Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Oppressor's Tools

It's a letter almost anybody who has attended a historically black college or university has heard about. It gets trotted out in those long rap sessions that are popular on every college campus. Those sessions that provide young, mostly-sheltered black students with the history of the world from a black perspective.

Ancient Egypt, Ashkenazi Jews and eugenics are all a part of the rich tapestry of those discussions. African proverbs and American evil often round out the diatribes that are typically delivered by an older, Afrocentric gentleman who has had his eyes opened. And, in each and every one of those discussions, a particular letter is brought up as the absolute proof of the conspiracy to keep good black folks down.

It's the letter of Willie Lynch.

I'm assuming most of y'all now the basics of the letter and what it discusses, but for those unfamiliar with it, I'll give quick refresher. The letter is written from the perspective of a white slave owner and is supposed to outline ways for white slave owners to keep black slaves docile and at each other's throats so that they cannot rebel.

It contains advice on whippings, on colorism and on gender divides. In fact, the letter touches on each and every pathology still present in black communities, which is what gives it so much power when it is related to an 18-year old who thought real racism ended in the 1960s. The letter is a powerful indictment of America and white people, and I have yet to meet a black person who wasn't beset by wonder and amazement upon first reading it.

Too bad it's not true.

Oh, don't get me wrong, the tactics described in the letter are all real and have all been used by white people to control black people. Many of us now use those tactics on each other to maintain power. But, the letter was not written by a slave owner, in fact, researchers estimate that it was probably written well after slavery ended by some black person looking to make a point.

The point was, these are the tools of our oppressors.

I thought about the Willie Lynch letter recently when I read an article in Washington Monthly. The article was about the criminal trials of several Baltimore drug dealers who, while plying their trade, committed multiple murders of a heinous nature. The twist was that in order to avoid prosecution by the federal government, the men attempted to use a defense created and promulgated by white racists that advocated that the entire federal government was illegal under the Constitution.

Here is the article. It's very long, but you might also learn something.

I found the tale of these black men interesting because it was an extreme case of co-opting the tools of the oppressor. They used this defense despite the fact that it was created by people who argued that black people could never be true citizens of this country. The defense, which was first used by farmers in the nations heartland during dire times, was described in the article:

It was a promise of power, a means of asserting that they were the true inheritors of the founding fathers’ ideal, a dream they believed had been corrupted by a vast conspiracy that only they could see. Gale’s ideas gave people on the paranoid edge of society a collective identity. It told them what they desperately wanted to hear: that the federal government was illegitimate, and that the legal weapons the state used to oppress them could be turned against the state...

Hucksters and charlatans prowled the Midwest as the farm crisis deepened, selling desperate farmers expensive seminars and prepackaged legal defenses “guaranteed” to cancel debts and forestall foreclosure. Since the gold standard had been abandoned in 1933, they argued, money had no inherent value, and so neither did their debts. All they had to do, farmers were told, was opt out of the system by sending a letter to the appropriate authorities renouncing their driver’s license, birth certificate, and social security number.

In addition to tapping into the conspiracy fears that plague all of the oppressed, this legal strategy also melded with the feelings of white superiority that have always been prevalent in the Midwest. Sure, Midwesterners are nice, but a quick glance at the history of the region--the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, the massive race riots in Kansas--shows that they've had some problems with the coloreds.

The defense allows them to feel superior, while also feeling oppressed, which is a difficult feat. It taps into their feelings of a stolen destiny; feelings that they are being denied opportunities they deserve. It uses a proven equation to gin up white anger...Undeserving Minorities + Evil Government= Your Suffering... If that sounds familiar, it's because Republicans have been using the same calculations for decades...

At first glance, it might seem curious that a legal strategy with those types of roots would come into favor among Baltimore thugs. Although it's not unusual for inmates facing obscene sentences or the death penalty to file ludicrous arguments in an attempt to forestall their fates, this legal defense is an extreme.

The article gives an explanation for how these inmates came in contact with this defense, but it doesn't give a detailed explanation for why they clung to it so fervently. But, here is an inkling:

Like the Midwestern farmers before them, the Baltimore inmates were susceptible to the notion that the federal government was engaged in a massive, historic plot to deprive them of life, liberty, and property. Such suspicions are prevalent in certain pockets of the black community—that year, a study from the Rand Corporation found that over 25 percent of African Americans surveyed believed the AIDS virus was developed by the government, and 12 percent thought it was released into the population by the CIA. And black separatist groups like the Nation of Islam—also fond of conspiracy theories—have long cultivated members through the prison system; some of these groups have explicitly adopted the language of constitutional fundamentalists. Given these developments, Levitas told me, “I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner.

Now, the writer downplays the prevalence among black people of the mentality exhibited by the drug dealers in this story, which I think makes the article inaccurate. I saw why these drug dealers would be attracted to this defense immediately after I learned where it came from. It was as obvious as the fact that Kenard was going to kill Omar.

Simply put, black people as a whole have more ambivalence about America than any other group in this country. That ambivalence is only exacerbated by poverty. Chris Rock has a joke that describes the relationship between black people and America as having an uncle who paid your way through college, but also molested you.

It's complex.

Given the complexity of feelings held by black people in general, and the absolute hopelessness and anger felt by many black people afflicted by poverty, it really was not surprising that these drug dealers embraced a defense that argued basically, "Only God can judge me." Every form of government is seen as illegitimate in the 'hood. Almost all criminals, no matter how heinous their crimes, will quickly argue that the "government" has done worse.

The always eloquent Tupac Shakur is considered a prophet by many in the 'hood because he understood and articulated their lives. Those lives are grounded in the credo that collective suffering has made them immune to judgement by any other man. In many of these people's minds, the evil they have seen and experienced will always outweigh any evil they commit if the Judge is truly all-knowing.

With that mindset, it's easy to look past the origins of the Posse Comitatus legal defense and instead focus on the nuggets of truth it contains. This defense may have been a tool of the oppressors, but it was an effective tool.

Who cares that the people who created Posse Comitatus hated black people and wanted to rid America of them? According to one of the drug dealers, that's nothing new...

“The government wants to do the same thing anyway. So what’s the difference?"

This post was inspired by a reader email. I would use his name, but I don't want to expose anybody as a reader of my crazy rants. Those IT folks ain't no joke. I don't want any of y'all getting fired behind this lunatic.


aegil said...

Thanks once again, Big Man, for pointing me to something I may not have learned about otherwise.
What I want to know is - did the Jewish cabal of bankers forget me? I work two jobs!
On a more serious note, I am praying for the safety of Barack Obama tonight and afterwards; and for the safety of you and your family and your city, Big Man. May the storm that is coming pass you by.

Big Man said...

Thanks Aegil

I may post about my feelings on the hurricane for tomorrow, but things are kind of hectic right now getting everything settled at home and at work.

Rob said...

Same from me, Big Man. You guys be safe down there.

As for the post, I really like your point about no government being considered legit in the hood. Helps place the irony of this subject in perspective.

Anonymous said...

Be safe Big Man. You take a mighty risk continuing to live there! Sadly, this is going to happen again and again and again until one day the city of New Orleans becomes the new lost city of Atlantis. I've been to NO, great town!

Anonymous said...

You have got to see this. Obama playing on XBox. Funniest video ever.

Raving Black Lunatic