I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but two Sundays ago – Superbowl Sunday – Beyonce performed her newest single “Formation,” an unapologetically proud celebration of blackness. It was a song written for our black friends, family, and community members, but it was also a call to action for all Americans to address institutional racism within our law enforcement and society at large. Perhaps exacerbated by what easily was one of the more underwhelming games in recent memory, the performance stole the show and immediately prompted polarized reactions from nearly everybody who watched.
Since that time, we have seen fans, politicians, public figures, casual observers, self-proclaimed experts, and, of course, our racist uncle Morty weigh in via social media on their feelings regarding the performance. This, quite obviously, is exactly what Beyonce intended for us to do: debate, discuss, and hopefully, learn from each other. I think this is wonderful. Nonetheless, I like anybody else with a pulse on social media have seen a sudden flurry of false narratives and outright lies – not exclusively but largely from my white friends – about the Black Panthers swirling around, and as a result I have a favor to ask from everybody, or at least everybody seemingly outraged by Beyonce’s performance.
I encourage you to watch “The Black Panthers, Vanguard Of The Revolution” airing tonight on PBS at 9PM EST to learn about the true origins and missions of the Black Panther Party. Being a product of a society that will consistently tweak and revise history to fit its narratives (particularly in public education textbooks), I myself at many times have subsequently formed misleading narratives about who they were, and what they stood for. Growing up in liberal, yet non-progressive white communities (ie moderate democrats/republicans), we are programmed to mentally associate Martin Luther King Jr as “good” and the Black Panther Party as “dangerous,” when in fact neither are completely true. Martin Luther King Jr was good, but he was also much more radical than history has allowed us to believe. His work was not merely about ending legalized segregation, but about truly integrating all racial communities so that everybody could be included in the American dream: owning some land, passing it along, and participating proudly in the middle class. The Black Panther Party were dangerous, but they were fighting against the oppression, corruption, and indignities their communities continued to suffer long after legalized segregation were brought down (and in the north, where it always existed socio-economically by default). If you were made to suffer these atrocities not merely from your fellow citizens, but from governing entities, I’m guessing it would invoke anger in you as well.
Such are the fallacies of historical revision, and the toxic dangers of denial. We are told that the BPP advocated the wanton murder of police officers, a national race war, the freeing of all criminals, and total anarchy. We are told that they weren’t that different from the KKK, because they each hated those who were different from the color of their own skin. Then we are shown clips of MLK proudly walking in nonviolent resistance, whites and blacks holding hands singing “we shall overcome” and it becomes paramount who was right and who simply went too far. In this respect, I am as guilty as the next middle-class white dude, not simply because my education system fed me these inaccuracies, but equally so because I did not on my own accord seek to find the actual truth. I willingly allowed the brushstrokes of black history in America to be painted with falsehoods.
I have no problem admitting these oversights, because I recognize that learning about their place in history is critical to understanding Black Lives Matter and the larger struggle for racial and intersectional equality in 2016. I recognize this because I also acknowledge that my inability to recognize – any negligent failure whatsoever – allows for the system to continue operating unequally.
So I am imploring my white friends and family to recognize this too, especially if you were that ‘disturbed’ by Beyonce’s performance last week. You should want to learn more about their place in history. If you truly believe in a ‘post-racial’ America, you should have no problem taking a deep breath, admitting what you thought you knew about the BPP was almost certainly tainted with bias, and simply sit down to watch this documentary with an open mind. We can even banter about it on the internet afterwards! Doing this WILL get us closer to that American dream we all long for.
Perhaps we can get started by dispelling a few myths:
No, they were NOT fighting against white people, they were fighting against a system of structural racism that continuously oppressed their communities through sub-standard (subhuman is more appropriate) living conditions, a fight that continues to this day (see Flint for evidence).
No, they did NOT advocate the murder of police officers, they advocated self-defense in open carry states (same as those who support the NRA, ironically) in communities where they were being systematically targeted and brutalized with impunity, a fight that continues to this day. As one of the victims of serial rapist Officer Daniel Holtzclaw recently testified, “Who do you turn to when you can’t trust the police?” If you have never experienced needing protection, but being terrified of those sworn to protect you, I implore you to realize that this is, in fact, one of the many definitions of privilege that people of color simply do not have access to.
No, they were NOT ‘racist’ against white people because, to begin with, in order to be racist you must have the ability to legally oppress and discriminate towards a group of people with whom you are racist against. The absence of that societal power merely makes you prejudicial or biased. Being a minority demographic within Black America – which in itself is an OVERWHELMING minority within AMERICA – that would be categorically impossible. The Black Panther Party had no ability to oppress white communities they were defending themselves from. They were, and had every right to be, prejudicial against whites (usually whites from culturally homogeneous regions) who denied the enormity of the social issues facing their communities, a grievance that justifiably continues to this day. The number of times you hear All Lives Matter in response to a BLM rally for Eric Garner juxtaposed against the number of times we’ve heard All Lives Matter in regards to the Flint Water Crisis (zero) is astonishing, and as a white person it embarrasses me. If All Lives Matter, why is Rick Snyder not in handcuffs right now?
No, they were NOT fighting to free all criminals, they were fighting against a criminal justice system that treats the lives of poor blacks with callous indifference by over-sentencing, under-representing their peers in juries, and unequally targeting their communities with regards to drug enforcement, despite it being proven time and again that white communities use drugs at an equal (or in many cases higher) percentage than black communities. A fight that continues to this day.
Were they perfect? Of course not. Show me a political group that was – mainstream or otherwise – and I’ll sell you some beachfront in Idaho. There were fringe members of their groups who advocated racial separatism. There was corruption within their ranks which led to embezzlement and misappropriation of their funding (ultimately leading to their demise). There was in-fighting within their leadership over their primary initiatives, and the best practices for its implementations.
They were a political group, WHEN HAS ONE OF THOSE EVER BEEN PERFECT?!?
Beyond that, white friends, I encourage you to realize that what they were fighting for are fights that are still alive today. Black Lives Matter is not exaggerating this, nor does the existence of President Obama mean Black Americans have somehow suddenly achieved true equality in their daily lives.
Does that not mean something greater than your feelings/misconceptions on the BPP? A group of Americans are still fighting for adequate housing, decent education, equal opportunities in the workplace, and protection from law enforcement, so regardless of how you feel about the BPP – their rhetoric, their actions, their imperfections – does it mean nothing that you’d rather focus on their flaws than acknowledge their justification in addressing the systemic sufferings of more than 40 million Americans? 5o years after the formation of the BPP, and over 150 years after Black Americans’ emancipation from slavery, the problems continue to remain unsolved, because of White America’s contentment to continue passing the blame and responsibility to the next generation.
To my white friends of all sides of the political spectrum – be it conservative, liberal, moderate, democrat, republican – I implore you to realize that the enfranchisement of Black Americans is NOT a political issue, it is a human rights issue. Their inclusion to American society should not be insulted with politicization.
Which brings me to my final point: To those posting memes asking if the KKK will be performing at the Super Bowl next year, – the ones who seemingly out of nowhere became experts on the history of the Black Panther Party – I have to ask: Are you ok? Do you need a moment?
There is so much falsehood in that comparison that I simply have to ask if something is eating you up, or if you’re just not the person/people I thought you were. But here’s the thing: I know many of you, and most of you are good people (the rest of you have been deleted, so enjoy your delusional anger). Which necessitates me questioning your insecurity, because if you are so quick to call Beyonce ‘racist’ but Donald Trump is just ‘telling it like it is,’ you’re clearly missing something. If you’re so quick to believe that after the Civil Rights movement we all held hands and lovingly invited black communities to join the middle class (and that for some inexplicable reason they just didn’t want to), you’re clearly missing something. If you’re so quick to denounce a video celebrating the enduring spirit of blackness in America as ‘racist’ while in the same breath content to pretend that Tamir Rice needed to be killed for the officer’s ‘safety,’ you’re clearly missing something.
And what breaks my heart most is that you clearly aren’t missing EVERYTHING. You’re torn up in guilt over your increasing awareness that black communities are only marginally less oppressed in 2016 than they were in 1966, and you feel powerless to be an agent of change. And I know that this is eating you up because, in addition to the defense mechanisms of “All Lives Matter,” and “thin blue line” references, I know many of you to have moral compasses which compel you to do admirable things like rescue kittens, volunteer at blood drives, and dump ice buckets to fight ALS. So I know you have knowledge on some level of your assets and ability to direct change. I’m asking you to redirect these assets towards our black friends, family, and communities, and to start tonight by educating yourself – genuinely making an effort – so you can begin using that knowledge to fight for a better country.
I’m asking you to instead of knee-jerkingly jumping to the ‘that’s racist against white people’ or “this isn’t what Black History Month is supposed to be about’ reflexes, to instead acknowledge that our country is still quite racist – that it might not be YOUR fault, but it is YOUR problem to play a role in solving – and that the fight of the Black Panther Party and NOT its supposed imperfections should be one of the many narratives we focus on when discussing race in Modern America. Once you acknowledge, I am hoping that you will immediately transition this to “how can I help?” because then I am confident you will realize that you have more assets than you realize to bring about lasting change.
I’m confident you’ll begin to realize if you don’t like depictions of law enforcement and white people in the Formation video, work to change the reality of how white people are perceived in communities of color, instead of merely boycotting Beyonce. I’m confident you’ll begin to realize that being “Pro-Black” does not mean being “Anti-White” and that your life does not matter any less to publicly make it known to your friends and family that Black Lives Matter.
I promise you, we won’t move forward, together as one, not even an inch, until we as White Americans begin doing this.
So I hope you watch tonight with an open-mind because I, for one, am extremely excited to learn more about who they were, how they evolved, and most importantly, what I can do in 2016 to inch us further to their goals – what should be ALL OF OUR GOALS – of eradicating racism in America so we can truly call ourselves ‘post-racial.’
The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution Airs Tonight On PBS At 9pm EST