The Problem is the System Working the Way it is Supposed to

ChokeholdFrom author and legal analyst Paul Butler in a conversation with Michelle Alexander about his recent release Chokehold: Policing Black Men:

My Brother’s Keeper is a program for African-American boys and men, boys of color and men, Latinos and Native-American men as well. And, at this [Obama] White House ceremony, there were people you’d expect to be there, like, the major leaders of the civil rights organizations. And, some people who you might not expect, like, Mayor Bloomberg, Bill O’Reilly, a lot of people.

Mayor Bloomberg had said a couple of weeks before that the problem with Stop and Frisk in New York was that too many light people were being stopped and not enough black people because of political correctness. When I saw him there cheering on this program for black men, I said, “What’s up with that? Why would he be there?” President Obama even made a joke about it. He said, “If I have Bill O’Reilly and Al Sharpton at the same program, I must be doing something right.” Well, maybe not. [laughter]

There’s nothing about black male achievement that creates these kind of strange bedfellows because as we saw, a lot of people think that the problem is us, that we need to just fix our culture, the way that we perform masculinity, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about being shot by the police. One concern about those programs is that they reinforce that stereotype. President Obama said the idea of My Brother’s Keeper came to him after Trayvon Martin was killed. Trayvon Martin didn’t need a male role model; he was on his way to his dad’s house when he was gunned down. So, it was unclear how a program designed to foster black male achievement would make a difference in the kind of structural concerns, the entrenched white supremacy that was about why Trayvon Martin was killed, why Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland — why they were killed. 

One concern about these programs and about this sole focus on black men is that they get the problem wrong. The problem is not brothers; the problem is, again, the system working the way it’s supposed to. This dynamic of law and policy in our everyday practice is subordinating, keeping black men down, and then blaming us, punishing us for the subordination. And, the other concern is that they leave women out. So, this was President Obama’s signature racial justice initiative. The most feminist president in history, married to a lawyer, two wonderfully smart daughters, but why would he leave half of the race out if this is his main racial justice thing?

Again, the concern is it stems from a particular view of black men as, again, needing fixing and then it will be all good. That’s not how racism works, that’s not how white supremacy works, right? Black girls live in the same neighborhoods, have the same teachers and deal with the same cops as black boys. I thought that there needed to be an analysis that focused on race and gender, but I wanted to do it different from the way that some people had done it before.

Again, Michelle, I think your work, obviously — it started this movement. I think it was great. But one of the things I like about black culture is this call and response, right? You take it here and then give it to me and then I’ll give it back to you. You see that in hip-hop, you see that in visual art and we see that in scholarship. So I looked at Michelle’s work and I thought, “Is there anything left to be said?” And, one thing I thought: “Well, how about drilling down on this focus on race and gender?”

The subordination of black men has always been as much about gender as about race. So it wasn’t enough, as you saw in the exhibit, for black men to be lynched — their penises had to be cut off and stuck in their mouths. In police cases, we see this repeated pattern of sexual violence against black men as well. Punishing us for gender as well as race. That’s Chapter 5 — check it out and, again, let’s have this back-and-forth. Let’s continue, because it’s hard. I’m a proud black man, I’m proud to be an African-American man. I’m mad at the injury that white supremacy does to my masculinity. At the same time, I don’t know what it means to empower maleness in a patriarchal society. So that’s something that, Michelle, you have to help us with.

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