There are some questions to which I hope I’ll always answer no: “Should we go to Ohio this weekend?” “Do you want these old Creed CDs?” “Have you ever seen a grown man twerk for a dollar?”
After walking along South University Avenue on a windy and bitterly cold night last semester, I can now only honestly negate the first two. My answer to the final question is now yes. Yes, I have witnessed a group of cargo-pantsed, Timberland booted, puffy-jacketed boys crowding nearby a homeless man around midnight. Yes, I saw them gleefully pull out their cell phones to record the man as he rested his palms on the freezing sidewalk and hoisted his legs against the wall. Yes, I watched them cheer and laugh and applaud the man, hand him a single bill and stampede down the street. Yes, I stood by motionless, stuck in the middle of the crosswalk.
I don’t know the details of the videotaping — who suggested it, how and why they found it amusing or what they did with the video afterwards. I don’t know who the boys were, or how and why they decided to publicly humiliate a homeless man. I do know the grown man, a street vendor who works for Groundcover News, a local non-profit. Groundcover employs members of the homeless community to sell its self-published monthly newspaper. It is a smart organization that offers its employees the opportunity to take ownership of their efforts to find stable employment and functional housing. This man’s primary occupation is to sell newspapers at a dollar apiece and he relies on his fellow community members to invest in his product. I don’t know if these boys were familiar with Groundcover and what it stands for. I do know that this man was Black, and I do know that the videotaping boys were not.
In Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues that in order to address our problems, we must first acknowledge and understand them — that to name the world is to change the world. In a recent lecture at Harvard, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has done just that. He has named our world as a dual society, one in which Black Americans are — systemically and purposefully — economically, socially and physically segregated from white Americans. Coates uses the phrase “a second society” to describe the ways in which the two worlds are kept deliberately separate: Black America underneath White America. This, I believe, is the sentiment toward which countless recent Michigan Daily editorials and articles have been reaching. This, I believe, explains Theta Xi’s World Star party, and the appalling racial statistics that define our student body. This, I believe, fosters an environment in which boys find it socially acceptable, and emotionally profitable, to degrade a homeless man.
Recognizing a dual society requires us to do more than acknowledging systemic racism.
Accepting Coates’ diagnosis means truly examining every aspect of our society and determining the ways in which we have created a second society. It means identifying how, when and where this second society manifests in our daily lives. For instance, I recognize that only in a dual society could a group of college students possibly justify their decision to culturally and socially demean an impoverished Black man. I recognize the ways in which my failure to intervene helped perpetuate and exacerbate this dual society.
No matter what sort of mob-mentality, peer-pressured concoction of rationale justified their actions, what that group of boys did is inexcusable. Even though the vendor obliged their request — even if he, in fact, proposed it — what they did is inexcusable.
As I walked away from that crosswalk, stunned, guilty and angry, I gravitated toward this simple idea. Their actions were simply wrong. They were degrading, juvenile, repulsive, insulting, racist and humiliating and they were wrong. Above all, it was not in the least bit funny. Yet all of the boys were laughing.
I walked away with words of anger toward the unfamiliar boys:
Neither you nor I know what it is like to be homeless. Neither you nor I know what it is like to be Black in America. But if you can find a spare moment between your debasement of the homeless, I hope you consider the idea that this man may have slept outside in the cold 20 degree weather that night. Consider that he spends most waking hours on the sidewalks advertising a newspaper that might be his one shot at social mobility. Consider that you took this modest, humble, simple motion toward equality and you abused it. You ravaged it for a 30-second video and some laughs.
This behavior cannot be tolerated any longer. We are stuck in a cycle of offenses and warnings, without ever taking action to eradicate the underlying insensitive impetuses, or unravel the dual society. The deaths of Jordan Davis, Jonathan Ferrell and Trayvon Martin attest to this pattern. On our campus, Theta Xi’s party and the Da’Quan videos remind us there are no effective consequences to racist conduct, even when it mocks and insults the already underrepresented minorities of our student body. We will continue to exist in this dual society, in this cycle, until we realize each one of us implicated. You are responsible and I am responsible. I failed when I did not intervene the other night. We all fail when we tolerate any racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise discriminatory treatment.
It becomes a matter of community. Somewhere along the lines these boys discovered that their community was built on a dual society. They found out that there are no penalties for racist behavior — that cultural exploitation is encouraged, even socially rewarded. If we want to dismantle the dual society, we need to modify our community. We need to ensure that our community does not value this type of conduct. We need to identify and eliminate the ways in which we create a two-tiered society, and in the daily removal of these norms, in the continuous reflection and the constant modification, learn to merge into one even society.
It begins with moments of inaction and moments of action. It begins with recognizing the more nuanced aspects of our lives that lead to the creation of separate societies, and taking action to reverse the trends. It begins with naming the world.
For me and other white students at the University, understanding and supporting the #BBUM movement is only the first step. Next comes identifying the dual society and disagreeing with it, saying, “I don’t want to exist in two societies, especially if I’m unfairly and disproportionally benefiting from it.” It means examining my place in America’s primary society to see if and how I am implicated in creating the circumstances rendering #BBUM necessary. Asking myself questions over and over. Why have I never felt the way these students do? In what ways have I benefited from being a white American at this school? How can I ensure equal treatment for every student?
It would be a lie to say that the University acts as a pioneer in this endeavor. Until we modify our community, until we serve as a model for naming our injustices and acting in ways to right them, we are not leaders and we are not the best. We are not victors. Until then, our community is behind.
Comedian Aziz Ansari has a joke he tells about how Coldstone employees have to sing every time they receive a tip. He’s astonished at how degrading this is, and argues that not even a bum on the street would stoop so low as to sing for a nickel. Apparently in Ann Arbor, we’ll ask them to twerk for a dollar.
Alex Winnick is an LSA junior.