Why to be paranoid

Mulenga Harangua feels the pain of his people

Oct 13, 2010 at 12:00 am

I was at a wedding where I expected to see my old pal Mulenga Harangua. He wasn't at the wedding, so I swung by his house so we could chew the fat for a while. Mulenga always has something interesting to say. He's been squatting in an abandoned house on the west side since his girlfriend tossed him out. (I think it was after he maxed out her credit cards buying clothes in the effort to become a bigwig sexy Detroit man.) He actually fixed the place up with mostly scavenged material. It looks better than most of the homes on the block. There's a big vegetable garden in the back yard and herbs growing in the front.

I wandered past the chives, which had produced some lovely white blossoms, and climbed the creaky stairs onto the porch. The place was dark but I knocked anyhow. After not getting a response I gave the door a couple of good bangs. I saw the blinds flicker and a few moments later I heard a series of snaps as he undid the locks. When the door swung open there stood Mulenga with a dark-blue blanket over his head and shoulders like a hooded cape.

"Hi," he rasped, "come on in." He sounded like Darth Vader on a bad day. His skin was gray and sagging on his face. He turned and shuffled slowly back into the darkness of his catacombs.

"Mulenga, what's the matter? You look like death warmed over twice."

He made a few more guttural noises as he walked away from me.


When we entered his living room, decorated with various pieces of scavenged furniture, he turned to me. "I'm feeling the pain of my people."

"The pain of your people, isn't that more of a metaphorical or psychological pain? You look like you had a run-in with Ndamukong Suh last night."

"I'm talking about real physical pain. My joints are all messed up. I can hardly move."

I've got arthritis in my neck and have suffered a few bouts of gout in my feet, so I've got some sympathy for folks who suffer joint pain. "When did this all start?"

"It started when I was back in high school."

"Sports injuries?"

"No, it was beatings from my teachers. My parents sent me to a Catholic school back when corporal punishment was in vogue. There were only a few brothers in the school and I stood out like a black bean in the grits. I was catching it all the time. While in high school I was hit with a baseball bat, a hockey stick, a rubber whip and fists. And that was from the teachers. I was flat-out punched in the face one time, knocked me off of my seat and busted a brand new pair of glasses."

"I find that a little hard to believe."

"Believe it, man. Obama's talking about it. Education Week magazine says that Obama is making racial differences in school discipline a high priority. It's about time. This guy, Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said that students of color are 'receiving different and harsher disciplinary punishments than whites for the same or similar infractions.'"

I hadn't heard about that, but it seemed to ring true. That pretty much seems to be the case when it comes to the criminal justice system. That's why you get longer sentences for crack cocaine, which is associated with minorities, than for similar amounts of powder cocaine, more associated with whites. That's pretty much the case in all kinds of crime. The Sentencing Project, a national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system, has put out reports on the subject.

"I believe you, Mulenga, but we've got to get you to a doctor. You don't look good at all."

"I've been to doctors over the years but they haven't done much for me. For some reason they see my black face and suddenly I'm making things up. I got proof." He pointed to some papers resting on an old milk crate. I looked them over and was blown away by what I saw. According to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services a couple of years ago, blacks and Hispanics are under-treated and under-medicated for pain. A more recently published study conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan found that blacks and Hispanics were prescribed fewer pain medications than whites, and that women were given weaker pain medications than men. In addition, a study published earlier this year in the Journal of the National Medical Association showed that black men were more likely than white men to suffer chronic pain. It went on and on.

One study published in the Sept. 24 issue of Academic Emergency Medicine reported that "black Americans and Hispanics who show up at emergency rooms with chest pain are less likely than whites to get the care they need, despite displaying the same symptoms."

"Wow, Mulenga, I guess you are feeling the pain of your people and there's nothing metaphorical about it. I guess this shows that just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean that nobody is out to get you. No wonder so many brothers medicate themselves with alcohol, not that I'm an expert on this or anything."

Mulenga swelled up with the verification of his complaints. It's not often that I agree wholeheartedly with his musings. He seemed to get taller and the blanket slipped off his head, though he still held it about his shoulders.

"And another thing," he said, getting on a roll, "this whole thing with the mortgage crisis. Princeton University did a study showing that blacks were more likely to be offered subprime loans over whites who had similar financial situations. They said that the foreclosure crisis had racial dimensions from the 'point of origination to the point of foreclosure.'"

"Wow, where are you getting all this information?"


"But you don't have a computer, or electricity," I glanced around the shadowy environs.

"I use computers at the public library. You've got to use the resources at hand. That's how I found out that black women have suffered more than others under the military's don't ask, don't tell policy. They've been discharged under that policy at three times the rate at which they serve in the military."

"Whoa, Mulenga, you're covering a lot of ground here. Besides, I thought you weren't a fan of the military or gays.'

'Well, I'm not usually, but I have a niece who is a lesbian in the Army. I generally don't cotton to that stuff but my niece is different. She's family."

"Nice double standard you have going there." Mulenga slumped a little in his cape. I decided to change the subject. "You got some kind of stove here for cooking?"

"Got a little propane stove for camping back there."

"Tell you what, I see you still have some vegetables growing back there. I'll pick some and make you a good pot of soup. That'll make you feel better."

"All right, I got some chickens in the shed back there. I'll get one of those and we'll have a feast. You know, I'm starting to feel a little better."