MICHAEL BROWN: COLOR AND CHARACTER IN AMERICAN RACIAL PROGRESS.
More than fifty years ago on August 28, 1963, when my hair was black, I was a teacher of French at Jefferson High School in El Paso, Texas—one of two high schools almost exclusively populated by Mexican American students with black hair. I was 37 years old, working on a Master’s degree in English at Texas Western College of the University of Texas at Austin which bestowed the degree. A year earlier I had left the Air Force as a Reserve Major after 10 years since being commissioned as a 2nd Lt. upon completion of Air Force ROTC at the University of Pittsburgh in May of 1952.
Eleven yeas later on this August day of 1963 our national attention focused on the March on Washington where a quarter million Americans—most of them African-Americans—gathered at Rome on the Potomac beseeching the government of the United States to redeem its promise of freedom to oppressed black Americans. As the principal speaker of the event, Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out to the aggregants that the check the nation had given to African Americans was returned marked “insufficient funds.” The March was covered by radio and television everywhere. The event was electrifying as images of the swelling aggregation of people began to grow in front of the Lincoln Memorial and stretching along the Reflecting Pool toward the Washington Monument and the capitol.
My students asked about the March. I told them it was about changing the segregated seating in the Plaza Theater of El Paso where blacks sat in the balcony, Mexicans on the sides, and whites in the middle; I told them it was about changing the minority quota system at the El Paso YMCA that restricted the number of Mexicans and black that could belong to the Y; I told them it was about eliminating the English Only rules in the Texas schools that punished students for speaking Spanish on public-school campuses; I told them since they were prohibited from speaking Spanish in the schools or on school-grounds they should speak French. After gales of laughter I told them I wasn’t kidding. After that the sounds of French carried throughout the school building and grounds.
Nine years earlier in 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. Yet in 1963 there seemed to be little progress in integrating American public schools. Also segregated in the public schools of the Hispanic southwest were Mexican American students. In 1970, sixteen years after Brown v. Board of Education, after winning a seat on the School Board, Pete A. Gallego called for integration of the Alpine, Texas, public schools—16 years after Brown v. Board of Education! Overcoming entrenched racism, Gallego succeeded with a group of Mexican Americans from Alpine in getting the Texas state legislature to mandate integration of the Alpine public schools consistent with the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.
Interviewed on March 9, 2002 by Maggie Rivas Rodriguez (Voces: Oral History Project—Giving Voice to the American Latino Experience, University of Texas—Austin) the narrative recounts:
Back in Alpine, the harassment began. Gallego and his family received angry phone calls, letters and visits from people unhappy with the changes taking place in their formerly quiet little town. [Pete’s wife] Elena recalled how the local bank manager dropped by their diner to tell her husband he wouldn’t have but the shirt on his back if he continued his cause.
“Pete started unbuttoning his shirt then,” she said, quietly laughing at the memory. “He said, ‘Would you like to have it now?’ [The bank manager] got in his car, slammed his door and took off. But after that, we couldn’t get any more business. We closed; there was nothing else we could do.”
The family was forced to relocate the restaurant across town, near the university. Disaffected by community politics, college students kept the business alive with their patronage.
In 1970, the bond-financed schools were finally built. Even then, Gallego said his forces remained in the fight, checking class rosters to ensure state-mandated integration.
After the segregation battle, Gallego launched other programs geared toward Latinos, including a church credit union and a scholarship fund. After 15 years of service, he retired from the school board in 1974.
Pete Gallego and I became good friends when I taught at Texas State University—Sul Ross in Alpine from 1992 to 1999. Pete’s son is now a U.S. Representative from the district that includes Alpine, Texas. In conversation, Pete Gallego told me how one day in 1970 the local ranchers armed with shotguns surrounded his restaurant prepared to shoot-up the place. Everywhere in Texas the mood toward Mexican Americans during the dark days of the Civil Rights Movement was ugly.
Things don’t seem to be any better today. Almost everywhere in Texas, Mexican Americans are perceived by Anglo Texans as interlopers trespassing on the hallowed ground of Sam Houston, Davy Crocket, and Jim Bowie. Never mind that there were Hispanic Texans (Tejanos) at the Alamo too. There doesn’t seem to be any regard for their “content of character” focusing more on the color of their skin. Never mind that the United States severed and annexed more than half of Mexico per the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (February 2, 1848) which now includes the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and parts of Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
Despite this historical presence of Mexican Americans, Anglo Americans regard them as illegal immigrants or illegal aliens. The point though is that as “the other” in American society, Mexican Americans and African Americans are regarded with undue suspicion, resentment, and odium.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the spate of recent slayings of African Americans by white police officers in various states across the country, the most incendiary in Ferguson, Missouri where Michael Brown, Jr., an 18 year-old African American was killed by Darren Wilson a white Ferguson police officer whose name was withheld unduly fearing attempts on his life in retaliation. Hello! A Ferguson police officer killed an 18 year-old unarmed African American youth whose only apparent crime was walking after dark down the middle of the street with a friend; and the Police Chief fears for the life of Officer Wilson who has committed a heinous crime?!
On April 6, 2012, Hip, Hop, and Politics reported that between January 1, 2012 and March 31, 2012, twenty-nine black people had been killed by police/security. One alarming statistic proclaims that every 36 hours a black person is killed by a police officer. This is the reality black and brown men and women face in the United States.
According to an autopsy report about Michael Brown by pathologist Dr. Richard Baden formerly with the New York City Medical Examiner’s office, there were 6 bullet wounds in Michael Brown’s body. The conclusions here are grim, conclusions which have only exacerbated tensions in Ferguson, Missouri. A police rejoinder about a struggle between Brown and the police officer over the officer’s gun is not supported by forensic evidence. To th aggrieved community, the police rejoinder sounds like a police cover-up to protect one of its own at any cost. Abetting this perspective are conflicting reports by “eye witnesses” about how Michael Brown was killed. To date, no police report about the incident has been released.
What looms large in the protest scenario in Ferguson, Missouri, is the attitude and reaction of the Ferguson police force seemingly endorsed by other police militia in the area with their military show of force: tanks, deadly combat assault weapons, SWAT gear, flak jackets, and tear gas. During the demonstrations, long assault rifles were pointed menacingly at the black demonstrators as if they were the enemy.
The Ferguson scenario is reminiscent of the rise of fascism in Hitler’s Germany. The inescapable conclusion is that the black majority community (in toto) of Ferguson, Missouri, is considered a terrorist threat and therefore to be confronted with all of the military might at the disposal of the Ferguson police department—thanks to the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. The white police force of Ferguson needs to be reminded that the pilots of the two planes that destroyed the twin towers in New York City were not African Ameri
This is what happens with the militarization of police departments that are supposed to be public servants for the common good of their communities. They are unmasked, instead, as harbingers of oppression preceding a police state that regards all citizens as threats to the ideology of the state. This mindset is what led to the arrest of American journalists covering the fracas in Ferguson: the suspension of the First Amendment of the American Constitution via a curfew, quashing the right of assembly in redress of grievances by imposing a curfew. Looks like the rise of the 3rd Reich in Germany. Speaking of police militarization, Reverend Al Sharpton commented on the availability of money for that militarization but no money available for the working poor and needy of the U.S.
All this has come to pass in Ferguson, Missouri, the state which spurred the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 to rule in the Dred Scott case that African Americans, free or slave, could not be American citizens and therefore had no standing in federal court (Blair L.M. Kelley, “Brown was denied his right to live—and his right to live as an American,” The Root, Posted: Aug. 14, 2014, 6:32 PM). As the situation worsens in Ferguson, Missouri, Amnesty International reports that internationally American human rights are being questioned with a sense of shadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortune of others) or who are you to question our human rights violations?
We are not there yet (as a post-racial society)—neither African Americans nor Mexican Americans who like African Americans are singled out as if they were Muslim terrorists. The U.S. may have elected an African American as president but African Americans are still in that miasmic pall of slavery. In Ferguson, Missouri, they were ushered off the streets, ordered to go home and remain indoors. African Americans protesting from their front lawns were barraged by tear gas and threatened with firearms at the ready if they did not go indoors into their homes.
After a week of chaos and despite feigned assuages for transparency by the Governor of Missouri, the Missouri National Guard was dispatched to Ferguson, Missouri, adding to the mounting tensions already there. A plea for an impartial investigation brought Eric Holder, the Attorney-General of the United States, to Ferguson, Missouri. Doubt and distrust color the expectations of the black community of Ferguson. The white minority community of Ferguson has a lock on the politics of the town. Historical marginalization has had its stifling effect on the black citizens of Ferguson.
It’s historical marginalization that also has a lock on the politics of Mexican Americans throughout the Hispanic Southwest. Unlike other Latino groups except for Puerto Ricans, the Mexican American experience has been an experience of marginalization based on race, color, and language. With exceptions, of course, in the main it has been the color of their skin rather than the content of their character that surfaces paramount in the Mexican American experience.
Sad to say, the Ferguson situation adds fuel to the conjecture that the United States is careening toward a two Americas landscape in the browning of America scenario, not to mention the growing income and opportunity gaps between haves and have-nots. Unfortunately there is more that divides Americans than unites them. It may be “drift” as Rachael Maddow has described America’s new military normal, a “drift” owing to the way the United States is fissured by race and politics as well as its balkanized patchwork of states and territories which undermine credence in E Pluribus Unum.
No one is sure how the Ferguson situation will play out. The situation may be a teachable moment as President Obama hopes or a plunge into the black hole of racial politics. Importantly, according to Eric Holder the issues raised by Michael Brown’s death, “have simmered ‘beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson’” (Huffington Post, 8.21.14). Historical marginalization, neglect, and the murder of Michael Brown have brought that simmer to a boil in Ferguson, abetted by the calloused disrespect for the body of Michael Brown—an 18 year-old boy with black hair—left lying on the ground for 4 hours where he fell when killed. In an MSNBC segment interviewing Michael Brown’s father , he responded how pained he was to see his son lying “like a dog in the street” where he was killed.
While there is a Grand Jury hearing testimonies about the Michael Brown shooting, expectations about the Grand Jury hearing are nominal. The make-up of the Ferguson Grand Jury—9 whites and only 3 African Americans. Blacks in Ferguson have greater expectations for justice from a Federal Grand Jury.
Michael Brown’s death emerges as a metaphor for human rights everywhere One is loathe to link the Ferguson brouhaha to a race war of the future but the moment has all the elements of ignition. May the French motto of democracy prevail: liberté, égalité, fraternité. The Michael Brown shooting augurs a national “conversation: on the hierarchy of Race in America.
In attendance at the funeral carried live by MSNBC were celebrities, Civil Rights leaders and representatives from the White House. What is certain about the Michael Brown killing is that the Summer of 2014 will be known as “the Blue Summer” and that “the world will know his name.”
Copyright 2014 by Dr. Philip de Ortego y Gasca. All photos used in this blog are in the public domain except for “Philip de Ortego” copyrighted by Philip De Ortego and “Street Scene” copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc.