No sense of shame
Week 45 of the Occupation
By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Many of us have seen photographs of lynchings. Most of them, in newspaper accounts and on postcards, depict some variation on the gruesome reality. Men hanging from trees, their bodies often mutilated or burned. Beneath them are groups of white people — men, women, and children. Sometimes they are milling about. Sometimes they are clearly having a party — some actually posing in front of the lynched body.
In a recent speech at New York University, MSNBC commentator and Professor Melissa Harris Perry showed one of these pictures to an overflow crowd of 1,000 people gathered to commemorate a speech given there by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. more than 40 years ago. She asked us to look at the faces in the crowd and observed, “You see how they are all looking at the camera? What strikes me about this is there is no sense of shame.”
I found myself thinking about this past week in Detroit. No sense of shame. Shame requires an awareness of self and our relations to others. It requires an understanding of how our actions can be inadequate, humiliating, embarrassing, dishonoring or disgraceful. To have no sense of shame means to behave without restraint. It is often associated with excessive pride.
Thus, we have the apologists and protectors for Brooks Patterson. Or worse, there are the majority of people in Oakland Country who are not saying much of anything. Within a few days, the outrage disappeared from the media.
Recently, Jack Lessenberry invoked yet another racist stereotype, the Kingfish, in order to explain away Patterson’s crude, vicious comments. Lessenbery argued that we should not worry about Patterson’s remarks, because they are not new.
He explained that the boast, “What we’re going to do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and throw in the blankets and corn,” was first uttered in print 38 years ago.
Attempting to diminish the brutality of the remark, Lessenberry called it one of Patterson’s “golden oldies.” As though references to genocide were popular tunes.
Lessenbery says, “Nobody should be surprised. Yes, that saying is outrageous, so much so that nobody really believes he means it.”
So, saying something racist over and over again means you don’t believe it? Repeating a comment over nearly four decades means you think it untrue? Is Lessenberry seriously suggesting that overcoming centuries of violence, exploitation and dehumanization is accomplished by repeating racist commentary?
What Lessenberry really means is this kind of remark is normal in the circles of power. It has been often repeated behind closed doors. It is so ordinary a way of thinking about Detroit by many, it hardly warrants mentioning, until it gets picked up in national media.
This is the heart of what is happening in southeastern Michigan. Those in power have lost all sense of shame — if they ever had any. Openly racist comments are passed off as meaningless. Outrageous billings by lawyers, whose competence and capabilities are questionable, are shrugged off. Billionaires buy up the city for pennies. Then they are given tax breaks by officials who will do anything to curry favor with those who pay their bills.
The theme of the gathering that prompted Professor Harris Perry to show the image of a lynch mob came from the words of Dr. King. He said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle — the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
The outrages we are facing in Detroit are part of a larger struggle about our collective future. Brooks Patterson, Jones Day, Kevyn Orr, Rick Snyder, Mike Ilitch and all those who surround them, support them, and hope to benefit from them are like the faces in the lynch mob. They have no sense of shame at the outrages they are committing against this city and her people.