When it comes to Nick Spencer’s work we’re all currently focused on Secret Empire. With good reason too! The story’s proved as brilliant as it is important. But in the wake of the June 16th verdict acquitting Office Jeronimo Yanez of the murder of Philando Castile, I think we need to return to Spencer’s final arc in Sam Wilson: Captain America before Secret Empire began. In Sam Wilson: Captain America #17-21, Cap finds himself facing America’s oldest systemic sin – institutionalized racism. The story is uncomfortable to read but when we look at the news with open eyes it makes us uncomfortable too. The idea that we’ve somehow beaten racism in this country or that it’s not a major problem anymore or that we need to “get over it and move on” is an effect of this sin. In having Captain America confront it, Nick Spencer proves once again why he’s one of my favorite comic writers. Who better than Captain America to wrestle with this country’s systemic sins and raise important questions about our future?
Before we go any further, let’s let Trevor Noah set the tone for this conversation with a clip from the 21 June episode of The Daily Show. Here he reacts to the newly released graphic dash cam footage of Yanez shooting Castile. It is truly heartbreaking, as this entire story has been. But this is the reality of life in America. If you haven’t watched this clip yet I urge you to consider doing so, as difficult as it is to see.
Trevor Noah puts it perfectly, “Why? Why would you say [that cop] was afraid? Was it because Philando Castile was being polite? Was it because he was following the officer’s instructions? Was it because he was in the car with his family? Or was it because Philando Castile was black? It’s one thing to have the system against you – the district attorneys, the police unions, the courts – that’s one thing. But when a jury of your peers, your community, sees this evidence and decides that even this is self defense, that is truly depressing. Because what they’re basically saying is, in America it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.”
To state the obvious, this is not okay. But if we’re being honest maybe it isn’t as obvious as it should be. Truth be told, there are far too many people in this country who ignore this reality. Calls of “Black Lives Matter” are answered with the dismissive and trivializing “All Lives Matter.” However (and I first read this explanation here), saying “All Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter” is like calling 911 when your house is on fire only to hear the operator respond, “I’m sorry sir but all houses matter. We can’t focus on just yours right now.” The idea of a 911 call ending that way is preposterous because emergency responders respond to emergencies. Of course all houses are important. But when one is on fire it deserves special attention because it’s an emergency. The way America approaches black lives certainly qualifies as an emergency…even if many of us refuse to see it.
When I say “America” it’s important to remember I am speaking about the overarching systems that shape our society and culture. Of course every white person in America isn’t racist. So when we discuss racism we aren’t speaking about personal sin but rather systemic sin, or structural evils. Systemic sin (or social sin) is sin that exists freely in the society around us; i.e. things like racism, sexism, and a punitive attitude toward the poor. For example, sinful forces in our culture teach us that poor people are poor because they are lazy (something that is factually untrue for the overwhelming majority of people trapped in poverty) so we feel justified in turning our backs on the poor. They are to blame for their woes…not our greedy, consumption-heavy lifestyles. Racism is the same. While every white person in America isn’t racist, we cannot deny that racism shapes our country, and has shaped our country since its beginning.
And, from the very beginning, the idea of race has been used for control. The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates explains it like this, “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition….But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.” The idea of whiteness was created to do this in America, dismissing the old European divisions (Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, etc.) so what became the most important qualification in America for power wasn’t where you came from but that you were white. Racism then is the reason we have any idea of race and race is something created to justify division and oppression. But why do we do this? Why divide and oppress? Coates offers a haunting answer, “Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.” We define the Other so we can solidify our own power, worth, and insider status through the exclusion of the other.
A slight digression is needed to clarify something about racism. It’s often argued that black people are racist against white people too. We need to be clear that this, by definition, isn’t true. Racism, “signals the power not only to hate, but to make that hate into law, and into convention, habit, and a moral duty.” Anyone can be bigoted or prejudiced. But to be racist means there is systematic power to oppress. It means there is structural sin at work. Given our history in the United States, that institutional power has always been and continues to rest with white Americans.
We see this around us every day. In place of the slavery of old – with plantations, whips, chains, and the Fugitive Slave Law – we have a justice system that doesn’t protect black and white bodies equally, a police force that often acts out centuries-old prejudices, unequal funding for education, gentrified neighborhoods, and Stop and Search laws that target minorities. This systemic sin exists all around us, from our schools to our police forces.
All of this comes to play in Sam Wilson: Captain America as Nick Spencer has Cap confront how this systemic sin warps our police force and criminal justice system. Issue #17 sees Joaquin Torres (the new Falcon) and Elvin Haliday (the former New Warrior Rage) enjoying a superhero team-up. In the epilogue to the comic, Rage is walking home and happens upon a pawn shop being robbed by Speed Demon and (I think) the Juggernaut. They scuffle and the villains leave…but as Rage is walking out of the pawn shop, the Americops arrive. They beat him pretty severely and arrest him, presuming he had robbed the pawn shop himself.
Let’s pause for a moment to look at something brilliant Nick Spencer’s done with this story. By making the Americops, a privately owned law enforcement agency, the villains he is making it clear that this isn’t simply about saying police are racist. That’s untrue and a dangerous oversimplification. Rather, this is about centuries of devaluing black lives in America and what that has wrought. So many people try to dismiss the discussion of police brutality as an attack on all police officers. No one who approaches this problem authentically believes that. It is a far more nuanced issue. However there is a cancerous evil that is allowed to grow inside our nation’s police forces as a result of systemic racism. In this story Spencer brilliantly gives that evil a face and name in the Americops.
Georgetown’s University Professor of Sociology Michael Eric Dyson outlines the relationship between black Americans and the police force in this way. The policing of black bodies began with those who shipped, sold and owned slaves, continued in bounty hunters who tracked fugitive slaves, and then modified itself in the form of the Klan and police forces. Ta-Nehisi Coates adds a dimension when writes, “Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains – whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains….They were people turned into fuel for the American machine.” From the 1970’s on, police forces in this country have resisted integrating their forces, practiced racist talk and actions against the minority officers on the force before taking them into the community at large, and often acted as a “vicious occupying force” in minority neighborhoods.
Dyson continues, “You cannot know the terror that black folk feel when a cop car makes its approach and the history of racism and violence comes crashing down on us. The police car is a mobile plantation, and the siren is the sound of dogs hunting us down in the dark woods.” Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery expands on this reality when he writes, “At some point in high school, my best friends and I all had a running joke about ‘the talk,’…The underlying theme of this set of warnings passed down from black parents to their children is one of self-awareness: the people you encounter, especially the police, are likely willing to break your body, if only because they subconsciously view you not only as less than, but also a threat….Say ‘yes sir‘ or ‘yes ma’am‘ to any officer you encounter. If you get pulled over, keep your hands on the wheel…we’d keep our wallets in the center console. That way, we wouldn’t have to reach into our pockets. Above all, we knew to never, ever run in the presence of a police officer. That’s just asking for trouble.”
We see this painful reality play out before us tragically as a regular part of our evening news. The Washington Post conducted an exhaustive investigation and found over 10,000 fatal shootings by on-duty police officers between 2004 and 2014. Of those 10,000+, only fifty-four officers were charged with a crime and only “a handful” convicted. More specific to the issue at hand, we see there were only “six out of the 248 cases of fatal shootings by police of black men in 2015 in which an officer was charged.” Having the Americops attack Rage without provocation and then see punishment fall on Rage, isn’t any sort of incendiary storytelling nor is it some sort of anti-police propaganda. Rather, it is a depiction of the sad reality of daily life in America.
In issue #18 Sam wrestles with how he can help Elvin. However, when he offers some of the Avengers’ money for bail or Jennifer Walters or Matt Murdock’s help as his lawyer, Elvin refuses. He explains to Sam, “No Avengers bailing, no fancy superhero lawyers coming in and saving my ass. You know the statistics as well as I do — one in three African American males are gonna see the inside of a cell. We get arrested more, we get convicted more, we serve longer sentences — hell, there’s a whole industry set up around keeping us in prison. Makes a nice profit. I go around saying I’m fighting for my people — fighting for the ones who get harassed and beaten — what kind of hero would I be if — when it happened to me — I just called up my super-buddies and got myself out of it? So yeah — no.”
It is impossible to look at our prison system and not see the stark shadow of institutionalized racism if we’re honest with ourselves about what we see. Looking at U.S. prison statistics as of 27 May 2017 (c/o the Federal Bureau of Prisons) we see 37.7% of inmates are black and 58.7% are white. When you compare this with our country’s 2016 population breakdown (c/o the U.S. Census Bureau) we see 13.3% of the country is black and 77.1% is white. So white Americans make up 77.1% of our country and fill 58.7% of our prisons while black Americans make up 13.3% of our population and fill 37.7% of our prisons. There are only two ways to explain this. Either black Americans are wildly and disproportionately more violent and dangerous than white Americans OR the system is rigged against them. Again, why? For profit. Coates explains, “And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers; today when eight percent of the world’s prisoners are black men, our bodies have reinforced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.”
To ignore all of this, to lie to ourselves about it, is a learned habit as Coates describes, “The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.” THIS is another example of systemic sin. We have been taught not to see.
However, this vitally important storyline makes us acknowledge reality. As Captain America refuses to look away, so too do we as the reader wrestle with all of this alongside him. In issue #19 we see Elvin’s trial and how unfairly black Americans are treated in our criminal justice system. There’s an almost all-white jury in a mostly minority city, a judge who’s “tough on crime,” a well-trained prosecutor versus a clearly-outmatched public defender (who met Elvin only a few hours before the trial), and alllll sorts of television commentators selling their own version of events. In the end, the jury deliberated for less than ten minutes before Elvin was found guilty and sent to prison. It hurts Sam to watch. It hurts the reader to watch. But this is the world we live in. As Bob Dylan prophetically sang on 1976’s “Hurricane,” “Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land / Where justice is a game.”
Then in issue #20 peaceful protests begin in the wake of the verdict…and some turn violent. Talk show host Harry Hauser rants on air that, “This kind of lawless culture is poisoning too many communities! No respect for law, no respect for society — these racial agitators don’t care about the facts! They just want an excuse to cause harm and destruction!” How many times have we heard things like this on the “news”? The irony is reality paints a very different picture than the one being proclaimed by this man calling for “the facts.”
Riots are something we often associate with cases of police brutality. As was the case after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2014, national media coverage rarely reports on the deaths of black Americans caused by police officers until riots erupt. The idea that black Americans are in some way more violent or aggressive in their reactions is a fallacy sold by the media and forged by systemic sin. “[O]f the more than 100 such race riots since 1935, almost all have been sparked by some type of police incident.” We are so quick to demonize those who riot and, to a degree, are justified in condemning those who resort to violence and destruction. But, in all honesty, what do you do when you see the justice system ignore your cries for help and the police hurt you as opposed to protecting you again and again and again? People don’t riot out of a desire to be destructive. They do it in a helpless, painful, broken attempt to call attention to their plight. “In Ferguson, protest was a means for the many to assert, with unified voice, their humanity. Disruptive protest brought with it the promise of finally making the system listen.” It is also important to remember that, in Ferguson, “the protest chants were never meant to assert the innocence of every slain black man and woman. The protests were an assertion of their humanity and a demand for a system of policing and justice that was transparent, equitable, and fair.”
While the protests and riots continue, Sam goes to visit Elvin in jail. Elvin tells him, “Hh. The law. You know, the law’s supposed to be a deal between both sides. A two-way street. You abide by it, it protects you in return. How you gonna ask folks to obey the law if the law becomes their enemy? When the law is what they need protection from too many times?” This line speaks to the deep sense of heartache and betrayal felt in black communities throughout this country, again and again, when these things happen. Lowery explains, “Knowing a police officer is responsible causes a special, deep pain for the families of those killed, because the person who gunned down their loved one was not a mythical ‘bad guy,’ not a gangbanger or a thug or a random criminal. For the families of those killed by police, it is often most shattering that their loved one was killed by the very people sworn to protect them. A family and a community’s fundamental understanding of safety and security in our society is threatened when those pledged to protect kill.”
Ultimately (in issue #20), Elvin is transferred to Z Block – a prison for super villains. While there he’s brutally attacked and ends up in a coma. When Sam arrives at the hospital, Claire Temple tells him Elvin’s alive…but all that’s keeping him alive is artificial. Sam is broken by the news and (in issue #21) with a heavy heart and much soul-searching, he decides to quit being Captain America. He hangs up his costume and decides to give the shield back to Steve. He tells Misty Knight it’s because he can’t wear the flag when, despite his deep love of his country, he doesn’t support so much of what it’s doing. Like Steve Rogers before him, Sam walks away from being Captain America as a form of social protest for what’s going on in America. When we look honestly at how racism thrives in our country, how could Captain America do anything but walk away?
It isn’t only the justice system that fails black Americans. Our education system is clearly designed to fail some and benefit others. That system, shaped by the forces of racism, disproportionally fails minorities as compared to white Americans. As a result of availability of jobs and cost of housing, people tend to immigrate to cities. So cities, especially the inner city where housing is often cheapest, tend to have a higher percentage of minorities. That means a higher percentage of minority students in inner city schools. These schools are often failing because they are a) overcrowded and b) a percentage of their student population is stuck in poverty, preventing them from focusing on their schooling as their basic needs are not being met. Tying test scores (which will always be lower for a school with a student population struggling to meet their basic needs) to funding means these inner city schools never get the funding they need leading to less resources and a smaller faculty which means larger class sizes with students who are already struggling to learn as a result of the effects of poverty.
We allow these schools to fail in the service of the Dream so we can feel justified in ignoring those they fail. “Well, if they just would have applied themselves…” we say. And the oppression continues. The communities of our inner cities, and the job opportunities available there, rarely offer clear roads to success either. Coates explains this reality to his son as he writes, “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body.”
Who should speak to this reality if not for Captain America? In offering a story as bold as this one, Nick Spencer shows his deep understanding of our times as well as the character of Captain America. Captain America shouldn’t spend all of his time fighting aliens, monsters, and generic super villains. Rather, to be Captain America means facing the threats to liberty and justice for all that grow daily, embedded in and endorsed by our society. That’s exactly what we’ve gotten here. This is a story as intelligent and daring as it is uncomfortable to read. But to look away is to continue to endorse the racist oppression that America is built on. Spencer is willing to shine an uncompromising light on this horrendous and heart-breaking evil. The question then remains, are we willing to look, to learn, and to act?
This naturally raises the question: How best do I, as a white American male act? I know I can (and should!) stand with the Black Lives Matter movement. I know I can (and should!) fight the systemic sin of racism that drives so much of this country. But I can’t pretend I’ve lived or understand the experience of a black American. To do so would be patronizing. So I read. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me, Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, and Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All”: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Radical Justice Movement were instrumental in giving me the awareness I needed to write this post, as well as to teach this material as I do when we study the Sisters of Mercy’s Critical Concerns in class.
Dyson’s advice to a white student of his who sought guidance in what he could do to help battle racism is a helpful for me as well. He writes, “I asked him not only to challenge white privilege but also to resist the narcissism that celebrates one’s challenge to whiteness rather than siding with those who are its steady victims. Working as a white ally is tough, but certainly not impossible. Learning to listen is a virtue that whiteness has often avoided. I asked him to engage, to adopt the vocabulary of empathy, to develop fluidity in the dialect of hope and the language of racial understanding.” He adds the religious dimension to this call by rightly saying, “whiteness has become a religion. The idolatry of whiteness and the cloak of innocence that shields it can only be quenched by love, but not merely, or even primarily, a private, personal notion of love, but a public expression of love that holds us all accountable. Justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public.”
Justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public. Amen! What a beautiful, beautiful line. Proclaiming and leading us towards justice sounds exactly like what Captain America should do too.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me, (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 7.
 Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon To White America, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017), 45.
 Coates, 60.
 The idea of “the Other” is a philosophical term for anyone or anything that isn’t like you, however you are choosing to describe the in group (be it gender, nationality, race, religion, fans of Star Wars, whatever). That which is the same is safe, like you, on the inside. That which is other is on the outside, different, and as such can be feared.
 Dyson, 152.
 Ibid., 180.
 Coates, 70.
 Dyson, 181.
 Wesley Lowery, “They Can’t Kill Us All”: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Radical Justice Movement. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016), 78.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 193.
 “Inmate Race,” Federal Bureau of Prisons Statistics, last modified May 27, 2017. Accessed June 25, 2017. https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_race.jsp
 “Population Estimates, July 1, 2016,” U.S. Census Bureau Quick Facts, last modified July 1, 2016. Accessed June 25, 2017. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045216/00
 Coates, 132.
 Ibid., 98.
 Lowery, 29.
 Ibid., 48.
 Ibid., 125.
 Ibid., 34.
 Coates, 33
 Ibid., 17.
 Dyson, 70.
 Ibid., 100.