Burn the Strawman

My Father grew up in Sulligent, Alabama, at the height of Jim Crow laws and the Black Codes. At 16, he lied about his age, joined the Army, and was shipped to the Pacific and fought in World War 2.
My father never talked to me about his military experience. As far as I knew, he never talked about it with my brothers either.

One conversation that I do remember him having with me was before we took a trip to Alabama. As a young boy, I was excited to travel out of the state. I was going to see the family farm in Alabama. My Father has told me so many stories about it. The night before we left, he sat me down and said to me. Steven, Alabama is different, you can’t look at a white person, you can’t say anything to a white person, and whatever you do don’t say a word to a white woman. As an 8-year-old boy, I had no idea what this meant. I went to school with white people, my best friends were white, and I had crushes on white girls, so where did this advice come from?

What I didn’t know at 8, I remember clearly he was referencing the memory of Emmitt Till. Emmitt at 14 went down south and was murdered. He was brutally killed by a mob for looking at a white woman in a store. His mother held an open casket funeral to show the world what had happened to her son.
Today I have an eleven-year-old son. I know that I have to have a similar talk with him. After seeing George Floyd murdered and Ahmud Arbery killed in front of me, I am petrified of needing to talk with him.

Conversations need to be had in our country, but with conversations, we need people to listen.

Too many times in our national conversations, we succumb to the Strawman Fallacy. The Strawman logical fallacy is when you attempt to negate an argument by introducing another problematic topic, and we use that topic to avoid talking about the original problem. Here are two common Strawman arguments. Colin Kaepernick takes a knee to start a discussion about police brutality. Its intent is to talk about why police officers are killing unarmed men. The Strawman introduced is that they are disrespecting the flag. We all agree that disrespecting the flag is wrong. Yet the original discussion is about Black people being murdered by the police. The Strawman takes us away from that conversation. The second example of the Strawman is George Floyd being killed, and people start looting and rioting. The Strawman is talking about looting and rioting. Why?

One man was murdered in public, without a trial. A family is grieving and mourning. A daughter lost a Father. Comparing and Contrasting looting is Strawman. Another Strawman is – You hate the police,- no we don’t hate the police, we know that we need the police to serve and protect, but murder isn’t serving and protecting. I am held accountable at my job, as are most Americans. Why do we have immunity laws? Why were the 2015 Police Commission recommendations rejected by the current administration?  I know we have opinions on looting, rioting, and the flag. I am neither agreeing with your views nor disagreeing with your beliefs. I am merely asking to have one conversation at a time. My question to the people who introduce the Strawman is why? What painful emotions are the people who present the Strawman trying to avoid? Why do some people get to make the rules of the debate, and I don’t?

When I hear these arguments as a Black person, they come off as someone telling me what to do and think. Think about it Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffery Dahlmer, and Richard Speck. All notorious serial killers were arrested, tried, and died in jail. Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd Brianna Taylor, killed in the street or their homes. So why do serial killers get a fair trial, and people of color are killed in the street? This is the question to answer. A lecture about black on black crime, hard work, welfare, or any other tropes tells me that to get the answer about people dying is to be perfect. A burden that this country can’t live up to. One final image, the image that this is a history test. Question number one is . 1. Why do unarmed people of color have to die in the street 50 points 2? Why do looting and rioting occur 25 points ? 3 What is disrespecting the flag mean? 25 points. Seth Godin addresses the idea of listening in this blog post and he makes it clear that when you react to another person’s viewpoint you could be avoiding difficult emotions. If you introduce the Strawman.

You see, by skipping number one and only answering two and three,  even if we gave you full credit, you only would have earned 50 points, 50/100 is an F. This means you fail the test. Today the teacher is handing the test back to you, with a chance to answer number one.

2 thoughts on “Burn the Strawman

  1. Thank you for sharing this post Steven. I’m so pleased you did post as I believe it is important to share as I think there are people that both want and need to hear your story. Although I can understand your concern for judgement and backlash and I hope that doesn’t come your way, instead you feel able to share as much or little as you want through your podcast, videos and writing.

  2. Steven, I am moved by your writing here. When you reflect on the writing process for this writing, where did you gather your confidence from?

    Is confidence maybe more about conviction? As your friend, I know you have conviction about the issues that matter. But the fear is completely understandable. There are so many great role models out right now, speaking up.

    Have you heard about Shola taking a stand? https://www.eonline.com/news/1159430/bon-appetit-s-sohla-el-waylly-says-only-white-editors-are-paid-for-test-kitchen-videos Or this woman who John Oliver used as an epic coda to his episode about defunding the police? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb9_qGOa9Go

    I suppose the dance with fear always comes up. How we dance with the fear and the choices we make are the change we can have on the world. I’m grateful you chose to share. Thank you very much.

    You should share this post with fathers. The story about your father and son are compelling.

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