Throughout When They Call You a Terrorist, Patrisse notices that many Black people in her life have gotten blamed for the hard choices they’ve made—the external factors that led them to that choice are rarely taken into account. For example, her stepfather, Alton, was an inconsistent presence in her life, but only after he was laid off from the stable job he had for 20 years and was unable to find another one. And her father, Gabriel, struggled with drug addiction, but only after coming home traumatized from war and having no social services available to him. By illuminating the external forces—such as racism and lack of access to resources—that lead people to certain choices in life, Patrisse challenges the “politics of personal responsibility” that suggest individuals are solely responsible for the decisions they make.
When examining her mother and stepfather’s choices, Patrisse sees how, given the external forces at play, they could not have acted any other way. When Patrisse’s brother Monte was in the throes of a manic episode after being arrested, their mother, Cherice, broke down. She told Patrisse that she felt guilty, as if Monte becoming mentally ill and going to prison were results of her poor parenting choices. Patrisse tried to tell her it wasn’t her fault, that she was “collateral damage in the battle to elevate personal responsibility over everything,” and that the real culprits were the people in power who made the decisions “about state budget priorities, about wages, about the presence of police, and even about damn grocery stores and access to quality food.” The implication here is that if Cherice had been paid more or been able to work fewer hours (and thereby been able to be more present in Monte’s life), or if Monte had not suffered abuse at the hands of police for being Black, he could have had a different fate. It was not Cherice’s choices that led to his suffering, but external factors like racism, the war on drugs, and the war on gangs.
Moreover, Patrisse’s stepfather, Alton, didn’t openly express regret or guilt about his decision to leave their family when Patrisse was six, but she nonetheless views his decision as similarly bound by oppressive social forces. Alton only left the family after losing a well-paying job he held for 20 years at a nearby GM auto plant; the plant closed, and Alton was unable to find a job that would allow him to provide for his family. Noting that Black unemployment in LA at the time was worse than it was during the 2008 Great Recession, Patrisse implies that it wasn’t Alton’s fault that he couldn’t find employment, but the fault of economic downturn and discriminatory employers. Between GM choosing to close the plant and employers choosing not to hire Alton (or to pay him a living wage), Alton’s choices were bound by external forces outside of his control.
Patrisse is also critical of her biological father, Gabriel, blaming himself for life choices that were outside of his control. Gabriel started selling drugs after a couple of tours in the military—a choice he felt forced to make in order to supplement his mother’s income—and found himself unable to access the benefits of the G.I. Bill (such as low-cost education and housing) because he was Black. Though he blamed himself for this choice, Patrisse tried to explain to him that personal responsibility is “mostly a lie meant to keep us from challenging real-world legislative decisions that chart people’s paths, that undo people’s lives.” Gabriel also blamed himself for becoming addicted to drugs in the process of selling them, a point of view that was encouraged at his 12-step program meetings. Patrisse went to the meetings with him and couldn’t help but feel that “they d[id] not account for all the external factors that exacerbate chaotic drug use” such as lack of access to good jobs, affordable housing, or treatment centers. In other words, she saw forces like racial and economic oppression as the root cause of Gabriel’s addiction and didn’t begrudge him for turning to drugs in the face of his suffering.
There are several other moments in her memoir where Patrisse notes that the choices people in her community made were wrongly attributed to personal responsibility. Richie—one of Patrisse’s students when she ran a restorative mediation program at her former high school—ended up going to prison at the age of 18, after his hours working for the school system suddenly got cut and he resorted to robbery in order to pay rent. While many labeled Richie a “criminal” for his actions, Patrisse saw that he was only trying to survive in the face of external forces. Had lawmakers granted the public school system a larger budget (showing that they were invested in providing quality education and good jobs in low-income communities), Richie’s hours likely wouldn’t have been cut. Similarly, Patrisse’s high school girlfriend, Cheyenne, dropped out of school because she didn’t have money to take the bus or pay for lunch. In Patrisse’s mind, this had nothing to do with Cheyenne’s commitment to her studies but much more to do with poverty—something Cheyenne couldn’t control or escape from. The politics of personal responsibility touch so many areas of Patrisse’s life—her family members and community feel guilty and responsible for actions that they were forced into due to a variety of external forces acting on them at all times. Patrisse uses these examples to show that the choices people make are often more complex than they might appear on the surface, and to argue that in order for people to make better choices, they need to have better choices presented to them to begin with.
External Forces vs. Personal Responsibility ThemeTracker
External Forces vs. Personal Responsibility Quotes in When They Call You a Terrorist
Alton got a series of low-wage jobs that had no insurance, no job security and no way to take care of us, his family, which is why I think, looking back now, he left, and while he visited and was always there, it was never the same again. In the 1980s, when all this was going down, unemployment among Black people, nearly triple that of white people’s, was worse in multiple regions of the United States, including where I lived, than it was during the Great Recession of 2008-2009.
For my brothers, and especially for Monte, learning that they did not matter, that they were expendable, began in the streets, began while they were hanging out with friends, began while they were literally breathing while Black […] For us, law enforcement had nothing to do with protecting and serving, but controlling and containing the movement of children who had been labeled super-predators simply by virtue of who they were born to and where they were born, not because they were actually doing anything predatory.
I know about crack. Everybody uses it, it seems like. At least in my neighborhood where there are no playgrounds, no parks, no afterschool programs, no hangout spots, no movie theaters, no jobs, no treatment centers or health care for the mentally ill, like my brother Monte, who had begun smoking crack and selling my mom’s things and is already showing signs of what we would much later come to know as schizoaffective disorder.
As I grow older I will come to question 12-step programs, see their failures, all the ways they do not reduce the harms of addiction by making their harms accrue to the individual, alone. They do not account for all the external factors that exacerbate chaotic drug use, send people into hell. The person who only has alcohol or crack at their fingertips almost never does as well as the person who has those things but also a range of other supports, including the general sense that their life matters.
I try continually to talk to my father about structural realities, policies and decisions as being even more decisive in the outcomes of his life than any choice he personally made. I talk about the politics of personal responsibility, how it’s mostly a lie meant to keep us from challenging real-world legislative decisions that chart people’s paths, that undo people’s lives.
It was easy to understand that when race was a blatant factor, a friend says to me in a political discussion one afternoon. Jim Crow left no questions or confusion. But now that race isn’t written into the law, she says, look for the codes. Look for the coded language everywhere, she says. They rewrote the laws, but they didn’t rewrite white supremacy. They kept that shit intact, she says.
It would be easy to speculate about the impact of years of cocaine use on my father's heart, but I suspect that it will tell us less than if we could measure the cumulative effects of hatred, racism and indignity. What is the impact of years of strip searches, of being bent over, the years before that when you were a child and knew that no dream you had for yourself was taken seriously by anyone, that you were not someone who would be fully invested in by a nation that treated you as expendable?
Is this my mother who is gripped, albeit wrongly, with guilt? Is she in this moment wondering what she did or did not do to ensure her baby, her Monte, be kept safe from the nightmare he's been cast into? Is my mother the fallout, the collateral damage in the battle to elevate personal responsibility over everything, over all those decisions that were made about state budget priorities, about wages, about the presence of police, and even about damn grocery stores and access to quality food?
Consider: In the wake of Katrina, there were two Getty images that Yahoo News ran two days after the storm hit. In the first photo, two white residents waded through the water with food. Beneath their picture, the caption read: “Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area in New Orleans, Louisiana.” Right after it, they ran an image of a Black boy also wading through the water with food. The caption read, “A young man walks through chest-deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005.”
Police, the literal progeny of slave catchers, meant harm to our community, and the race or class of any one officer, nor the good heart of an officer, could change that. No isolated acts of decency could wholly change an organization that became an institution that was created not to Protect but to catch, control and kill us.