On Monday some celebrated the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. by quietly reflecting on his Letter from Birmingham Jail, while others spent it carrying out King's legacy of nonviolent resistance by marching past the youth jail to protest racist systems. But Gig Harbor Republican Rep. Jesse Young spent his MLK day talking about how hard it is not to be racist after getting beat up by black people in Tacoma.
Take it away, Jesse:
If you don't have ten minutes to watch Young's speech, here's the gist. Young tells two stories about getting beat up by black "kids" in an effort to show that he successfully adhered to King's dream of judging people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
In the first story, he and his brother were playing basketball in a park as his mom attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. As the two white kids were playing, 10 or "maybe a dozen" black kids "demanded" to play. Young and his brother played along. But after a couple of games, the black kids beat up him and his brother. "I had to walk through that and hopefully learn a lesson that wouldn’t be imbued with hate," Young said.
In the second story, Young and a couple of his white high school friends pulled up to a gas station. As they were pumping gas, Young said "8 or 9" black "kids" started a fight with his friends. During the altercation, one of the black guys allegedly pulled a gun on Young and then eventually punched him five times in the face. “How am I supposed to judge the content of their character? It’s not easy?" Young said as he continued to reflect. “I cannot hate. I can’t," Young added.
Here, Young is suggesting that it was difficult for him not to have a racist response. The media portrays black men as thugs, and in these two experiences, here were two groups of black people apparently conforming to that stereotype. How is he supposed to be judging people by the content of their character when they seem to be acting based on the color of their skin?!!!
Young finds a way out of this apparent conundrum by focusing on two good actors in both stories. In the first, one of the kids protected him from the harshest attacks. And in the second, one of the guys convinced his friend to stand down.
To conclude, Young professed his love for Deputy Speaker Pro Tempore John Lovick, who is black, and then said he’d single-handedly defend every member of the statehouse if they were under attack.
Now, I applaud Rep. Young for standing up and talking about a subject he clearly hasn't studied very deeply. He could have just taken a moment and listened to the experiences of his other colleagues and learned something. But Young didn't only want to listen. Young wanted to teach. And the lesson he wanted to teach was: it's hard not to be racist.
There is a version of what he's trying to say that is worth saying. It is hard not to be racist. Almost everything in the culture tells us that whiteness is good and blackness is bad. Michael Brown was no angel, but Brock Turner had such a bright future. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is un-American for taking a knee, but domestic terrorist Matt Shea is a patriot for refusing to resign. Black people facing the crack epidemic were making bad personal choices, whereas white people during the opioid crisis are now victims of a greedy pharmaceutical industry. Constant vigilance and an openness to criticism can help shield us against this barrage of messaging that reinforces harmful stereotypes. Those two qualities don't exactly permeate the legislature, however, nor do they permeate many other predominately white institutions.
But Young wasn't saying it's hard not to be racist because we live in a culture that values whiteness and denigrates blackness. Young was saying it's hard not to be racist because it's actually technically impossible for him to be racist—"I can't hate"—and yet he's had two experiences where groups of black people beat him up. The assumption here is that getting beat up by members of a certain race grants you permission to become racist, and Young would like you to know that his readings of Martin Luther King prevented that natural process from occurring. One wonders if Young went through the same intellectual exercise with any white people who beat him up, but we'll leave that to his biographer.
In any event, if we're supposed to be judging people by the content of their character, it's worth noting that in 2017 Young had his access to staff revoked for "at least a year" after allegedly demonstrating a “pattern of hostile and intimidating behavior" towards his subordinates, according to The Seattle Times. The News Tribune reported that several former staffers confirmed Young was prone to "outbursts" and that he "berated" them. “I got called a c—-” regularly," said one of his women staffers. Young dismissed and denied all the allegations and didn't take anger management courses.
Meanwhile, this session Young has asked Republicans to sign a "Statement of Republican Unity" to demonstrate their "unity around principles we all hold paramount," which includes, among other things, opposing "any legislative action against Representative Matt Shea," an alleged domestic terrorist who was kicked out of his own caucus. I know it's 2020 and hypocrisy doesn't matter anymore, but suffice it to say that Young isn't the best Republican messenger on this issue.