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Grammar 101: Understanding Uprisings as Predicates of Racism

2015 April 28
by Kira Banks

In 5th grade, I diagramed sentences literally all day. I enjoyed it; it made my teacher happy. Win, win. This morning, my 8 year old was doing a grammar lesson, and the connection between grammar and recent events began churning in my mind.


We need to go back to the basics. We can’t understand the meaning of a sentence by only looking at the predicate, or verb. We have to know what the sentence is about—the “subject.” Similarly, our understanding of the uprisings in Baltimore, St. Louis, Oakland is thin and lacking if we don’t know what they are about. The “subject” is racism.


Subject: the noun or pronoun that a sentence is about

Racism destroys.


Predicate: the verb or part of a sentence stating something about the subject

Racism destroys.


Direct object: a noun or pronoun that received the action of an action verb

Racism unchecked incites riots.


Subject complement: is linked to the subject by a linking verb

Racism is destructive.


Destruction is a byproduct of racism. Therefore, shaming individuals for being destructive fails to acknowledge the context. If my five year old has a tantrum, it does me little good to simply shame his behavior. Sure, that will quiet him and save both of us public embarrassment, but if I want to get to the root of the problem, I have to know what the tantrum is about. Did someone harm him? Taunt him? Does he need a nap? Only in the context of understanding the subject of his fit can I help. More dramatically, if we hear about a young man shooting his father, we could focus on throwing the book at him and trying him as an adult for his intentional act of murder. But that’s simply focusing on the predicate, the action. Might you feel differently about this young man if you knew the subject—or what it’s all about—is that his father violently abused him, his sister and his mother over the course of his lifetime, constantly threatening their lives if they told? You might at least understand the predicate—shooting his father—in a different way. The subject matters. It gives context, and if you allow it, provides clues on what the next sentence could or should be.


In the context of the call for nonviolence in Baltimore Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliantly responds, “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse.” It’s simply dishonorable. And calling out this double standard does not excuse violence, but it certainly helps us understand where it is coming from.


If you are outraged by the outrage, focus your energy on dismantling racism. It is unfair and inaccurate to only focus on instances of rioting and fail to name the context. The subject is racism. Honest conversation about why we have a culture of policing that so consistently uses excessive force towards Black bodies is linked to our country’s history of racism. The coded language we use to not talk about race is linked to our fumbled attempts to appear less racist yet still perpetuates racism. The media’s inability to see itself and the disparate way it covers violence on the basis of race is rooted in racism.


Racism destroys. It destroys relationships, connection and progress. It has stunted the growth of our nation. And if we fail to learn the lessons now, we will be in this same predicament 40-50 years from now.


It’s as basic as the grammar lessons we learned as children. We will be doomed to fumble with where things go and what they mean unless we acknowledge what they are about. At the present moment, too many are focused on the predicate and are missing, ignoring, or refusing to acknowledge the subject.




One Response leave one →
  1. July 18, 2015

    This made me smile. As an English teacher, I feel coabortmfle suggesting alternatives/corrections concerning written grammar. I think it’s obnoxious, though, when people critique others when it comes to spoken grammar a place where language rules are not so hard and fast. I’ve witnessed *helpful critiques on I feel badly and like phrases that are common in spoken language.

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