You know how there are a lot of folks who think that watching all sixty episodes of The Wire is enough of a primer to speak deeply on issues of race and class in America?
"Well, it's just like on 'The Wire.' Have you seen 'The Wire?' Oh, my God. Great show. So real. I had no idea."Deep familiarity of black Americans at large, acquired through binge-watching five seasons of a television show about people from Baltimore. If they stayed with David Simon for HBO's Treme, they're a scholar. If they can go all the way back to Homicide: Life on the Street, whooo lawdy, you have a hell of a cocktail party debate on your hands. Multiple-degreed historians and anthropologists struggle with getting our shared existence in this country right, but you know what's up because you had an HBO subscription and plenty of time one weekend. I listen to NPR in the car, right up until I hear mention of "The Wire," which is just about weekly, and always in relation to someone's professed understanding of black Americans. It's what we do with new insights. We peddle them everywhere and lend them to everyone we can get to listen. It's just human.
Good God, everything is Hip Hop! Sure, some openly lament its traces, if only because its elements and attitude are everywhere. Remove the Hip Hop from ESPN and it's boring, middle of the road, innocuous sports trivia. Hip Hop—black American—speech, attitude, and aesthetics are present in Country and Gospel. So much American cultural output was off the menu until a little Hip Hop was mixed in with the batter. It's everywhere. Can't even keep up with it. Know what? Let me cook your noodle for a second.
Hip Hop is crime fiction. I don't need to parse it. I'm not going to break it down. Y'all get it. Hip Hop is crime fiction more than it is music. You don't think Raekwon actually commits all those crimes, do you? Don't rhyme sayers cleave unto their (largely fictional) biographies as much as crime fiction novelists who enjoyed morally ambiguous reputations, ala Ian Fleming and Chester Himes? Doesn't James Elroy start all his public speaking engagements as his own hype man? Before Hip Hop, folks would figure him just crazy, as opposed to crazy like a fox.
Say, suppose for a moment you're a youngish Latinx police officer in St. Anthony, Minnesota, which I imagine is a place where one is, shall we say, unburdened by the social requirement of interpersonally relating with black folk. We're effectively only ten percent of the US population, after all. There are plenty of Americans who can spend their entire lives without having to look at a black person unless they want to. When we aren't a predominant portion of the population in an area, the black folk one would encounter are likely behaving according to white middle-class social norms. The "he/she's black, but…" types. Joe Biden crystallized this mindset perfectly:
"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."Thing is, Philando Castile wasn't Obama-level storybook. He wore dreads. He regrettably had the worst luck with Minnesota police and cars. His lady was behind the wheel and her respect for the law was negligible. He had a concealed handgun on him. It was all chill, until Castile's admittance of his weapon, permitted and lawful to be carried. In 40 seconds, everything went from "Hello, sir," to casual banter, to dead black man. Former Officer Jeronimo Yanez's testimony included these tidbits:
“I thought he had a gun in his hand.”Actually, he told you it was concealed on his person, it was concealed-carry permitted, and you told him not to pull out the weapon. You would have seen him pull it out, dawg.
"I was scared because, I didn’t know if he was gonna, I didn’t know what he was gonna do."He told you. He was gonna get you his ID, which was what you asked for.
"I thought I was gonna die."From what? Castile's effusive cordiality and compliance?
Officer Jeromino Yanez is trained, armed, has supervision available via radio. His partner is chill and trying to get him to chill. Nothing about the situation is escalating. Yet, within forty seconds, a man who was, by all accounts, affable and well-intentioned (and probably a little dumb) was dead and a cop was accused of murder, and anti-blackness. He said he was afraid he was going to die, despite all his weaponry, training, back-up on the scene and no visible presence of a firearm other than his own. What was the source of his fear??
Well, here's an image of Philando Castile.
And here is a photo of Omar Little, that death-defying, bulletproof, sexy/dangerous, antihero, supernigga from The Wire.
Take the glasses off of Philando. Add some THC-derived chillness. Make it the first real-live black person Yanez has seen in a while, and the only one he's seen with the balls to admit he's carrying a gun. The only one with the balls to carry a gun while sitting in a car with a woman who has her own well-documented troubles with the law. Philando Castile's dumb ass is sitting in a car with a loaded gun when he's a cop magnet. Over sixty cases for anything and everything vehicular. I wouldn't go anywhere near a car were I Castille. You got to figure he's at least a little crazy, like crazy Omar Little, who defies death.
And what young police officer in a place where not much crime happens hasn't seen The Wire? How many young police officers, soldiers, teachers, etc. are exposed to crime fiction and the filmed entertainment adapted from them? How much of this crime fiction have they enjoyed before it became necessary to do their adult jobs without preconception or bias? I'm just asking.
Okay, okay. I get it. I got Tarantino first week, then Black Panther. Now I'm going to take down The Wire? Not at all. My point is that culture informs, and it misinforms faster. Folks get all lifted over Omar Little, they want to have their own Omar Littles in their novels and television shows, same as how Hip Hop goes in the goddamned milkshakes and apple pies at McDonald's. It becomes so common, it's archetype. A staple. A standard. Culture helps us navigate through the parts of our world we have yet to directly experience. And if you don't have a chance to make up your mind before fear sets in, culture will make your moves for you. The way I suspect it did Officer Yanez.
There is something about fallacies and the human heart. It tells the brain, "Yo, don't go sayin' that shit. You know it ain't true." To look at another human being in different skin than you and regard them as some inferior variant requires conditioning and constant reinforcement. Cultural reinforcement. Crime fiction has the fastest pipeline to the entertainment industry. If it's romance, then crime fiction runs a close second. Once ideas and conventions leave the pages of a book, they're pushed through the Hollywood mill where all but the broadest strokes are ground down. Blackness is many distinct cultures, each with their subcultures, but on television, we're only ever Omar Little or, say, Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, with very few gradations between.
What's any of this have to do with anything? Well, my Eddie Murphy example serves the point that misrepresentation gets people hurt. My Hip Hop example hints at what happens when the legend becomes standard. My example of The Wire is to help y'all see that individual black folk's show-and-tell is trumped by what someone saw on television the night prior. If folks are printing the legend, and people with institutional or situational power believe the legend, a black person on the business end of a crisis situation has to be more compelling than the Apollo Creeds, Omar Littles, and Raekwons. Right there, on the spot. Or else power is justified in its fear.
I'll end this with a little W.E.B. Du Bois:
“Suppose the only Negro who survived some centuries hence was the Negro painted by white Americans in the novels and essays they have written. What would people in a hundred years say of black Americans?”
“I do not doubt that the ultimate art coming from black folk is going to be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.”
- W.E.B. Du Bois, "Criteria of Negro Art" October 1926
Du Bois dropped that on us ninety-two years ago. It's safe to say the next eight years likely won't see a cultural shift. Stephon Clark. Danny Ray Thomas. Killed by police within days of each other. Everyone is so afraid of black folk, even well-armed police officers. Even when a black man is in his grandmother's backyard.
"Oh, my God. Have you seen that show "The Wire"??"
Yeah. I've seen it.
"It's so real. I had no idea, ya know?"
Yeah. I know.