Where can we feel safe?

Lately, I’ve been touched by the sight of protest placards with the obvious yet poignant reminder: Black Life Matters. Yet the police response to the recent home invasion reported by NBA star Ray Allen raises more questions about the value of African American families in the eyes of the justice system. The incident gives us yet another view into the double standard applied when African Americans are involved in a crime, whether as suspects, or in this case, as victims.

 

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According to USA Today and other sources, seven intruders entered the home of Ray Allen late one night while he was away. However, Allen’s wife and four young children were at home. When Shannon Allen awoke to the sound of loud male voices close by (she had been asleep with the kids), she was startled to find herself in the presence of at least five young men. Fearing for the safety of her family, Ms. Allen yelled at the intruders, who fled (some of them laughing). She then dialed 9-1-1 for help.

Police told Ms. Allen that they could not detain the youths because under current laws, an officer has to witness the trespass in order for charges to be brought.

According to the basketball star’s press release, the police also said that the incident was nothing more than a harmless prank. The intruders were not arrested because “there was no intent to commit a crime,” and because the curious teens just wanted to have a look around his mansion.

It took a week for the Allen’s attorney to finally get the police to file charges (still only a misdemeanor, by the way). The story was reported on the CBS News website like this:

Police said Alana Elizabeth Garcia, 18, Jorge Jesus Guerrero, 18, Christian John Lobo, 18, Jonathan Louis Ramirez, 19, Kevin Ramos, 18, Ernesto Romero, 18, and Angel Alejandro, 18, reportedly went into Allen’s Coral Gables home around 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 14, entering through an unlocked door.

Although I’m tempted, I’m not even going to speculate right now. But the cumulative impact of bizarre events reported over the last few weeks is reopening latent concerns. Once more, and I know I’m not alone, I find myself asking, where can African Americans feel safe? Where can we let our children lay their heads without worrying whether uninvited strangers will interrupt their slumber? When will the police protect black lives as vigorously as they protect other Americans?

The racial climate these days reminds me of the Dred Scott decision that I learned about in high school history. Remember that infamous case from 1857 in Missouri? It’s the one where the Supreme Court held that blacks have no rights that whites need to respect. I recall being taught that the flawed Supreme Court decision had been overturned by the 13th and 14th amendments. But recent official acts of disrespect for black lives and concerns is making me feel like Dred Scott is bouncing back in full force.

Quickly checking the facts of that case, I noticed the way that the Chief Justice rationalized the Court’s decision was even more outrageous than how I remembered it. Wikipedia has the Chief Justice stating his reasons for not allowing blacks to have citizenship rights as follows:

It would give to persons of the negro race …the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, …to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased …the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.

As if granting equal rights would be a bad thing.

So let me summarize the “take away” messages I fear the American public receives from recent events in the media: When a frightened African American mother calls the police for protection, regardless of how wealthy she is, no matter how exclusive her neighborhood of residence, she should not expect much. Because after all, blacks have no rights that whites are bound to respect. Black kids are not as valuable as non-black kids, and black families are worth less than others.

And then there’s the wink and nod to every perpetrator thinking of victimizing an African American: “We showed you with the Zimmerman verdict, and reinforced it with countless black lives lost at the at the hands of the police. Just last week, St. Louis cops showed you again how to claim self-defense to ‘justify’ the killing of a mentally disturbed youth. And now with the home invasion of the Allen family residence, the message is the same: You needn’t fear any serious legal consequences. Because most people understand that black lives don’t matter.”

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White adoptive parents and Ferguson’s mayor

It occurred to me that readers may be wondering about the connection between my recent posts about the rebellion taking place in Ferguson, Missouri and the main topic of this blog, which is transracial adoption. For those who still haven’t figured it out, it can be summed up as the huge gap in perception and experience between people of color and whites.

stop lynching1Whether we are talking about race relations in a multiracial suburb such as Ferguson or in the microcosm of transracial families, when people of different races try to dialogue about their very divergent perspectives, things can get tense really fast. In this post, I will comment on the mayor of Ferguson, who reminds me of many white adoptive parents I have encountered over the years. This will offend some people, of course, but keep in mind, I am writing this in solidarity with the young people demanding justice, and as always, with transracial adoptees.

Regarding the growing rebellion of Ferguson’s black community, recall that the police shooting death of Mike Brown was merely the spark. The unarmed teen’s body was left chillingly to lie in the street for five hours. An ambulance was never called. The callous treatment of Mike’s body in the aftermath of the shooting sent a clear message of intimidation to the witnesses and neighbors gathered around. It wasn’t just the cold-blooded killing of another black youth that sparked the furor. But Mike Brown’s death set off the spark for a rebellion that now won’t go away quietly.

 The mainstream media has been a mixed blessing. The problem for me is the constant parade of talking heads who provide running commentary on the unfolding drama. Some of these individuals have no legitimacy to speak about the rebellion. For example, why Mark O’Mara is touted as a credible consultant is beyond me. As the lawyer who exploited the laws so Trayvon Martin’s killer could get away with murder, it is insulting to Trayvon’s parents and supporters to have to see O’Mara’s face during this time of grief. I have already complained to CNN, and I urge other allies to do the same.

But the main problem is this: The media’s reliance on police leaders for information and insight muddies the waters when we are trying to define the problem. It’s not hard to understand why: The police are the reason for the protests in the first place.

Let’s say your community was repeatedly wounded, harassed, and disrespected by another group with tons of power to treat you however they want. I will use a non-controversial example instead of police. Let’s say coaches were notorious for harassing, intimidating, and even murdering young people in your community. Would you appeal to coaches as a group for help? Would you trust coaches to hear you and to fix the problem? I highly doubt it. I think a more intelligent move would be to look elsewhere for assistance. To engage in dialogue with coaches, the very group that has been harassing and oppressing you, would seem pointless and futile.

And if coaches, of all people, were then assigned to monitor and patrol your protest gatherings as you organized to redress your grievances against coaches, you would have to be damn near a saint to stay respectful, calm, and dignified in the face of such blatant disregard of your grievances. Especially when those coaches pointed loaded guns in your direction, mounted armored vehicles, and lobbed teargas at your group for no apparent reason, in an attempt to provoke a violent reaction.

To continue with the analogy, putting coaches in charge of patrolling protests against coaches just throws gasoline on the fire. Smarter local community leaders would say, “Okay, apparently we have a problem between coaches and youth. Let’s give the two sides some time apart, and send in some mediators to calm the situation and hear their grievances. We can’t have coaches and protesters battling it out every night in the streets.” But this is not what has happened, is it? Don’t you wonder why?

And to top it all off, the media then cozies up to coach experts and spokespersons for the coaches, as if they have any legitimacy or ability to comment on the situation. The people are clearly at war with coaches, and for good reason, yet the media relies on coaches for commentary, statistics about arrests, insight into the problem, and so on. Every time they put a coach spokesperson on the air, the media betrays the community. If I were a protester in the struggle against coaches, I would be furious and want unsympathetic media out of my neighborhood.

It is hard to raise public awareness of police abuses when so many Americans have an almost knee jerk loyalty to the police. Over-identification with law enforcement makes it difficult for many to sympathize with the protesters. Add to that widespread ignorance about what it feels like to be policed by an occupying force that fears and despises you, and there is little basis for cross-racial dialogue.

I almost wanted to laugh the other morning listening to the mayor of Ferguson once again state with a straight face that there are no racial divisions in Ferguson. How can he be so out of touch with what is happening to the African American members of his community? For the same reason that many white adoptive parents can’t relate to the racial hostility their kids of color experience. Unbelievable that this is the sort of ignorant political leadership the black community has to put up with. And equally sad that many transracial adoptees have to put up with clueless family members.

The mayor sounded like some old plantation owner, as if he were boasting that “Our darkies are happy. None of them ever wanted to run away until now. Not until those trouble makers came in from the outside.” Ignorance might be laughable, or even forgivable, if the consequences weren’t so deadly.

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HANDS UP DON’T SHOOT!

Young black men, some of us do love you

“Hands up don’t shoot!”

It’s time to listen to young black men and boys. The media pundits need to shut up. The politicians and community leaders, educators and youth workers need to sit down with black youth and hear their stories and then move to real action, with youth involvement and leadership.

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Regardless of my adult readers’ opinions about the tragic events in Missouri and elsewhere across this nation, we all need to hear the pain of young people and respond to their anger and frustration. Young men, I get it that you feel under attack. And you deserve to speak, to protest, to cry out, and to rage against the oppression you experience. Black youth have a constitutional right to free speech, and to peacefully assemble and demonstrate, just like every other American citizen. And I say that, just like other Americans, you deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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To the young black men in my life, to my sons and my grandsons, to their peers, to my students, to my friends, to the sons of my friends and colleagues, to my neighbors, to the unknown youth standing at the bus stop, I hear you and I see you. Understand, not all of us are afraid of you.

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Not all adults see you as criminals. We all don’t discount your perceptions and your stories of daily harassment by police and security guards and neighborhood watch patrols. We believe you, especially those of us who used to be young black men, just like you. Even with your swagger, your sometimes irreverent attitudes, your sagging pants and cocked caps on sideways, even with your loud music and your sometimes jarring slang, some of us do love you. And we defend your right to protest and to be heard.

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We understand how hard it is to move about freely without being seen as a suspect. We get it that you feel that you are not given basic respect. We understand that you can barely get through your daily routine without any number of people you encounter ready to write you off without any reason other than their basic racial fears and contempt for youth. We get it that adult society needs to share more of its resources so that you have an equal shot at the American dream, to a decent job and education, to a future full of hope and possibility.

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As an act of solidarity with you, I am posting pics of some young men I have had the privilege to work with and who agreed to pose for these photographs. All of these beautiful young brothers are portrayed through the crosshairs of a gun. That is intended to show in an artistic way that young black men are targeted and under assault and constant surveillance. Many of the models posed with exposed skin to symbolize the fragility and vulnerability of young black life. I show these unsettling images because I stand with young black men, and I want to call attention to your plight. I show these images to remind us all how precious and valuable you are. Each and every one of you.

As an African American father and grandfather, as a former black youth myself, as a foster care alum, as a transracial adoptee and member of a multiracial family, as an educator, and as an ally, I declare that I am on your side. I stand with you in your struggle for survival, for dignity, and for freedom.

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I will close by saying this: You have the right to do whatever you need to do to defend yourself and protect yourself from unwanted and illegal harassment and profiling. You have the right to exist and to be free. Stay strong to survive. Live to fight another day.

End the 21st-century lynching of young black men!

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“Hands up don’t shoot!”

It’s November, and National Adoption Month is almost over. Thank goodness!

I am happy to share a link to my latest writing about adoption available online at Gazillion Voices Magazine.  If you get a chance to read it (by clicking here), I think you will understand a little better why I am not a fan of National Adoption Month or the even more ridiculous-sounding “Gotcha Day” celebrations that some adopters force on adoptees. You will also understand why I always cringe when I hear pet owners talking about “adopting” their “rescued” animals.

I am really pleased to see Gazillion Voices growing by leaps and bounds, and I am proud to be part of the writing team.

NY Times Op-Ed

Click to download Purple Boots, Silver Stars … and White Parents – NYTimes.com, Frank Ligtvoet’s recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, the one where he mentions yours truly in flattering terms. I am honored to receive mention in such a prestigious, widely read publication. Thanks for the shout-out, Frank!

I do take issue with a number of assertions he makes. For one thing, it’s not clear how he knows that “for many transracial adoptees, every time they look in the mirror it’s a shock to see that they are black or Asian and not white like their parents.” Really? Every time we look in a mirror we are shocked? Based on what evidence?

His claim that “a Korean or black kid raised in a white world has lost his or her culture” sounds sensitive and caring, but what exactly does he mean by a “white world”? The world I live in is peopled by many cultures, and I feel free to move in and out of and through all of them. Does he mean “in a white family with parents who don’t have any black or Korean friends and who avoid any opportunities to mingle with people of color on a regular basis?” If that is the case–and many adoptive parents are guilty of this kind of diversity avoidance– then I would say that the kids have lost out on exposure to different cultures. But how does he know what specific culture was “lost,” or even whether it ever felt found, owned, or claimed in the first place?

And if he means that the kids have lost ties to their homelands or birth communities, say so. Don’t bandy about the word “culture” so loosely. It confuses people. The way Frank uses the term makes it sound as if “cultures” are essential things to be possessed, rather than fluid and dynamic relationships, emotional identifications, and lived practices developed with others over time.

Lastly, I have to correct his appropriation of the term I devised based on my research with white non-adopted siblings of transracial adoptees. His article states, “Even if adoptive parents started out naively… as a white family with kids of color, many of us end up as a nonwhite family. Or in the terms of John Raible… a transracialized family.” I use the term transracialized to describe the ways individual white identities can shift in response to long-term caring relationships with people of other races.

Transracialized is NOT synonymous with nonwhite. Transracialized suggests that some (rare) white members of transracial families reach a new awareness of race and racism to the point where they enact whiteness in creative and unpredictable ways, rather than reinscribing more typical performances of whiteness. In their actions, transracialized individuals participate in race discourses as allies against racism. They are not colorblind or post-racial; they are committed anti-racist allies to people of color in general and to the transracial adoptees in their multiracial families.

But I do appreciate Frank’s attempts to pay attention to his children’s experiences with racialization. For me, to worry about lost “culture” is not as useful as a clear analysis of race and racialization. Racialization refers to how each of us learns to “do” race and participate in keeping it going as a social construct. Rather than speculate wildly about how black people are perceiving and relating to his kids, I hope that Frank starts paying more attention to how he himself is relating to individual people of color and the communities he and his family feel close to. Focus on how you are performing and transforming your inescapable white identity, Frank, and people of color will no doubt take notice. Especially if you look, sound, and act like someone they can count on as an ally. It’s not so much about what “cultures” claim your kids, or which ones they claim. It’s about who they will turn to whenever the racist you-know-what hits the fan.