Damned Hoodies (Again)

On the day the Sharmeka Moffitt story broke, I worried aloud to one of my students that I was bringing my memories of the Tawana Brawley case to bear on my assessment of the case.  I refused blogs and looked strictly to news sites for my details.

In the days following my fears were realized–the young lady had not been attacked and had set herself alight.  I have often said that one of my greatest fears is of folks that are bent and broken but do not know they are bent or broken.  Because desperation leads to desperate acts.

Today I came across the following conversation.

He said:
rhaetor October 24, 2012 at 7:28 PM
While it’s very sad that Sharmeka chose to follow a path that ended in self-immolation, there are far more disturbing aspects of this situation to consider. For instance, I find it remarkably disturbing that this blog joined other forms of social media in immediately believing Sharmeka and assuming that white supremacism [sic] had reared its ugly, odious head. We must all be more critical about these claims if society is to ever progress beyond the narratives of the past. See my post at: [redacted by editors].
The response was:
crunktastic October 24, 2012 at 8:27 PM
You will not use this space to direct folks to that terrible piece of madness you wrote against this girl. There is much, much wrong with your comment, but I don’t even have the energy to explicate it. Perhaps some other reader will be so generous with her time.

It doesn’t seem like that big of a leap that Post Traumatic Stress is borne of oppression.  Oppression in civilized society is often not something we can taste, touch, or smell–it is like fish describing what it is like to live in water–but it is certainly palpable.

Nonetheless, the immediate response to this case seems to say less about that idea than it does about what rhaetor actually describes in what I expected to be pure vitriol.  There was some:

This echoes of the pre-civil rights era, when, regardless of the crime and the evidence, black people knew to be afraid because one of them was likely to be singled out and accused of a crime. Of course, back then, it would have been the authorities reacting, now it’s just ignorant people on social media sites and feminist blogs like those at the crunkfeministcollective.

But what the conversation reveals, to me, is a concern that echoes my conversation with my student: the impact of the individual on what ultimately makes for consensus.   Moffitt’s illness/lie has implications that I doubt will serve any of us positively.
The full text of rhaetor ‘s article is here:

Sharmeka Moffit – A Rapist of Reputation

There is a certain irony regarding the reaction to the incident surrounding Sharmeka Moffit who recently set herself on fire and scrawled an unfortunate word and the letters KKK on her car in toothpaste. The irony occurs at multiple levels.
First, the reaction is suprisingly similar to the reaction which often occurred in small, white, southern communities following the commission of a crime in the pre-civil rights era. Whenever people heard about a crime at that time, the predominant racist sentiment was that someone black had committed it. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind as an example and also conversations with family members who lived through that era. The racism inherent in the general fear of African-Americans by their white contemporaries is both disgusting and revealing.
A lot of the reaction in the social media sphere was ready to raise a hue and a cry against that old, decrepit specter – white supremacism. As one local news station reports, the reaction of one facebooker was to say “a suspicious looking white person was seen in the area with a Romney bumper sticker.” This echoes of the pre-civil rights era, when, regardless of the crime and the evidence, black people knew to be afraid because one of them was likely to be singled out and accused of a crime. Of course, back then, it would have been the authorities reacting, now it’s just ignorant people on social media sites and feminist blogs like those at the crunkfeministcollective. The point is this, we can’t just change who we revile and who we generally blame for crimes. We should reserve judgment on any case until we know as many of the facts as are available, the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case might have benefited from a little bit of circumspection as well.
We can’t simply stop suspecting black people and start suspecting white people, justice would not be served that way, we should reserve judgment until we know something.
Second, there are also some fringe groups who are saying that even if Ms. Moffit did set herself on fire, it must be the fault of a society that embraces white supremacy and capitalism. This argument is so specious that it doesn’t really deserve comment. Individuals are responsible for their own actions, not society. If there is no such thing as individual responsibility, there is no crime that can’t be blamed on someone else which means that there is no crime. Even in parts of the Islamic world, where women routinely set themselves on fire to escape the horrors of child marriages and a real patriarchal culture which bears no resemblance to our own, the women who set themselves on fire are still to blame for the effects of the fire, though not perhaps for the legal system which oppresses them.
Finally, no one seems to be willing to voice any concern over the implications of Sharmeka’s actions other than to make muted comments about how this might be blamed on a culture of this or that. If the reports we have about her self-incineration are true, then she should be at fault. Not only for setting herself on fire but also for inflaming the issue of white supremacy, when clearly, there were no white supremacists involved. When an individual assassinates the character of another individual, it’s called libel or slander, we have no suitable word for the crime when its object is not another individual but an entire group of people united only by the loose and transient bonds of race and gender.
Now I’m not suggesting that the KKK represents the “white race” or even “white men” insofar as those phrases even represent coherent groups of people – which they do not. But, there will be some people who perceive all white men to be the same, who conflate the KKK with all white men, just as there were once (and may still be) people who perceived all black men to be the same. And in the perceptions of these people, Shameka’s actions could have inflamed some suspicion and hatred of white men.
Shameka is guilty of attempting to rape the reputations of a whole group of people, who are mostly unassociated with each other and innocent.  Nevertheless, I don’t think she should be punished. I believe in an absolute freedom of speech and writing slurs on your car using toothpaste is fair game. Also, since she didn’t implicate a particular person, she can’t be accused of making a false accusation. I can’t even begin to highlight how ironic it would be if the KKK brought suit against her for copyright infringement or slander. Maybe the prosecutor in Louisiana will disagree with me, but I think she should walk free, but be scarred for life as a result of her own actions.
If we are all going to live together in a society composed of multiple ethnic groups, we have to stop rushing to judgement on the basis of appearances and recognize that when someone commits a race-based crime or makes false accusations against anyone on the basis of their race, it is a despicable act deserving of our censure.

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