The story of Baltimore is connected to a long-standing struggle for access and equality, which is as old as this nation’s history. This is a story of resistance to injustice, brutality, economic exploitation and domination. One cannot truly grasp the meaning of Baltimore without considering it within the context of a long history of uprisings and protests folded into what is just the latest expression of outrage. We cannot really understand the response of this latest uprising without looking at the meta-narrative of oppression. As long as there are people who are routinely excluded and marginalized there will be disquiet.
I remember Daddy saying that I have to stay off the block. It’s 1964 and I am 17 years old. He’s afraid I’ll get hurt on 125th Street in Harlem. There have been six days of unrest after an African American teenager is shot and killed by an NYPD lieutenant.
Folks are, as Fannie Lou Hammer said long ago, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
People will band together over their suppression, brutalization and lack of access to the “Promise of America.” Like the Harlem rebellions of 1935 and 1943, like Ferguson last year, like Baltimore this spring , these are reactions to police killing those whom they have pledged to serve and protect but also to so many more violations that have gone unnamed that smolder and then erupt in the cauldrons of injustice . As the nation watched the news coverage of Baltimore I, like so many others, am aware of the generational trail of trauma that is the result of the mistreatment of not just black people, but brown, red and yellow men, women and children; those who have been excluded, exploited and “othered” for hundreds of years in North America.
Inhumanity, otherness as stories that are pickled inside me, rise to the surface of my mind like South Africa’s, Saartje (Sara) Baartman – The “Hottentot Venus” - whose objectified semi-naked body was exhibited to the public in 19th century Europe for 4 years before her buttocks and genitalia were dissected and displayed throughout France and England for the curious and scientifically minded. What are the necessary rationale, policies, customs and laws that are created to enable human beings to objectify, profit from “othering” and then, at the same time, be shocked, disappointed and judgmental about forms of resistance?
Historically, criminalization, as a form of spatial control, has always provided mechanisms for regulating the bodies of those who fall outside the circle of human concern. Native Americans, with their land stolen along with their subjection to policies of forced cultural interruption via boarding schools, represent the genocide of a so-called “uncivilized” people. Prison has been a vehicle and an excuse for the mistreatment, traumatization and killing of black people, along with other people of color - while providing ways to attain cheap labor or control. Freddie Gray’s mistreatment, leading to his death, was rationalized by his being suspect of criminal activity as are almost all of the virulent killings or punishment meted out to those who fall suspect and outside of dominant culture, who are “othered.”
Othering, is something we do to justify all of the varied expressions of inhumanity that cause so much harm. It is the idea that someone is somehow not like me so somehow they do not deserve the same treatment that I and others I perceive are like me deserve. We must note the places we haven’t put into alignment between values, ideas and practices of what it means to be fully human. Othering is what helped those officers to be able in the moment to treat Freddie Gray in the inhumane way they did, killing him. And othering is the theme that runs through all oppression and what allows systemic inequities to flourish.
Part of Freddie Gray’s story highlights systemic inequities, not experienced in the last 50, 100 or 200 years ago, but in the last five. Between 2010 and 2014, 109 people died in police encounters in Maryland and 69% of these who died were African American. There have been so many documented cases of scandalous police misconduct and abuse in Baltimore between 2011 and 2014 that the city has paid 5.7 million dollars to settle civil rights violations. Between 2008 and 2012 the unemployment rate in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood was at an astronomical 51.8% rate while the national unemployment rate for the same time period was 8.3%. These statistics are Freddie and his neighbors’ collective story of inequity.
Public and private opinions are responses based upon multiple contexts and entry points tied to historical times. Where you enter the story, the places and capacities for empathy are often tied to who matters and who doesn’t, who is believed and who is not, and allegiance to political ideologies. As with any set of perspectives, conclusions or questions, entry points into the story will impact your analyses that then play a key role in how you define and seek justice.
Flipping through the pages of Jet magazine at eight, my eyes landed on an image that I could not quite make out. It took me a few moments to recognize what I was seeing. It was a face that was no longer a face. It was the mutilated head of 14 year old Emmett Till. I understood that people, white people, had done this to him. I could taste the horror that rolled up into the back of my throat. The magazine fell from my hand. I ran, as if being chased— screaming, collapsing onto the floor unable to understand how this could be real; unable to understand what would make someone do this to another person.
Entering a viable process of “meaning making” and analysis that can lead to structural change and the building of equity requires a more considered, complex, nuanced understanding of history as a component of public discourse. Since history undergirds the emersion of cultural patterns, which inform identity construction, we are rendered a certain popular blindness that prevents voters and policy makers from interrupting the societal patterns of injustice that collude with power and economics. These systemic drivers inform the internal and external relationships that churn out inequities. Thinking systemically is really all about exploring deeper patterns and relationships.
We also have to cultivate relational understanding while working across current social justice intersections and boundaries that define who is part of, as Dr. John Powell of the Haas Institute refers to it, the circle of human concern and who is excluded in tandem with building capacities for analysis because without this deeper, critical examination we cannot dismantle inequitable policies and structures, in order to re-create a world that provides access for all people to flourish. The tendency is to focus on what is not working and analysis is critical. But at the same time we have to focus on developing the skills, practicing ways of knowing and being that elevate belonging -- expanding the circle of human concern – so that it becomes normative. If we want to shift the paradigm of othering that is so entrenched in human history we have to develop practices that shift to belonging, where inclusive ways of interacting with one another and structures create societies that are fair and inclusive at both the deeply internal and external levels.
Shakti Butler, PhD, filmmaker and Founder & President of World Trust, is a dynamic educator in the field of diversity and racial equity. Dr. Butler engages audiences with participatory keynotes and workshops, often using clips from her films. Known as a catalyst for change, she is hired by organizations seeking broader support for their diversity & inclusion goals.
World Trust believes that film and facilitated conversation can be powerful catalysts for change. To learn how your institution can schedule a workshop with our dynamic facilitators, including Dr. Shakti Butler, please contact us. Also, click below for some helpful tips on your racial equity event: