a pistol, several of my older relatives passed the time with conversation about the precise caliber of the weapon used.
I was born thirty-three years after my father. When I was six or seven years old I wondered why black people smelled funny all the time. I was thinking of another child in my class who seemed to be always dirty, smelly, grimy. I extended my inner question about why this kid smelled bad to an entire race of people. At the time I had not the capacity to consider the fact that there were people I went to school with who lacked running water, but I did know the Other when I saw one. I somehow, even at the time, knew that I should not ask this question aloud.
When I was thirteen or so, a minor scandal erupted when one of the girls in the neighborhood was found out for “kissing on the black boys.” By that point I had discovered Golden Age science fiction, and was savvy enough to know that the adults’ continued insistence that their concern was about the girl’s sexual purity, not the color of the boys, was dissembling at best and deeply hypocritical at worst. I said nothing.
I was eleven years old when Rodney King was beaten, and twelve when the riots happened. I was fifteen when OJ Simpson was tried for murder. I got my news mostly from our subscription to Time Magazine and a bit of CNN here and there, although I remember watching Rush Limbaugh every morning on TV around the time of the Republican Revolution in 1994. My politics were esoteric, drawn equally from center-right editorials in the newsmagazine and from the science fiction that made up my intellectual world: from Asimov I learned that Vietnam had been a disaster and yearned for a technophilic future free from human bueauracracy, and from Heinlein I learned that Communism was Socialism was Bad, and that relationships could take many forms but the a True Man was ultracompetent and always prepared to defend what was his by way of armed resistance. From Ayn Rand I learned that being a second-hander was a sin. Orson Scott Card taught me that empathy was essential, but soldiers were necessary and sometimes had to kill people. From Ursula K. LeGuin (whom I ironically discovered through Card!) I learned that black women had lived awfully oppressed lives at the hands of immortal body-swapping men. Jean-Luc Picard, echoing Winton Smith before him, taught me that even men of incredible character might not be able to not see five lights.
Into this stew came a whole host of assumptions from mainstream television and film of the time. The eighties and early nineties were a time of muscular action heroes defeating Foreign Bad Guys with guns. Cops, like those in Die Hard, might be incompetent and career-driven but the Boys in Blue were fundamentally good and just, aside from a few who sided with the bad guys. I had little cause to interact with the police at all, although you might be amazed how many hours young men with newly-minted learner’s permits can spend sharing lore about how to avoid getting speeding tickets.
In other words, I grew up a nerdy Southern white kid who more-or-less accepted the values of his upbringing. Racial injustice was largely invisible to me, except for rumblings about affirmative action in college admissions that might mean I wouldn’t get a college scholarship. Violence by police against people was a subject for my history books or sci-fi dystopias: such are the wages of white privilege.
This is the attitude towards violence, state and otherwise, exhibited in those lecturing liberal Hollywood films. Our democratic institutions, bolstered by good government and old-fashioned American exceptionalism, put guns in the hands of mostly good people who will use them to defend our freedom and safety. Cops and soldiers put their lives on the line every day to protect us from Bad People, some outside Other who have cause to harm us. People Like Us should have guns; People Not Like Us should be disarmed or killed.
This is why, of course, so many white people saw the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, and the rise of Black Lives Matter, as so threatening. The cops are fundamentally Good, and Darren Wilson was after all cleared of legal culpability in the shooting of Michael Brown: it was a Good Shoot. All those people rioting, destroying pharmacies and other businesses in their own communities aren’t being Good Negroes; they are taking out an irrational anger against the police –brought about by their own lawlessness and Bad Moral Values– on individuals and organizations that don’t deserve it. Michael Brown stole some cigars and smoked weed and look at that scary gangsta picture: he maybe didn’t deserve to die just for that, but he’s not Like Us, who obey the police and don’t resist arrest and have never felt the need to steal a box of cigars.
I’ll bet Michael Brown smelled funny to Darren Wilson on the day he died. Not because Darren Wilson is especially racist (he’s not, particularly) but because the racial assumptions in him, the racial assumptions in all of us who have never had them questioned, tell us that he and those like him are Different. Lower in stature, lower in class, less worthy of our civilization and our values and our education and our tax money. Just look at how he, and all those hundreds of black people murdered in Good Shoots since him, have lived their lives. Look at those rap sheets. Forget the institutional forces; forget that for-profit policing has been standard practice for decades; forget that HBCU funding is on the decline; forget all the matters of representation in media and inequality of opportunity and definitely forget four centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and horrifying oppression.
If they can’t overcome all of that and be as Good and Virtuous and Peaceful as Dr. Luther Brooks, maybe they deserve to die at the hands of the police, or a Concerned Citizen in an alley. If they can’t be good enough to unload their gun and use it as a tourniquet for the Nazi who just tried to kill them, maybe they deserve to live in Nigger Town, and to be considered roughly morally equivalent to the residents of Beaver Canal. Only those black people who know their place, who work twice as hard for half as much uncomplainingly, and who never forget to tell us that we didn’t ever owe them anything for their trouble, really get to be part of our regular society.
And even then, only if they’re well-scrubbed enough not to smell funny.