Violence always washes downstream. Whether the river be one’s personal history or the river of a society and culture within whose current every one of us flows, violence is what H. Rap Brown said it is: as American as cherry pie.
Ray Rice’s and Adrian Peterson’s ancestors were strapped to the whipping post. Their white overlords pummeled their bodies with switches, whips, and fists. It was discipline, said the slave owners, the corrective remedy for a slave who had forgotten his white owner’s racial and class superiority.
The switch in Adrain Peterson’s hand, though abhorrent and lamentable, is understandable. It mimics the whipping post. It is the mirror image that caused H. Rap Brown to write from his prison cell in his autobiography, Die, Nigger, Die:
“This country was born on violence. Violence is as american as cherry pie. Black people have always been violent, but our violence has always been directed toward each other. If nonviolence is to be practiced, then it should be practiced in our community and end there. Violence is a necessary part of revolutionary struggle.”
H. Rap Brown wrote that in 2000.
Fast forward to September, 2014. Ray Rice’s knock out punch of his fiancee, Janay Palmer, is recorded by hotel video cameras. His employer, the Baltimore Ravens release (i.e., fire) him. Adrian Peterson, star running back of the MN Vikings, admits to injuring his four-year-old son with a switch (a tree branch) while disciplining the son the way his father disciplined him.
The public is enraged by the pictures of welts on the boy’s thighs and back. Vikings owner Ziggie Wilf announces Peterson will not play the next Sunday. But, after the Peter-less Vikings take a shellacking that Sunday, Mr. Wilf zig zags, announcing that Peterson is returning to practice and will play the next Sunday, September 21. Radisson cancels its Vikings sponsorship and advertising. Nike cancels all advertising with Adrian Peterson. Target Corporation removes Vikings shirt #28, Peterson’s number, from its stores and stops advertising with the Minnesota Vikings, referring to Target’s long-standing positions on domestic violence and child abuse. Again, the Vikings owner, reverses field, arranging for Mr. Peterson to be placed on the rarely used “exception” list with pay while Peterson’s case moves through the courts. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell changes his mind about how to response to off-the-field allegations and legal charges yet to be dealt with by legal due process in courts of law.
The appropriate response of an employer to cases like those of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson is a sometimes complex ethical question. What should an employer do, and when should it do it? Should the employer take disciplinary action on its own or should it honor due process in a court of law on the legal premise that a person is innocent of charges until proven guilty by a juror of his/her peers? A change is not a conviction. Yet, in the Black community, charges have too often been confused with convictions.
Historically America courts have not been friendly to African-Americans. They have been the White man’s courts, the public equivalent of the slaveowner’s whipping post without due process or competent representation. It was, in part, for that reason I served at the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis where I became immersed in the deep historical suspicion that the courts would not deliver justice. What would have happened, one might ask, if Ray or Adrian were White?
The African-American community could not and must not, according to Brown, look to the white European majority for clues about their identity and freedom. That majority is violent.
So today advertisers have cancelled their endorsements for one of America’s two most violent sports, distancing themselves from Ray, Adrian, and the NFL because of a public outcry against domestic violence and child abuse and because, they say, their company policies stand strongly against child abuse and domestic violence.
It’s embarrassing to the advertisers.
But check out where else they advertise and who and what they endorse to sell their products to a general public that loves to watch violence. You will find a host of companies deeply involved in America’s arms industry and the companies that produce the violent video games and apps downloaded every minute on our PCs, Macs, iPhones and Droids.
H. Rap Brown had it partly right. The culture of American violence is deep and thoroughgoing. Though the whipping post is long gone, the scars remain. But he also had part it wrong when he wrote that “violence is a necessary part of revolutionary struggle.” New whipping posts will not heal these wounds; they only serve to replicate them. There is little room for self-righteousness, which is why Jesus reminded those who thought of themselves as superior and unstained to take the log out of their own eyes before they reached to remove the speck from their neighbors. The healing starts with White consciousness of the sordid history that handed down the switch to Adrian Peterson.
New renditions of the whipping post will be erected everywhere along the river that is American society and along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers until we all stop eating the tart poison in the illusion of a sweet cherry pie.