Race Writings 2: Stay Free

This is the second writing about race I’m posting in honor of our current civil rights movement. This is more recent. It’s a review of Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay that I published in The Rumpus in January, 2020. I’ve noticed lately that a lot of people are saying that we need to have a conversation about race, but then going no further. Cha’s book (and, to a lesser extent, my review of her book), shows how conversations about race can work.

The title is a reference to a song by The Clash, not to a maxipad. The full review is below.

Your House Will Pay cover

Stay Free

            When we first meet 44-year-old Shawn Matthews in Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, he’s standing in a prison parking lot with what remains of his family, waiting to pick up his cousin Ray. The sun beats down on them, but they don’t retreat to the air-conditioned car out of respect for the gravity of the moment. Ray has been down for ten years. He’s free now. Everyone involved is filled with a mixture of optimism and dread. As a reader, you feel it, too.

It’s a tender scene. It’s also one I’m used to witnessing from afar in my real life. My wife is a prison psychologist. Occasionally, when I’ve dropped her off for work in the morning, I’ve seen some facsimile of this: a nervous, joyful family picking up their father/brother/son who suddenly has a new chance to rebuild his life. I feel optimistic for these guys as they leave the prison. At least they have a family that cares enough, that has resources enough, to come pick them up.

When I catch the train out of San Luis Obispo, I often see California Department of Corrections vans dropping off men who’ve just been released from prison. These are the guys who don’t have the family or resources. The men change, but they have a similar look. They’re usually discharged in black sweatpants, a plain white T-shirt, and a black hoodie. They always have a paper grocery bag full of whatever they’re taking out of prison with them. They’re almost always black.

These guys look so full of hope that I get a little hopeful for them, too. Maybe this time, they’ll stay free. I’m silently rooting for them. I’m also trying not to think about how steeply the odds are stacked against them. Imagine being that black man, boarding a train in clothes that most people wouldn’t wear outside of their house. All of your stuff is in a paper bag. You don’t have much cash. In a few hours, you’ll be in a town with lousy public transportation, a giant homeless population, and a police department that will forever see you as a suspect and an easy arrest. On top of that, you’re starting the journey in San Luis Obispo, a city that has 532 African-American residents, just over 150 African-Americans enrolled in the state university in town (a full 0.7% of the overall student body), and about 1,200 African-Americans living in the prison that’s next door to the university. And this is a city that’s often cited as the happiest one in America. And this is a state that’s supposed to be the most liberal, the most progressive, the least racist.

I see scenes like this play out often. Every time I do, I wonder if there are real ways to have a conversation about the racism inherent in a state (and nation) that disproportionately incarcerates black men. But also, more generally, I wonder how we might talk about race in a meaningful way.

Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay opens the door to this conversation. The story follows two protagonists, Shawn Matthews and Grace Park. Shawn is an ex-con, ex-Crip from South Central Los Angeles. After his own prison stint, he has his life on track. He works for a moving company. He lives with his long-term girlfriend and her three-year old daughter. They have a good relationship. While he no longer has an immediate family, he’s close with his aunt (who raised him), and his niece and nephew. As his cousin Ray is released from prison, Shawn hopes to help him assimilate to life in Palmdale. Shawn also carries the weight of a heavy memory: His sister Ava was murdered when she was a teenager. The Korean American shopkeeper who killed Ava was convicted of manslaughter but served no jail time. Because the case happened in the wake of the Rodney King beatings in 1991 and because Ava was black, her murder was a bit of a media sensation. In 2019, Shawn just wants to move on.

Grace Park, in the meantime, is living a sheltered life that revolves around her Korean-American community. She’s a pharmacist in her parents’ drug store. She lives with her parents in Granada Hills. Grace isn’t close with them, but she feels responsible for taking over their business and carrying on their legacy. In the meantime, her sister Miriam hasn’t spoken to her mother in two years. No one will tell Grace what their conflict is, so Grace is stuck in this world of secrets. When a violent crime strikes the Park family, the secrets start to leak out.

As one would expect in any novel with co-protagonists, Shawn and Grace are on separate courses steering toward each other. Through Shawn and Grace, Cha constructs a Los Angeles sharply different from most representations of the city. Beaches and palm trees are nowhere to be seen. Hollywood and the film industry are a vague presence on the outskirts. The white world that we’re so used to seeing in representations of LA is cast to the margins. Instead, we visit Los Angeles as most of the residents of the greater metropolitan area do: through diverse neighborhoods where clusters of immigrants, migrants, and marginalized—many of whom are brown or black—struggle to get a foothold in the middle class. In the liminal spaces where those marginal communities overlap, we see the regionally specific prejudices that develop. Cha unpacks the legacy of tensions between African-Americans and Korean-Americans that traces back to the racial unrest of the early 1990s. Much of this tension is rooted in actual events. Even the murder of Ava is a recreation of the real-life murder of Latasha Harlins by the shopkeeper Soon Ja Du on March 16, 1991. Cha is faithful to what actually happened, right down to the shopkeeper’s manslaughter conviction coupled with no jail time.

Despite its roots in the early ‘90s, Your House Will Pay is a very contemporary novel. Everyone is online; Twitter shapes some of the characters’ actions. Grace goes viral at one point. Cops shoot unarmed black kids and the media moves on from the killing at the same rate that ESPN moves on from yesterday’s scores. It feels like the novel is taking place right now—and in a sense, it is. Most of the events occur between June and September of 2019, which would have been the future for Cha when she wrote the book (which was published in October 2019). This creates a sense of immediacy. The book’s conflicts can’t be dismissed as part of the past. The characters’ actions matter because they impact the world we live in right now. The issues matter because they’re issues we’ll face when we wake up tomorrow.

Many of these events are difficult to discuss in a review because each of the book’s four sections is based on a reveal. It is, after all, a crime novel. Instead, I’ll focus on a moment that demonstrates the novel’s richness: At one point, the Park family is in the news. Grace, who has built her life around anonymity, has no idea how to act under the spotlight. She’s harassed by a white activist who sees himself as a journalist. As she tries to escape, she slips and cuts her lip. In her anger, she lashes out at the activist. He films it. In her anger, she says something mildly racist. The video of her tantrum goes viral.

Cha presents the scene with a delicate touch. On the one hand, the reader understands why Grace would lose her temper. She’s under undue stress. She’s a small woman being hounded by a large and threatening man. She’s confused about recent events in her life, and she’s being expected to process information way too quickly. As a reader, we feel for her. At the same time, stress and confusion don’t make racist outbursts any less racist. Grace masochistically reads all of the social media reactions to her tantrum and:

For the first time in her twenty-seven years, Grace felt herself hated. Her whole body burned, her skin crawling with a hot itch she couldn’t scratch away. Hers was a modest existence—her social circle had always been comfortably small, her opinions vague, her presentation inoffensive.

            Another way of framing Grace’s self-perception is this: she’s always been the model minority. By acting as such, she’s avoided much of the scrutiny and hatred that many brown people can’t avoid. At this moment, though, Grace is confronted with the fact that she’s still not a part of the dominant race in a racist society. She’s still other. She’s disobeyed the culture’s demands of her otherness, and now she’s being punished. Of course it’s confusing for her.

She turns to her sister for solace:

“Do you hate me, too, now?” [Grace] asked.

“Of course not.”

“But you think I’m a racist.”

“Grace, I think everyone’s a racist.”

In that simple reply, both Miriam and Cha shift the paradigm for how we need to talk about race in this country. It stands to reason that, if Miriam thinks everyone is a racist, then she includes herself. What if we all started from this point? Instead of asking if anyone is a racist, we all admit that we all are. If you’re drinking in a dive bar at 9:00 AM on a Tuesday, you’re an alcoholic; if you live in a country where, in the happiest city in the most progressive state, two out of every three African-Americans is incarcerated, then you live in a racist country. Our culture is bigger than all of us. It’s the ideological air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink. It shapes our views. So, as a member of this culture, is Grace a racist? Yes. Is Miriam a racist? Yes. Am I a racist? Yes. Are you?

And could we, by starting at this point, shift focus away from “racist” as an identity and instead examine the actions, the language, and the institutions that perpetuate racism? Could we move beyond judgment and into a place where real progress can happen?

When Grace goes viral, everyone in the novel is quick to judge her, to call her a racist, to attack her. In doing so, no one has to look inside himself or evaluate his culture very deeply. Instead, they can scapegoat Grace. This is something we do in real life all the time. We’re all a little thankful for knuckleheads like U.S. Representative Steve “Since When Did White Supremacy Become a Bad Thing” King. His racism is so much worse than ours and his power so much greater than ours that we give ourselves a pass. For Miriam, though, no one gets a pass. More importantly, judgment isn’t so much the point. Racist actions must be redeemed.

And, really, redemption has to be the goal. In this sense, Cha taps into the Christian traditions of her characters. Your House Will Pay isn’t a religious novel. Sure, the characters attend church and one of the main characters is named Grace, but Grace is no medieval allegory. She doesn’t mimic God’s grace by learning to love those who deserve it the least. Catholic grace isn’t the goal. Nor is vengeance—the primary idea from the Old Testament our society clings to. (And what is our prison system but an act of vengeance?) Vengeance creates an endless loop. Instead, after her racism goes viral and comes to define her, Grace seeks to redeem herself. She begins the process of understanding what beliefs she still holds that she needs to release. She allows herself to be imperfect. And she starts down a path of action that allows her to be an imperfect person working for positive change.

And this is just one part of Your House Will Pay. The novel is by no means didactic. As I’ve said, it’s a crime novel. Like all of Cha’s work, the novel starts with a slow burn and builds into a wildfire. By the time you get to the last hundred pages or so, there’s nothing to do but watch it burn down everything you thought you knew about Los Angeles. And, like the massive wildfires that have been burning through Southern California for the past few winters, you’re left with both devastation and the promise of new growth—the drive to build something new and better.

 

Race Writings 1: The Totalitarian Playbook

Berlin Mural

A mural in Berlin, not far from the Topography of Terror

If there’s one thing I think everyone agrees on, it’s that talking about race in America right now is hard. It’s uncomfortable. Part of the difficulty has to do with the way we talk, especially when we’re all separated by a pandemic. So much of our communication is done now on social media, where brief statements, pictures, and memes replace the long-form conversations that we should be having.

Obviously, I’m not good at social media. I rarely engage with it. I haven’t taken the time to learn how to communicate through it effectively. Still, I don’t want to say nothing in the middle of this massive moment in the history of social justice. So I’m going to pretend it’s the early aughts and use my personal website to post several essays, columns, and book reviews that I’ve written about race over the years. I’ll post one or two of these a week for the next couple of months. Here’s the first.

This essay was originally published on Morpheus in November 2017. I think it’s as relevant today as it was then. It’s long, but I also think it’s engaging and some people might find comfort in it. I hope you enjoy it.

Topography of Terror

Topography of Terror in Berlin

The Totalitarian Playbook

1.

An exhibit called the Topography of Terror stands in front of a remaining section of the Berlin Wall. It’s longer than a soccer field and it details, step-by-step, the rise of the Third Reich. In June, 2017, I traveled around Germany with my father and uncle. Berlin was our last stop before returning to Bremen, the city where my uncle lives. It was blistering hot out. There’s no real shade at the Topography of Terror. We baked in the sun and took our time with the exhibit, reading all the text, checking out the pictures, watching people around us doing the same.

Afterward, we grabbed lunch and talked about what we’d just seen. My dad said, “I can’t imagine how a guy like Hitler gets so much power.”

I pointed out that the Topography of Terror details exactly how Hitler did. It’s an old totalitarian playbook. First, you marginalize dissent by attacking the free press, intellectuals, and academics. Second, you find a scapegoat—typically a religious minority—and craft a narrative that details that scapegoat’s plans to destroy your society. Third, you redefine what a real member of your nation is. You usually do this on racial or ethnic terms. Then, you take what’s left of the populace, the ones who don’t question you, the ones who hold the same religious beliefs as you, the ones who look enough like you so you feel pure, and you start picking fights and building walls.

I said this to my father and uncle because, among other things, they’re Trump supporters. To his credit, my father had the decency to keep his Trump support to himself during the trip. My uncle did not. When faced with the opportunity to educate me—who he saw as a real life liberal university professor from California—he went for it. He baited me a lot on politics. I mostly wouldn’t take the bait. I’ve had decades of experience of political disagreements with my family. What all those conversations have in common is that everyone leaves believing the same thing they started the conversation believing. All of us, everyone, not just my family, develop complex patterns for seeing the world. We hang all of our beliefs on an ideological framework, whether we articulate that ideology or not. The only way to genuinely alter someone’s beliefs is to alter the framework they use to hold those beliefs. That’s a tough thing to do, and not a project I wanted to undergo on my trip around Germany.

Still, our political differences were heavy in Berlin. The whole time I walked through the Topography of Terror, I couldn’t ignore that Hitler’s not the only one to use the totalitarian playbook. Tyrants did it before him and after him. Right now, I live in a country where the president is trying it out. The Third Reich used the term lügenpresse, which literally means “lying press.” Trump supporters used this term until a more dynamic phrase meaning the same thing, “fake news,” caught on. The first budget cuts Trump attempted were to the federal funding for intellectuals. He went after the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. He went after funding for climate research. He attacked the very cornerstones of institutions that produce our scientific and cultural knowledge. In particular, Trump and the American right have been attacking universities and academics. Entire think tanks have been built and supported just to demonize academics (e.g. Turning Point, Texas Public Policy Foundation, which are just two of many). Republican governors and legislators in Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and Utah have crafted bills to attack academics. All of this has happened subtly and been mostly overlooked in news cycles that tend to chase after the more spectacular and outrageous stories.

The second and third parts of the playbook are more obvious. Instead of the Jews, our current administration is banning Muslims, acting as if all 1.8 billion Muslims in the world are terrorists, ignoring that, if all 1.8 billion Muslims were terrorists, they would’ve won by now. And, while we don’t have a myth about an Aryan race (not much of one, anyway), we do have a myth of Making America Great Again, which means characterizing Latinos as rapists and murderers, kicking out immigrants, jailing African Americans, using a twitter war with Kim Jong-Un to reintroduce the myth of the Yellow Peril, and basically defining “a great America” as a white America.

I want to be clear that, by pointing out these similarities, I’m not saying Trump is the next Hitler. He’s not. He’s a buffoon, a lousy president, and an even worse human being, but he’s not Hitler. Still, he’s following the totalitarian playbook. When I was in Berlin with two of his supporters who just walked through an exhibit that details the playbook, and they didn’t make the connection, things got heavy.

 

2.

In October, 2017, I did a reading at the Avenue 50 Gallery in Highland Park to celebrate the 100th issue of Razorcake. I co-founded the magazine with Todd Taylor back in 2001. One hundred issues of a punk rock ‘zine in the twenty-first century is no small landmark. I worked day-to-day on the magazine, doing close to half the work to create, publish, and distribute the first twenty issues. I can’t take much credit for the eighty issues that followed. Even so, I got to be one of the readers at the celebration.

Chris Terry opened things up by reading passages from his essay “One Punk’s Guide to Rap Music.” He told a story about hanging out in a parking lot, waiting for his dad to come out of the store, blasting A Tribe Called Quest on the car radio. His dad got back to the car and turned down the music quickly. This was right around the time of the beating of Rodney King. Racial tensions were high. Chris describes his dad as “the only black man in sight.” Recognizing this, Chris had to confront the dangers inherent in his biracial identity.

The next reader was Donna Ramone. As you may have guessed, Ramone is not her real last name. She introduced her reading by saying that she wished she could read fun stuff about gross Oreo cookies, but, as a Muslim woman in America in 2017, she felt like she had to use every platform she had to speak out. Her story was about being targeted and harassed at an airport, and about how that target and harassment was indicative of an overall trend she, her family, and the Muslim community faced increasingly. Amazingly, Donna made the reading funny.

Up next was me: a white guy. I read a story about skateboarding. Talk about white privilege.

The final reader of the night was an eleven year-old poet, a member of the Puro Pinche Poets collective. She performed in front of a crowd of rough-looking, heavily-tattooed punk rockers in their twenties, thirties, and forties. She read a bilingual poem that ended with a condemnation of Trump. It was amazing and touching. I couldn’t imagine doing what she did when I was eleven. But when I was eleven, I didn’t have to deal with the problems she has to deal with. Unlike this poet, my dad wasn’t swept up in an ICE raid. The totalitarian playbook never separated my family across two borders.

Berlin Wall

The ruins of the Berlin Wall

3.

When I was in my late twenties, I worked construction. I daydreamed a lot about a novel I would write. It would be about a construction worker who decides that, if he’s still working the same job at age thirty, he’ll kill himself. As that birthday approaches, he decides to enter into a life of crime instead, figuring a cop or another criminal would polish him off and he’d have some fun on the way out. I never wrote the novel. Instead, I asked myself two hard questions. First, why was I thinking so much about a main character just like myself committing suicide when he reached the age I was about to reach? Second, instead of a life of crime, why didn’t I find a better way to get out of construction?

So I made a plan. It started with scraping together enough money to allow me to change my life. Though I was already working 7:00-4:00 in my regular construction job, I took on a side gig renovating a dentist’s office. I worked there evenings from 5:00-11:00 for the length of the job, which was about three months. It was exhausting, but I figured that I’d be a few grand ahead of the game at the end. While it mostly worked out, I did run into one real snag.

Every night when I finished, I had to drive past the police station to get home. I would have all of my tools in the back of my truck. I knew going into this and I learned again the hard way that, if you’re driving a truck full of tools and the sun has set, a cop will pull you over. Not every time you drive that truck at night. Just every time a cop sees you driving that truck at night. Over the course of that three months, I got pulled over six or seven times. I wasn’t violating any traffic rules prior to any of those traffic stops. Once, I got a ticket for not wearing my seat belt even though I was wearing my seat belt. Once, I got a ticket for listening to headphones while driving though I wasn’t wearing headphones while driving. Every time, I was asked if I’d been drinking. I hadn’t. Twice, I performed field sobriety tests. I passed.

I thought about these traffic stops when I read an open letter that Derrick Estrada wrote for the website Morpheus in 2017 (which, sadly, is no longer available on that website). On the one hand, I know the anger, the suffocating disgust that comes from being hassled and bullied so much by cops. On different occasions, I’ve had cops punch me, crack me with a nightstick, jab a gun barrel into my sternum, and slam my head against the hood of his car while I was handcuffed. In all of those cases, the cops were in the wrong, acting because they saw me as poor white trash, an easy target. So when I read that piece from Derrick, I knew somewhat where he was coming from.

But there’s one big difference. Derrick’s black and I’m white. Derrick will always be more vulnerable in a traffic stop than I ever was.

And also this: I’m not poor any more. My plan worked. I scraped together money and moved to California and started a punk rock magazine and published some books and got a doctorate and got a job at a university and even got tenure at said university. Now, I have gray hair and all the signifiers of a middle class white guy. I drive a Prius or an old BMW motorcycle. Cops never pull me over, even when I drive past them going eighty. If I talk to a cop these days, he usually calls me sir. He never sees the poor white trash, the easy target, that he would’ve seen when I was driving a truck full of tools at night.

Derrick may accomplish all I have. Full disclosure, I know Derrick and I fully expect him to be more successful in life than I’ve been. But even when Derrick gets gray and cops have to call him sir, they’ll still see the black. He’ll still be an easy target.

 

4.

Lately, these three memories have been grouped in my mind. I’ve been thinking that, though I’m not a Muslim, Donna’s problems are my problems. Though no one sees me as black, Chris’s problems and Derrick’s problems are my problems. Though the new ICE gestapo isn’t going after my family, the Puro Pinche Poet’s problem is my problem. I don’t mean this in a Je Suis Charlie kind of way. I’m not going through the same shit that Donna, Chris, Derrick, and the poet are going through. Donna, Chris, Derrick, and the poet aren’t going through the same shit as each other. All of our problems are individual, but all of our problems are connected.

In some ways, this connection is literal. Chris, Donna, and the Puro Pinche Poets all write for Razorcake, the magazine I’ve poured so much of my heart and soul into. In no small way, my hope for the future of the world is tied to the continued existence of Razorcake. And Razorcake is dependent on arts grants to survive. When the arts are no longer funded, Razorcake no longer exists. When the voices of African Americans, Muslims, and Chicanos are attacked, Razorcake—a ‘zine that provides a platform for those voices—gets attacked, too. Also, the university where I work services mostly working class students: white kids who know what it’s like to be called “trash,” Dreamers, first-generation kids who will have to raise their younger siblings because their parents are being ripped from their family in ICE raids, black kids who’ll have to drive home through white neighborhoods where cops will see them as an easy target, Muslim kids who are just holding on, trying to weather this storm of religious ignorance and intolerance. When academics like me are attacked, the one institution that gives these kids a chance is attacked. When these groups are marginalized, the job that I’ve dedicated my life to, the one that services these groups, is marginalized.

In their 2004 book Multitude, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri outlined their hope for a revolution. It began, they theorized, with a multitude of people recognizing that a single, networked power structure is leading to massive injustice and global devastation. Later, the Occupy movement gave us the term “the one percent” to understand what this power structure is. For the multitude to be successful, they have to join to fight against this power, but they have to maintain their singularities to do it.

So, for example, I can read Derrick’s piece and recognize that I need to help the Black Lives Matter movement. I need to help them because institutional violence against African Americans and particularly African American men is out of control. I need to maintain that singularity. But I also need to work with Black Lives Matter because if black lives don’t matter, then brown lives don’t matter and Muslim lives don’t matter and white trash lives don’t matter. And when I see a Muslim ban that keeps Donna’s overseas family from being able to come the her wedding (if she decides to get married), I need to fight against that because a Muslim ban is seriously fucked up. But also because a Muslim ban is part of the same totalitarian playbook that marginalizes academics like me and defunds arts programs like Razorcake and supports institutional violence against Derrick and Chris and lets ICE kidnap a Puro Pinche Poet’s dad and put him on the other side of a border from his family and tries to build a wall between an eleven-year-old poet and her father.