I want to tell you five stories, each rather minor in itself. They lead, I hope, to a larger point.
First story. In 1992 I was attending a social gathering in Berkeley, California. The guests were largely white and middle class. I was especially fond of "Tom." Tom was a SNAG – a sensitive, New Age guy. I was confident that if I went to Tom with any problem, he'd say something compassionate and endearing, and then we'd both tear up and hug. Tom's ancestors had arrived in North America before the US was even a country. I'm a child of Eastern European, Catholic immigrants. Tom was economically comfortable. I was struggling. WASPs like Tom fascinate and intimidate me. I did feel that he had more of a right to be an American than a newcomer like myself. I deferred to Tom.
Our gathering was meant to be low-key and personal, not political. Tom was the first to speak. He spoke with authority. "I know this is not why we are gathered here today,'' he said – rather, he announced. We hushed and listened carefully. "I think we need to devote some time to talking about what is happening in Los Angeles. I know I really need to talk about this, and I'm sure others do, too."
We all nodded. We wanted to hear what Tom had to say.
In 1991, Rodney King led police on a high-speed chase. He had been drinking. By driving under the influence, he was breaking parole for a robbery conviction. Once police caught him, they beat him. The beating was captured on camera. In April, 1992, police officers were acquitted in the use of excessive force against King.
After news of the acquittal was announced, riots broke out in LA. Rioters targeted Korean immigrant shopkeepers. Latino-owned businesses were also targeted. There was armed struggle between shopkeepers and African American looters.
One of the grisliest moments occurred when white truck driver Reginald Denny was tortured by rioters. Denny's skull was fractured in ninety-one places. This was all broadcast via news helicopter.
The following happened a quarter century ago, but I can still see it in my mind's eye. I was seated across a table from Tom. Sun shone through a window behind him. Tom said, "I am so happy to see what is happening in LA. Finally, the people are rising up. I am with the people." Tom insisted that the riot was not a riot at all, but justifiable self-defense, no different from the American Revolution. Actually, morally superior, because the American Revolution was all about slavery and oppression of women.
Others in the room voiced approval.
My world cracked – or a previously existing crack widened, and would continue to widen. If Tom had announced that he had come from Mars, he would not have become more alien to me. Our friendship died at that moment.
Reginald Denny, an innocent working man, a truck driver, was all but martyred, merely for his skin color. Korean and Hispanic shopkeepers had left their home countries, labored dawn to dusk, scrimped and saved, put everyone in their family to work, and opened businesses in neighborhoods someone like Tom wouldn't even drive through. My heart was with the working man and the immigrant strivers. My anger was at those who hurt them.
"But Tom. Reginald Denny wasn't a slave-owner. He was a truck driver. The Koreans and Hispanic shopkeepers just arrived in this country. You can't hold them accountable for slavery." I didn't say this out loud. I was frozen by shock and incomprehension.
Second story. In the early 1980s, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. "Melanie," one of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, was a shy, slender woman. She wore oversize granny dresses and no make-up. She spoke so softly you had to lean forward to hear her. She was raped by a man who broke into her home as she slept. She was white; the rapist was African.
One of our fellow volunteers expressed regret that it "had to happen to a nice girl like Melanie" but "It's inevitable. Read Eldridge Cleaver." Cleaver had written of rape as an "insurrectionary act" against white supremacy. Use of the word "inevitable" rendered the rape as something like gravity. "Inevitable" removed all agency from the rapist. He had to rape Melanie, just as a dropped rock has to fall to earth. No decision-making or guilt is involved in gravity and other inevitable acts.
This attitude nauseated me. Melanie was sweet as a kitten; she had sacrificed the comfortable life her beauty and her Ivy League degree might have granted her, so that she could help poor children in Africa. No matter. She was white; her skin color trumped her individuality and rendered her merely a drop of water in a wave of white supremacy.
Rumors flew – rumors that I heard but cannot verify – that Peace Corps had threatened Melanie with financial penalties if she spoke about the rape or even sought medical or psychological treatment that might draw attention to it. Peace Corps didn't want anyone tarnishing the glowing recruitment posters of volunteers gaily interacting with grateful "host country nationals." The New York Times and the Daily Beast would eventually cover similar accounts of Peace Corps' mistreatment of victims and cover-ups of rapes.
Third story. In October, 1995, I was shopping in Bloomingfoods, a health-food co-op in Bloomington, Indiana. Suddenly one of the clerks, a very pretty white girl, a Hoosier and an IU student, began dancing, clapping her hands, and hugging her coworker, a bearded young man. She told me she was celebrating the news: O. J. Simpson had just been found not guilty of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and a waiter, Ron Goldman. She was ecstatic that a black man had beaten the white racist American system.
Fourth story. In 1994, I was a grad student at Indiana University. I received word that my father was dying. I told my boss. She said I could not leave; she was about to host an important conference and she needed me to type up the programs. I did leave, and missed four workdays. I returned. My boss began to harass me. I reported the harassment to a dean. The dean asked me to testify against my boss. An IU official, "She is a psychopath. She ruins people. Everyone is afraid to come forward because she is a black woman and everyone is afraid of being called a racist or a sexist."
My father had just died. I was on a new campus, taking a full load of graduate classes, and reporting to regular meetings with the most important officials on campus, to repeat, again and again, ugly events that wounded me greatly.
When I spoke of this with friends, they immediately expressed sympathy – for the professor. "Amanda" said, "Well, you know, back in slavery days, they didn't get to take time off when their father died." More than one campus official said to me, "Yes, I know she does things she shouldn't do. But we need diversity on this campus, and you people should keep your mouths shut." Please note the plural: "you people." This campus official knew that this woman had harmed others. And we should all keep our mouths shut, for the sake of "diversity."
One final story.
On July 7, 2016, a Black Lives Matter supporter murdered five police officers in Dallas, Texas. One victim, Patrick Zamarripa, was an Iraq war veteran. His Mexican mother spoke of his death in Spanish to Telemundo.
I mourned Patrick Zamarripa's death on Facebook.
"Max," a Facebook friend who is a well-to-do white male, would have none of it. "White supremacists have been fomenting race war for centuries. Perhaps you didn't notice. But then it's only race war if the darkies object," Max wrote. "Police brutality" was responsible for the Dallas deaths. Officer Zamarripa was part of a "race war" against black people, possibly motivated by "subconscious bias."
What do all these stories have in common? In all of them, people who happened to be black did bad things. If the perpetrators in these stories had been white, we would have no problem identifying their acts as evil, hurtful, anti-social, and possibly pathological. We would face no public censure for sympathizing with the victims of these acts. We would not say, "Melanie is a lovely person and it's horrible that she was raped, but…." There would be no "but."
Tom, the Peace Corps higher-ups, the Bloomingfoods clerk, Amanda and Max all have a few things in common. All are very unlikely to be targets of violent crime. Tom lived in the Berkeley Hills, where the median home price is over a million dollars. The country directors in Peace Corps lived within a compound surrounded by a ten feet high wall topped with razor wire; they were accompanied by twenty-four-hour security. The Bloomingfoods clerk was a hippie Hoosier, growing up in one of the whitest, most rural, and lowest crime areas of the country. Amanda and Max are both white-collar professionals.
I think they have a few more features in common, as well. I think they see America as a land polluted by ineradicable sin. Please note use of the word "sin" and not "error." Please note the word "polluted," not "flawed." I think, unconsciously, these good white liberals see human sacrifice as the best expiation for America's polluted state.
Human sacrifice used to be practiced worldwide. Humans recognized that there was something just not right about existence on planet earth. Worms eat apples. Hail destroys crops. Deformities mar newborns. All life's glorious miracles that hint at perfection are tainted with something from which we recoil. Rather than discovering, and addressing, the factual cause of wormy apples, societies the world over applied pre-approved myths to their woes. Some predictable villain did some predictable bad thing. A ritual, including human sacrifice, would set things to right. A proffered human life would temporarily propitiate the powers that be, and the survivors could enter a grace period.
In modern times, human sacrifice in the classic sense is regarded with disdain, but analogous behaviors have certainly erupted. The 15th – 18th century witch craze was promulgated by agricultural communities beset by the Little Ice Age, crop price increases, the wars of Reformation, and plague. The burning witch was meant to purify and restore the community to previous norms of fecundity and order. It shocks people, but it really shouldn't – the Roman Catholic Inquisition played a significant role in ending the witch craze. Priests like Friedrich Spee and Alonso de Salazar Frías recognized that the witch craze violated authentic Christian theology.
Some interpret Islamic honor killing as a form of human sacrifice. A fragile, mythical commodity – a family's honor – is damaged when a female has unsanctioned contact with a male. Only her blood, spilt when a family member murders her, can ritually "cleanse" the non-existent substance, family honor.
Who was chosen for human sacrifice? Those without power. Typical victims included children, slaves, and war captives. When reports of human sacrifice emerge from modern-day India, victims are often Dalits, or untouchables, the lowest, most disempowered caste.
Note that there is no record of a permanently efficacious human sacrifice, no "once for all time and never again" sacrifice, unless you want to include Jesus' crucifixion. In all other human sacrifice, the world is never set right for any longer than a ritually determined cycle of time. When that period has run its course, the ritual must be repeated. Ritual time never moves forward on a linear trajectory. It always moves in circles. The past is never released or transcended. There is no progress.
That human sacrifice was so widespread indicates how deeply it reflects the "logic" of the human mind. The logic of human sacrifice is completely divorced from actual facts and cause and effect. Human sacrifice occupies a space that completely rejects any real attention to real facts and real potential solutions.
The process worked like this. People encountered a stimulus that disturbed them. If a cow went dry in Early Modern Europe, the solution would be to burn the next door neighbor, a poor and isolated elderly beggar woman whom no one liked. Everyone knew that the post-menopausal woman's barrenness could infect cows and make them go dry. Everyone knew that when a poor person gazed upon those with good fortune, the envy in their "evil eye" sucked out good fortune. When a boy disappeared in Kielce, in post-war Poland, the solution was to stone Jews to death – after all, everyone knew that Jews make their matzah from Christian children's blood. See full story HERE