Race Corners and American Heroes

Three days ago, a white friend of mine asked for my thoughts on the brutal beating of Steve Utash, a white truck driver who inadvertently hit a preteen boy who dashed out into the street less than two weeks ago.

Steve Utash hit a black preteen boy on a Detroit street. When Utash, horrified, got out of his truck to check on the boy, several upset people attacked him, verbally and otherwise. Among them were a group of black teenagers. Utash was brutally beaten by the mob and only regained consciousness very recently.

Some social conservatives, frustrated with what they deem the “race-baiting” tactics of sociologists and other social liberals, have noted that the story–black teenagers viciously attacking a white man–hasn’t captured much national attention or outrage. My friend wondered why Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (apparently) hadn’t weighed in. He also sought my thoughts on the matter, as I write and think frequently about race.

I know what I’m supposed to say. From one end, I’m supposed to say that violence is violence, and that this is a horrific crime. I should be every bit as angry when this happens as when a hate crime happens to a black person by a white person.

In the other corner, I’m supposed to point out that there isn’t the same legacy of mob violence against white men that there is against black men. I should say that the black teenagers, yes, overreacted, but that they responded to long history of violence–and that Utash hitting the boy struck that chord for them.

When I read my friend’s message about the Utash tragedy, sadness overtook me. I’m sad because an innocent kid got hit. I’m sad because a group of people let anger overtake them, and responded with hate instead of love.
I’m sad because people retreated to their corners.

Some used Steve Utash as an excuse to berate Jesse, Al, and others who view racism as prejudice+power. Some anti-racist activists explained away black folks beating a white man nearly to death because such violence is “not systemic.” Both types of responses are understandable and contain elements of truth. Neither response helps, nor feels particularly human.

But this is not a (false) equivalence essay.

In “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. DuBois asked in 1903 a set of questions that, for all our progress, still remains unanswered today:

“Here, then, is the dilemma…What, after all, am I? Am I American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American?”

In 2014 we are often told we ought to strive for a “colorblind” society. Most people of color, particularly the less affluent, know that such rhetoric is unrealistic at best and harmful at worst. For centuries we have been defined and segregated by our race. We have found ways to adapt, to look out for each other, to band together–and suddenly we’re told things like “”You shouldn’t have BET because a White Entertainment TV would be racist,” or asked, “Why don’t we have a White History Month?”

After being rejected and denounced for so long, we are now welcomed into mainstream society–conditionally.

Black folks and other people of color are welcome if. We are welcome if our name doesn’t sound too black, a truth sociologists still find despite our having a president with a “funny name.” We are welcome if we are incredible athletes or entertainers–as long as we remain humble and avoid seeming arrogant. We are welcome if our diction sounds white. We are welcome if we ‘ask’ for things instead of ‘aksing’ for them.

We are welcome if.
And we know it.

And if not?
We’re just another nigger.

And even if we are welcome, even if we are seen as full American citizens, we are still seen as accountable to one another.

When those black teens attacked Utash, black America was, in some way, held responsible. It felt like my friend was saying, “Why aren’t you all doing something about this?”  That my friend felt comfortable suggesting I, and Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, ought to be organizing protests and speaking out against the teens who committed those barbaric acts–that says something.

It says: You are only allowed to be upset about racial violence if you’re upset about all of it, equally. If not, shut up.

All of us live lives of inconsistency. We wear “Boston Strong” shirts while ignoring the 49 murders that have happened in greater Boston since the attacks at the Marathon a year ago. We call overbearing men confident and confident women overbearing. At sporting events we applaud soldiers who protect our freedom, even as we question or fear the existence of peaceful Muslim centers near Ground Zero.

In high school, as I watched footage of Emmet Till’s disfigured face, I thought, “his skin tone is like my father’s.” I grew up reading books and watching tapes about people who looked like me being brutally beaten or enslaved. Those images haunted me. I was not alone. And so yes, news stories of a black person being attacked does things to me that a white person’s similar predicament does not. I wish that were not so.

And yet.

None of that excuses the actions of those teenagers against Steve Utash.

Social liberals and anti-racist scholars may not exactly be in Steve Utash’s corner about the controversy (though Jesse Jackson did speak out Monday against the attack); he did have a black person in his corner when it mattered most.

Deborah Hughes, a retired nurse, heard the crash and rushed out to see how she could help. When she saw the agitated mob and the beatings, she barged into the chaos to save Utash. Hughes said, I laid over the top of him, I put my arms around him and I said, ‘You are safe. Nobody’s going to hurt you no more.”‘ 

Deborah Hughes saved Steve Utash’s life.

I don’t know Deborah Hughes. Maybe she’s a black conservative, tired of Melissa Harris-Perry’s ‘divisive rhetoric.’ Maybe she’s a social liberal, exhausted by white America’s ‘inability to truly understand race.’ It doesn’t really matter. Deborah Hughes is an American hero.

Maya Angelou famously quoted Terence, the ancient Roman playwright, who said, “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”

I hope we can follow Deborah Hughes’ example: Steve Utash’s suffering was not alien to her, because Steve Utash is not a talking point; he is a human being. Marissa Alexander is a human being. Trayvon Martin was a human being.

When Deborah Hughes saw Steve Utash being attacked, she didn’t see a talking point. She didn’t see a sociological study or proof of blacks’ reverse racism. She saw a fellow human in danger, and she moved to help.

May we do the same. May we do the same whether it’s a middle-aged white man being attacked, a  middle class black girl being left out of advanced classes, or a middle school boy trapped in a system that has forgotten about him.

May we move to help.

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