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Personal Terrors

Fear and Balkanization in Tribal America

ISSUE:  Summer 2018

The first time a police officer runs his hand up the secret space between my legs, I’m sixteen. I’ve just walked out of a dance. I’m not drunk. In fact, with one exception, I won’t even have a glass of wine until my midtwenties. I’m not high. I’ll never smoke a joint or do ecstasy. I’m certainly not armed. Even firecrackers scare me. But I am almost six-three in my boots. I’m over 270 pounds, which was useful during my aborted stint on my high school football team. And, yes, I’m Black. 

I’ve never been on a date. I’ve never kissed anyone. I’ve never had sex. But this officer whose face I still haven’t seen knows almost as much about the mystery of my flesh as I do. He’s thorough. He gropes me from neck to ankles, this man who has a baton, a police cruiser, and a gun. He has an authority over me that I’ve never known. I love my parents and listen to them, usually. I listen to my teachers because, despite my size, I’m a nerd. I fear God and have studied the Bible in my free time. But I’ve given myself to my family, my education, and my Lord. I have not given myself to this officer. Regardless, he takes. 

It’s possible that entire interaction—from the moment the cruiser’s spotlight hit my face to the end of the encounter, a shove—lasts no more than two minutes. But today, more than twenty years later, I know a truth. This is just the beginning. It’s the preamble to a life of being stopped by police on highways and byways, tailed by security guards in pharmacies (the most recent interaction was January 6, 2018, around 10 p.m. as I scanned a shelf for adhesive bandages), and questioned at events by gatekeepers. Are you sure you belong here? their faces say.

I am a smart-enough teenager. No genius, but curious and good on tests. Still, I can’t identify the variable in this equation to explain why I’m assaulted. Is it my haircut, a high-top fade? Is it the smile on my face as I approach my car? Is it the condom in my wallet that I’ve been carrying around hopefully for over a year? 

I don’t get answers. Over the years, I observe the power of the police force. There’s not a single Black male I know who doesn’t have similar encounters. But I don’t talk much to my peers about it, and they don’t talk to me. I think we’re all ashamed. We can’t even protect ourselves. How could we hope to protect our loved ones? In college and grad school, my classmates will ask why I don’t do drugs (not even a joint?) or why I would never call the police under any circumstances. Sometimes I explain it to them. Often, I shrug and change topics. 

Yet, slowly I realize it’s not just me and the Black men in my circle. From news reports, books, and the popular culture of film and rap music, I see that it’s the same in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Detroit, and Atlanta. It’s everywhere we are. Where there’s a population of Black males walking home from school, riding to work, or making a sandwich at home, there’s a well-funded SWAT team, vice squad, or special task force lying in wait.

I’ve always pondered whether I had the capacity to change any of this. I’ve pondered more than acted. But there are those who act. Be they liberal or conservative, concerned with unjust wars or fiscal follies, people who carry petitions to the Supreme Court of the United States or stand on street corners with pamphlets, I’ve always admired those who act. To that end, I learned something about activism from reading When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

Patrisse Khan-Cullors and her coauthor, asha bandele, offer a window into Khan-Cullors’s life as an activist. She is one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter Movement, which came to the world’s attention following the 2014 killing of Mike Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. However, before she became an activist, Khan-Cullors was a child growing up in a part of Los Angeles where police officers constantly circled the neighborhood but never said hello. She has several siblings and is particularly close to her brother Monte. 

In one of the strongest sections of the book, she recalls a personally formative incident involving her brothers Monte and Paul. These brothers, ages eleven and thirteen, respectively, spend their time in an alleyway because “there are no green spaces…no playgrounds…no parks for children to build castles in.” One day, Khan-Cullors watches, frozen, as the police throw her brothers against a wall and have them lift their shirts for bodily inspection. Later she wonders why she did not help them. This is the inciting incident of the book, of her life, and, in some ways, the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

The movement is sometimes portrayed by conservative commentators, like Tomi Lahren, as an organization populated by violent radicals. But Khan-Cullors and bandele’s text is an exploration in empathy. It seeks to peel the reader away from prepacked assumptions and ask a basic question: Have you ever felt powerless and afraid? Time and again the police enter the narrative as a malevolent force: In another childhood incident during which officers in riot gear burst into Khan-Cullors’s home in search of her uncle, only to find Khan-Cullors and her five-year-old sister; or the time one of Khan-Cullors’s brothers is arrested and imprisoned for an alleged armed robbery during what a psychiatrist will later call a manifestation of schizo-affective disorder; or when her biological father, with whom Khan-Cullors was recently reunited, is also sent to prison because this “is how our society responded to his drug use.” 

Questions are of paramount importance in the book. “If prisons are supposed to make society more safe, why do I feel so much fear and hurt?” And “I will wonder how many white Americans are dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night because they fit a vague description offered up by God knows who.” These inquiries derive from a constant, thrumming terror, the kind of terror citizens in Cold War–era East Germany or, perhaps, present-day North Korea, must have felt and feel. As she says, the terror was caused by “the sure knowledge that you can wake up one morning and find anyone, maybe everyone, gone.” 

Khan-Cullors’s subjective experience does not allow for much commentary from the police in the situations described above. I doubt that any of the officers would consider themselves terrorists or to have done anything less than serve the public good. But that’s yet another reason why this memoir is significant. While police are often, perhaps appropriately, portrayed as heroes by actors like Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, and Will Smith, the people whose lives suffer the consequences of militaristic policing policies go mostly unexamined. “Is my mother the fallout, the collateral damage in the battle to elevate personal responsibility over everything, over all those decisions that were made about state budget priorities, about wages, about the presence of police, and even about damn grocery stores and access to quality food?” Khan-Cullors asks after a harrowing sequence where her brother Monte is wheeled into a criminal court hearing while strapped to a hospital bed. His face covered in a Hannibal Lector mask, he screams for his mother. 

A young Khan-Cullors will have the good fortune of going to a high school with a commitment to teaching a nuanced view of history and sociology. She will also gather to her side a variety of friends and loved ones who help her as she discovers a sexual and gender identity she did not foresee. She admits to some surprise, for instance, when, after realizing she loves women, she falls in love with a biological man. Moments such as these are handled with incredible deftness, such that the reader is offered yet another aspect of the world not traditionally depicted in mainstream literature. It is within this context of radical empathy that Khan-Cullors joins forces with other activists to form Black Lives Matter and take direct action in numerous situations. 

More than anything, Khan-Cullors and bandele’s book is reminiscent of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Their memoir is not designed to reveal whatever personal flaws Khan-Cullors might possess. But it is a bracing and righteously infuriating depiction of the creation of an American activist. 

If that book examines a single movement in American society, then Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, by Amy Chua, examines many movements across many cultures. Chua shows us how people all over the globe develop their allegiances based on shared history and a sense of grievance. A perceived ancient slight can bond people within a group. That bond may become the basis for an eternal feud. These shared aspects combine to create tribalism. Chua’s thesis is ambitious. She sets out to explain how tribalism, rather than, say, religion or economics, is the driving force of division in the world.  As Chua states in the introduction, “Almost no one is a hermit. Even monks and friars belong to orders. But the tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.” 

Chua makes a compelling argument that many of the United States’ worst geopolitical decisions, from wars that should not have been fought to regimes that should not have been overthrown, resulted from a failure to understand how tribalism works. “America’s distinctive history—its ethnicity-transcending national identity and its unusual success in assimilating people from diverse origins—has shaped how we see the rest of the world and has deeply influenced our foreign policy.” Chua points out that America is a kind of supergroup where people of all ethnicities are, theoretically, welcomed even as they are encouraged to embrace our national identity. Even close allies, like France, have national identities that are reluctant to ever fully embrace those born abroad. 

In a particularly clarifying chapter on America’s interference in Vietnam, Chua expertly condenses 2,000 years of Vietnamese history. She then connects science on human in-group preferences and US military strategy to explain why our involvement went so poorly. She describes numerous studies claiming that while children may not be born with preferences for people who look like them, this changes dramatically only a few months after birth. “Caucasian babies prefer to look at Caucasian faces, as opposed to African or Chinese faces; Ethiopian babies prefer to look at Ethiopian faces rather than Caucasian faces.” In highlighting this data, Chua implies that tribalism is innate. Chua also argues that America’s failure in Vietnam stemmed from our poor understanding of Vietnamese identity. Following an invasion by the Chinese of future Vietnam in 111 BC, the two peoples would develop an everlasting animosity. However, US policymakers were so oblivious to this history that they assumed many Vietnamese were pro-Chinese and, therefore, pro-Communism. During the Cold War, this failure of insight resolutely pushed Vietnam out of the United States’ sphere of influence.

Chua provides similarly enlightening analyses of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Venezuela. The book especially shines in its final quarter, where she turns her gaze to America. “The Left believes that right-wing tribalism—bigotry, racism—is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism—identity politics, political correctness—is tearing the country apart. They are both right.” Chua does not stop at this observation. She posits that America’s great strength, that it is a tribe of tribes, is also our nation’s primary source of conflict. She names nearly a dozen American “tribes” that affect America’s political culture—from sovereign citizens to followers of prosperity gospel to coastal elites. But she focuses most keenly on the divide between wealthy whites and poor whites. 

Whereas whites still hold majority status in many political and educational institutions, she cites statistics that indicate poor whites are mostly excluded. “Out of roughly two hundred students in the Yale Law School class of 2019, there is exactly one poor white—or three, if we include students from families living just above the federal poverty line. Administrators have described this class as the ‘most diverse’ in the school’s history.” Chua’s point is that the exclusion of poor whites from opportunities have led to high rates of anxiety and pessimism about the future within this tribe. While many may argue that Chua’s sympathy is misplaced, her observation sets up the book’s most piercing pronouncement. Virtually all Americans—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or religion—feel threatened. “In these conditions,” she states, “democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition—pure political tribalism.”

Of course, tribalism is impossible without ideology. Tribes need a shared mythology to distinguish themselves from outsiders. In Armed in America: A History of Gun Rights from Colonial Militias to Concealed Carry, Patrick J. Charles dissects beliefs about the Second Amendment. In an age where expertise is sometimes decried as the realm of elites, Charles, who is a senior historian for the US military, reminds us why knowing things is important. Charles’s inquiry is authoritative and extensively sourced. He takes the reader all the way back to fourteenth-century England and meticulously traces the development of the right to bear arms to the present day. 

Why go through such trouble? Late in the book, Charles presents the myth of George Washington’s false teeth. The idea that our first president had teeth made of wood is simply not true. Over many decades, historians, teachers, television producers, and children’s book authors have worked to correct the record. “Still,” as Charles says, “the wooden teeth myth lives on because it is something that people choose to believe.” 

While Charles’s subject is ostensibly the Second Amendment, this is really a book about propaganda and the way it shapes our politics, public health, and self-identity. Charles argues that problems cannot be addressed if those in the best position to fix them won’t acknowledge facts. He says, “much of the fault lays with modern lawyers, originalists, and legal scholars who approach the history of the Second Amendment as a legal thought experiment, not an objective inquiry into the past for the sake of understanding the past.” In other words, modern Second Amendment propagandists helped create an Orwellian America where history “is the subordination of the past by advancing the interests of the present.” 

Charles points to gun-rights advocates who argue that the individual right to bear arms was a principle belief of our forefathers. Further, this individual right to bear arms is guaranteed by the Constitution, which itself is built atop many of the principles set forth in the English laws that provided the soil for the American tree of liberty. Here, Charles uses primary sources to demonstrate that virtually no one from the time of the 1328 Statute of Northampton through the mid-nineteenth century believed that all citizens had a right to carry daggers, swords, and firearms. It was well established that only those working on behalf of the king and, later, the civilian government had the right to bear arms. Indeed, ordinary individuals carrying firearms were sometimes seen as criminals or cowards.

However, Charles’s book is not a polemical argument for gun control. He stays true to his charge of illuminating the actual history of gun rights in America. Accordingly, he describes in great detail how American attitudes toward guns shifted dramatically several times during the twentieth century. For example, New York’s Sullivan Act of 1911 became the first significant law to limit the purchasing and carrying of firearms to those who obtained a government license. While the law was initially praised, it would soon face staunch opposition. Over the decades, sportsmen’s organizations like the United States Revolver Association would morph into gun-rights’ advocacy groups. Interestingly, such groups would begin with completely non-partisan missions, as the executive director of a more familiar organization once stated: “The National Rifle Association of America has never been, it is not now, nor can it ever be a partisan political organization.” But times would change, and the NRA, following a leadership coup in 1977, would shift to become just that. 

Charles sets forth a stunning NRA-supported strategy designed to push public opinion in favor of expanded gun rights: bankrolling lawyers who produced the ahistorical right-to-bear-arms scholarship that led to decisions such as District of Columbia v. Heller, a US Supreme Court case that recognized the right of non-militia-affiliated persons to bear arms. In doing so, the decision wiped away hundreds of years of precedent on the issue. In Armed in America, Charles makes plain how propaganda directed at deeply held personal beliefs can feed tribal ideology.

We usually think of terrorism as acts inflicted on us by outsiders rather than acts we perpetrate against ourselves. We rarely consider the costs of our internal ideologies, which divide us into increasingly partisan factions. bell hooks said there is no life to be found in violence. If our American lives are to continue, we’ll have to stop fearing our own reflections.  




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