Khadijah Lynch, James Baldwin, and the Rage of Internet Commenters
I find solace in the words of James Baldwin.
Just before Christmas, as I read the news of “outrage” over Brandeis student Khadijah Lynch’s Tweets in the aftermath of the assassination of two New York City police officers, I thought of James Baldwin.
Ms. Lynch declared "i have no sympathy for the nypd officers who were murdered today" and "lmao, all i just really dont have sympathy for the cops who were shot. i hate this racist fucking country."
The remarks seem monstrous. The officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were murdered in cold blood. The killer’s statement to bystanders just prior to the ambush, “watch what I’m going to do,” is something only the darkest imagination could even conjure for a movie.
The very madness of it disorients me to the world.
The only sane reaction is horror at the act and sympathy for the families and loved ones of the murdered officers. It’s what I felt. It’s a terrible tragedy, senseless and brutal. The failure of empathy on the part of Khadijah Lynch shocks the conscience.
For a moment, it shocked mine anyway. I wondered how anyone could say such a thing.
But I soon remembered that Khadijah Lynch is a human being just like me, that she is not a monster anymore than I am. She is as capable of empathy as anyone, and yet not in that moment, not in that case.
What causes the otherwise sane to act insane?
I thought of James Baldwin.
I wasn’t alone in thinking about James Baldwin. As I read further down the Inside Higher Ed report on the controversy, I saw that the Brandeis African and Afro-American Studies (AAAS) Department had invoked Baldwin in their statement on Ms. Lynch’s comments, in which they expressed their condolences to the families and loved ones of the murdered officers.
They did not condone Ms. Lynch’s Twitter comments in any way, but they sought to offer context:
In 1961, the great American writer James Baldwin poignantly noted that, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” While it may be easy and convenient at this emotionally charged moment to condemn Ms. Lynch, we must also strive to understand why she would make these comments. This means openly and honestly recognizing the very real pain and frustration that many young people of color struggle with in trying to navigate their place in a society that all too often delegitimizes their existence.
The Brandeis AAAS Department recognized Ms. Lynch’s statements for what I believe they are, not expressions of anger, but of the deepest pain and despair.
What else could explain such monstrousness?
The commenters on the Inside Higher Ed article have some ideas, starting with liberalism and “leftists” who create a “cult of victimhood.”
In this narrative, Khadijah Lynch has been victimized by her grievance-mongering professors, a promising young woman with a bright future has been poisoned by exposure to these university faculty.
According to these commenters, we have moved beyond the time of Baldwin. The problem of Civil Rights has largely been solved:
“Statements like this is what causes so many of us to roll our eyes. This is not 1961, nor is the racism faced by Ms. Lynch anything near what James Baldwin lived through and experienced, not only as a Black man but a gay Black man. I don't fault Ms. Lynch, though, as her young head of mush has been filled with this seething, loathing, and misspent anger probably since birth, fomented and fostered by "teachers" like those at the AAAS and every politician who sees this historic grievance as a political well. As Dylan said under different circumstances, "She's only a pawn in their game."
“Whatever racism that exists today in society is a translucent shadow of the racism that existed in 1961. We should stop pretending that they are equivalent.”
“If literally over a half century of deliberate attempts at reparations, Affirmative Action, creation of departments such as The African and Afro-American Studies Department everywhere, and the spending of over $1 Trillion during that time has not resulted in any lessening of that rage; it is only rational to step back and consider the lack of efficacy of the effort. Is the effort merely teaching African Americans that rage and hatred are effective tools in dominating a segment of our society and culture? Do organizations such as AAAS stoke and maintain that rage and hatred? Is there any logical reason for society to continue beyond that half century [two generations of African Americans having come to adulthood under it, and a third on the way] since the results have been so poor? Is there any logical end point for those efforts, or are they eternal? Should society concentrate on maintaining objective standards of performance and not try to grant preferences based on race for ANYONE?”
Commenters hope that Khadijah Lynch’s comments follow her forever, causing a lifetime of unemployment.
She should be expelled. She should even be investigated by the FBI.
I read these comments, and I think of James Baldwin.
Baldwin is one of our most important figures in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and yet he was not an activist.
The word he chose for himself was “witness.” As an artist, his role was to both observe and testify, to see the world with the clearest of eyes, and then to reflect that world back to itself.
One of the most important things he witnessed in his work was that the sin of slavery was not only visited on Black Americans, but on White ones as well.
In Baldwin’s famous essay, “The American Dream and the American Negro,” he even empathizes with Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, Alabama, a man who used a cattle prod on Black women who were seeking to exercise their legal right to vote.
“Sheriff Clark in Selma, Ala., cannot be dismissed as a total monster; I am sure he loves his wife and children and likes to get drunk. One has to assume that he is a man like me. But he does not know what drives him to use the club, to menace with the gun and to use the cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman's breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”
Baldwin knew that in denying others’ humanity, Sheriff Clark, and others like him were forced to abdicate their own.
Baldwin was writing 100 years after the 15th Amendment granted suffrage to all peoples. We are almost 50 years past the Voting Rights Act.
Surely 2015 is not 1961 and we have at last done enough to atone for the original sin of slavery.
If individuals cannot find success it must be due to defects of character, failures of culture, not because we have never fully confronted the legacies of this sin.
This is too terrible to even consider.
And yet, I must bear witness to the fact that Blacks with some college have similar employment prospects to Whites without high school diplomas and that Black college graduates have family incomes, on average, 35% lower than their white counterparts.
I must also witness that a recent Black college graduate is three times more likely to be unemployed than a White one, that the net worth of the average White family is 13x greater than the average Black family.
If a Black teenager is killed by the police, it must be because he is a “thug” because it is too terrible to think about teenagers being killed.
The resulting protests are because the populace has been whipped up by professional race baiters, except that I must witness the fact that a majority Black population is subject to an almost all-White police force and power structure that detains and arrests them in wildly disproportionate numbers.
Chicago’s West Side has a gang problem because of failures of Black parenting, not because of the legacy of property redlining that created Chicago’s “second ghetto” denying the opportunities to build generational wealth open to others, closing off opportunities until joining a gang becomes a rational choice.
We have given Blacks their freedom from bondage, and then when that wasn’t enough, they received the vote, and when that wasn’t enough we affirmed their Civil Rights, and when that wasn’t enough, Affirmative Action, and now specialized academic departments, and even a Black president, yet we get “rage” in return.
Where is the gratitude? these commenters ask. When will they have enough?
I believe that what I am witnessing as a rash of people descend on the comments section of an article in a higher education publication to condemn the words of a college student is a kind of fear.
It is not exactly like what possessed Jim Clark and Bull Connor, but something akin to it. Its legacy.
The commenter “AssociateProfessor” lectures us:
“Black people have been dealing badly with racism for the past few decades. Anger leads to hatred---hatred to suffering.
The conversation about race in this country is based on accusation and rage, not logic and understanding. It is not without reason that whites simply stopped showing up at the table---when their best efforts to open an honest dialogue are rebuffed with cries of racism, why even try? You cannot negotiate with people full of inchoate anger whipped up by lies and anecdote.”
I find these words as monstrous, in their own way, as Khadijah Lynch’s, perhaps moreso as they do not appear to come from an outburst of anger, but a deeper place of rot.
They are a willful denial of the lived experiences of others (“whipped up by lies and anecdote”) – a stunning failure of empathy. They are an expression of White Supremacy, in that it is assumed that the granting of rights (“showing up at the table,” “negotiate”) is something only within the power of the White majority.
They are failures to bear witness from someone fully educated, not a student like Khadijah Lynch. The blasé dismissal of human suffering chills me.
But I am also certain that these commenters are not monsters, as I am not, as Khadijah Lynch is not, as Jim Clark was not.
I learned this from James Baldwin, the great American artist.
I feel the terror underneath these commenters words, the necessity of dehumanizing others to maintain the illusion that society is just, that we are not heirs to a system that refuses to fully recognize the humanity of all of our citizens.
To believe otherwise is obviously too much for us to take, otherwise we would act.
We cannot see ourselves as monsters.
I used a quote of Baldwin’s on my collection of short stories as an epigraph, “I really do believe we can be better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous – and people are not yet willing to pay it.”
I put it in the book because I want to believe this. It's this struggle that I often find myself writing about.
Because of Baldwin I recognize the words of these commenters – just like Khadijah Lynch’s tweets - are expressions of pain and despair. I imagine that these people must be paying a significant price to construct this world that makes sense to them.
It is heavy work to deny the humanity of others. I know this because over the holiday I internally raged at these commenters, composed my own retributions, relished the chance to unleash them in this space.
It was soul corroding, walking around with this rage. If not for the IHE publishing hiatus, I would’ve unleashed it. There is a much different version of this post on my hard drive.
As the rage waned, sadness took its place, tinged with something like pity.
If those commenters and others who hold similar views are reading these words, they are likely experiencing their own small or not so small rages. They are dismissing me, reducing me – brainwashed liberal – as I reduced them.
I think of James Baldwin and I wonder what awful things have happened to them, to me, to us.
So rather than respond with rage of my own, for them and all of us, instead I will grieve.
I will grieve, and I will think of James Baldwin, and the fire next time.
I took a Twitter hiatus over the holiday. It was great.
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