What the Watts Riots Could Teach Us About Future Fergusons

Future protests should be peaceful and very strictly goal-oriented

Sunday marks the first anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown, which resulted in protests in Ferguson, Mo., and around the U.S. Next week we remember another period of civil unrest, the 50th anniversary of the Los Angeles Watts Riots, a six-day melee that resulted in 34 deaths, more than 1,000 wounded, and almost 4,000 arrested. On Aug. 11, 1965, white cops stopped a black driver who was suspected to be under the influence, he resisted arrest, and the cops beat him. A rumor spread that the officers had beaten a pregnant black woman.

The Watts Riots offer lessons for today’s Civil Rights street protests against the police murder of black people—and it’s not just that sometimes you have to take it to the streets. Make no mistake: You do—but there are other things that we must also do to make sure that today’s protests have a better outcome than the Watts ones did.

Watts kicked off a series of black-led urban riots in what came to be called the “long, hot summers.” Previously, race riots had almost always entailed white thugs streaming into black neighborhoods, as seen in the famous Tulsa race riots of 1921. Only in the wake of Watts did the norm become black people burning down their own neighborhoods in response to white offenses.

It’s easy to look back on the Watts Riots as a sign that black people were fed up and fighting back. It had a feel of “Burn, Baby, Burn,” maybe a Panther or two in shades standing by. The perception was all so much “fiercer” than people getting battered by fire hoses or singing “We Shall Overcome.”

But after the dust cleared, it became clear that these riots did nothing for black America. Many white storeowners didn’t reopen their stores in black downtowns, resulting in the desolate, dangerous wastelands that so many urban downtowns became, furnishing the grounds for further miseries.

The National Welfare Rights Organization had been calling for the relaxation of welfare requirements, and the riots helped seal the deal. Welfare had been a stingy program originally intended mainly for widows, but as “riot insurance,” as it was quietly called, it was rapidly refashioned into an open-ended service that seemed to dispense checks with no one caring whether anyone ever got job training or worked again. This was a new kind of welfare, which some white radicals sincerely hoped would bankrupt the government and create a Brave New World. But the black subjects of this experiment suffered multigenerational life on the dole, which only ended with the re-reform of welfare in 1996.

Unlike the Watts Riots, the recent protests starting with the one in Ferguson are bearing actual fruit. The injustice of how much easier it is to be killed by a policeman if one is black than white is now on the nation’s mind in a way that it never has been before. Cameras could make a difference, and it’s too early to deny that on the basis of the fact that so far the cameras have often ended up showing us murder rather than restraint. We may be in a transitional period during which cops have yet to fully understand how much they need to change their conduct.

But our new protesters must not replicate the excesses of the “long, hot summers” riots. Too often, the Ferguson protests paralleled the Watts ones in burning down black businesses as well as other ones. In general, future protests should be not only peaceful, but also very strictly goal-oriented, focused on the arrest of obviously guilty cops, calls for body cameras where none are being used, and perhaps independent oversight panels. Journalists and intellectuals should refrain from calling people who use the riots as an excuse for theft and violence “revolutionaries.”

After all, whatever the thrills of scaring white people are, let’s face it: You don’t want them to retreat completely. Already these recent protests have seemed to discourage some cops from doing their jobs in black neighborhoods at all—Baltimore, for example, saw crime increase after the protests in response to the death of Freddie Gray—which means more black people could be at risk of getting hurt and killed.

Finally, if after a while it looks like the new protests have made a serious difference—and no one should be afraid to admit that they have if so—then it will be time to take the protests to a new level. How about protesting black lives taken by other black people and demanding that this problem be truly addressed by both black neighborhoods and the cops who patrol them?

Black-on-black murder is what happens too much during our modern long, hot summers, after all. The new protest movement could go down in history as something truly large, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work. A great many Americans find the “Black Lives Matter” slogan bankrupt because they think it really means “Black Lives Matter When White People Take Them.” Let’s prove them wrong.


If President Obama Can Say It, You Can Too

US President Barack Obama address the US Conference of Mayors during their annual meeting in San Francisco on June 19, 2015.
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images US President Barack Obama address the US Conference of Mayors during their annual meeting in San Francisco on June 19, 2015.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

Policing language prevents us from badly-needed discourse, as President Obama made clear this week

In many traditional cultures of Australia, it used to be taboo to use normal language with your mother-in-law. Instead, you had to use a whole set of different words and even grammar rules with her. She had to talk that way to you, too.

That’s the kind of thing we learn about in anthropology classes. But we reveal ourselves as more like those tribal people than we suppose in the way we police language such as the N-word. A perfect example is that we even bat an eye when President Barack Obama says to Marc Maron that racism is “not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public” in an interview released Monday.

The issue isn’t whether Obama called someone the N-word. It has for decades been Civility 101 in American society that one does not do that without severe sanction. Where things have gotten complicated is the idea that it is equally sinful to even use the word at all. People have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that referring to the word is not the same as using it.

At the University of Virginia in 2003, a medical-center employee said having a football team called the Redskins is as “derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to blacks.” This sparked a protest by the black staff, with her union head suggesting she be fired. When civil-liberties advocate Wendy Kaminer used the N-word to criticize it in a panel discussion at Smith College last fall, she was roasted for committing an “explicit act of racial violence.”

According to the rules of our taboo, black people are allowed to use the word (including with one another to mean “buddy,” a complex matter in itself) because we have been the ones subjected to its abusive usage. Yet, it seems almost as awkward when the president, a black person, uses the word in that way as when a white one does.

Is that because using the word even to refer to it should be considered beneath the dignity of anyone regardless of color? I suspect that analysis misses something. To many, hearing blacks use the N-word, even to refer to it, is awkward because of how arbitrary it seems that whites are tarred as racists when they, too, are simply referring to it.

For example, I myself occasionally use the actual word in just the way that Obama did in my classes, when a societal issue comes up and I want the rhetorical clarity of the word itself rather than a coy euphemism. Occasionally one of my more vocal white students has jokingly commented “See, you can say it!” The comment carries an implication (which he would never venture out loud) that it seems a little arbitrary that I am allowed to say it just because I’m black. I just say “Yep!” and we all laugh a little and move on. But we know it feels arbitrary, not quite fully thought out, that they aren’t allowed to use the word even to refer to it.

There is also the unfortunate term “Niggeritis” that refers to someone being tired after eating a lot of food. I learned of it from a white guy who couldn’t bear to utter the actual word and instead described it and let me figure it out. “Oh, just say the damned word!” I was thinking—and he should have been able to. I felt like we were Australian tribespeople drinking Sauvignon Blanc.

Obama should not have to say “the N-word” when referring to the word, and I’m glad he didn’t. Whites shouldn’t have to either, if you ask me. I am now old enough to remember when the euphemism had yet to catch on. In a thoroughly enlightened 1990s journalistic culture, one could still say the whole word when talking about it. The very first media interview I ever did, a local one on the history of what I would now have to call “the N-word,” would now sound like a period piece simply because it was still OK for me to utter the word I was referring to.

What have we gained since then in barring people from ever uttering the word even to discuss it—other than a fake, ticklish nicety that seems almost designed to create misunderstandings?

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


At Least Rachel Dolezal ‘Walked the Walk’ of Being Black

Dolezal, living as black for real, put her money where her mouth is

Part of me wants to hate Rachel Dolezal for pretending to be black. How dare Dolezal claim blackness without having grown up amidst the cultural experience? But I can’t hate her. In fact, I think I agree with her actions, at least more than I do with others who embrace blackness in even phonier ways.

For example, many non-black people under a certain age embrace cultural aspects of blackness such as speech patterns, dress styles, greetings, carriage, musical taste, and dress. This shows affection for blackness—or at least parts of it. Their idea would seem to be that these traits are more “real” than “whiteness,” which is often seen as boring, too buttoned-up, too cold, and lacking flair.

“I’m blacker than you!” such non-black people happily tell black people like, yes, me.With their immersion in hip hop, saying “naw” instead of “no,” certain hand gestures, and “street” social identification, I suppose you could say they are indeed “blacker” than I am, in a way. Yet there is a sense of Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” about this “blackness.”

Make no mistake—the “browning” of American culture is a marvelous thing. It’s evidence of progress on race that is too seldom acknowledged. Yet the idea that how a person moves his body to music has something important to do with his or her worth as a human being is easy, sloppy, and dangerous. When white people venture such parochial sentiments in praise of themselves, they are called racists.

Dolezal, living as black for real, put her money where her mouth is in a way people like this would never even consider.

And she’s also certainly ahead of the curve compared to those who think progress on race means whites “acknowledging” their white privilege.

On that, I get the basic idea: An enlightened America should indeed understand that racism is much more than being called the n-word or not being allowed to shop at a store. But the white privilege routine of white people acknowledging the benefits that white people face is presented as something grander than that. The “acknowledgement” of white privilege is cherished as somehow being as important as, say, actual political activism. The ultimate purpose of this is to make white people feel absolved of racism, but blacks gain less.

Dolezal shines in contrast. She isn’t soberly “acknowledging” her white privilege and then going about her business. Nor is she just dancing blackness or hairstyling blackness within the cozy confines of a middle-class white existence. Dolezal actually left whiteness behind and presented herself as black to society. She has undergone what it is to be perceived as black (even if she has possibly been fabricating a particular hate-crime experience).

Moreover, she has done this not just to perform a charismatic piece of street culture, but to do something as serious as leading a branch of the NAACP. That’s no picnic—the NAACP is an organization with serious problems. She resigned from her position today.

Of course, all of this is a little weird, and even a little fake. One suspects that for Dolezal, being “black” was a way of feeling special and important, perhaps out of a sense that being a white political activist would have somehow been less “cool” or “real.” But none of us is perfect, most of us are actors to an extent, and I’ll certainly take Dolezal over “I feel like I am black!” and “I hereby acknowledge my privilege.”

Those types are talking the talk. Dolezal is walking the walk.


If One Generation of Black Men Could Grow Up Not Experiencing Cops as the Enemy

Justice Department Concludes Racially Biased Practices Prevalent Within Ferguson Police Dept.
Michael B. Thomas—Getty Images Protestors demonstrate outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Mo. on March 4, 2015.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

Towns like Ferguson need to be fixed if we're ever to fix America

Previously in Time, I noted that the main question from the Ferguson debacle is: What is the situation that makes two young black men comfortable dismissing a police officer’s request to step aside? The Department of Justice’s report on the chilling degree of racism on the part of Ferguson’s police force answers that question. The Department of Justice report has shown us that black people in Ferguson have long experienced the police as a contemptuous occupying army. For someone of Brown’s age, a sense of the police as the enemy is ingrained as nothing less than a cultural heritage.

Sure, we can quibble with the idea that disparate outcomes always indicate discrimination. But this kind of reasoning only nibbles at the very plain indications of the Ferguson report. Anyone who reads the endless procession of stories of white cops being just plain evil to innocent black people for no real reason — and sees it as their just desserts — has no place in any reasonable conversation about race in America.

The Department of Justice report is an invaluable portrait of the black experience of the police in countless locations across the United States. Typically illustrated by scattered anecdotes, and usually making headlines only when a person gets killed, this experience with the police is susceptible to being dismissed as a distortion. Whites can say that they, too, have had less than positive encounters with cops. They can also say that as far as white cops occasionally killing black boys, black people are usually murdered by other black people, and that’s what ought to bother them. And you know what? Neither of those points are without value, nor do they make their utterer racist.

But the reason black America feels so besieged by the police goes beyond the occasional Mike Browns and Eric Garners or running into the occasional cop who is a little too happy to issue tickets. To be black in Ferguson has meant regular encounters with snarling authority figures with the power to detain, injure, and even kill if “necessary,” often for trumped up reasons, and not treating whites the same way nearly as often.

Who thinks humble, ordinary little Ferguson is for some reason unique? There isn’t Racist Juice in the water along with the fluoride there. The only question is why we would think this kind of abuse is not common in a great many other places. Anyone who claims Ferguson is an isolated case has the burden of proof here.

No, not every black person in Ferguson has been getting hurled about by the cops every week. Such things may never have happened to you at all; likely you only run up against it once. But it has also happened to your brother, your son, your cousin, that guy you know, that lady. It’s a community-wide experience. The cops, to you, mean something different than they do to somebody in Scarsdale. To read this DOJ report and still have no response but a harrumphing disapproval of Mike Brown’s distrust of authority is blinkered. Not racist, perhaps, but simplistic.

And while we’re at it, the report also helps make sense of Brown at the convenience store. Does it excuse it? No—that convenience store video is lowly indeed; there’s no hero there. But again, how shocked are we that, in a neighborhood where the main representatives of authority are so often monsters, some kids would feel less compunction about nabbing some cigars than ones in Brookline, Massachusetts would?

It is this treatment by the police that makes so many black people feel like racism is a key component of being black in America. Yes, some people exaggerate the issue. Black Americans do not live “under siege” and there is no “war on black men.” Plus, the resentment black men feel toward the cops can lead to a vicious cycle, where their disrespect conditions the same response in cops, and so on.

But I can guarantee that if just one generation of black men grew up with no reason to think of the cops as the enemy rather than as public helpers, then black America would be much better prepared to approach racism the way so many other groups have, and do — as an inconvenience rather than as an obstacle.

No self-regarding group of humans can be expected to brush off constant treatment like this as just “bad days” in an imperfect world. Towns like Ferguson need to be fixed — and, if they were, America would be fixed too.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME politics

Obama Is Right Not to Talk About ‘Islamic’ Terrorism

President Obama Addresses DNC Winter Meeting
Alex Wong—EPA President Barack Obama speaks during the General Session of the 2015 DNC Winter Meeting in Washington, DC, Feb. 20, 2015.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

No one should have trouble understanding why a war on Islamic terrorists isn’t a war on Islam? Nonsense.

The Obama slam of the moment is that he should be calling our battle against ISIS one against Islamic terrorists, instead of pretending that the battle is against something as general as “terrorists” alone. The people angry at Obama about this are forgetting how educated they are.

Here’s what I mean. The Obama administration wants to avoid people thinking our battle is against Islam in general. His critics, however, assume that it would be obvious to anybody that you can battle one strain of Islam without having it in for Muslims in general. That perspective is typical of an educated Westerner, who today is trained — to an almost religious degree — to strive to view people as individuals rather than to stereotype. Stereotyping is treated among us as, essentially, a transgression of human decency.

We’ve learned our lesson — to the point that we forget that it ever was a lesson. Surely anyone knows that battling a particular group of Islamic terrorists is to battle those individuals, not Islam as a whole, right? Wrong, actually.

Attributing group traits to individuals is a deeply seated psychological habit. When a person is unfamiliar, we are less likely to process them as an individual than we are to seek to classify them into some higher category. Implicit Association tests, most famous these days as revealing that black people are more readily associated with negative words than positive ones, are ample testament to this. Stereotyping is almost certainly programmed in our genes. Once it may have been a useful defense mechanism, but today it is disadvantageous as often as it is useful.

But that means: Just as for some it can be a short step from “He’s black” to “He’s a criminal,” for just as many, it’s a short step from “They are battling that group of Muslims” to “They don’t like Muslims, period.” This isn’t hard to explain: Given our natural tendency to generalize about persons, it’s easier to see someone as, for example, “Muslim,” than to see that person as simply one of billions of infinitely variant individuals.

So, it will most certainly not be obvious to many human beings that a war against “Islamic terrorists” is not a war against Islam. Recent historical events certainly encourage the misconception, but even without them, that overgeneralizing leap would have been common — because it’s natural.

The Obama Administration has neither the time nor the wherewithal to train the world, Karate Kid-style, in the mental feat of resisting the impulse to generalize about people and see them as individuals first. The hopelessness of such a feat should be more obvious to Obama’s critics than it is.

We see how we fail to make subtle distinctions every day in our own domestic politics.

On the left, it is considered acceptable to use a single awkward comment about people of a color or gender or class as evidence that one is, overall, racist, sexist, or classist and dismissible from civilized society. The case of Justine Sacco, treated as a near-psychopath for one racially insensitive tweet to friends and family, is illustrative.

On the right, imagine Obama, because he is given to mentioning mistakes America has made in the past, being tarred as, overall, someone who doesn’t love America.

That’s a mental jump, by Rudolph Giuliani, from Barack Obama the individual to a traitorous radical figurine. Both Giuliani and the people who ruined Sacco’s life on Twitter are normal humans, operating from the same deep-seated impulse to generalize, especially about things feared or hated.

For the left, isms. For the right, collegetown radicalism, ACORN, and such. For many watching America, a war on Islam.

No one should have trouble understanding why a war on Islamic terrorists isn’t a war on Islam? Nonsense. No one should have any trouble understanding why the Obama administration must mince its words when fighting Islamic terrorists. Not all people are initiated into the mental acrobatics of resisting stereotyping, and even we aren’t as good at it as we like to think.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


Let’s Get Back to Black Power in 2015

James Nachtwey—Paramount Pictures From the set of Selma.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

To cry racism immediately over Selma and other perceived slights is not Black Power, it’s Black Cower

There is a great deal of Black Power on view in Selma. There is little of it in the response to its Oscar nominations. Historians date the beginning of the Great Migration to 1915. That was some serious Black Power. Might we observe the centennial by getting re-acquainted with the proactive spirit that drove it?

It isn’t, for example, that Selma got no nominations: It was nominated for Best Picture. But because no actors in the film were nominated, nor was its director Ava DuVernay, racism is ever with us? But for the past 16 years, a person of color has always been nominated for an acting award. Plus, just last year, 12 Years a Slave, produced and directed by a black man, won Best Picture. In recent years, the Academy has granted Oscars to Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Halle Berry, Lou Gossett, Cuba Gooding, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong’o. Try explaining to a child how that body of voters qualifies as “racist.”

If progress has been really happening with the Academy and race, then by sheer logic, the year had to come when acknowledging black achievement became so ordinary and accepted that even a black film ended up being sidelined by matters of glitz and chance. That is, one day black films would start occasionally getting ordinary – and thus imperfect – treatment: think Forrest Gump beating out Pulp Fiction. “Occasionally” had to start with a first time: this seems to have been it.

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has a screwy glamor about it for assorted reasons. Some say Selma requires “acknowledgment,” but with 12 Years a Slave so recent, perhaps there was a sense that acknowledgment was less urgent so soon afterward? One may argue, but “racism”? Then also, the Oscar voters were sent the Selma screening copies late.

In 1915, the NAACP was protesting the savagery depicted in Birth of a Nation. A hundred years later, one black film isn’t being feted sufficiently by a notoriously shallow, silly awards ceremony, while still being warmly and urgently celebrated as a signature piece of art in media organs nationwide, and Al Sharpton convenes an “emergency meeting?”

I’m sorry, but this is not what people 50 years ago meant by keeping up the Struggle. The Struggle would mean raising a fuss if we saw a new pattern over time. To cry racism immediately over Selma is not Black Power, it’s Black Tantrum.

And that tantrum is a variation on a theme. For example, the NAACP filed a Civil Rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in 2012, which continued getting news coverage through last year. New York City bases admission to its most competitive three public schools on a test. Seeing that only 33 out of 3281 of these schools’ students were black in the 2013-4 school year, the NAACP has declared the tests “racist.”

So, Civil Rights, 21st century-style: If black kids don’t do well on a test, the solution is not to see how we can teach them to do better on it, as can be done. Rather, the higher wisdom is to call for the authorities to get rid of it, make it easier, make it optional, or at least make it count for much less.

But just imagine the whites who founded the NAACP in 1909 sagely declaring that black schoolchildren shall not be expected to pass tests. They would be gleefully held up as grand old racists today. How is this new vision of black intelligence any different? Try to pass the test or try to get rid of it? Black Power or Black Cower? People are watching, and no one respects weakness.

If someone says black people don’t work hard, Black Power does not assert that to even broach the issue is morally unforgivable: one presents counterevidence. Kanye West says we fight the Confederate flag by wearing one ourselves and saying “It’s my flag. What are you gonna do about it?” He’s right for a change: Black Power. Certainly some whites will say some shady little things about our President this year with racial undertones. But what’s more important, some movie executive supposing that Obama likes Kevin Hart (heavens what a slur!), or that as Obama said in his State of the Union, he won two elections? That — Black In Power, as it were — is more important than anything any right-wing talking head can come up with.

I think Dr. King would be perplexed that so often today, via a kind of ideological mission creep, black people have been taught to think of assertions of weakness as strength. He would be even more perplexed to see people who point this out labelled “conservative.” Black Power plows ahead, not backwards.

In 2015, can we please get back to it?

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


Ferguson Was the Spark — Eric Garner Is the Fire

Eric Garner Police Brutality Death
Ramsey Orta

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

Are we trying to create a world devoid of any racist bias, or are we trying to stop cops from shooting black men?

Here’s a look at the future, and probably not that far into it. People will learn two things:

1) That an officer was not indicted for murdering Eric Garner—black, 43, and detained simply for selling single cigarettes—despite the fact that the killing was recorded from start to finish for all of America to see.

2) That an officer was not indicted for killing Michael Brown after Brown had stolen from a store, refused the officer’s request to step aside and perhaps tried to grab his gun, with the officer shooting when Brown repeatedly lunged toward him for some reason, with none of this recorded and the details murkily varying from one witness to the next.

Perfectly sensible people will be wondering why so many people in late 2014 thought of the Ferguson case, in particular, as the civil rights case of the 21st century. Yes, Brown should not have died—I have heartily agreed, repeatedly. But people in the future will see the current focus on Ferguson as evidence of people losing sight of the fact that activism is supposed to be about results.

Are we trying to create a humanity devoid of any racist bias, or are we trying to stop cops from shooting black men? The two aren’t the same. A world without racism would be a world without dirt. A world where episodes like what has happened just this year to Garner, Brown, John Crawford, Akai Gurley, and Tamir Rice is much more plausible. We need special prosecutors, body cameras, and, if you ask me, an end to the war on drugs.

As such, we must be pragmatic. I know the people protesting Michael Brown’s death nationwide are sincere. But it’s easy to forget that in cases like this, sincerity is supposed to be forward-focused. It’s all too human for people to end up mistaking the heightened emotions, the threats, the media attention, the catharsis, as progress itself. But drama alone burns fast and bright. Think about how Trayvon is already—admit it—seeming more like history than the present.

Are we really committed to this thing lasting past the winter?

If so, then we have to ask ourselves—is Michael Brown more important somehow because he was killed with a gun? Is Garner somehow less worthy of iconic, implacable protest because he was older than Brown, less “glamorous” than a teenager? Is it, in other words, that Brown is more dramatic?

Because there are other kinds of drama, if we must. For example, Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s statement about Garner is outright tragedy—so disgustingly detached coming from someone’s murderer that it constitutes drama in itself.

“It is never my intention to harm anyone,” Pantaleo says—as if we were thinking now of “harm,” a formal term you can use to refer to a dent in your car. “I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner”—my God, “very bad” sounds like he broke someone’s window with a baseball, and “the death of Mr. Garner” sounds like something he watched on TV rather than did with his bare hands. “Accept my personal condolences” says this man twice brought up on misconduct charges before, as if it were his aunt by marriage who passed away after a brief illness.

This, to me, is an articulate testament to how some whites can be unable to see black people as human—and, especially if cops, be more likely to kill them. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a precious teaching moment. Pantaleo’s statement is, in its way, as useful as Reverend King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail as a look into a human mind.

Yet one hears that however iffy the Ferguson details are, we should just go with it because it has struck a chord. That our message to America is to be “Even when my son steals from a store, refuses a cop’s order and tries to take his gun, he shouldn’t get shot.” And he shouldn’t, but wow, what a delicate and hopelessly controversial point that is in such a key moment as this. It’s a tricky, subtle assertion, which has not struck a chord with the disinterested middle because the facts are too murky. We want to make history, not just headlines.

How about this, as a story we can tell the next generation without taking a deep breath and thinking about how to paper over the holes?

Ferguson was the spark, but Garner was “it.”

Here is where I am quite sure Reverend King and Bayard Rustin would be planning not just statements and gestures, but boycotts. The recording of Garner’s death has the clear, potent and inarguable authority of the Birmingham newsreels. We must use that. Yes, usewe are trying to create change, not just perform.


TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


Ferguson Is the Wrong Tragedy to Wake America Up

Jewel Samad—AFP/Getty Images Two demonstrators march with a U.S. flag in St. Louis on Nov. 23, 2014, to protest the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

For many, the main lesson of the Ferguson verdict is that Michael Brown would still be alive if he were white — that Darren Wilson’s gunshots were the spawn of the racism always just beneath the surface of the white American soul.

However, in light of what we heard last night, I feel that the Ferguson incident is instructive to America in a larger sense. The key element in the Brown-Wilson encounter was not any specific action either man took — it was the preset hostility to the cops that Brown apparently harbored. And that hostility was key because it was indeed totally justified.

The right-wing take on Brown, that he was simply a “thug,” is a know-nothing position. The question we must ask is: What is the situation that makes two young black men comfortable dismissing a police officer’s request to step aside?

These men were expressing a community-wide sense that the official keepers of order are morally bankrupt. What America owes communities like Ferguson — and black America in general — is a sincere grappling with that take on law enforcement that is so endemic in black communities nationwide. As Northwestern philosopher Charles Mills has put it, “Black citizens are still differentially vulnerable to police violence, thereby illustrating their second class citizenship.”

This is true. It is most of what makes so many black people of all classes sense racism as a key element of black life, and even identity. Now, some suppose that the reason for what Mills refers to is black people’s fault, that black people are just too dumb, lazy, and immoral to understand what it is to be decent citizens. Most would disagree, however, which logically implies that something has gone terribly wrong from the other end — from law enforcement itself. The President’s statement on the verdict got at this point: what we must get past is larger than the specifics of what happened between Wilson and Brown.

And in that vein, as someone who has written in ardent sympathy with the Ferguson protests, I find this hard to write, but I have decided that it would be dishonest of me to hold back. As I have written endlessly, America will never get past race without a profound change in how police forces relate to black men. However, I’m not sure that what happened to Michael Brown — and the indictment that did not happen to Officer Darren Wilson — is going to be useful as a rallying cry about police brutality and racism in America.

Based on the evidence known to us now, a common take will be that the incident proceeded thusly: Brown stole from a convenience store, Wilson tried to stop him based on his description. Brown refused to stop and physically assaulted Wilson in his car, Wilson shot Brown in self-defense. Brown ran about 150 ft. from the car. He then ran 25 ft. back toward Wilson, likely trying to indicate surrender. Wilson thought Brown was trying to reinitiate the assault and fired further, which killed Brown. This was a hideous misunderstanding. And yes, if the guy lurching back toward Wilson had been white, just maybe he wouldn’t have fired those last shots.

But can we really know that surely enough to enlighten a nation? We are told that this tragic sequence of actions shows that America “devalues black bodies,” as a common phrasing has it. But I fear the facts on this specific incident are too knotted to coax a critical mass of America into seeing a civil rights icon in Brown and an institutionally racist devil in Wilson.

I was among the many who hoped Trayvon Martin’s death would make the key difference many now hope Ferguson will, and got plenty of hate mail for being too “hasty” in judging George Zimmerman. Black bodies are indeed devalued. Race does play a role in whether or not a black man gets killed by a cop (or someone like Zimmerman pretending to be one).

However, Wilson apparently didn’t single Brown out because of his black body, but because that black body had just nabbed goods from a store and also assaulted its owner. It is also clear that Brown defied an officer’s reasonable request, and then battled with him. We may never know whether Brown reached into the car or whether Wilson grabbed Brown by the neck. But we do know that Wilson fired the lethal final shots upon Brown coming back toward him. Firing these shots was indeed impulsive; and one wishes someone who could fire in such a moment never had been trusted with a gun. But Wilson did not, as some have claimed, shoot Brown in the back as he ran away.

“But he didn’t deserve to die!” many stand at the ready to assert. And of course he didn’t. But we must consider the contrast with, say, Amadou Diallo killed in a lobby for pulling out a wallet. Or Martin killed for resisting a baseless detainment by a self-declared neighborhood patrolman. Or John Crawford killed in Ohio for examining a BB gun at a Walmart.

VOTE: Should the Ferguson protestors be TIME’s Person of the Year?

The Ferguson episode, in this company, stands out. It requires, as a rallying point, a degree of elision, adjustment. It will require turning away from Brown’s criminal act just before the incident, and his conduct toward a police officer a few moments later, based on the tricky proposition that these things must have no bearing whatsoever upon how we evaluate the succeeding sequence of events. The now iconic gesture, the hands up in “Don’t shoot” surrender, will become sacrosanct regardless of the evidence as to whether Brown actually held his hands up in that way. Icon, sacrosanct — there is an aspect of the ritual here.

But ritual dazzles more than it convinces. Beyond the converted, the less committed observer will see the facts piling up and conclude that one can be fully aware of racism’s persistence and yet still feel that the part racism played in Brown’s death is too abstract to qualify as a Selma-style — or even Trayvon-style — teaching moment. We need here Selma, Sanford — we want to make all of America put down their beers and feel this turning point. Again, of course Brown didn’t deserve to die — at all. But we have an urgent and challenging task here. And if so — and, God, it’s very much so — aren’t other deaths that have grieved us more useful in teaching a vast nation of people, with various levels of understanding and concern, that we have a serious problem here?

What happened to Diallo, Martin, Crawford, and also Oscar Grant is a clearer demonstration of what faces us than what happened in Ferguson. People don’t like being told to ignore facts; even fewer find ambiguity a spark for indignation. Crawford’s killers weren’t indicted either. We must wonder why this is considered a less urgent — and instructive — catastrophe than what happened in Ferguson. I mourn Brown as we all do, but I worry that we have chosen the wrong tragedy to wake this country up.

Read next: What History Books Should Say About Ferguson

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

How Herman Cain and President Obama Brought Down Bill Cosby

Actor Bill Cosby in New York in 2011.
Lucas Jackson—Reuters Bill Cosby in New York in 2011.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

The allegations have been around for years. But we're only now willing to judge black icons like everybody else.

With the curtain falling on Bill Cosby’s career in the wake of multiple accusations of his raping women throughout his career, many have asked why it took so long for America to condemn the man. This seam in his past has been aired quite often over the past 10 years, and yet his iconic status as America’s favorite (black) Dad has continued, with NBC having even been readying to build yet another sitcom around him until this Wednesday. What is it about now that is making us — white, black and other — see Cosby plain?

Partly, Barack Obama and Herman Cain.

Of course, two other factors, more apparent, have played a role — but alone, they would not have popped the lock.

For one, Cosby has alienated many black people with his criticisms of black behavior, crystallized in the now famous “Pound Cake speech” of 2004 commemorating Brown v. the Board of Education. When black comedian Hannibal Buress charged that Cosby is a racist, sparking the latest events when the clip went viral, Buress was explicit that it rankles him that Cosby has called for black people to “Pull your pants up,” etc. when Cosby himself had, shall we say, not done so.

Yet, the dirt on Cosby had been aired far and wide soon after the Pound Cake speech, with black author and pundit Michael Eric Dyson even covering the territory in his 2005 book, a broadside against Cosby’s cultural opinions. Newsweek, The Today Show, People, and other sources chimed in around the same time. No one remotely interested in Cosby could have missed the charges, and while today Twitter and Facebook get things around especially quickly, by 2005 and 2006 broadband and blogs were already influencing opinion at a dizzying rate. Irritation over Cosby’s views alone, then, did not threaten his iconic status — especially given that more black people than often acknowledged actually concur with Cosby’s cultural opinions.

The second factor in why Cosby has been outed now — one that is key, but not decisive — is that sexual violation of women has been so widely discussed in America over the past few years. The “legitimate rape” conceptions of congressman Todd Akin and today’s calls for universities to address the frequency of rape on their campuses have made it much less likely that Cosby’s behavior could be given a pass.

But even this doesn’t fully answer the “Why now?” question. Enlightened American sensibilities about rape have not taken a quantum leap since, say, 2005. The major dividing line for that would be in the early ’90s, when sexual harassment and date rape entered mainstream discussion and forever banished the old-time Mad Men idea that such things were a mere matter of some men being “all hands.” Who by 2005, upon hearing about what Cosby did, was thinking “Oh well, boys will be boys!”?

We get closer to truth in Rebecca Traister’s point that America has been afraid to condemn Cosby out of a sense that it would be almost sacrilegious to pull down such an iconic representation of blackness. More specifically, whites have given him a pass out of a sense that it would be racist not to, while blacks have been reluctant to assist in the defrocking of such a beloved figure, chary of aiding and abetting whites in racist dismissal of black achievement and authority.

What has made the difference is that certain happenings of late have let America make a particular kind of post-Civil Rights adjustment: getting past the polite fiction that all criticisms of a black person are racist, and if not overtly then “on a certain level.”

Namely here is where Cain and Obama come in. The implosion of Herman Cain’s quest for the Republican nomination in 2011 in the wake of charges (from white women) of sexual harassment and infidelity was a handy transition. Cain’s Republican politics and jolly dismissal of traditional Civil Rights positions meant that few blacks were primed to dismiss the accusations against him as racist, as a “lynching,” and so on. Instead, we simply saw Cain as a man brought down for proper reasons, his color beside the point.

It probably had to be a black Republican that this happened to. But since then, a consensus has settled in on the question as to how much of a part racism plays in the animus of those who dislike President Obama. And the verdict is: racism does play some part. But still, only ideologues think racism is the only reason, or even close to the only reason, someone might not be crazy about Obama’s performance in the Oval Office.

At best, Obama is likely to go down as having been an OK President, and in grappling with that, Blue America has gotten a quiet lesson in evaluating black people according to the content of their character — despite having thought they already did that by voting for him in the first place.

Hence a moment when it is newly easy to see Cosby not as a Black Gentleman With Some Issues but as a man, period, with some serious moral flaws, deserving no more “understanding” about it than Senator Bob Packwood did about his related tendencies. Meanwhile, black America, having seen that in our times the public can turn on, or trenchantly criticize, a black public figure without igniting a general backlash against black achievement, is less likely to circle the wagons around someone like Cosby than it formerly would have been.

What stings about Cosby is that someone with his warm humor and furious commitment to uplift could at the same time have such a pitilessly abusive take on women and sex. It’s like finding this out about your Dad, or certainly for me. Cosby and my own father were both working-class black men of a certain Philadelphia generation, and there was even a commonality of demeanor; my father was funny in the exact same way as Cosby, and danced just like Cosby did in the credits of the Cosby Show.

But Dad didn’t rape women. The lesson is that that kind of evil can lurk in the hearts of any kind of man, and we need to watch for it and call it out when it turns up to dissuade its survival in our civilization. And this time we’re learning it not from A Black Man, but from someone we, in a way, honor by treating as just a man. Weirdly, this is a kind of progress.

Read next: Bill Cosby, Camille Cosby and the Oppressive Power of Silence

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Race

Charles Barkley
Paul Drinkwater—NBC/Getty Images

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

He's not right, but neither is the other side—the truth about 'blackness' is somewhere in the middle

Charles Barkley is on the griddle for suggesting too many black people think it’s white to be successful. Barkley said that such people think “it’s best to knock a successful black person down ’cause they’re intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and they’re successful. It’s crabs in a barrel … We’re the only ethnic group that says, ‘Hey, if you go to jail, it gives you street cred.’”

Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman had posed, based on his own locker-room interviews, that part of the reason Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s teammates don’t like him is that “some of the black players think Wilson isn’t black enough”—Wilson is “well spoken.” Barkley agreed with Freeman; controversy was officially sparked. But too many people who agree either with Barkley or Wilson’s teammates are off-base; the truth is somewhere in the middle, and it forces us to look squarely at some things many find awkward.

A standard response for people inclined to agree with Barkley would be something like, “Yeah, that’s right. What’s ‘black,’ anyway? There’s no ‘black’ way to talk. There’s no way for somebody to ‘blacker’ than somebody else.” But there is. I don’t know how many black people think it’s “black” to go to jail, but that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as black—or blacker.

We are trained to think it’s stereotyping to say that. And indeed, all black people do not exhibit black cultural traits to the same extent. But the traits exist. Example: linguists have documented that one can indeed sound black. Both white and black Americans can almost always immediately tell whether someone is black on the phone even when the subject matter is race-neutral and there is no “slang” involved. And black speech is not the same as white Southern—who really thinks Jeff Foxworthy talks the same way as Tracy Morgan?

And then, wouldn’t it be strange if black culture somehow consisted only of speech? Like any culture, black culture also includes favorite foods, modes of dance, senses of humor (Black Twitter, anyone?), religious traditions, dress fashions and aspects of carriage and demeanor. This is what black culture is. To pretend the entire conception is a stereotype because people exhibit it to varying degrees is to dismiss generations of scholarship and art lovingly documenting exactly this culture. Blackness is beyond skin color.

The elegant way of putting it: some people are more rooted in black culture than others. The simpler way of putting it: some people are blacker than others.

If their reported sentiments are true, then Wilson’s teammates are not wrong in sensing that Wilson is less black in how he talks. Where they are wrong is in having a problem with it. Too many black people hear someone like Wilson talking and make a quick assumption that because he’s less rooted in cultural blackness than they are, he must not like them. Or that he has somehow denied a part of his real self. This belief is dead wrong, both as fact and because of where it leads.

The fact part: legions of black people wearing the culture more lightly than Wilson’s teammates love black people of all kinds quite deeply, thank you very much. And very few of them are under the impression that they are white, a tough notion to maintain in front of a mirror.

From there it’s a short step to thinking that things not associated with black talk—like school—are white and therefore disloyal. That helps drag black kids’ grades down (and studies have not disproven that, despite a certain hype). Also, if you think straying from black culture means you’re antiblack or not “real,” then there follows the idea that true blackness means holding back from reaching out beyond the black world for much of, well, anything. Some years ago in a truly unpleasant reality show, Black. White., a black family posed as white while a white family posed as black; the black guy told the white guy—proudly!—that real black people don’t stand up straight and aren’t curious.

So telling people like Wilson’s teammates that there’s no such thing as someone being less black than someone else is just not true. What’s sloppy, dangerous and backward is calling someone not black enough.


McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the author of What Language Is (and What It Isn’t and What It Could Be), The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Authentically Black and Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, among other books.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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