DeRay Mckesson and Black Lives Matter

DeRay Mckesson is a Baltimorean who got activist during the Ferguson protests and is prominent in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He wrote a book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope. I wanted to like it.

The opening chapters reminded me of when an opposing lawyer called my first major brief a “Proustian stream of consciousness.” It wasn’t a compliment. (I was the sidekick on that brief; the next I wrote alone, more coherently.) Mckesson seems to string together a flood of thoughts as they occur to him, with no organization or clear line of argument.

The third chapter is much better, focusing on police vis-a-vis blacks. Mckesson’s basic point is that the police have little accountability. We hire them to uphold our laws but they become a law unto themselves. The book explains this in detail, examining local police contracts, negotiated by their unions, geared toward protecting cops against any misconduct charges, by creating roadblocks for complaints.

But a point strangely missing here is that while many cops are sincere public servants aiming to do good, too often police work attracts the wrong sort. Who see the badge as a license to assert their manhood by swaggering with weapons, to be a bully, to vent what are really antisocial proclivities. Or just plain racist ones. Whites may be oblivious to this police brutality because they don’t bear its brunt.

Which brings us to the chapter on white privilege. Here again, unfortunately, the author throws together a welter of ideas, many really rhetorical non-sequiturs, with no coherent line of argument. The “white privilege” trope is polemical jiu-jitsu. It’s not that whites enjoy some special status. What they get is what everyone should get — human privilege. The problem is blacks not receiving it. A simple concept unspoken in Mckesson’s treatment.

“Black Lives Matter” is not a negation of other lives mattering. It’s black lives mattering as much as others. Recognizing the reality that for most of our history, and even now in many places and many hearts, they matter less. Mckesson never says anything so straightforward. The point, like so much else, gets lost in all his verbal gymnastics.

Nearing the book’s middle, I realized that two words in particular were weirdly absent: slavery and lynching. They finally did get a passing mention. But Mckesson first unfolds a bizarre analogy to a stolen lottery ticket, enriching the thief and his descendants, while the victim’s remain poor. As if losing an unearned lottery windfall is remotely comparable to the suffering of slavery and lynching.

A Martian reading this book would not realize that enslavement was the foundational experience of African-Americans. And that during the Jim Crow century, thousands of blacks, often (or mostly?) innocent, were lynched, often with hideous barbarity, to “keep them in their place” through plain terror. In Georgia in 1918, Haynes Turner, an innocent man, was lynched. His wife protested to authorities. She was then arrested, and turned over to a mob, stripped, hung upside down, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death, her belly slashed open to pull out her unborn child, who they stomped to death.

It’s as though Mckesson can’t bring himself to talk plainly about such things. Odd, considering all his assertions that America isn’t truly confronting its race situation, actually one of his key themes. He ends the chapter saying this: “Whiteness is an idea and a choice. We can choose differently. We can introduce new ideas to replace it.”

What?? Maybe I’m too dumb to grasp what he’s talking about there. Or maybe it’s just meaningless word spinning.

Mckesson too often gets tangled in such rhetorical knots and convoluted concepts. He says Charleston racist killer Dylann Roof didn’t get called a “terrorist” to somehow avoid holding him accountable and to “preserve this lie” that crimes by blacks reflect racial pathology whereas white people’s crimes are “just the errant actions of individual actors.” What??

The author’s indictment encompasses most whites, few (if any) meeting his stringent wokeness test, hence being part of the problem in his eyes. Too broad a brush, methinks. Meantime, notwithstanding his mention of Dylann Roof, he says little about burgeoning white nationalist ideology, egged on by Trump, which is coming to be recognized as the nation’s number one terrorist threat. Even absent continued shootings, this poison’s spread could tear the country apart. Mckesson has no answer.

The antepenultimate chapter is a breath of fresh air. Starting it, I sat up and realized this immediately. No more cutesie rhetorical pyrotechnics but clear eloquent honesty — about his growing up gay and how he’s come to terms with it.

But thinking about the book as a whole — this may seem strange for me to say now — what it really is is poetry. Poetry isn’t necessarily linear. It’s more about feeling than argument. I can see Mckesson performing a lot of what he wrote in a poetry slam. But as a book trying to actually elucidate a subject, it really didn’t work for me.

4 Responses to “DeRay Mckesson and Black Lives Matter”

  1. Doug Weston-Kolarik Says:

    Same, same rhetoric. Agonizing minutia of all the racial injustices perpetrated on the poor black race in this country. Spare us all, please

    On Sun, Oct 20, 2019, 7:39 AM The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > rationaloptimist posted: “DeRay Mckesson is a Baltimorean who got activist > during the Ferguson protests and is prominent in the “Black Lives Matter” > movement. He wrote a book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for > Hope. I wanted to like it. The opening chapters reminded me” >

  2. Lee Says:

    I am glad you read it and conveyed it to us. I think that there is a language barrier and that it is only by repeated exposure to the language of others that we have a chance to bridge the gap.

    Generally, I think one of the reasons there is a growing polarization in our country (conservative vs. progressive, red vs. blue, etc.) is an actual language barrier. The usual meanings of words differ across these divides. Sometimes these differences are characterized as “dog whistles” where a certain phrase evokes a large set of associated knowledge in one group but not in another. Although “dog whistle” is often used to indicate an intention to send such a mixed message, I think that there is a bigger problem with an unintentional language barrier.

    “Black Lives Matters” is a well known example. One group hears “too” at the end and is sympathetic and another group hears “only” at the end and is disgusted.

    “Reparations” is another one. Some people say that slavery ended more than a century ago, and argue that reparations are inappropriate. Others remember that up through and beyond the Martin Luther King, Jr. era, black people were excluded from participation in so much (either de jure or de facto) — and approaches like allowing People of Color to “jump the line” now aren’t giving them an unfair advantage; in too many cases, it’s barely letting them catch up to where they would have been had they been allowed to get in line earlier. Instead of arguing the merits people get caught up in arguing whether this should be called “reparations.”

    Does it have to be white hoods, lynching, and “whites only” water fountains to be “racism”? Or can well-intentioned actions that have racist impact be also labeled as racism? Too many people are arguing about definitions rather than working to solve the problems.

  3. Lee Says:

    I just read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (10th Anniversary Edition) by Michelle Alexander. I think it does a good job of explaining how mass incarceration is modern-day racism that is as severe as the Jim Crow laws (whites-only water fountains, etc.). The Preface to the Tenth Anniversary Edition is a reasonably short, powerful introduction to the concepts.

    I would very much appreciate your thoughts on the book and the arguments that it raises. If you like, I will drop off a copy at your place.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    I’m familiar with the book and the arguments it presents, tho I haven’t read it. I actually don’t feel reading it would add much to my understanding.

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