All the blackness that's fit to print. And some that isn't.
It is not a question even of the ignorance of white people. It is a question of the fears of white people.
Perhaps the most trivial news story, in recent memory, to make the rounds of the twenty-four-hour news cycle is most certainly the “debate” over whether or not Santa Claus is white. It started with a seemingly benign request from Slate’s Aisha Harris that Santa be de-racialized. Harris had a modest proposal: rather than a jolly old white man, how about turning our image of Santa into a penguin? No race, they’re cute and he’d still live in a snowy place. This deeply offended FOX News’s Megyn Kelly, whose unwavering belief that Santa—and Jesus—are white set off Twitter, the blogosphere and would-be pundits everywhere.
I honestly do not care about Santa’s racial identity. He’s a mythical figure with flying reindeer and elves. To the point of Harris’s original article, he can literally be whatever we decide. Growing up, my mother did all the Christmas shopping in my household, so for me Santa has always been a black woman. It’s not a big deal.
But what this whole controversy has revealed is another instance of white racial panic. For the entirety of the United States’s history, white people have had the advantage of defining themselves—and their mythical gift-giving icons—in a white supremacist state. Politically, culturally, economically, socially, everything has been tailored to privilege whiteness. But things change. Whiteness as the default identity to which everything else is derived or compared gets challenged. And the pushback is fierce.
We are living in an age of paradox. The old system of white racial supremacy is very much still alive and strong, but the advancements of other racial groups are undeniable. That means the government, the culture, the economy and the social order, while not even close to anything equitable, are changing and shifting towards something that’s at least more inclusive. Most of these changes are superficial and have no material benefit for the people on the bottom rungs of society. (As I wrote in June, when it was reported that there had been more white deaths than births in 2012, it’s not about demographics, it’s a matter of resources/wealth/power.) But they can give us hope that we’re moving in the right direction.
The result is fear. Fear that too much change coming too fast will change the current system in a way that will no longer privilege whiteness. Being white will no longer be special. It will not allow you to define yourself against the other. There will be no power or privilege. You will just be.
We saw it in immediate aftermath of the election of Barack Obama as the first black president. It animates our debate around immigration reform. It drives our fear of China emerging as a superpower. And yes, it’s even in the desire to affirm Santa’s white identity. The visual markers of white supremacy appear to be eroding, and for certain segments of the population, that’s a frightening prospect.
Of course, white people have nothing to fear. Not in the immediate future, at least. Just as the rich have nothing to fear, men have nothing to fear and heterosexuals have nothing to fear. The system of white supremacist capitalist heterosexist patriarchy isn’t going anywhere for a while. It is so entrenched in our way of thinking that even those who don’t benefit from it work towards its maintenance. We still have a long way to go.
Santa Claus is merely a symbol. We project upon him what we wish to see. So don’t worry, white people. With the political and economic advantages still heavily weighted in your favor, Santa will still bring you your gifts. He’s still on your side. In the foreseeable future, Santa is still a white man.
(But it won’t always be that way.)
Read Next: Jessica Valenti on Beyoncé’s feminism.
If there were any lingering fears that the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City would usher in an era of communist revolution beholden to black nationalist interests, the news from this morning should quell such concerns. From The New York Times:
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio was expected on Thursday morning to name William J. Bratton to lead the New York Police Department, according to two people with knowledge of Mr. de Blasio’s decision.The move will return Mr. Bratton to the helm of the nation’s largest force at a time of historically low crime rates and a deepening rift between officers and the public.
After riding the wave of anti-stop-and-frisk activism to a decisive mayoral victory, it’s rather disappointing that de Blasio would tap the architect of that policy, who also spent his years as police commissioner in Los Angeles increasing its usage, to once again lead the NYPD. But it’s hardly surprising.
While he criticized outgoing commissioner Ray Kelly for the “overuse-and-abuse of stop-and-frisk,” de Blasio has stopped short of calling for an end to the policy altogether. He has been in favor a “mend, don’t end” approach, supporting the reforms as handed down by US district court judge Shira Scheindlin as a result of the Floyd v. City of New York case. His choice of Bratton for police commissioner is consistent with his previously stated positions. For the progressives who helped elect him, as predictable a move as it may have been, it’s still disappointing.
Bratton has been credited with the improvement of community relations between police and the public in LA, particularly among black and Latino communities, as well as reductions in crime. He has also voiced support for affixing police officers with cameras, a practice that could lead to a reduction in the use of force/the number complaints filed against police. But he is hardly the type of choice one makes to signal a radical shift in the way policing will be done. He is the commissioner responsible for instituting the “broken windows,” zero-tolerance style of policing that has meant more harassment of the poor/working-class and communities of color. As veteran police reporter Len Levitt put it, appointing “Bratton, [means] change within the NYPD will be that of style rather than substance.
In a statement, Joo-Hyun Kang, spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, said: “It’s critical that Mr. Bratton rejects policies that rely on discrimination, demonstrates a commitment to true accountability, and works to ensure the department values officers’ abilities to build respectful community partnerships based on respect for the dignity and rights of all New Yorkers rather than on discrimination-based stop, summons and arrest quotas.” These are changes to the culture of policing that I’m not quite sure someone of Bratton’s pedigree is equipped to implement.
The mayor-elect had an opportunity to signal a fundamentally new approach to the way policing would be done in NYC, but chose instead the safe and familiar, which has never benefited the communities that elected him to office. De Blasio has always been the most progressive candidate with a chance of winning, not the most progressive. His choice for the “new” police commissioner is the first action that should signal to liberals/progressives that now is not the time to rest. What got the issue of stop-and-frisk to the forefront of national consciousness and the subsequently the mayoral race was grassroots activism and organizing. The same will be required to ensure that not only are reforms to stop-and-frisk implemented but that the policy be overturned altogether in favor of community-based policing that relies on trust, not fear, to ensure that crimes that actually effect quality of life (rape, robbery, murder) are fully investigated.. That’s true no matter who occupies the office of mayor or police commissioner.
Mychal Denzel Smith explains why it doesn’t matter that race relations are “better” than they were in previous generations.
Because I write about race and racism in the United States, I’m often asked some variation of this question: are things better now?
I don’t mean to be condescending when I answer, but usually my response is frustrated laughter followed by a firm “no.” It’s the most polite thing I can think to do in the moment. At least, it’s more polite than saying, “That’s a stupid fucking question.”
But that’s how I actually feel. It sounds harsh, but I truly believe “Are things better?” is one of the most useless questions in a discussion about racism. It’s another in a repertoire of rhetorical tricks we use in this country to avoid the hard work of addressing racism in its modern form. By reframing the conversation around how much progress has been made, we further the false narrative that racism is a problem that belongs to history. While we pat ourselves on the back for not being as horrible as we once were, we allow racism to become further entrenched in every aspect of American life.
Of course we’re doing better than chattel slavery. Of course we’re doing better than legal segregation. But what material benefit do we get from the comparison?
What good is better to Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin or Aiyana Stanley-Jones? Does better bring back Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd and Jonathan Ferrell? Do the millions of black youth who experience stop-and-frisk console themselves by noting how much better things have gotten since the 1860s? Is chronic unemployment made better because there are no longer “whites only” signs decorating the South? Will children in Chicago, Philadelphia and DC sleep well at night knowing that even though their schools are closing and their educational opportunities are being ripped away from them, things are better? Does a racist, for-profit, prison-industrial complex really count as better?
That’s what gets swept aside when we focus so much of the narrative of progress. We absolve the evil of racism in its current form. I don’t wish to contend that we should not look back at our history. We should, and often. Nor am I saying we shouldn’t celebrate our progress. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing so. But I do believe we keep relearning the wrong lesson.
When we look at how far we’ve come, we conveniently omit what got us here: the tireless and thankless work of people with a radical vision of a society based on fairness, the blood of young people willing to die for their right to assert themselves as full human beings, and a mix of compassion and political opportunism that turned powerful people into unlikely allies. And it will likely take more of the same to get us where we need to go.
We delude ourselves into thinking that, with time, things just get better. Insomuch as we’re willing to admit that racism is still a problem today, we conclude that it will no longer be such once older generations die off. At our peril, we ignore how invested we have become in those racist institutions those older generations created. It’s not just a matter of changing attitudes about skin color. We have to be willing to challenge systems of power. So long as we’re caught up in celebrating our “progress,” we neglect the opportunity to do the necessary work required to actually uproot racism and white supremacy.
It may not be true when I tell people who ask that, no, things have not gotten any better with regards to racism. But I’m also tired of having to say “we’ve made a lot of progress” a dozen times in order to get people to listen about the issues that plague us today. But I will stop saying, “No,” as much as I may want to out of frustration. And I won’t be rude and say, “That’s a stupid fucking question.” I will start saying, “Yes, but it really doesn’t matter.”
Mychal Denzel Smith on the murder of Renisha McBride.
So much of writing/thinking/working around issues of race, racism and blackness in America is to say “again.” Again, the right to vote is under attack. Again, the unemployment rate creeps near depression levels. Again, police chiefs and mayors push racist stop-and-frisk policies. Again, our children face criminalization and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Again, we mourn the death of a young black person killed, seemingly, for doing nothing more than being black. This time, her name is Renisha McBride.
Like Jonathan Ferrell before her, Renisha, a 19 year-old Detroit native, got into a car accident in Dearborn Heights, and sought help at a nearby house. The still unidentified homeowner answered the door armed with his shotgun, presuming Renisha was a burglar. Alternately being described as “accidental” and “justified,” he shot Renisha in the face.
As with Trayvon Martin’s death before that, Renisha’s killer has not been arrested. And due to similar Stand Your Ground laws in Michigan as in Florida, it’s possible that he may never be charged with any crime. Another black teenager has been killed, and again, their family may have to go forward without anyone being held accountable.
We have been here before. Our history becomes our present so often it becomes difficult to distinguish the two. Politicians and cable news hosts and the naïvely colorblind ask us to forget, most of the country obliges, and black people, again, are left to piece together the fragments of history, suffering, rage, and pain so that we may have hope for something better.
Again we advocate for justice. Again we question what justice would even look like. Again we demand that black life be valued. Again we wonder why it never was in the first place. Again we weep, we pray, we march, we raise our voices. Again we prepare ourselves to be let down. And again we ask when will the moment come where we won’t have to go through this again.
Again, we wait on the answer.
If you believe Renisha McBride and her family deserve justice, sign this ColorofChange.org petition on their behalf.
NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly of stop-and-frisk fame was scheduled to speak at Brown University yesterday and deliver the school’s annual Noah Krieger ’93 Memorial Lecture. The title of his speech, and I’m not making this up, was “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City.” What happened instead was glorious.
After about thirty minutes of booing and interruptions, the lecture was cancelled. University President Christina H. Paxson said, “The conduct of disruptive members of the audience is indefensible and an affront both to civil democratic society and to the university’s core values of dialogue and the free exchange of views,” and wrote a letter expressing her disappointment, calling it a “sad day for the Brown community.” I understand this type of action is unseemly to some. It would have been more “civilized” to engage in a debate of ideas with Commissioner Kelly, rather than heckling him. But treating racism as a legitimate ideology doesn’t do anyone any favors.
And let’s be certain, stop-and-frisk is a racist policy and Kelly has made his position clear. “We have record-low numbers in murders in New York City, record-low numbers in shootings,” he said on Meet the Press in August, “We’re doing something right to save lives.” No matter what evidence put in front of him of its unconstiutionality, racism, or dubious effectiveness, he continues to endorse stop-and-frisk as a necessary police tactic. A group of students decided they would rather not hear a justification for racism, and after their attempts to protest Kelly’s appearance didn’t work, they took to more drastic measures. For that I applaud them.
Of course, the question then becomes “who gets to decide what is and is not a legitimate opinion?” It’s tricky. There will never be an answer that satisfies everyone. But yesterday, Brown University students declared racism had no place in their intellectual discourse.
Read Mychal Denzel Smith’s commentary on a racist stop-and-frisk encounter in Philadelphia.
It should be a given that sexism and misogyny have no place in progressive political movements. They have no place anywhere in our society, of course, but progressive movements should take extra care to root out sexism as they attempt to model the type of society with which they wish to replace the current one. This is not controversial; it’s the bare minimum of what it means to be progressive.
Last week, Brittney Cooper, a professor at Rutgers University and contributor to Salon.com, spoke on a panel at the Brecht Forum in Brooklyn, New York, on the concepts of “ally, privilege, and comrade” when building coalition across social justice movements. By her account of what happened during this discussion, the theme of the evening was completely undermined. At the Crunk Feminist Collective blog, she writes:
So there I sat on a panel with a white woman and a Black man. As a Black feminist, I never quite know how political discussions will go down with either of these groups. Still I’m a fierce lover of Black people and a fierce defender of women.
The brother shared his thoughts about the need to “liberate all Black people.” It sounded good. But since we were there to talk about allyship, I needed to know more about his gender analysis, even as I kept it real about how I’ve been feeling lately about how much brothers don’t show up for Black women, without us asking, and prodding, and vigilantly managing the entire process.
In a word, I was tired.
I shared that. Because surely, a conversation about how to be better allies to each other, is a safe space.
This brother was not having it. He did not plan to be challenged, did not plan to have to go deep, to interrogate his own shit. Freedom-talk should’ve been enough for me.
But I’m grown. And I know better. So I asked for more.
I got cut off, yelled at, screamed on. The moderator tried gently to intervene, to ask the brother to let me speak, to wait his turn. To model allyship. To listen. But to no avail. The brother kept on screaming about his commitment to women, about all he had “done for us,” about how I wasn’t going to erase his contributions.
Then he raised his over 6 foot tall, large brown body out of the chair, and deliberately slung a cup of water across my lap, leaving it to splash in my face, on the table, on my clothes, and on the gadgets I brought with me.
Appalling doesn’t begin to describe this man’s actions. He not only attempted to silence her, he took it a step further by physically assaulting her, in a public space no less. I consider Cooper a friend and comrade, and when I heard this story I was furious. What happened was uncalled for and indefensible on every level. But even more frustrating was the lack of intervention by the moderators and audience on Cooper’s behalf. Here was this black woman being shouted down, verbally abused, at a panel about how to be better allies, and a whole room full of people declined the opportunity to truly be there for her. Understandably, some in the audience may have been too shocked or even afraid to step in. But could no one think of the fear that Cooper felt? Eventually, she says, three men did restrain the man who had assaulted her, but not until after she had experienced “humiliation… loneliness… weariness… and anger…”
For years, black feminists have been outspoken about how the mainstream civil rights movement and more militant black liberation movements have marginalized the voices of black women and far too often mimicked the patriarchal and sexist ideas of the larger society, all the while calling it revolution. It’s anything but. Michele Wallace, in her book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, explained as much. There is no revolution if at the end of it you ask any group of people to continue their subjugation. Yet even with the work of Angela Davis, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, June Jordan and so many others at our disposal, we have failed to make use of their wisdom and eradicate sexist thinking from movements meant to be progressive in nature.
To be clear, this isn’t only an issue with black men or movements aimed at ending racism. We can look at the current embrace and subsequent rejection of comedian Russell Brand as revolutionary savior for another example, or take a quick scan of Twitter to watch the interactions between progressive men and women of all colors to see how sexism is either found acceptable or ignored when men’s politics are otherwise laudable. But that shouldn’t be the model we follow. We should constantly challenge the sexism and misogyny of our peers (and ourselves) if we are truly committed to progressive change. We shouldn’t allow it to get to the point where we’re reacting to assault and then patting ourselves on the back because we would never do that. Revolution requires more work.
“I learned a lesson,” Cooper writes, “everybody wants to have an ally, but no one wants to stand up for anybody.” We especially don’t want to stand up when it means our own power and privilege, no matter how little we are afforded, may be stripped away from us. Men who talk a good game about revolution but continue to be invested in the perceived gains of patriarchy, sexism and misogyny not only do a disservice to the movements they part of but also, more importantly, the people for whom they claim to be fighting.
In New York, Connecticut and Ohio, students are demanding an end to gender violence.
A Philadelphia police cruiser. (Photo Courtesy of zuzu, CC 3.0)
This video was recorded on September 27 and uploaded to YouTube a few days later. It has recently made the rounds on social media and caught the attention of major news outlets. In it, two Philadelphia police officers stop, detain briefly and question two young black men who are walking down the street. The reason given for the stop is that one of the young men said “Hi” to a drug dealer. You should watch the video in its entirety:
There are a number of choice quotes to be pulled from this video, my favorite among them the retort from the young man being stopped and who managed to film the incident, “You not protecting me by stopping me when I’m trying to go to work,” but it’s this exchange that has come to define the encounter:
Officer: “We don’t want you here [in Philadelphia], anyway. All you do is weaken the fucking country.”
Young man: “How do I weaken the country? By working?”
Officer: “No, freeloading,”
Young man: “Freeloading on what? I work.”
Officer: “Do you? Where?”
Young man: “[redacted] Country Club.”
Officer: “Doing what?”
Young man: “I’m a server”
Officer: “A server? Serving weed?”
The officer responsible for this racist line of questioning, Philip Nace, was recently placed in the Differential Police Response Unit, a disciplinary unit, for what a police spokesman called “idiotic behavior” after another video surfaced of him knocking down a basketball hoop and, while driving away in a police van, telling the group that was playing “have a good day.” He is being investigated by Internal Affairs.
“But this is one individual,” Lt. John Stanford told the Philadelphia Daily News, “Don’t let this individual put it in your mind that this is how officers act. The vast majority of officers give the residents of this city 110 percent.”
The problem is, as badly as Philadelphia police may want to isolate Nace and his poor behavior, this isn’t the result of mistakenly hiring one racist cop. This is a racist policy supported by a racist society doing exactly what it was designed to do.
Had Nace used softer language, had he asked politely and said “please” and “thank you,” he still would have stopped, searched and collected information on an innocent person for having done nothing more than speaking to someone he passed on the street. Because that’s the policy. Philadelphia’s use of stop-and-frisk doubled in 2009, two years after the election of Mayor Michael Nutter (in case anyone were led to believe it’s only white mayors and police commissioners responsible for implementing this tactic, both Nutter and Commissioner Charles Ramsey are black), and in a similar fashion to what has recently happened in New York City, it was challenged in court and the city agreed to make adjustments to the policy. However, it still exists, and still disproportionately targets black and Hispanic men. And one can’t divorce this from the fact that school budgets, affecting mostly black students, have been slashed, while hundreds of millions are being poured into a new prison facility, or the youth curfew that was implemented a few years ago. Through colorblind language, there exists a concerted effort to criminalize the presence of black and brown youth in public and shuttle them off to bigger, shinier prisons.
They can discipline Nace, even remove him from the force (and they should), but his actions are only a symptom of the larger disease. The more we focus our energy on the Naces of the world, the further we get from a cure.
Mychal Denzel Smith has previously argued that institutional racism persists in the criminal justice system with or without stop-and-frisk programs.
Valarie (center) and Amy Carey (second right), sisters of Miriam Carey, the woman involved in the Capitol Hill shooting, address during a news conference outside their home in Brooklyn, October 4, 2013. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
The US House of Representatives applauded the death of Miriam Carey before they knew who she was. They didn’t know about her postpartum depression, or that she talked about “wack men” on Facebook, or that she had been fired from a job last year, or that she lived in Connecticut or that she had been called a great mother. They simply applauded the unpaid work of the DC police in shooting and killing her.
Carey caused a panic last Thursday when she allegedly attempted to ram her vehicle through the White House barricades. Early reports were that a shooter was on the loose, giving everyone paying attention flashbacks to just a few weeks ago and the Navy Yard shooting. But early reports are almost always unreliable, and we eventually learned that Carey was not a shooter, did not have a gun, had her 1-year-old child in the car with her and was shot as she stepped out of the vehicle. This is what our Congress stood up for and clapped.
In the aftermath, with more facts at their disposal, has there been any great sense of remorse? Does the House regret that standing ovation? Put another way: has finding out that the police shot an unarmed black mother changed anyone’s perception of this fatal incident?
It should, but by and large, it won’t. This is America. Violence against black women is routine and unchecked.
That’s why Marissa Alexander finds herself in prison.* Last year, Alexander was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon with no intent to harm and under Florida’s mandatory minimum laws sentenced to twenty years in prison after firing a warning shot to ward off her abusive husband. Her case gained widespread national attention during the George Zimmerman trial, as the now infamous Stand Your Ground law came under intense scrutiny. Alexander had attempted to have her case dismissed under Stand Your Ground, claiming her right to protect herself from a man who had repeatedly beat her, but was unsuccessful. Through appeal, Alexander has been granted a new trial, but what reason does she or her supporters have to be optimistic? The law failed to protect her before, and as Kiese Laymon points out, “The new trial is still going to have new American jurors, a new American judge, new American lawyers determining [her] black womanly right to fear.”
And still, being convicted once again may be the best luck Alexander can hope for. At the very least, she can expect to escape with her life. Far too often, the violence against black women turns deadly. Islan Nettles knows. In August of this year, Nettles, a Harlem resident and transgender woman, was attacked and beat to death while standing on the corner of W. 148th St. and Frederick Douglas Boulevard. She was with a group of friends when several men walked by, among them 20-year-old Paris Wilson, who allegedly started cursing and taunting them with homophobic slurs. Nettles and Wilson exchanged words before Wilson allegedly punched her in the face, knocking her to the ground, and then continued beating her to the point of unconsciousness. She arrived to the hospital brain dead, her mother describing the horrific scene by saying “half of [her] baby’s [was] brain missing.” Wilson was arrested for misdemeanor assault.
When the House stood and applauded the death of Miriam Carey, did they consider of any of this?
Keep in mind this is the same Congress willing to commit its own violence against black women with the current government shutdown. As Brittney Cooper put it at Salon: “One of the programs most immediately affected by the shutdown is the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which provides vouchers for food and infant formula. The program can be sustained at the state level through the month of October, but will jeopardize the lives of 8.9 million people if the federal government doesn’t get its act together. The program disproportionately serves working-class women of color.” And according to The New York Times, in the effort to expand healthcare coverage under Obamacare, two-thirds of poor black and single mothers will be left out because they live in states under Republican control—Republicans who have decided it’s best for their states to not participate in the expansion of Medicaid. To take food out of people’s mouths and deny them healthcare is an insidious form of violence, but because it’s happening to black women, there is no national outrage. We would rather hem and haw about war memorials not being open to veterans.
The violence takes many forms, but this is consistent: black women suffer and little is done about it. It is exacted with no regard for black women’s humanity. It is simply the way things are.
(*Full disclosure: I am currently participating in a campaign aimed at freeing Marissa Alexander.)
Rick Perlstein previously blogged about the culture of fear that contributed to the killing of Miriam Carey.
I recently moved to New York City from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Its long been my goal to move to NYC, and while I’m aware that’s just another cliché I’m fulfilling in my young writer handbook, it’s the only place I’ve ever been that has felt like home. The city moves as fast as my mind, which helps me feel less anxious and alone. There’s a community here that makes my idiosyncrasies appear normal, my neuroses not unfounded, and allows me to indulge one of my favorite pastimes of drunken political debate. I love New York City, but I also know I’m not truly welcome here.
Reality is, I’m young, broke and black, arriving in the city at a moment when the young, broke and black are being pushed out. The Bloomberg years in particular have made the city attractive to corporations and gentrifiers, squeezing out the poor and working class, the communities of color that have always given New York its identity. I came with open arms, but it wasn’t long before the city responded, “There is no place for you here.”
In my naïve haze, I didn’t even consider it until an odd encounter with a stranger on the subway, someone whom in the past I’d probably have dismissed as crazy New Yorker. He struck up a one-sided conversation with me about undercover police officers riding the train into neighborhoods of color and said, “New York City is very racist. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, they’re lying.”
I read/write about racism in America on a daily basis. I know it’s in this country’s DNA and will follow me wherever I go. Not just the structural but the visceral racism that painstakingly reminds you of your place. But I came up from Virginia. How bad could it really be?
I’m from a place where I was called a nigger for the first time in the sixth grade. Our elementary school classes romanticized the relationship between Native Americans and the settlers at Jamestown. Then they took us on multiple field trips to these historic grounds and barely mentioned it was the site where the first Africans arrived to the “New World” to be enslaved. I lived a two-hour drive away from the former capital of the Confederate States of America. In a tiny town in the western part of Virginia, where my grandmother was born and raised, my cousins and I once ran from two white men holding shotguns. The bloody history of racism has been ever present in my life. To my mind, whatever NYC had to offer, it wouldn’t be able to faze me.
But there isn’t much difference between the feeling one gets driving past their neighbor’s Confederate flag bumper stickers and standing next to an NYPD officer on a crowded F train, causing your muscles to tense up to the point the only thing you can move is your eyes, for safety reasons. My friends and I were kicked out of a cab and the driver actually told us, in so many words, he believed we were going to rob him. NYU students take tours of the neighborhood where I moved, gawking at the working-class brown people who may soon no longer be able to afford to call this home. And I’ve only been here three weeks.
It’s this form of racism that makes one paranoid, angry and frightened all at once. It puts you on edge in a way that, especially for someone like myself already living with anxiety disorder, is dangerous. It monitors your every step, alters your intuition, and makes you cynical before your time.
So when people say that because I talk about race in my work I’m “keeping racism alive,” I honestly want to ask: do you think people enjoy living this way? Does anyone truly believe it’s healthy to feel that, no matter where you go, your life is in danger? No matter what some silly tournament bracket at Gawker says, no one feels any moral superiority being part of an oppressed and marginalized group. Be it racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism or any other system of oppression, people share their stories and fight back because the slow toll of oppression is torture. We need others to hear us and do something about it, before it swallows whole our genius and compassion. We just want some relief.
I wanted to find that in New York City, but it had other plans. As I exited the train, that same stranger advised me: “Keep your eyes open. Stay sharp.” I’m trying, but it’s exhausting.
Michael Denzel Smith previously blogged about the folly of respectability politics.
Jonathan Ferrell is seen in an undated photo provided by Florida A&M University. Ferrell, 24, was shot and killed Saturday, September 14, 2013 by North Carolina police officer Randall Kerrick after a wreck in Charolette. Ferral was unarmed. (AP Photo/Florida A&M University).
When they went on the air this weekend, CNN anchor Don Lemon and comedy legend Bill Cosby, known not only for their day jobs but also for their unrelenting critiques of black culture, may not have been aware of the killing of Jonathan Ferrell. The 24 year-old former football player at Florida A&M University was shot and killed by Officer Randall Kerrick of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police in Charlotte, North Carolina, this past Saturday. Ferrell had been a car crash and then ran to the nearest house to find help. The woman inside answered the door, believing it to be her husband on the other side. When she realized it wasn’t, she immediately closed the door, hit her panic alarm and callled 911. She reported a man attempting to break into her home. When the police arrived, Ferrell approached them, presumably still trying to get help, at which point one of the officers fired his stun gun, which was “unsuccessful.” That’s when Kerrick fired his weapon, hitting Ferrell multiple times, and killed him.
Having a stranger knock on your door in the early morning hours is surely frightening. And Ferrell did fit the description of a man reported to the police as attempting a burglary. But did it ever cross the mind of anybody involved that he might not have been a burglar—that he might have been an innocent bystander, needing some help?
The tragic aspect of this is, as a young black man in America, Ferrell probably knew in that moment he couldn’t expect anyone to help him. He was likely very aware that knocking on a stranger’s door might backfire. But he took the risk anyway because he needed help. For that, he was killed.
Which brings me back to Don Lemon and Bill Cosby. Lemon and Cosby are not pioneers in the field of respectability politics—the idea that one can overcome racism (or any other form of oppression) by way of your personal actions, presenting one’s self as a citizen worthy of respect as defined by the dominant cultural norms and standards. They stand in a long tradition that includes Booker T. Washington and Elijah Muhammad, while also sitting alongside contemporaries such as Condoleezza Rice and President Barack Obama. But they cause a stir every time they say things like“…the reason why I’m giving you this information is because I was living in the projects. I was not taking care of myself in terms of managing my education, and once the door opened and I saw quote, unquote, the light, I started to become very successful,” as Cosby did over the weekend. When someone of his stature says,“It is not what they weren’t doing to me, it’s what I wasn’t doing. It’s a very simple thing,” he does more harm than the good he thinks his “empowering” words do. The problem with these comments is not that they don’t reflect his truth, but because they erase an even larger truth about racism.
When the Lemons and Cosbys and Rices and Obamas of the world dole out this “tough love” to black communities about education, hard work, being better parents, pulling up your pants, or what have you, they’re not only reinforcing racist stereotypes of black people but feeding the narrative that racism is either not as prevalent or not as vicious as others are making it out to be. Black people can achieve all that they want if they’re willing to work for it, the thinking goes. We just have to dedicate ourselves to the “right” things.
Jonathan Ferrell did everything “right.” He got an education. He worked hard. He was engaged to be married. His crime was being in a car crash and seeking help. In the process, he was profiled as a burglar, shot and killed. No one sought to protect, serve, or even listen to him. He had his humanity erased even after doing it all the “right” way.
So yes, you can go into debt to get an education, or play college football, wear a suit and tie to work in corporate America, or serve this country in the armed forces, but so long as you are black you will be subject to racism and white supremacy. You will constantly have to answer questions about your existence and prove that you belong. And in some instances, like that of Jonathan Ferrell, you may not even be given the opportunity to explain.
What’s harmful about the line of reasoning that Lemon, Cosby, Rice, Obama and so many others champion is that they know this reality. They know racism shortens the life expectancy of black people in America. They know there’s nothing Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair could have done to stop that bomb from blowing up the 16th Street Baptist Church fifty years ago, the same way there’s nothing Jonathan Ferrell could have done to stop the police from tasering and shooting him.
These aren’t simply isolated instances of vicious terrorists or rogue police officers acting in malice. These are the wages of blackness in a society built on white supremacy. We pay in cold blood for a right to live in this country as second-class citizens. We didn’t set the price and certainly won’t change anytime soon, unless those who’ve benefitted for so long finally decide that enough is enough.
Mychal Denzel Smith has previously blogged about the connection between race and the perception of threat.