Social Truth, Virtuous Lies, and ‘Pawning’

A participant holding an “Abolish Police” sign at a protest in Brooklyn. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images)

In “The Parable of the Frozen Bird,” a small bird was flying south for the winter. Unfortunately, the weather would prove much for a bird of its size; it succumbed to the harsh cold and fell to the ground. As if to add insult to injury, a cow came along and defecated on the bird. Although this seemed like an unfortunate turn of events, the manure actually warmed the bird so well that it began to sing for joy. The bird’s song caught the attention of a cat, who found the bird, dug it out of the manure, and promptly ate it. 

The moral to the story: Not everyone who gets you out of crap is your friend. 

The story is an apt warning to downtrodden individuals and groups who are offered help by powerful people. Those powerful people can see the downtrodden as ripe for manipulation, a convenient means to an end. I call this kind of manipulation “pawning,” the using of an individual or group for one’s own purposes. 

This has been a constant but relatively unacknowledged aspect of black American history since colonial times. I want to describe how pawning manifests and develops in contemporary America, and how marginalized groups can avoid such exploitation moving forward. 

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