Thursday, April 8, 2021

18. Black Lives Matter To Me

On Tuesday, April 6, 2021, I turned on social media to see an alarming post:  My friend Venton Hill-Jones, CEO of the Southern Black Policy and Advocacy Network, an openly Black gay man living with HIV in Dallas, had his life publicly threatened after he removed an illegal campaign sign.  Johnny Aguinaga, a man who is currently running for a City Council seat in Venton’s own District 4 stated, “You need to [sic] out it back or I’ll have my cousin go deal with you. He carries heat too. He likes trouble like you.”  Aguinaga repeatedly harassed and threatened him throughout the afternoon and evening, making sure Venton was aware that he knew where he lived, that he had until “8am” the next day to replace the illegal sign, and “I’m serious about the 8am deadline.” Later Aguinaga defended his actions in the press stating Venton is a legal gun owner, and therefore a “threat” with whom he must address “in slang terms.” 

I watched these events unfold and wondered:  As a white man, if I removed a campaign sign in Dallas, would the same candidate vow to send his cousin to kill me?  If I was a legal gun carrier would he perceive my simple removal of an illegal campaign sign as a “threat?”  Would he impulsively threaten me “in slang terms” as he did with Venton?  Would any candidate in Dallas be able to continue running for public office after threatening to murder a white constituent in their own district?  For the record, I tried to ask Mr. Aguinaga these questions on Facebook.  He promptly blocked me, but he did not threaten to send his cousin nor his heat to Brooklyn.  

At the time I’m writing this there have been no legal or political consequences against Mr. Aguinaga for his homicidal threats.  There has been surprising very little coverage in the media, nor public support for Venton from the agencies or organizations he has faithfully served over the past decade.  To me this is a glaring symptom of a much larger systemic problem:  Black lives are seen as expendable, Black people are seen as “threats,” Black safety is not a priority in disagreement or conflict.  As a white man living in the United States, I didn’t fully understand or grasp the extent of this until fairly recently. 

I was raised in Culver City in the 1970 during a time when there were attempts to achieve racial integration in the public school system.  I don’t think that goal was fully realized, but there was definitely a conscious attempt to integrate classrooms and teach students about slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Marches of the 1960s, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.  As ideal as that sounds, I remember thinking as a child, “Oh, that stuff happened a long time ago. We don’t really have to worry about slavery and violence against Black people now.”  It was easy as a white child living in a mostly white neighborhood to believe that violence and injustice were historical relics from the past. 

When I pursued my Masters in Psychology in 1995, I specifically attended a school called New College of California that promised to not only teach theories about mental illness, but also about the societal structures that create and sustain mental diagnostic codes.  Who profits from these labels, who historically has suffered? Every minority group in the U.S. has been psychiatrically diagnosed and labeled at some point in history in order for the dominant group to maintain social control.  "Drapetomania" was just one of the ways Black Americans had been pathologized for trying to escape from slavery, i.e, being too independent or “uncontrollable.” 

Again, much of this was presented as historical anomalies that had occurred in the past.  There was very little information or insights from the curriculum  about how people of color (POC) were still suffering at the hands of white practioners, still being mislabled as “psychotic” or “schizophrenic” disproportionately to whites, still being perceived as acting out or “unprofessional” for asserting independence in work settings (remnants of Drapetomania) .  Had it not been for the generous efforts of Ntombi Howell, and other students of color in our class, I probably never would have been aware of how frequently these dynamics were actively playing out in the Bay Area in the 1990s.

After eight years of having Barack Obama as President, I naively believed that the Untied States was on the path toward a respectful racially integrated society. It seems quite silly to write that given what I’ve seen since, and I certainly didn’t think things were “perfect.” But I thought America was generally proceeding on a loving trajectory for a part of the 2010s.  Once again I was quite wrong. 

Although Donald Trump  didn’t create racism, he sure embraced and emboldened it in a way I had never witnessed as a white person before.  He successfully ran on a platform of white supremacy, fear, and ignorant and inaccurate stereotypes against POC.  Seeing how so many white people resonated with his hateful rhetoric with a sense of validation, and then voted for him again in 2020, continues to reveal how 75+ million Americans perceive race relations and equality.  Violence, hate and oppression are not historical relics.  They never left. 

As more and violent police shootings were going unpunished, as more and more court verdicts enabled the systemic murder of Black men and women, it began to occur to me that this appeared to be a larger form of state-sponsored genocide.  “Genocide” was a term defined by the United Nations in 1948 meaning “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

    --Killing members of the group;
    --Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
    --Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
    --Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
    --Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

The charge of genocide against Black Americans dates back to 1951 in a public text titled, "We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief From a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People." It was a public declaration that segregation laws, voter suppression, and police violence were systematic attacks in compliance with the terms of "genocide" as set forward at the 1948 Genocide Convention. 

By 2019 I could see that Black people were disproportionately being exterminated by law enforcement, facing increased incarceration rates in prisons, stigmatized by mental health institutions, alienated from health care systems, increasingly discouraged from voting, and constantly living under the threat of visceral bodily harm.  If that isn’t sustaining genocide, what is?

It turns out that a lawyer named Ben Crump believed very much the same thing, and wrote an incisive book in 2019 called, “Open Season:  The Legalized Genocide of Colored People.” In the text he makes a very methodical and legal argument explaining how law enforcement, prison systems, drug crimes, gun lobbies, voter suppression, healthcare systems, and redistricting, all contribute to the systematic physical, legal, financial, political, and mental decimation of Black Americans.  I have repeatedly offered to purchase a copy of this book if someone can’t afford it, and will publicly offer that again here.   

Then in 2020 Ahmed Aubrey was murdered for walking around on a construction site.  Then Breonna Taylor was killed for sleeping in her own  home.  Then George Floyd was lynched in broad daylight for buying a pack of cigarettes. Will this never end?  Will we ever see justice for these homicides? 

So today as I see someone threatening to assassinate Venton in his own home, you can see why I get nervous and upset.  An individual with considerable political power in District 4 is actively threatening homicidal retaliation against a Black gay man.  The police appear to be doing nothing.  Aguinaga is still running for public office.  Venton is still at risk.  The structural implications are clear:  Venton’s safety doesn’t matter.  The genocide against Black Americans remains.  Twenty Black Americans will be killed today.  I don’t want Venton to be one. 

"How can I be part of the solution not the problem?"

In my personal life and professional practice, I have been exploring this topic with other white people who are also consciously concerned about making the world a healthier and safer place.  I have no clear easy answers for how to change any of this.  But here are some ideas that have been discussed:

1. Learn.  Take time to read about Black Lives Matter, understand the historical context of these issues, the institutions that perpetuate harm today, the experiences of the people who have lived through them.   My first go to for this is Ben Crump’s “Open Season” as described above.  Other books that have helped me learn are Robin DiAngelo's “White Fragility”, John Lewis's “Across That Bridge,” Lama Rad Owens' “Love and Rage” .  There are dozens of books in recent years that address the issues of Black Lives Matter in a Trump world, and how allies and advocates can support.

2.  Listen.  When a person of color shares about their experience, actively listen.  Do not jump to defense, deflect, or insist “that’s not me” (i.e, Sharon Osborne).  There are many opportunities to listen to personal experience of overt racism and subtle microagressions experienced by POC every day and night.  Joy Reid, Don Lemon, Sunny Hostin, Amber Raffin are just a few of the people on television daily, writing books, and consistently bringing attention and insights easy for the public to understand. 

3.  Discuss.  Have conversations with other white people about this.  These are not discussions based in “should”, guilt, or moral superiority.  These are conversations founded in, “We have a national problem.  What are we learning about the epidemic of race-based violence in this country?  How might we be perpetuating this problem in our personal and professional lives without fully being aware of it?  How can we change this?”

4. Take Action.  If there is a way to help or support, find it.  Admittedly, this route is often unclear.  But if you see injustice or discrimination happening in the workplace, say something.  If you have a friend who is struggling, ask them if or how you can help.  If you are in a position to politically and/or financially lend support to an individuals or organizations that fight for social justice, support them. I'm very interested in exploring different ways of learning how to show up and take constructive action.

5. Love.  At the end of all this there is love.  I’m not “perfect” at any of this, but even when I mess up  at doing #1, #2, #3, or #4  I act or react with love.  I apologize, I assess, I seek to understand so I can know better and do better.  I return to love and try again. 

Here’s what I know for sure:  As someone who grew up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s, I inhaled a fair amount of smog and asbestos.  Those are inside me now and will be the rest of my life.  Similarly, I grew up observing and inhaling a fair amount of racism.  It was in my school, it was in my neighborhood, it was in parts of my own family.  Just like pollution, that will be inside me the rest of my life.  It’s not a matter of IF it’s there, it’s WHEN it’s there, and HOW it shows up when it shows up.  For that reason I will never not be racist, I can never be fully “woke”.  But what I can do is seek ways to learn, listen, discuss, take action, and love, as much and fully as possible. 

I am starting a new decade of my life at a moment in time when there is a lot of change.  The COVID19 vaccine is becoming accessible, social events are restarting, and more and more white people are coming to understand how very little we know about the daily enacting of racism and genocide in the United States.  When one of us hurts, we all hurt.  When one of us suffers, we all suffer.  I am seeking ways to move forward into this next chapter with a deeper sense of respect, resilience, curiosity, healing, and love for the humans around me.  I look forward to more conversations with people looking to do the same.  

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

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