“Get Out” and Other American Horror Stories

Four years ago this August, Michael Brown was shot to death by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. In 2018, another Michael Brown, also a black teen, who garnered national attention after gaining admission to all 20 of the prestigious colleges and universities to which he had applied, was accused by a pair of white D.C. FOX news anchors of “taking away a spot from and basically wait-listing” (inferentially white) students.

The complaint ignores the reality that a hardworking black teen might want to apply to twenty schools not to satisfy his ego but to optimize the possibilities of acceptance because, according to a recent New York Times analysis, black and brown students remain underrepresented at top American colleges and universities, with “the share of black freshmen at elite universities . . . virtually unchanged since 1980.” While a couple small-minded white television anchors may dub Brown “obnoxious” for his achievement, other white Americans will brand him an “affirmative action baby” (even though he had a 4.68 GPA and scored 1540 on his SATs), still others will dismiss him as an outlier, a scholastic Tiger Woods.

In the racial calculus of American disdain, black lives matter only when they confirm perdurable stereotypes – even when those stereotypes are diametrically opposed. After all, America created both the Happy Black Slave and the Angry Black Brute, Mammy and the Tragic Mulatto, promulgating stereotypes for every contingency, and producing a no-win situation for any black person who dares to belie them.

Black lives matter, but only when whites find them tolerable, for no matter what black people do, no matter how great their achievements, how quotidian their normalcy, they will never be accepted as unequivocally human. Blacks are reduced to objects of white fear, resentment, potential magnets of police abuse. In Massachusetts, a Smith college employee calls 911 on a black student eating lunch in a common room. In Connecticut a white Yale student reports a black student to police for napping a common room. In Georgia, a Subway restaurant manager demands that the brother of a black employee leave the premises and calls him a “fucking nigger” after forcibly ejecting him. A CVS manager in Chicago accuses a black customer of counterfeiting a sales coupon and demand she leave, calling the police when she refuses. In Pennsylvania police are called to remove two black women from a golf course because they “played too slowly.” The message to black folk is clear: America is not all that into you. Get out! – a message that perfectly echoes the national zeitgeist as embodied in its marigold president who simultaneous shouts at our brown neighbors to the south, “Stay out!”

Liberal regard provides no solution, since it has traditionally assumed that black suffering must first be translated for white sensibilities in order for whites to acknowledge it, as was the case in the 1960s, when journalists such as John Howard Griffin and Grace Halsell donned blackface to pen exposes about the black experience for their white readers, readers who were prepared to accept their words over those who had to live that experience daily – and permanently— and who wrote about it far more eloquently and viscerally well before their journalistic masquerade. Today, that role is played by police cams and cell phone cameras, though when it comes to black complaints of police brutality, many white Americans are Missourians, and, judging by the decisions reached by juries, remain skeptical despite visual evidence.

There are those who argue that in our information age whites frequently have their prejudices and implicit biases proven wrong; but this view offers shallow solace. The reality is that a century after W.E.B. Du Bois proclaimed color line the problem of the twentieth century, it remains as intractable as ever, and no amount of compelling evidence seems effective in erasing it. And even when the myths that sustain it are momentarily dispelled – often at the cost of black lives – their dehumanizing premises remain intact, and the process begins anew, as blacks one again must climb a mountain of disdain and suspicion that would not only try Kingly patience but also the resolve of Sisyphus.

We live, as an old X-Files motto once put it, in a society where “apology is policy.” Starbucks issues an apology; the FOX anchors issue theirs; Roseanne Barr issues hers. Everyone, it seems, is guaranteed their 15-minutes of contrition. Everyone save perhaps the police, who seldom have to apologize or pay out of pocket for their transgressions, the tab being picked up by taxpayers. There are those who look at these incidents as “teachable moments,” but why must such epiphanies always come at the expense of black humanity.

Sadly, this is a humanity that even some blacks themselves refuse to defend. In the case of college-bound Michael Brown, while two white FOX anchors received the blunt of criticism, a third female anchor, apparently black, held her tongue while her colleagues proceeded to denigrate Brown, choosing not to call them out on their exercise of white indignation. Similarly, in the Starbucks case, one of the lingering police officers was silently black. Police Commissioner Richard Ross, Jr, a self-identified African American, defended his blue brethren, asserting, “They did nothing wrong. They followed policy, they did what they were supposed to do, they were professional in all their dealings with these gentlemen – and instead they got the opposite” (emphasis added). Following public outcry, Ross apologized, and, his fifteen minutes up, slithered back under his rock.

Yet the viral video of the encounter shows the men seated at their table appearing to deal calmly for several minutes with the police – whose numbers ominously grow from three to six.  At one point, the white man they are waiting for arrives and defends his companions, accusing the police of discrimination. The video is reminiscent of the scene from Jordan Peele’s Get Out in which the black protagonist’s white girlfriend defends him from a policeman who demands he show him an ID when they are pulled over for questioning after the car she is driving strikes a deer on the road. Blacks still need white defenders to trespass white spaces. How little things have changed: one thinks of Bert Williams, the famous black vaudeville performer who, at the height of his success, still had to wait outside for a white colleague before he could be admitted into white establishments after his audience-pleasing performances.

Yet for all its eeriness, Get Out cannot hold a candle (or, perhaps more accurately given the tenor of the times, a Tiki torch) to the everyday nightmares blacks experience on an hourly basis in America. Not long after the Starbuck fiasco, Brennan Walker, a 14-year-old black Michigan high-school student who had missed his school bus and was shot at after knocking on the door of white homeowner to ask for directions. The owner claims he thought Walker was trying to break into the house. The case recalls another Michigan case, that of Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old woman who in 2013 after crashing her car, walked to a nearby house for help and was shot to death by the owner.  Perhaps, the homeowner should have called the police instead. Tell that to Jonathan Farrell, another car crash victim who knocked on the door of a neighboring house whose owner called police who, upon arrival, shot him dead. Or tell it to Charles Kinsey, a black therapist who in 2016, trying to protect an autistic client holding a toy truck, was shot in the leg by a white Miami policeman while he lay prone on his back on the ground with his empty hands held above him.

The message is clear: Black people are a dangerous affront, a stain that must be removed from the fabric of American society.  They brandish lethal toy guns and cell phones and wield deadly plastic cosplay swords. Even their bodies are potential weapons of mass destruction, possessed of superhuman strength, though some are purported too weak to survive simple (albeit illegal) chokeholds. And when they are not assaulting decent white folk, trespassing upon their comfort zones, burglarizing their property, or threatening the sacred lives of their representatives in blue, they are obnoxiously bogarting their way into elite universities, an intrusion the next supreme court justice will no doubt strive to prevent.

Our national conversations on race, like the FOX “conversations” about both Michael Browns, are one sided, imprisoning black people into procrustean categories they can never escape, and whose consequence is not only to humiliate and dehumanize blacks, but to justify their public denigration and all to frequent execution.