Tuesday Talk… with Corregan Brown, Part 2 (from Fenster on Education)
Part two of our dialogue covers an array of important issues related to racial justice. We’re just scratching the surface here, of course, but hopefully Corregan’s contributions will give readers some things to think about, and his references to others will give people a road map of where to find more on particular subjects. Although we’re done for now, I might be calling on him again down the road for further elaboration of these or other subjects.
Bob — As promised, we are now going to move onto the difficult subject of policing. I’ve yet to talk to a Black male who doesn’t have at least one story of mistreatment by police officers which they attributed to their race. Before we get to the racial component, I want to ask your opinion about a slightly more esoteric aspect of this. Lord Acton is credited with the phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Police officers are given an array of weapons and some authority over people’s liberties. They’re not supposed to use these powers indiscriminately and in theory have policies and review processes in place to minimize the abuse of their powers. I’ve never been in the situation where I feared for my life, and I don’t remotely want to compare my experience to that of Black people, but I have at least glimpsed into the eyes of the power trip of authority. There also seems to be particular personality types that are drawn to the career of law enforcement who might well be the exact wrong kind of people for the job. Now of course we can’t divorce the issue of institutional racism from our overall discussion, but what do you think of the aspects I’ve suggested?
Corregan — I would first say that this is not an area where I have particular expertise. I’ve met some power tripping cops too and at least one instance where an off-duty cop working security tried to pick a fight with me (I declined), but I’ve had the good fortune of not having a textbook bad run-in experience.
I do think you’re right that policing attracts people who enjoy having power over others, as well as people with a military mindset. The latter is not a bad thing, but as we’ve seen a convergence of the idea of what constitutes a police officer versus a soldier in thinking and approach, you increasingly see people treated as possible enemy combatants rather than citizens that need to be protected and served.
The other problem is that the police purview is too broad. If you see a house getting broken into, call the police. Have a dispute with your neighbor? Call the police. See a mentally ill person acting erratically? Call the police. The result is a bunch of people trained for the worst case, most hostile scenario responding and sometimes overreacting to what may not be a particularly dangerous situation.
Bob — We’re “here” in large part because of the ongoing assault on the lives of Black men and women by police officers. The Washington Post collected the data which indicates that although Blacks are only 13% of the population, they account for 43% of the fatal police shootings in the last five years. Hispanics are 12% of the population and they account for 33% of the fatal police shooting. This data, of course, says nothing about the non-fatal shooting and myriad other uses of force, or just the general harassment of people of color. In recent years the focus of reformers had been on things like body cameras, sensitivity training, and community policing, but there’s been very little progress made as a result of those efforts. The Defund the Police movement didn’t come out of nowhere, but it’s been launched into the public sphere, though what people mean by that phrase ranges from significant reform to revolutionary change. I could ask a bunch of specific questions here, but I’ll just give you a general question: what approaches do you think would yield the best results? Is this something that can be done on the national level or does our diversity require localities to make these calls?
Corregan — Policing should be as local as possible, but the standards and accountability can roll up to the state, or if necessary, national level. The notion of qualified immunity or what they recently were working on in Georgia’s legislature with a special “bill of rights” for peace officers is the wrong direction, and we could pass national or state laws to limit the ability of local jurisdictions to provide unnecessary shielding.
Incremental solutions don’t work if we don’t address the culture where the community is viewed like a town in wartime Iraq, where criminals are embedded in the population and protected by the civilians. Overwhelming force can bring stability but not peace. I think in poorer and browner communities in particular, police are approaching policing from that mindset. In richer, Whiter communities, I think the same pseudo-military mindset is applied, but more in the sense of protecting a base from invasion. In either case, we have to do something about that.
I think we have to do a ground-up data-driven assessment of what police are responding to and where they’re spending their time. We should then look at police services alongside social services and reallocate resources. One could imagine, for instance, a scenario where a team of social workers with some psychological training are deployed with a single officer as a backup. The officer can handle a situation that gets out of hand, but the person with the training and without the threat of force can lead. Of course, the same data can point to more fundamental issues that may be contributing to the instability in the community.
Police officers are scared to be punished for overreaction in part because they’re responsible for everything from stray dogs to mass murderers. The defunding movement could take some of these pressures off of them.
Bob — When I get into online debates with people who want to argue that the data regarding imprisonment or police violence does not prove anything, I like to ask them how they explain the disproportionality. They don’t want to verbalize what they likely believe, that people of color are more prone to criminal behavior. They of course will focus on poverty and environment, but will ignore the role that racial profiling plays in the process. The data from places that have used stop and frisk, for example, is galling. I imagine if they’d stopped and frisk folks on Wall Street, they’d have found a ton of cocaine in the 80s and marijuana in the 90s and 00s (before decriminalization). Similarly they’ll rationalize away the individual circumstances behind the deaths of Philando Castile, Tanisha Anderson, and even George Floyd, suggesting that we can’t prove these deaths were due to the race of the person killed. Am I wasting my time on them or should I persist because of the silent audience or on the off chance that I’ll get through to them?
Corregan — Like I said in part one, I want to know your first principles. If you believe that poor people are making bad choices, that’s fine, but I want to know why you think you’d make different ones in the same scenario. There’s an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates called “ A Muscular Empathy “ that I frequently reference for this kind of thinking. The thought that completely changed the way I conduct discussion is that it is less interesting to assume that you would have made better choices than someone else, and more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask, “Why?”
I like to concede as much as possible and circle back to see if the argument still holds merit. So let’s assume for the sake of argument that people of color are actually doing more crimes and that we’re finding more on them because of that, even though the data doesn’t seem to support that. Help me understand why police should be killing them or roughing them up. Help me understand why they should receive longer sentences than their White counterparts. And then, let’s go deeper. Why would people of color engage in more criminality? What are the options available? Why are their neighborhoods poorer in the first place?
When we walk the argument all the way out, you either have to land at something external or something internal. External factors do not absolve individuals of responsibility, but they do change where we start the discussion. If a hundred people are stuck in a pit and one extraordinary person leaps out, do we assume that the 99 need to do more squats or do we ask ourselves how a hundred people got stuck in a pit? Do we say to the one, “You’re a credit to the people in the pit, and congratulations for not letting your doubt or their actions hold you back,” or do we say “It’s a problem that all these people fell in a pit we dug and then we just left them there. Let’s do something about it.”?
Bob — In my last question I listed three names. I wanted to include a woman, but I wanted to avoid Breonna Taylor in that particular litany. I have to admit I had to look up Tanisha Anderson’s name. I don’t know if I’d ever heard the names Michelle Cusseaux, Aura Rosser, or Megan Hockaday until I watched this Ted Talk by Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality. So, two-parter: why do you think Black women killed by the police are not getting the same attention from the media as Black men? And is there some latent (or not-so-latent) sexism within the Black community itself in connection to this issue?
Corregan — They’re definitely not being discussed in the same way. It’s definitely sexism, though I don’t think it’s particular to the Black community. We have an “as above, so below” problem as we get into finer levels of detail. The problems in the country manifest in our city, then our neighborhood, then our block in different ways. I think the same is true with the Black community versus the nation at large. The sexism our country and national culture supports as a whole manifests in the Black community as well.
I think the men tend to be more visible because there’s a higher assumed criminality among men in the first place, so they are more likely to get stopped and frisked or otherwise put into situations where police will use inappropriate levels of force. Because our society finds some measure of sexual violence and gender-based hatred as tolerable, if not acceptable in a “*shrug* what are you gonna do?” kind of way, we don’t talk about officers who are sexually harassing or abusing colleagues or vulnerable citizens.
If I were to get deep in the weeds, I would imagine also that there’s something in the Black community that looks away from that kind of exploitation and violence because there was so much of it during slavery and Jim Crow, and we felt that we had to look away from it since there was no power to alter it. Rosa Parks, before becoming famous for the bus boycott, was a highly-regarded investigator of sexual assaults against Black women for the NAACP and was investigating a prominent rape case of a woman named Recy Taylor. I think the fact that there was an investigative unit in the organization tells you how common this must have been.
To put it bluntly: most of your Black friends, if they have any European ancestry at all, are partly genetically products of sexual violence. That includes me.
None of that absolves us of the responsibility to do better. I’ve recently been reckoning with how I can do better in this regard myself. I’m trying to center more Black women’s voices in my education process, and amplify their voices instead of take over and speak for them. I’m also looking for latent sexist behavior in myself and trying to kill that. Basically, I’m going through the same process Black people are encouraging White people to go through, but for gender.
Bob — If it were just fixing our police departments, that would be great. Unfortunately there’s institutionalized racism at every level of the criminal justice system. There are prosecutors and judges as well as jurors who are racists — overt and implicit — who are more likely to find Black defendants guilty of crimes and give harsher sentences for their crimes. The problem is so deeply entrenched, where do we even start?
Corregan — This is a hard one. I would say that we start by reducing the amount of people we’re throwing into the maw of the system. Radical reimagining of the police for public safety instead of military style defense of hostile territory would lead to fewer arrests. Decriminalization and the reduction of felonies is another way. Should we really be throwing people in jail over parking tickets or smoking a joint?
For the due process part of the justice system, I look at the guidance of Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy. Again, the origin of much of our policing is around property protection, whether that’s humans mislabeled as property or actual warehouse goods. We spend a lot of money and put people away for a long time to punish them for property crimes. Can we spend that money in better ways? Can we get deeper into the environment and structural problems that produce a thief or a robber rather than stopping with the assumption that they are a bad person? And when we attack those problems with genuine curiosity and a desire to solve, we start to solve for things like race as well.
As for what happens once people do get into the system, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and others have much to teach us. The prison system also needs radical reimagining. How do we create an environment where people are actually rehabilitated? How do we create restoration between victim and perpetrator? We’re reading a book in the book club I just started a couple of months ago called Until We Reckon by Danielle Sered, which is looking at how we do rehabilitation and restoration of people to the community.
Bob — Thirty years ago I had a conversation with a Black friend and I asked him about homophobia in hip hop music. He explained the mindset as an outgrowth of a lifetime of Black men being emasculated. Society has progressed in the interim, of course, but we’ve still got a ways to go on LGBTQ+ issues. Leaders of the Black Lives Matter created a statement of beliefs that double down on intersectionality. We talked last time about non-Black minorities and their patient solidarity. Do you worry that members of your own community, whether that’s Black people or Christians, are going to be scared off if they aren’t as evolved on these issues?
Corregan — Conservative White evangelicals have a view on Christianity which is heavily bound with the notion of America as a God-anointed empire. As such, they tend to find challenges to the status quo, especially those that use language that may be familiar to America’s former enemies like “comrade”, as not only assaults on America, but unholy assaults on their faith. Because in our still-pretty-segregated society, so few of them have meaningful relationships with people not like them, and because they cannot imagine structures fundamentally different than the ones they live under, they also tend to see BLM as an organized, hierarchical and highly structured organization with a concrete and destructive mission. There’s a whole other thing beyond the scope of this discussion around the unsubstantiated fear some have that Black people are looking for revenge and will visit it upon White people the first chance they get.
Black people skew a bit more conservative and Christian than the country as a whole, but the community’s views on LGBTQ+ issues are a little more nuanced and complicated than Black people get credit for. That notion of emasculation your friend mentioned isn’t just figurative with Black men not being allowed to hold power in the past. The same sexual violence we talked about earlier was also visited on Black men during slavery and probably in some cases during Jim Crow as well. In an environment where you could be violated at any time and in a broader culture where homosexuality was not accepted, it would be easy to conflate consensual homosexual behavior with the same-sex rape that was happening and develop a cultural aversion to that. Less dramatically, in a broadly oppressive environment, there’s not much regard for anything that makes one stand out and become a potential target.
Despite this, the Black community’s relationship with these issues is nuanced. Many people have gay family members, and when they bring their “friend” they’ve lived with for 15 years to the proverbial barbecue, they are often welcomed. There’s a running joke in the church community about the commonality of gay music directors. Bayard Rustin stood at King’s right hand, and we have gained from the wisdom of James Baldwin for over half a century now, and both of those men were openly gay. Gay and trans people of color led the initial wave of the gay rights movement and continue to lead today. But, like with any other American families, there are stories of pain, non-acceptance, and sometimes violence from family and community, too.
To make a long answer short, I would say there’s a rightful concern around this, but I don’t think Black people have a problem that is larger than or distinct from the American problem.
Bob — The near election of Stacey Abrams must have been both inspirational and crushing when Brian Kemp managed to “win” two years ago. The silver lining appears to be a lot more interest from various groups of voters in Georgia who hadn’t been turning out at the polls in previous elections and a huge surge in voter registration. It might be wishful thinking to imagine Georgia voters rejecting Donald Trump, David Perdue, and Kelly Loeffler… but the polls thus far are at least dangling that possibility. Of course the Republicans still have voter disenfranchisement tricks up their sleeves. What are your thoughts on the chances of overcoming their tactics?
Corregan — My hope is that people do not give up hope. My hope is that people come out and vote. I’m involved in my county Democratic Party and there are a lot of volunteers trying to engage people and keep them informed.
One advantage in Georgia that people don’t talk about enough is the fact that we typically have a three week early voting period, with at least two weekend days. Given the pandemic, people are rightfully hesitant about going to the polls, but I would strongly encourage them to mask up, get some hand sanitizer and do it unless they are immunocompromised or otherwise at great risk. We are supporting absentee voting as well by mail, but there have been some problems. I had to spoil my ballot and vote in person because they sent me the wrong one.
I think if people actually vote, the state will flip. I’m focused on the longer work though, which is getting people aware enough about how local politics impacts their lives to see voting as a normal function of life rather than something they can feel free to opt out of. When people start to become activists for their hometowns, we’ll see real change.
Bob — When many people hear the word “reparations” in connection to redressing the wrongs of slavery and subsequent civil rights abused they think of cash settlements. Although that is what some people want, it’s problematic in a number of ways: What cash amount would be satisfactory for the legacy of 400 years? Would non-Black people take that to mean that the government was thereby exonerated for its past behavior? And would a cash payout be something that could ever get enough support in Congress? Instead many who propose reparations are focused on programs that would instead provide opportunities and services targeted toward the Black community, things like vouchers for higher education, seed money for Black-owned businesses, debt forgiveness, and so forth. Do you favor reparations, and if so, what form would you like to see them take?
Corregan — I think the act of having a serious conversation about reparations would be healing for the country. We’re backhandedly doing it now, as the details of history are getting exposed. But let’s talk about what it would have meant to actually give the 40 acres and a mule that was promised, and to have let us keep it in the few cases where we did get it. Let’s talk about what it would mean to not have killed a lot of the first Black legislators or to have killed wealthy Black people or run them out of the South with the clothes on their back.
Reparations are in the range of possibility. Part of Haiti’s crushing financial problems are due to having to have paid France reparations. Britain’s slaveholders received compensation which just came off of Britain’s books in 2015, and my understanding is so did Southern slaveholders right here in the United States. Holocaust victims and their families received reparations from some countries that they were affected by. Why, then, is it farfetched to consider a financial reparations program for Black people, when there are people alive that can show provable harm from Jim Crow?
The practical implementation of reparations is another matter altogether. I defer to the wisdom of those who have studied this more meaningfully, like Nikole Hannah-Jones or Dr. Sandy Darity. But I think if we can identify some gap areas to target, that would be helpful. Capital for businesses and homes is a large area of opportunity to close some wealth inequality, but you still have the legacy of redlining to deal with. How do you keep that capital from evaporating as a “Black tax”?
I’m primarily interested in removing barriers. Better funding and support for the structural issues around schools in Black areas. Access to loans or possibly even free or subsidized life insurance that helps create some generational opportunities. I’ve been a victim of financial racism before from both a major and minor bank, so any structures that can expose how those decisions are being made and additional means of recourse are interesting to me.
The government has the power and the resources to do this without bankrupting the country. And to be frank, no one asked the slaveholders how they were going to spend their reparations, so I don’t see a lot wrong with a cash grant if the number and grounds can be calculated and agreed upon. I like the practical implementations as I described them, but I don’t think we have to put reparations on guardrails to ensure they’re spent properly. If anything, those programs and guardrails are to keep White citizens from revolting.
Bob — Religion has played a profound role in the Black community for the duration of this country’s history, arguably more so than it has among White people writ large. It’s my outsider’s perspective (as both a White person and an agnostic) that Chrsitianity became as important as it did during slavery as it offered Blacks not only a better life in the hereafter, but genuine community. Not only the psychological/emotional support of a shared experience with peers, but also through a variety of shared services like education and health care. You’re a person of a deep and abiding faith in Christianity. Do you see your religion as part of a larger historical, communal experience or is it more of your individual relationship with God?
Corregan — The Christianity that many of the most powerful voices in our nation espouse is an individualized faith that focuses on me and God, without much room for others except for sweeping vague gestures of magnanimity. I would argue that Christianity had an appeal because the stories of the “heroes” of the Bible more closely match those of the enslaved than the enslavers. The very notion of “400 years” refers to Israel’s time in Egypt, even though it also happens to match the rough amount of time Black people have been in the Americas. Jesus was a man living at the margins of society, preaching a subversive message of equality that inverted the order of power and lifted up and centered the most marginalized. And I think the enslaved people were incredibly resourceful and were able to retain that true message in the face of literal edits and redactions to the Bible that retconned it to justify chattel slavery and unquestioning obedience to earthly masters.
So if you look at faiths of people groups that do not have so much power or dominance, those faiths tend to be viewed through a more communal lens, just because the interdependency is so much greater. You have to rely on others and be reliable to survive, because few of you have the resources to make it on your own. Mark Charles, a Native American theologian (and presidential candidate, look him up) once said at a speech I saw, and I’m paraphrasing, “The prayers you pray when your cupboard is empty are very different from those you pray when your cupboard is full.” Many Americans are praying with a full cupboard.
My personal faith is built on a foundational notion of the inability to get outside of the love of God. This inherently connects me to others, because if God can love me through the worst that I’ve done, then I must accept that God loves others as well that left to myself, I would not, and reckon with the implications for how I should treat them. I do draw strength from seeing how faith carried people through levels of difficulty that are still hard for me to fathom. I think a lot about the question, “Who is my neighbor?” that prompts the parable of the Good Samaritan. And while I have my own struggles with prayer and execution of faith, I do believe that we are to find our way through in community of one sort or another. Not necessarily a church, but absolutely an intentional community with a set of shared values.
Bob — Do you see an expanded leadership role for yourself in furthering social justice and making the world a better place whether that’s through writing, running for elective office, or forming a grassroots organization?
Corregan — I’ll preface this by saying I have reverse Dunning-Kruger in spades. I sometimes do some very good and uncommon things, but have trouble seeing them as particularly extraordinary or uncommon and think most reasonably intelligent people would do the same. So read this with that self-critical lens and adjust based on your experience of me.
I don’t see myself as an organizer, really. People mistake my occasional clarity of thought for being an organized person that is well-suited in a hands-on executive role. I’m a vision caster and evangelist in the broadest, most non-religious sense of the word. I do love people and have some ability to lead. But I’ve tried several roles with those detailed execution responsibilities, and I don’t particularly enjoy them.
I could see running for office one day, but I’m not sure it’s my highest and best use. People see electoral office as a West Wing kind of thing where the brightest and most impassioned people with the biggest hearts for service rise to the top due to, well, The West Wing, and also the myth of the American Founders. They imagine reasoned men philosophizing and hashing out the concentric wheels powering the nation over coffee in a salon. The truth is it looked much like politics today: hard-nosed negotiating and back-room deals. This isn’t to downplay the creativity required to create a nation from a combination of Enlightenment insights, Classical ideals, and Native American governance strategies. It’s just to point out that the job of a politician is to navigate the treacherous waters that we decry, and occasionally to make waves.
Where I’m passionate is in helping other people think things through and in universalizing a personal experience to get at greater truths. This probably means that I will pursue a future in writing and speaking. Lord knows I’ve written enough on Facebook to put out a couple of books. Of the things you suggested, writing and speaking, and possibly putting that into action with some sort of advisory or meditating function, would be the most likely future for me.
Originally published at http://fensteroneducation.home.blog on July 14, 2020.