All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t.
There’s an obvious ridiculousness to Congressman Mo Brooks’s comment about there being a “war on whites” that isn’t worth examining. In discussing the Republican party’s stance on immigration and how it hurts them with Hispanic voters, Brooks said this to radio host Laura Ingraham: “This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else. It’s part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008, continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare, all those kinds of things. Well that’s not true.”
Yes, the first black president who rose to prominence by saying there was only one America, who ran on hope and change, has (frustratingly) attempted to govern through compromises that have lent legitimacy to the most reactionary of right-wing ideas, and has (infuriatingly) chastised black Americans for not defeating racism has also been laying the groundwork for a war on white people. Sly fox, that Barack Obama.
It’s clear Brooks wants to borrow the “war on women” language for his own purposes, but it’s also clear that he has nothing to support his claim. The idea that America wasn’t already divided when it comes to race before the Obama era is to ignore our entire history as a country.
I’d rather focus on another part of what he said. Still speaking on immigration, he told Ingraham: “It doesn’t make any difference if you’re a white American, a black American, a Hispanic American, an Asian-American or if you’re a woman or a man. Every single demographic group is hurt by falling wages and lost jobs.
“Democrats, they have to demagogue on this and try and turn it into a racial issue, which is an emotional issue, rather than a thoughtful issue. If it becomes a thoughtful issue, then we win and we win big. And they lose and they lose big.”
It’s true, we’re all hurt by falling wages and lost jobs (except black Americans can’t even catch a break when there’s an increase in jobs). It’s also true, however, that that has nothing to do with immigration. But it’s Brooks’s assertion that a “racial issue” is an “emotional” rather than “thoughtful issue” I most take umbrage with.
It’s the type of language used to dismiss the real-world concerns of those of us who live on the oppressed side of racism in America. Our issues aren’t considered serious intellectual questions but emotional reactions that are to be dealt with personally. But any discussion of jobs and wages that doesn’t consider race (or gender) is intellectually dishonest. To pretend there are not groups of people who are disproportionately disadvantaged under our current economic model and that our ongoing legacy of racism and white supremacy are not contributing factors means you are not actually looking for solutions. You’re turning the same blind eye that has allowed the suffering in the first place.
But let me also say that racism is an emotional issue, and that’s OK. It doesn’t make it any less serious. We owe it to the health of our country to directly confront the issue. Racism is actively killing us. Of course we’re emotional.
Update, August 1, 2014: The autopsy report confirms what we see in the video: an NYPD officer choked Eric Garner to death. There is no escaping responsibility. He died from “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” As such, the NYPD must be held accountable.
However, that alone is not justice. If the officer is arrested, faces trial, and is convicted, that still is not justice. There is no justice where there are dead black bodies. Justice must be more proactive, and with regards to this particular instance, justice should look like us reimagining the role of police in our society. The motto can no longer be "to protect and serve" if that only applies to certain people. We can't cede the idea of crime prevention to an armed police force, and then allow them the discretion to determine which crimes are worth preventing.
The reality of policing in America is that it upholds a system of racism and oppression of the poor. There is no justice, for Eric Garner or anyone else, until that changes.
* * *
Today, Eric Garner will be laid to rest. Garner was 43 years old and died last week after an altercation with NYPD. A police officer placed him in a chokehold and pushed his head into the ground until he stopped breathing. We know this because the incident was captured on video.
Garner is the latest in a long line of black people beaten and/or killed due to police brutality. But Police Commissioner Bill Bratton would rather we not think about race.
“I personally don’t think that race was a factor in the incident involved in this tragic death,” Bratton told The New York Observer. He’s watched the video and doesn’t think “the issue of race entered into this at all.”
Bratton made the same mistake that most people make when discussing racism in America. He takes the absence of any explicit references to race to mean that race/racism played no role in this interaction. No one used any racial slurs, the silver bullet of racial animus. None of the officers yelled, “Choke him! He’s black!” No one said that black men are animals who aren’t fit to live. Nothing of that sort happened. And because of the way we understand racism as an individual feeling of hatred toward a group of people based on skin color, it’s easy to then conclude that race wasn’t a factor here.
But history is present whether we invite it to the table or not. We don’t escape America’s history of racism because we believe ourselves to be good people, or that we’re just doing our jobs. It’s already defined our lives.
Racism created these neighborhoods where people live in poverty without access to decent jobs. Racism has determined which activities are illegal and who has been arrested for those actions. The selling of untaxed cigarettes, for example, for which police officers were attempting to arrest Eric Garner, is a petty crime that is almost exclusively enforced in communities of color. Racism taught us who is and is not a threat. Racism provided the justification for eliminating the threat. Before Eric Garner ever met Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the policeman who put him in the chokehold, racism had completed the work of shaping how they would interact.
While Bratton has ordered the entire police force to be retrained on the use of force, if he were actually committed to this never happening again, he would also order them to take classes on unlearning racism. Mayor de Blasio would be wise to fire Bratton, as it was a terrible choice for commissioner all along.
As for Eric Garner, may he rest in the peace he was denied while he was alive.
“I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!”
I made the mistake of watching the video in which NYPD choke and arrest 43-year-old Staten Island resident Eric Garner until he was dead on the sidewalk. It’s horrific. On July 17, Garner was approached by two plainclothes police officers who questioned him about selling untaxed cigarettes. A frustrated Garner repeatedly tells the officers that he hasn’t done anything wrong and that he doesn’t have any cigarettes on his person. Onlookers, including 22-year-old Ramsey Orta, who recorded the exchange, keep saying that all Garner had done was break up a fight. The police seem uninterested in this tidbit and continue to question Garner about the cigarettes. One reaches toward Garner, who responds by saying, “Don’t touch me, please,” while swatting the officer’s hand away. At this point, the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, puts Garner in a chokehold. Three uniformed officers run over to assist, and Garner is taken to the ground.
“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe! Get off of me, get off of me!”
Garner remained handcuffed, on the ground, for several minutes after he died. An initial autopsy report shows no damage to his neck bones or windpipe. The likely cause of death is a heart attack, precipitated by the arrest, chokehold and takedown. Garner weighed 350 pounds and had chronic asthma, diabetes and sleep apnea. He is survived by his wife, six children and two grandchildren.
What more is there to say? What more can be said after the death of a black person at the hands of police? We’ve heard it all time and again, followed by promises to do better, to change the culture of policing, to foster better relationships with black communities. Yet, we still end up here.
Garner had been arrested a number of times before. According to the New York Daily News, he was “due in court in October on three Staten Island cases, including charges of pot possession and possession or selling untaxed cigarettes.” He may well have been involved in illegal activities. Do these low level crimes justify the persistent harassment that so exasperated Garner? Do they warrant massive police intervention? Do they excuse the use of a chokehold that has been outlawed since 1993?
Sadly, that’s usually the case. And the behavior of the police is rarely interrogated in the same way.
Think of this man lying breathless on the sidewalk, handcuffed, with no rush to get him medical attention. Think about the fact there were five cops involved in the arrest of one unarmed man being accused of a nonviolent crime. Think of how, in the face of witnesses and a camera, an officer still felt comfortable enough to use an illegal chokehold on Garner. We have ceded so much power to the police, and they brazenly flaunt it without fear of repercussion.
Mayor de Blasio has promised a full investigation into Garner’s death, headed by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which did not have a leader for the first six months of the administration (Richard Emery was appointed chair on the day Garner died) and which has been described by NYCLU attorney Chris Dunn as “on life support.” Officer Pantaleo has been stripped of his gun and badge. It’s a start.
But this isn’t about one officer or even this one investigation. It’s not even about the more than 1,000 civilian complaints of NYPD employing illegal chokeholds since 2009. This about the disregard for black life and humanity that fuels policing. It’s about the amount of authority police have over our lives, deciding when and where we die. It’s about the daily harassment, the constant fear and the perpetual mourning. We can’t breathe.
“I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!”
For Eric Garner, it did stop that day. The harassment stopped when his life did. Must we all die for the abuse to end?
Twenty-three year old Jersey City police officer Melvin Santiago was shot and killed on July 13. According to CBS New York, he "was fatally shot in the head responding to a report of an armed robbery at the 24-hour drugstore." The report explains:
Lawrence Campbell, 27, of Jersey City, went into the Walgreens with no intention of robbing the store, [Jersey City Mayor Steven] Fulop said.
As CBS's Matt Kozar reported, Campbell beat up an armed guard and stole his gun. He then waited outside for police arrive. While he was waiting, he apologized to a customer for his conduct and told her to watch the news because he was going to be famous, Fulop said.
When Santiago and his partner arrived to the scene, Campbell opened fire, which the officers returned, leaving both Santiago and Campbell dead.
It’s a horrific scene to imagine, resulting in the loss of two young lives. But it turned bizarre when News 12 television reporter Sean Bergin offered his explanation of the situation. In explaining to the audience why the station chose to air an interview with Campbell’s wife, during which she offered condolences to Santiago’s family but also expressed her wish that her husband had taken out more cops, he had this to say:
It’s worth noting that we were besieged, flooded with calls by police officers furious that we would give media coverage to the wife of a cop killer. It’s understandable. We decided to air it because it’s important to shine a light on this anti-cop mentality that has so contaminated America’s inner cities. This same sick perverse line of thinking is evident from Jersey City to Newark and Paterson to Trenton. It has made the police officer’s job impossible, and it has got to stop. The underlying cause for all of this of course? Young black men growing up without fathers. Unfortunately, no one in the news media has the courage to touch that subject.
I’m wondering—what can’t be blamed on absent black fathers?
Put aside for a moment that the myth of the absent black father has been debunked time and again. We won’t discuss how black fathers have comparable—and in some cases higher—levels of involvement with their children as do white and Latino fathers. The statistic that 72 percent of black children grow up without fathers, which gets thrown around a lot in these conversations, is about out-of-wedlock births; that doesn’t necessarily mean those children are being raised without a father. But I don’t want to talk about the facts right now. I just want to know if there’s a single problem in black communities that can not be blamed on missing fathers.
Bergin believes “no one in the news media has the courage” to talk about this issue. Except that the missing black father has been a point of discourse in our media, popular culture, and academia for at least the past thirty years. Every time it is injected into a conversation about the ills of black America, the speaker positions themselves as some sort of brave truth-teller unearthing never-before-heard wisdom. But it’s one of the more common and insulting tropes we have in the canon of black pathology.
One thing is true here—I’ve never heard anti-police mentality be blamed on black fatherlessness. Bergin may be a pioneer there. He’s also clueless if he believes that if suddenly every black child were to have a father present in their home at all times, anti-police mentalities among black people would subside. It’s silly to think a population that has experienced disproportionate harassment and violence at the hands of police would pass down the lesson of trusting authority to their children.
But this is the disconnect. Bergin, and others who think like him, don’t see the harassment of young black men by police as a result of racism. They take the view that there are certain criminal behaviors prevalent among black men to which police are responding. If only they would clean up their acts, police would have no reason to bother them.
The people who support this view rarely take it to its logical conclusion. If you honestly believe that the reason police target young black men is because young black men are more prone to criminal behavior, you have to offer a reason for why that is. And if it isn’t racism, if the centuries of public policy that has created neighborhoods defined by their lack of resources isn’t the culprit, then there must be something biologically “wrong” with black men. They have to be genetically predisposed to violent/criminal behavior and creating culture which supports that. Or else, what other explanation is there?
Oh, yes. Missing black fathers. Those magical black fathers whose return to the home has the ability to cure poverty, violence, drug abuse and anti-police mentalities. A grand patriarch to save us all. It doesn’t matter that our romanticization of marriage and the two-parent (cisgender man and cisgender woman only, of course) home can be dangerous, as evidenced by this New York Times op-ed on domestic violence. It matters even less that the reason raising children in two-parent homes is more advantageous is because our public policies favor marriage and offer little support for single-parent or other “non-traditional” family structures. And the fact that these black men so many people want to step up and be fathers face discrimination everywhere from the job market to the legal system isn’t even up for discussion. No, it doesn’t matter. Just get young black men some fathers and everything will be fixed.
What happened to Melvin Santiago is tragic, but whether Lawrence Campbell had a father in his life (Bergin never bothers to report on this detail) is neither here nor there. The legacy of racism and white supremacy will not be undone by an army of magical black fathers.
Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize–winning history about what amounted to re-enslavement of many black people from the end of the Civil War up until World War II, locates the roots of the modern prison-industrial complex in America’s post-Reconstruction era, the convict leasing program and the Black Codes. The Black Codes were laws—criminalizing acts ranging from vagrancy to speaking too loudly in front of white women—passed with the sole purpose of arresting black men and forcing them back in unpaid labor. Blackmon writes:
Vagrancy, the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men.
Early in the twentieth century, Southern states passed laws that further criminalized the behaviors and very existence of black people in public spaces, establishing Jim Crow segregation. In 1984’s Race, Reform, and Rebellion, Manning Marable writes, “South Carolina insisted that black and white textile workers could not use the same doorways, pay windows, bathrooms or even the same water buckets. Many cities passed ordinances which kept blacks out of public parks and white residential districts. Atlanta outlawed black barbers from clipping the hair of white children and women in 1926.”
“At the dawn of the twentieth century, in a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and demographically shifting America, blackness was refashioned through crime statistics,” writes Khalil Gibran Muhammad in The Condemnation of Blackness (2010). “It became a more stable racial category in opposition to whiteness through racial criminalization.”
I cite these sources because it’s important to understand the history of criminalizing black bodies for seemingly mundane actions.
Back in May, I wrote about how the crackdown on New York City subway dancers, mostly adolescent black boys, was another way of criminalizing black youth even as the number of people stopped and frisked by the NYPD plummeted. In a column for the New York Daily News, Harry Siegel responds:
Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in The Nation that the 46 reckless endangerment arrests in the first four months of this year [for subway dancing] amounted to “criminalizing black youth.” Smith, putting words in Bratton’s mouth, went on: “Those scary, disorderly, dancing young black bodies. Always causing fear.”
That seems to be more Smith’s obsession than Bratton’s, reducing these teenagers from people to totemic symbols and ideological props, as though dancing on the trains is some sacred ritual and any attempt to move it to parks or other places people are free to leave proves the NYPD’s secret role as the racist art police.
There’s no bigger conspiracy of race, class or culture here. The issue is simply about how shared, confined common spaces can be used. Hearing progressives who adore public transportation and disdain cars insist subways must double as performance spaces makes my brain hurt.
My argument has never been that subways “must double as performance spaces.” I haven’t made a public art argument with regards to the subway dancers, though I’m not opposed to doing so. (I’m also not sure how I put words in Commissioner Bratton’s mouth, as what Siegel quotes I didn’t attribute to Bratton.) What I’ve said is that arresting these mostly black teenage boys is further criminalization of black youth and black bodies, an assertion I continue to stand behind. However one feels about subway dancers’ high-flying antics, we should be able to agree they shouldn’t be arrested.
If there are real complaints about subway dancers’ posing a threat to people’s safety, then that’s something the city has to deal with. But the answer can not and should not be to arrest these kids. We can not making dancing a crime (look how that turned out in Footloose).
Siegel goes on. “[F]or anyone serious about social justice, there’s no shortage of pressing work. The NYPD continues to arrest an excessive number of young black and Latino men and burden them with criminal records for marijuana even though they’re no more likely to use it than their rarely hassled white and Asian peers—and even though New York State actually decriminalized personal possession decades ago.” I agree. Saddling young men of color with criminal records for possession of marijuana is abhorrent. But their being arrested for dancing isn’t somehow better. We are a nation addicated to solving social problems through punitive measures that serve no one, least of all those already burdened with a history of second-class citizenship.
We should be limiting the contact between our youth and police. The way to do that is not to criminalize a harmless behavior—and after all, even Siegel concedes that “the dancers haven’t actually injured any riders.” They’re not simply being asked to move elsewhere. They are being arrested and charged with misdemeanors. Does that seem “light”? Well, the stakes are always higher when black people interact with the police—on any level. Ask Nubia Bowe from Oakland.
Siegel concludes: “With so much worth fighting for, why are so many fixated instead on the unhindered right of young men to dance on trains and then ask riders for change or a buck or two? Is that really all they think these talented, entrepreneurial teenagers are capable of?” Sounds like “soft bigotry of low expectations” argument, but Siegel misses the point. Whether or not dancing on the subway continues isn’t my biggest concern. These kids are unequivocally talented, and I would love to see them be able to practice their art with the full support of their community and their city, in whatever space that may be. My issue is that we’re arresting them. We are continuing to police black bodies under the guise of public safety, but all we do is criminalize otherwise benign behaviors and punish black youth.
That’s a historical arc that hasn’t bent anywhere.
The headline to this ThinkProgress story reads “A Black College Student Has The Same Chances Of Getting A Job As A White High School Dropout.” At the same time, this Pew Research Center study shows that 63 percent of Americans believe “Blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for own condition.”
How do these two things square with each other?
They don’t. But that doesn’t actually matter. Americans aren’t swayed by facts or statistics but by narratives. The narrative we have internalized with regards to racism is one of unimpeached progress. We’ve gone from slavery to Jim Crow to civil rights to a black president without a hitch.
Meanwhile, the thing that black parents across the country have told their children for generations about having to work twice as hard to get the same things that are handed to white people, remains true. Yet 63 percent of Americans choose to believe black people are unambitious, or lazy or incompetent. Racism, the kind that limited opportunities for black Americans, is a thing of the past, we would like to believe.
This was the entire point of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s June cover story for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” He built his argument not around the injustice of slavery but the injury suffered from redlining and housing discrimination, racist public policies with roots in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. He illustrates that we don’t have to reach so far back in American history to see the treatment of black people as second-class citizens. Truly, we don’t have to look beyond today’s headlines.
In his essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” Ralph Ellison wrote: “Perhaps we are able to see only that which we are prepared to see, and in our culture the cost of insight is an uncertainty that threatens our already unstable sense of order and requires a constant questioning of accepted assumptions.”
The United States isn’t prepared to see its racist past or present, as it would upset the narrative that has become a source of national pride. We aren’t yet brave enough to forge a new identity.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on how America is still trying to ‘do the right thing.’
Twenty-five years ago today, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released in theaters. Controversial then and still volatile now, it has since taken its place among the greatest American films ever made. It has a lot to say (it was written directed by Spike Lee, so of course it does) about race, class, power, sex and community. Any number of moments could be the topic of their own essay. But we mostly remember this movie for one scene: the flying trash can.
It’s the end of the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Mookie (played by Lee himself), the delivery man for Sal’s Pizzeria, just wants to get paid and go home. His friends, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem, won’t let Mookie’s boss, Sal, close up shop until he makes right what they feel is his mistreatment of them as patrons of his restaurant. (Buggin’ Out is mad that Sal’s “Wall of Fame” has no black faces on it, while Radio Raheem didn’t appreciate being told to turn down the music on his larger-than-life boombox). Tempers flare, words are exchanged (including the infamous n-word), and Sal takes a bat to Radio Raheem’s prized possession. “I just killed your fucking radio,” he says. Enraged, Radio Raheem lunges at Sal and the entire pizzeria breaks out into a brawl. When the police arrive on the scene, they apprehend Radio Raheem. Using his baton, one of the officers applies a chokehold that stops Radio Raheem’s breathing. The officers put his body in the back of squad car and drive away, leaving the neighborhood’s black residents to assume Radio Raheem is dead and the police will get away with killing him, as they’ve done so many times before.
Mookie watches all of this. Moments after taking it all in, he walks toward a trash can, removes the lid and trash, picks it up, runs toward Sal’s Pizzeria, screams “HATE!” and hurls the trash can through a window. A riot ensues.
“I think all of black America threw that can,” Lee told People in 1989.
Lee noticed something about the criticism his film was receiving, particularly from those white critics who thought it might incite race riots. “They never talk about the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police,” he said, “They talk about Mookie smashing the window and the pizzeria burning down.” The property rights of a white business owner took precedence over the life of a black man. It’s in that context where small acts of rebellion, like Mookie’s throwing the trash can, come to represent all of the frustration, anguish, and rage that are products of having to live under a racist system. Did he “do the right thing?” What’s the “right” response to a society that refuses you humanity?
I ask that question while thinking about Ersula Ore. According to The Huffington Post, the Arizona State University English professor is being charged with “assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, refusing to provide identification when requested to do so by an officer and obstructing a highway or public thoroughfare” after being stopped by university police while walking on campus on May 20. Video of the incident from the police car’s dashboard camera shows Officer Stewart Ferrin slamming Ore to the ground while handcuffing her. According to Ore, the officer pulled up next to her and asked whether she knew the difference between a sidewalk and a road. She replied, “Do you always accost women in the middle of the road and speak to them with such disrespect and so rudely as you did to me?”
“He throws the car door open actually, is what happens, and he’s towering over me,” she told CNN, “He’s intimidating. I don’t know why he’s so aggressive.” Ferrin demanded that Ore produce her ID.
Ferrin: “Let me see your ID or you will be arrested for failing to provide ID.”
Ore: “Are you serious?”
Ferrin: “Yes, I am serious. That is the law.”
Ore: “I never once saw a single solitary individual get pulled over by a cop for walking across a street on a campus, in a campus location. Everybody has been doing this because it is all obstructed. That’s the reason why. But you stop me in the middle of the street to pull me over and ask me, ‘Do you know what this is? This is a street.’”
Ferrin: “Are you aware that this is a street?”
Ore: “Let me finish.”
Ferrin: “OK, put your hands behind your back.”
Ore repeatedly tells Ferrin not to touch her. He tells her she’s going to slam her. She responded, “You really want to do that? Do you see what I’m wearing?” He replies that he doesn’t care what she has on. Ferrin, true to his word, slams Ore to the ground, leading to “expos[ure of] her anatomy to all onlookers,” according to her lawyer. When she’s back on her feet, Ore kicks Ferrin.
A statement from ASU said that authorities “have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the arrest and have found no evidence of inappropriate actions by the ASUPD officers involved.”
Did Ore “do the right thing?” I suppose it depends on your perspective. But the more pertinent question is why she was put in such a position to begin with.
This past Friday (June 27), the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences and BAMcinematek hosted a screening of Do the Right Thing to commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary. In a videotaped appearance, President Barack Obama (he and first lady Michelle Obama saw Do the Right Thing on their first date) said, “…Do the Right Thing still holds up a mirror to our society and it makes us laugh and think and challenges all of us to see ourselves in one another.”
From the fictional Radio Raheem to the real life Ersula Ore, to all the black people who have been harassed, assaulted, and killed by police and vigilantes in between, it’s pretty clear America still can’t see itself in black bodies. And it doesn’t seem to want to try.
My Brother’s Keeper, the $200 million public-private initiative spearheaded by President Barack Obama in February aimed at improving the quality of life for black and Latino boys, is notable because it’s the only time Obama has used the office of the presidency to directly address issues of racial injustice. That’s also part of why it has come under so much scrutiny.
As I said when it was first announced, I believe My Brother’s Keeper is admirable but deeply flawed. That the president sees the life outcomes of black and Latino boys as a personal responsibility he is willing to exert some presidential power over is to be commended. However, My Brother’s Keeper is steeped in the respectability politics that has been central to President Obama’s rhetoric surrounding black people. This program lacks an institutional analysis of racism and the legacy of white supremacy. It puts the onus on communities ravaged by centuries of racist public policy to undo damage they did not cause through education, mentorship and “hard work,” as if the barriers to accessing these things do not persist. It is insulting, in the face of this country’s history, to place the blame for the outcomes of racism on those victimized by it.
Moreover, this program gives me pause because it is gendered in a way that suggests the lives of these boys and young men matter more than girls and young women of color.
Yes, it’s true that black and Latino boys are disproportionately affected by issues such as incarceration rates and joblessness. When considering that, a program aimed specifically at them makes sense. And maybe I would be singing a different tune if I believed My Brother’s Keeper actually had the capacity to address those injustices.
As it stands, I simultaneously do not believe My Brother’s Keeper to be adequate for the young men it seeks to help and that it is unconscionable to leave young women out. If My Brother’s Keeper is going to be the racial justice initiative that President Obama stakes his legacy on, as flawed as it already is, it cannot also repeat the mistake of acting as if women of color are not also affected by racism.
The reason more than 1000 women of color and 200 black men came together to sign two letters asking for the inclusion of girls of color in My Brother’s Keeper (full disclosure: I am one of the signees) is not that anyone believes this particular initiative is the initiative to end all racism and suffering. It’s because racial justice movements of the past have consistently relied on the talent, skills, blood, sweat, time, money and silencing of women. They have fought diligently in the service of justice, only to be told that their specific concerns were either unworthy of attention or too divisive to be taken seriously.
This can’t be permissible at the grassroots or presidential level. Our girls matter, just as our boys matter. They matter to us, they matter to one another, they matter to this country. We can’t keep sending the message that they don’t.
Read Next: Gary Younge on the truth about race in America
I read and write about issues of racism on a near daily basis, so I probably didn’t need a study to tell me that people don’t understand how racism works. But it helps.
University of California, Berkeley, professor Clayton R. Critcher and University of Chicago professor Jane L. Risen have published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that shows when “non-African-Americans—whites, Asians and Hispanics—who had seen images of successful black Americans were less likely to believe that systemic racism persists,” according to The Hufffington Post. The study’s abstract reads: “After incidental exposure to Blacks who succeeded in counterstereotypical domains (e.g., Brown University President Ruth Simmons, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison), participants drew an automatic inference that race was not a success-inhibiting factor in modern society.”
Seeing images of successful black people makes others think racism doesn’t exist. That’s hardly surprising. Not much is when it comes to racism. But it underscores what’s so frustrating about our “national conversation on race.” People come to the table not understanding what racism is.
It’s not entirely their fault. Race Forward’s “Moving the Race Conversation Forward” report from January showed that “two-thirds of race-focused media coverage fails to consider how systemic racism factors into the story, instead typically focusing upon racial slurs and other types of personal prejudice and individual-level racism.” The result is the understanding of racism as a personal obstacle to be overcome, rather than a system of oppression rooted in white supremacy.
We aren’t closer to correcting that narrative when we celebrate the individuals who manage to “succeed” despite racism’s entrenchment. The impulse is understandable. Those individuals can serve as reminders of what is possible in the face of hopelessness. But individual symbols of progress seduce us into believing the system is fundamentally fair.
LeRoi Jones (later to be known as Amiri Baraka) addressed this in his 1962 essay “Tokenism: 300 Years for Five Cents”:
There are almost 20,000,000 Negroes in the United States. One of these 20 million has been given a two-dollar raise and promoted to a clerical job that my two-year-old daughter could probably work out without too much trouble. And we are told that this act is symbolic of the ‘gigantic strides the Negro has taken since slavery….
Somehow, and most especially in the United States, the fact that more Negroes can buy new Fords this year than they could in 1931 is supposed to represent some great stride forward. To where? How many new Fords will Negroes have to own before police in Mississippi stop using police dogs on them. How many television sets and refrigerators will these same Negroes have to own before they are allowed to vote without being made to live in tents, or their children allowed decent educations?
Symbols aren’t meaningless, but they are never strong enough to dismantle systems of oppression on their own. And as this recent study shows, they have the ability to convince people that those systems don’t even exist. If we’re having trouble getting to the first step acknowledging racism as a system of oppression, the prospects of actually undoing and replacing that system appear bleak.
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“For girls like us… it’s life or death.”
Laverne Cox is enjoying a moment of unprecedented and historic success. The actress is a star on the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black and recently graced the cover of Time magazine, becoming the first publicly identified trans woman to do so (this doesn’t include Chelsea Manning, who had not publicly identified as trans when she was on the cover). She’s at work on a memoir and a documentary to be produced by MTV and Logo about trans teens. Her visibility as a black trans woman is pushing our cultural notions of what womanhood looks like, and her activism reminds us just how many girls like her are left behind.
That’s what was so haunting when she spoke those words, “For girls like us… it’s life or death,” while receiving the 2014 Creative Change award a few weeks ago at a ceremony hosted in New York City. For all the success and accolades and praise that Cox has received, she knows all too well that, because she is a black trans woman, her life could be very different.
“Very easily, CeCe [McDonald] could have been me,” Cox said. CeCe McDonald is the black trans woman who served nineteen months in prison after defending herself during an attack in which she and a group of friends were subject to verbal assaults that included homophobic, transphobic and racist slurs, as well as a physical assault that resulted in McDonald’s face being lacerated by a glass bottle, an injury that required eleven stitches. In an act that McDonald maintains was self-defense, 47-year-old Dean Schmitz was killed after being stabbed with a pair of scissors. Cox has been a vocal supporter of McDonald and is producing a documentary about her case.
But it’s this type of harassment and violence that follows trans women wherever they go. “Walking while trans is often a contested act,” Cox told me, citing the case of Monica Jones, the black trans woman from Phoenix, Arizona, who was recently found guilty of “manifesting prostitution” after having accepted a ride in a car from two undercover police officers. There are presumptions we, as a society, hold about the bodies of black trans women, steeped in racism and transmisogyny, that make it unsafe for them to simply exist in public.
That’s what happened in Atlanta on May 20. Two black trans women were attacked on the city’s public transit system, MARTA, by men who demanded to know if they were real. Not only were they kicked, one was stripped, as other passengers did no more than break out their cellphones to capture the brutal incident on video. Trans woman are supposedly deceiving everyone, only pretending to be women (or are delusional, if you were to take National Review’s Kevin Williamson’s bigoted view) and somehow it’s the job of the public to expose them. Never mind that sex and gender are two different things; never mind that gender identity is an ever-evolving construct; never mind that gender expression doesn’t have any bearing on gender identity; and never mind that people should simply have the right to exist in their bodies as they so choose.
“Far too often trans women don’t have justice,” Cox said to me. “I’m obviously not one for locking people up, but we need some justice.” Perhaps justice starts with the recognition of trans women as women, and not just the most famous and visible. It is genuinely amazing to have Laverne Cox, New York Times bestselling author Janet Mock and a number of other black trans women being visible and shaping culture, but it’s not enough. It isn’t justice. When black trans women can walk the street without the fear of violence and harassment, then we’ll be on the right path.
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