On December 1, 2014, I wrote Part 1 of this post. Shortly after I wrote it, I reduced my communication footprint considerably. I cancelled my cell phone contract and started using a combination of iMessage, my office phone, and Google Voice for my day to day communication needs. I deactivated my Facebook accounts, the personal account AND the professional account that I used to interact with students, colleagues, and maintain a social media presence for the service-learning program I administer at my college. I stopped using Instagram, Tumblr, and the soon to be defunct Google+. All that remained of what used to be a rather active and connected digital life was this blog, my LinkedIn profile and my Twitter account.
My experiences over the last few months have measured up to what is starting to become a well-worn cliche of “unplugging.” The changes have been wonderful for my life and well being in general. But, I will have to save those details for another entry. The important thing here is the big picture. And the big picture is this: I nearly allowed Facebook to break me–mentally and emotionally. Stepping away was an important health decision for me.
Now some of you (presuming that I actually have readers) are probably snickering, rolling your eyes, writing me off as one more excuse for a human being who didn’t have the self-control to curb their social media addiction. Judge if you must, but also know that my circumstances were significantly different. The majority of my Facebook use before I decided to leave was not blithely social. I did not just hang out, message friends, or gossip about trivia…though of course I did a fair amount of this. I used my Facebook accounts to engage with my students in class discussion groups, to engage members of the professional associations to which I belong, and to build professional relationships with other scholars and academics. I used my Facebook accounts to gather news, to get a sense of what people were talking about, and to add my voice to that cacophony. I used my Facebook account to nurture relationships that I will admit I have all but lost now that I no longer use “the Book.” I used my Facebook accounts to feel a part of a broader community of like-minded individuals and to engage with friends on a level that can be considered nothing short of ambitious for someone as introverted I as I am. But most often, I used my Facebook accounts very actively as platforms for social and political activism. I often spent hours at a time composing research-supported, article length (many of which became posts on this blog) missives on the issues about which I am passionate. And of course, I engaged in countless comment thread conversations, hoping that I could further the end of social justices through dialogue.
Ultimately, it was the strain of these last efforts that led to my decision to leave. Ironically enough, the same reasons are making it difficult to stay off.
I wrote Part 1 of this post shortly after it was announced that Darren Wilson would not be prosecuted for the murder of Michael Brown. I chose to engage in a conversation on the comment thread of post by a friend has an enormously diverse range of political perspectives represented among her connections–some that, I am ashamed to admit, make me feel insecure about the authenticity of her liking of me. In that conversation, I tried to articulate some of my thoughts on the ruling, not with vitriol, hyperbole, or emotional outrage (I was just about out of all three of those), but with a measured appeal to look at the big picture. I conceded up front that I did not believe that Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown because he harbors a personal hatred of blacks. But I asked those I was engaged in a conversation with to consider that the Ferguson Police force, embedding within the larger cultural history of deplorable Saint Louis area race relations, might represent a culture of largely unintentional, seemingly justifiable, and therefore incredibly dangerous racial bias. And within that culture of bias, black men are assumed to necessitate a level of policing that is inhumane and fundamentally racist. I said then, and I still believe now, that I that Darren Wilson was genuinely afraid for his life when he shot Michael Brown. And I will say again, that the question we should be asking isn’t whether or not Wilson or any other officer’s fear is real; it is how do we keep our young black men alive if walking down the street, carrying Skittles, holding a toy in a department store, playing loud music, reaching for just about anything, or asking for roadside assistance are the kinds of activities that the majority of white America will perceive as authentic threats to their lives?
For making these statements and asking these questions, I was mocked by a friend of my friend and accused of playing the “race card.” I made light of it at the time, but it hurt me more than I can articulate. I don’t know the woman who made this comment and she certainly did not know me. She probably forgot about the interaction minutes after it happened and went on to blame Obama for something. But her comment still hurts, because it distilled the enormity of challenge I have taken up, because it made me feel powerless…which is of course the tactical brilliance of racism, its ability to erode the foundation of those who would challenge its position in the status quo.
I find myself wrestling with this pain again this morning as the details of last week’s Justice Department report on the Ferguson Police Force continue to make the rounds. I suppose I should feel vindicated that the report puts to paper what many of us already knew, the Ferguson Police has shown a consistent pattern of racial bias against blacks. And this culture of bias existed well before Michael Brown. Of course, we didn’t need the Justice Department to tell us this. It was already in the data about Ferguson traffic stops. It was already part of the historical record about this region. It was already part of local consciousness and experience. And it was the reason this police department was already under investigation BEFORE Michael Brown was killed. And it was the reason the community reacted so passionately to Brown’s killing, to the alarmingly militaristic stance the police took after the shooting, and to the atrocious and unconscionable treatment of media attempting to cover the event. Contrary to the incomprehensibly clueless stance that the Ferguson community “overacted for no reason” or worse, because they were “animals, ” collective unrest–riots–don’t materialize out of nowhere. They are generally the result of a tipping point reached only after years, decades, even century of provocation.
So the news that officers in this department engaged in overtly racist “water cooler talk” via state owned email addresses over the years isn’t terribly surprising. And the news that these emails were not reported, that no one was disciplined, that no one was told to stop, rather “the emails were usually forwarded along to others,” simply adds another layer of detail to the already well formed picture of police department whose culture was defined by what I call Racism 2.0.
I suppose I should feel encouraged that this news is out there. But, I wonder if people are even talking about it on Facebook. Certainly not as much as they talked about the riots. I have the feeling that those who justified Mike Brown’s murder by citing stereotypical violence amount young black urban males, will not find the Ferguson community’s fear and anger about the state of policing (a state that legitimately threatens their lives) justifiable though it has been conclusively proven they have much reason for anger and fear, even outside of the Brown debacle. Even in the limited social media interactions I still maintain, I have already seen a kind of self-deluded insistence that the history of racial bias in the Ferguson Police Department and the shooting of Michael Brown are totally unrelated–which is something like saying that falling snow has nothing to do with the prevailing winds. But this is the nature of American exceptionalism, right? Our willingness to believe in the exception as rule, and to relegate the role of history, context, and material reality such that a norm, like racism, is perceived as an exception.