In October of 2002 the DC Sniper was on the loose; killing and injuring people all over the DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia). It was, in a word, horrific. At the time we didn’t know it was a killing spree that had fanned out across the country, and that it was two men not one. The one thing of which I was sure, the one thing of which I was certain, the one thing for which I would’ve bet the house, was that it wasn’t a black man who was doing it.
I still remembered the day they were captured. I was standing in the entrance to an unlit cafeteria at work. The light shining into a huge plated glass window in the background made the television screen all but impossible to see. I could hear the commentator saying the word “capture” but I couldn’t make out the fine details over the clamor of the cafeteria workers cleaning up in preparation of closing. I moved around a table and some chairs and closer to the television to hear the commentary and to avert the glare from the light outside, and there it was; the snipers had been caught. Snipers, plural. Snipers… black. I watched in confused silence; saying nothing and comprehending nothing. I stood there almost like a tourist in a foreign land who had just heard a phrase in a language he didn’t speak, waiting for someone to translate it and make it all make sense. The Snipers were black? How could this have been done by black people? That doesn’t even sound right. We don’t do this kind of thing. Is this real?
“We don’t do this kind of thing”
I remember an older black lady standing next to me in the cafeteria watching the news conference. I remember her looking at me briefly almost in exasperation; saying everything without saying anything. She looked at me for a moment, with a pained expression on her face, shook her head in disgust… and walked off without ever having said anything. And I understood. Sure we were all happy it was over; the weeks leading up to this capture was a terrorist siege for which there seemed to be no safe harbor. And now… finally… it was over. But… black people did this?
This didn’t compute.
The math is looking all sorts of funny right now and I can’t make it make sense. I came uncomfortably close to becoming the “wait for the facts” guy standing there watching this new telecast. But as I walked away, both relieved and befuddled, I knew my rational mind would force reconciliation. The facts were the facts. These dudes were the snipers, they were black, and that’s just what it was. If that obligates me to re-calibrate my intellectual stance, then I guess that’s just what has to happen. It’s leaving a bad taste in my mouth, but it is what it is. The Snipers were black: We CAN do this kind of thing.
I don’t know who all might be reading this; your perspective may have been different on the day of the arrests. Maybe you didn’t have to adjust your intellectual compass. Maybe you didn’t labor under the same misapplied assumptions which I did. Hell, maybe you never even thought about it. All I can tell you is that the perch from which I observed humanity, changed drastically the day the Snipers were caught; and the result was a much wider much more sober view. And as a result, when I say, “we really are all equal” there’s a very good chance that I am expressing an idea that other people are not; even if those people utter the exact same words I spoke.
When I say we are equal (regardless of which demographic is my focal point), I mean it in every aspect; not just in ways that are flattering and complimentary. We are equipped to engage in enterprises of the highest and lowest caliber with uniformity. There are factors, of course, that help determine what ultimately manifests (biology, circumstance, socialization, hell even selection bias). For example, it’s not as though Black people lack the necessary depth of bigotry to be racist; it’s merely a matter of power and circumstance. If America had been built on roughly 500 years of black supremacy and oppression, and if it had been interwoven into the institutions and infrastructure, WE would be the racists, and white people would be incapable of wearing the label. There is not some spiritual or moral attribute present in us that is missing in white people.
That means, we are not inferior to white people in any way, and not intrinsically better in any way. It may feel like blasphemy to say those words since (I believe) part of our identity as black people in America, is the belief in our preternatural ability along with due consideration of the dark history of this country. We have to be special; look at all we have been asked to overcome, and look who was at the helm of almost all of it. No one else could have survived what we went through… right? Consequently this vantage point is part of the reason why I believe black culture doesn’t support seeking assistance for mental health issues; we won’t admit that we have them. Supernatural beings do not have mental health issues.
But if we’re being entirely honest and objective, and we truly believe that all men and women are created equal, we would admit that we are human. Not better, not worse, just human. The differences between one demographic and another? Most often artificially created and artificially maintained. But, among humankind there seems to be a tendency to see the best in ourselves, the worst in those who are not us, and to believe that both represent the natural order of things. The result? An idealized Chosen Class of people. A group of people more special than others.
And no such thing exists. Biology exists, circumstance exists, socialization and many other factors exist that result in different learned behaviors and perspectives. But underneath it is all is the same potential for great and horrible things in every group; all that is missing is opportunity and time. Given enough of both, you will see; no group owns the patent on any behavior.
It may be comforting to the psyche of one group or another to think otherwise; especially when that group is subjected to repeated devaluation and relentless derision. That experience can be more than taxing, it can be debilitating. For those in a position to survive this, it may be a necessary psychological crutch; to believe that somehow this all balances out on some cosmic scale because the oppressed are a better cross-section of humanity than the oppressor. I get that. But it is no more true than the lies oppressors tell themselves about those they oppress. I assert that there is no better brand of human being, there is just – human being. To believe otherwise is to invite reality to sucker punch you with a Five Finger Ring with the words “well actually” embossed on the outside.
To be clear (and to circumvent any undue speculation here) let me say explicitly that none of what I have said is meant to suggest we are all equally oppressive to one another. Such an idea (which has a tendency to be propagated most often by those in position to oppress others) is wildly incongruent with reality. If it were true there would be no basis to seek equity and justice in our laws, civic functions, commerce, education and the like; it would already exist. I am likewise not saying or suggesting that oppression and degradation is more in the mind of those who suffer it than in the reality shared by everyone. But I am all about seeing truth with context and nuance. And here that nuance is this: Not having the opportunity “sin a great sin” is not the same as saying you never would. We are not beyond making the immoral choice, simply because we haven’t been given a chance to do so. And given time and opportunity we CAN do that kind of thing. Ultimately, recognizing this is a good thing. The ability to see ourselves in the actions of others (especially when those actions fail to rise to the established standards of our ethics), is the self-diagnostic that helps us become better than who we once were.
But tied to it all is accepting that there are no “people” who are the Martyrs or the Saviors of us all; anymore than there are people who are the Masters, the Elect, or the Chosen of us all. There are no “special” people who set the ethical standard for everyone else. When we insist on creating them anyway, we willfully elevate people to heights which they cannot reach naturally, nor survive once they arrive. The more rarefied the air in which we place people, the greater the calamity that accompanies their accelerated fall from unwarranted grace.