“Sir, Can We Talk About Your Knee on My Neck?”

Try to imagine this scenario. You walk into your home and see that it has been plundered by burglars. You even know who the burglars are; after all, they have ransacked your home and stolen your property many times before. Since you know who the burglars are and how they operate, you decide that it’s finally time to say something. So, you confront the burglars, and you apologize. Maybe if you had more valuable stuff or a better security system, they wouldn’t have to steal from you so often.


Sound farfetched? It should sound incredible because it is. However, the fact that this little story strains the limits of credulity doesn’t make it any less true. It’s an old story, actually – older than the Constitution itself. And it is enacted every day in this country, all too often with lethal consequences.  The truth is we’re living it and witnessing it right now. The everyday reality is that black and brown people are expected to be humble and even apologetic about being victimized by racial injustice. 


The world has now watched video coverage of the daylight slaughter of two unarmed black men in the United States. It’s a fair guess that neither man expected anything other than a routine day. We have learned that a daily jog was routine for Ahmaud Abery, a twenty-five year old black man. It’s a fair guess that when he started his run, he never expected to be hunted down like wild game by three armed, truck-driving white men playing out a safari fantasy. The hunters, Gregory and Travis McMichael along with their friend Roddie Bryan, Jr., didn’t skulk under the cover of night because they didn’t consider their actions illegal. Killing game is what you do on a hunt. All routine. Similarly, when George Floyd was taken from his car, he seemed to know the protocol for surviving an arrest: just follow the routine and do what the officers tell you to do. His killer Derek Chauvin also had a routine. Completely untouched by the crowd of witnesses begging him to stop, he calmly held his position, strategically pressing his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck until his body was still and lifeless. As one commentator put it, we listened to Mr. Floyd narrate his own death, from calling out that he couldn’t breathe to calling for his deceased mother. Much of the nation sat in shock, horrified by this cold-blooded killing. For a few hours, the public narrative proceeded along predictable lines: protest marches fueled by sadness and outrage, denouncements of police brutality, and righteous indignation that the pledge to “liberty and justice for all” continues to accommodate such chilling carnage.


But it was only a matter of hours before the narratives started to shift. The solemn media pronouncements of shock and dismay about the brutal killings gave way to stern condemnations of riotous behavior, looting, and the tragedy of property destruction. Suddenly the image of Derek Chauvin calmly pressing the life out of George Floyd was replaced by images of raging flames and smashed windows. Whether explicit or tacit, there seemed to be some agreement that anyone commenting on police-perpetrated killings had to first denounce violence perpetrated by the protestors. Some of the media pundits went so far as to say nothing was ever accomplished by violence. Were this comment not so blatantly disingenuous, it would be laughable. How else was this country born? Land acquisition through conquest and genocide, looting in the Boston Harbor (famously described as a “tea party”), human trafficking (aka chattel slavery), wealth capitalized by free labor, celebrated swindles, draft riots, the 1921 massacre and burning of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa: the list is violent atrocities is very long, and this one doesn’t even take us to the  mid-20th century.


Notwithstanding this actual history, here’s my obligatory disclaimer: I don’t like looting and violence either. However, I am even more perturbed by the Race Card Games that determine how we narrate the events that have shaped American consciousness, from the 17th century up to the present day. Typically, the phrase “playing the race card” is an accusation leveled at black and brown people by white people. The underlying premise is that complaints about racial injustice are excuses that black and brown people use to explain away their own failures and deficiencies. It is a rather efficient tactic: to silence them by impugning their credibility. A particularly virulent race card game is one that I call “Say It Ain’t So”, and it is as American as the Declaration of Independence. I will explain some of the game fundamentals below, but here’s a quick example. As she waits in line for her turn, a Muslim woman (Amara) observes a store clerk engage in friendly banter with each customer. When it’s her turn, the clerk never makes eye contact, completes the transaction with cold efficiency, and greets the next customer without saying thank you. When she tries to talk to her friend Kay about what she experienced as Islamophobia, Kay responds that the woman could just been tired. “Everyone who is not as friendly as you want them to be isn’t a religious bigot!” Whether Amara or Kay is right is not the point; the point is that Amara’s experience is invalidated by her friend’s demand for an alternative explanation.


Over the past weeks, “Say It Ain’t So” has been on glaring display as the societal narrative drifted from focusing on racial injustice and police brutality to judging the behavior of the protestors. This particular race card game functions to keep the preferred version of the American narrative intact, by fortifying claims to exceptionality and deserved entitlements. Master players of this game attempt to coerce others to corroborate this version of reality. In other words, the end goal of “Say It Ain’t So” is perpetual domination by the culturally privileged group.


Race Card Game Fundamentals

“Say It Ain’t So” is so deeply embedded in American cultural consciousness that it may not look like a game at all: it may look like sound logic, fairness, and patriotic fervor. In fact, the master players may not be fully aware that they are playing the race card.  That said, there are some game fundamentals that all the master players execute.  Let’s examine four of them.


Game Fundamental # 1 – Take control of the terms of engagement.

Whoever controls the terms of engagement can determine the language used, how it is used, and for what purpose it is used. Take the word “peaceful” for example. Night after night television journalists (many of them sympathetic to the cause) emphasized how “peaceful” the protesters were. Clearly, there were good reasons for doing so. There was a clear need to counteract the White House narratives thrown out like red meat, obviously to card-carrying white nationalists, but also to anyone inclined to reject evidence that our nation is a racially unjust society. The multi-generational, multi-ethnic thousands protesting racial injustice were characterized as thugs, terrorists, and anarchists by the White House. In contrast, white men armed with assault weapons who invaded the Michigan State House were “liberators”. Not only did they spit-yell directly into the faces of security police asserting their rights to get haircuts and tattoos, but there was also talk of lynching – fitting the governor’s neck for a noose. Not once was “peacefulness” or “law-abiding” used as a metric to determine the merits of their “liberation movement”. Had the racial injustice protesters used similar tactics, the streets would have run red with their blood. Had they not shown themselves to be “predominantly peaceful”, their cries for equal justice under the law would have gone discredited. Remember the old school dictum ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’? Same principle for racial justice protests: “If you can’t ask nicely for justice, don’t ask at all”.


The demand for “peaceful protest” has a long, duplicitous history in this country. Just by definition, protest is a means of critiquing the status quo – in this instance racial injustice. People who are determined to protect the status quo of racial inequality have never encountered a protest they could support, no matter how “peaceful”. We can presume that sleeping in her own bed was a peaceful act; however, peacefulness did not protect Breonna Taylor from the eight bullets fired by police into her body. On Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, racial justice protestors knelt in prayer on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. However, their peacefulness did not deter the local police from attacking the protesters with batons, horses, and snarling dogs. At George Floyd’s memorial service, Rev. Sharpton noted that when the protectors of the racial status quo say they want peace, they mean they want quiet. I’m guessing that not even in his wildest imagination could Rev. Al have predicted that the Vice President would agree with him. Mike Pence, in his own words, said that to heal this splintered nation, we need to “set aside this talk about institutional bias and systemic racism”. He went on to say (on more than one occasion) that there is “too much talk about racism within law enforcement”.  Speaking of which, I have never seen a more peaceful countenance than the look on Derek Chauvin’s face as he squeezed the last breath out of George Floyd’s body. Are we truly imagining that Eric Garner, Javier Ambler, and George Floyd would still be alive if they had found a more “peaceful” way to say, “I can’t breathe”?  Well, it might be worth noting that with his dying breaths, Mr. Floyd was saying “please” and referring to his killer as “Sir”.


Game Fundamental #2 – Control the narrative, either through suppression or distortion.

Some stories simply don’t get told. While the mainstream media (even those outlets considered to be “liberal”) directed attention to the behavior of Black Lives Matter activists, scant notice if any has been focused on the behavior of counter-protesters: you know, the ones who re-enacted the suffocation of George Floyd as the protestors marched past. Likewise, there has been little, if any commentary on the George Floyd Challenge, a social media game in which predominantly white adolescent males and adults reenact Mr. Floyd’s death as a form of entertainment and humor.


There are stories that can’t actually be suppressed. It’s hard to hide a 6’4”, 230 pound, mixed-race football player kneeling during a nationally televised football game. In instances such as these, race card game players have to resort to distortion. Hence, kneeling during the national anthem is disrespecting the flag and the military (especially service people who have given their lives for this country.) According to the Draft Dodger-in Chief, they should be fired! Furthermore, they were SOB’s – either not human (son of a dog) or the spawn of a “very nasty woman” (his language, not mine). This kind of distortion is not inconsequential. As it turned out, fans of the game were more likely to support football players accused of rape and battery than one whom the preferred narrative casts as unpatriotic. It is hard to hide a 6’9” basketball star known for his athletic skills, his business acumen, and his philanthropic largesse. But if you are a white conservative television personality, you can tell him to just “shut up and dribble”.


Distortion is a two-sided race card game. Negative events can be infused with positive, even sentimental meaning which serves to protect racial inequality. For example, despite all historical evidence to the contrary, the confederate flag is said to symbolize pride in heritage, not hate and states’ rights, not treason. It seems to matter little to these master players that the only “right” that the states were defending was the right to perpetuate human trafficking: to build a capitalist economy through the exploitation, desecration, and annihilation of black bodies. Sometimes this particular distortion presents as commitment to honoring history. But as my husband recently reminded me, it is entirely possible to teach Southern history, including information about storied military leaders, courageous freedom fighters, and treasonous politics, without venerating confederate statutes.


Game Fundamental #3 – Deploy the guerrilla lexicon.

The effectiveness of the guerrilla lexicon lies in its ability to provide a shield of deniability for the user. Before his untimely death, Lee Atwater was a player par excellence. As an advisor to Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, he is credited as an architect of campaign strategies that positioned race as a divisive issue without ever using the word race. From a now-infamous interview, these are his own words:


“Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, Nigger, nigger, nigger”. By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.”


Often this kind of coded language is described as dog-whistling. Actually, dog-whistling is too benign (and too disrespectful to our canine friends) to convey the potential lethality of this tactic. This language is an ‘Us against Them’ tactic, the function of which is to stoke fear and righteous rage.  For example, given the threat (unfounded) of Antifa “moving into residential areas” ( read: white) and phoned-in tips that “not even white rural communities” are safe, it is no surprise that white men armed with assault rifles, tactical belts, and bulletproof body armor went roaming through parking lots and small-town streets to “protect their own”. Then there is Tucker Carlson, the Fox personality who has never imagined a screed he couldn’t deliver. Speaking to his nearly 100% white audience, he opined that protests “might be a lot of things, but it is definitely not about black lives. Remember that when they come for you, and at this rate, they will.” The network tried to tamp down his incendiary language by clarifying that he was not talking about black people but about Democratic leaders and “inner city” politicians. Not even the most obtuse among us can believe that Mr. Carlson’s use of the phrase “inner city” was intended as a description of geography.


 This “Us against Them” creed generates two of the most potentially lethal idioms in the guerrilla lexicon: “fits the description of” and “officer feared for his life”.  “Fit the description of” has cost some black and brown people their dignity: for example, the Ivy League graduate student accosted by campus security while trying to enter his dormitory. The frequency with which this experience is reported almost makes it cliché – though it doesn’t feel so to the victim.  Less easily forgotten is the arrest of Omar Jiminez, a dark-skinned network journalist, who though accompanied by his crew and outfitted with his broadcast equipment, must have “fit the description” of a violent protester.


Similarly, the expression “officer for feared his life” has become something of catchall justification for police-perpetrated violence. Tragically, these four little words translated into the forty-one bullets that ripped through the body of Amadou Diallo, costing him his life. The frequency with which this linguistic shield is used presents something of a curiosity: why would such fearful people pursue a career in which exposure to danger is a core job requirement.  More urgent, however, is the need to understand how these officers come to trust the exculpatory power of these words. The killers of John Crawford III, Philando Castile, Pamela Turner, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice – the list could go on and on – never expected to be punished for doing what they were trained to do. For the most part, they were right.


Game Fundamental #4 – When all other strategies fail, resort to ad hominem attacks; discredit the person rather than the argument.

The irony of this tactic in race card games is that it is deployed to silence through dehumanization. Like any good game tactic, it’s really rather tricky and not always easy to spot. Although the words may sound benign or even complimentary, anyone who has ever been called a “bleeding heart” or a “social justice warrior” knows that she has been accused, not affirmed. The author of To Kill a Mockingbird went to great lengths to prove that her character Tom Robinson was worthy of life. Simply put, she had to dehumanize him. To do so, she stripped him of all “threatening” aspects of his humanity- assertiveness, physical strength, and emotional vigor – characteristics that would have been evidence of white male virility. As a black male, however, Tom Robinson was portrayed as a mockingbird to convince readers that he deserved to live. Furthermore, he was unfailing humble in his plea for life and unwavering in his gratitude to the man who was unable to win justice on his behalf.


In our real, nonfiction world, dehumanization is less sentimental. Amber Guyer heard “shuffling” and saw a “dark silhouette”. The police officers who shot Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams 137 times “saw” potential drug dealers whose culpability was confirmed by their failure to use a turn signal, not two unsheltered persons who received free meals from the same center. Somehow during the 22 mile chase, they thought they saw a firearm. They “heard” a gunshot, not the backfiring of Russell’s 1979 Malibu. Apparently the “fear for his own safety” compelled one officer to stand on the hood of Russell’s car to pump the bullets in their bodies. The police union chief in Minneapolis continues to insist on referring to the now-deceased George Floyd as a violent criminal. When the McMichael’s and Roddie Bryan are brought to trial, I fully expect that Ahmaud Arbery will be resurrected from the grave to be tried for shoplifting. When police officer Darren Wilson fired six bullets into Michael Brown’s body, he claimed to see an “angry demon” with a “most aggressive face”. In contrast, after Dylann Roof had killed nine worshippers in Mother Bethel Church, the officers who arrested him were still able to see his humanity. They took him to Burger King before taking him to jail.


As a nation, one of the worst things we can do right now is fall back on familiar bromides about hope. Hope is not the stuff of fairy tales. In spite of our cherished myths and creeds, fairy tale hope will not heal our fractured nation; it never has and it never will. There is no “happily ever after” because hope, like justice, is born of ongoing struggle and truth-telling. It is no accident that the legislated end of black slavery was followed by legislated mass incarceration. Yes, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except as a function of our penal system. The 44th President of the United States was a man, who by the markers of phenotype and the obduracy of the one-drop rule, was black. It is no accident that his administration has been followed by the election of a man, who in true Aryan style proudly touts his “great” and “superior” genes, while describing brown and black people as “infestations” and vermin. 


Here’s something we can do. We can stop absolving ourselves of the duty to heal with wistful pronouncements about the racial innocence of children. We can deal with the ugly truth that a brown-skinned third-grader cries in school because her white-skinned classmate feels perfectly entitled to tell her that her skin is the color of poop. We can challenge the discriminatory discipline practices that as recent as 2018 resulted in black preschoolers 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from kindergarten than white students. While I am buoyed by the reality of multi-generational, multi-ethnic racial justice protestors, I will not ignore the white male adolescents who instigated the George Floyd Challenge, turning his killing into social media entertainment. We can be encouraged knowing that multi-hued young all over the world are now protesting racial injustice. However, we cannot ignore the fact that in the United States the white identitarian movement is comprised largely of millennials, angry with “baby boomers” for selling out white identity. While I applaud the courageous police officers who dared to respectfully engage with the justice protestors, my heart sinks knowing that there were two shoves on that sidewalk in Buffalo. Martin Gugino was shoved by a police officer, left lying helplessly on the ground. A police officer experienced the second shove, pushed away by his colleague when he stooped to help the 75 year-old man whose blood was running out of his ears. 


We can also stop promulgating a cherry-picked history. George Washington may or may not have chopped down a cherry tree, but he felt totally entitled to own slaves, as well as to capture and punish those who dared to believe they deserved freedom.  We can stop whimpering and whining about “compassion fatigue” when confronting injustice starts to feel like an inconvenience. Protest against racial injustice will always be inconvenient, simply because injustice is deep-structured into any aspect of the American way of life. Although our preamble to the Constitution includes a vow to “promote the general welfare”, at no point in our history has this country committed to equitable access to cultural goods and services: be it education, health, wealth or even the happiness that ensues from knowing that we all belong. The truer narrative is that our nation has always chosen commitment to racial injustice over equity.


A quote from Benjamin Franklin has surfaced in recent days: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” May I amend his quote a little bit?  Hope lies in recognizing that all of us are affected by injustice. All of us are damaged when racial injustice is codified in false narratives about liberty and justice for all.  Hope lies in telling larger truths. Maybe that removes the knee from our necks. Maybe then, we can all breathe. 

9 thoughts on ““Sir, Can We Talk About Your Knee on My Neck?””

  1. Thank you for writing such a strong piece that instructs as much as it laments and calls out truth. My favorite sentence here re: the police officers who say they ‘fear for their life” to justify killing: “The frequency with which this linguistic shield is used presents something of a curiosity: why would such fearful people pursue a career in which exposure to danger is a core job requirement.”

  2. Linda Manning

    Thank you Maureen for persisting in telling larger truths. “Hope lies in recognizing that all of us are affected by injustice.” Indeed!

  3. Mary Tantillo

    Thank you for, again, eloquently making the implicit, explicit. Amen.
    Mary Tantillo

  4. Maureen, thank you for your cogent and compelling message. We need to hear these unvarnished truths more often. Your framing demonstrates that what is required is a form of literacy, a common language to more easily spot what others spout. You have provided us with a vital lexicon.

  5. A very powerful piece, Maureen!! Thanks for elucidating the “larger truths.”

  6. Dear Maureen,
    I simply want to say thank you for calling it like it is and telling it like it has been for a long, long time–for countering painful, destructive and soul breaking narratives with the TRUTH. Thanks, too, for sharing concrete, courageous actions that we, collective, can take to change these false narratives and their illogical outcomes. I appreciate the gift of your voice. Roz McMillan

  7. Thank you, Maureen. I trust that it is ok to post your link on various professional listserves. I so appreciate your voice and want to amplify it! Fran Davis

  8. Donna Haig Friedman

    What profound truth telling! I am so grateful for your words, Maureen, and will let them soak in for a long, long time.

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