There is nothing like being made to feel like a nigger. Just having to verbalize it or commit such a thought to text is gut-wrenching. Janitor or journalist, if you’re black in America, that feeling is both unmistakable and more familiar than it ever should be so long after the the visible successes of the civil rights movement. But despite the greater prospects, opportunities and privileges earned for and by many of us over the decades, the default has remained the same: The power dynamics that exist in this country at any given time may render us niggers.
I have often joked that if you ever want to see a modern-day Uncle Tom, look no further than me in the vicinity of a white police officer. The reality is, that is how I have been conditioned to behave around the police for pure self-preservation reasons, having grown up black in Chicago with parents who wanted their boys to live to adulthood. But the other reality is that whatever newfound liberties I have experienced, and all too often have taken for granted, I don’t ever want to be made to feel like a nigger–something far, far worse than its utterance. It is a status whose roots form the tree from which we are lynched. Without the corollary lack of humanity and powerlessness, lynching could not occur, in all of its modern iterations, “ contagious shootings” included.
Two recent police shootings involving black victims have a deeper meaning and impact for those of us who are unwarranted, but nevertheless prospective, suspects. In New York, Sean Bell, a 23-year-old unarmed man, died and two of his friends were critically wounded–caught in a hail of fifty bullets fired by undercover officers–as the group emerged from a nightclub, where they had been celebrating Bell’s bachelor party. In Atlanta, 88-year-old Kathryn Johnston was shot as she sought to defend herself from police who had stormed into her home in search of drugs.
This past Thanksgiving I was stopped by an Alabama state trooper for a minor, unintentional moving violation. It was late, my family and I were tired and we were driving through rural Alabama in a rental car. Almost instinctively I knew what I had to become and how I had to act when pulled over. But as soon as I knew that the trooper had no desire to use his discretion to let me off with a warning, I committed an inviolable act that I will not soon forgive myself for as a husband and father of two small children: I challenged the trooper, albeit politely. It was a stupid and potentially dangerous thing for me to do, as the stealthy punches to my thigh from my wife reminded me.
Nothing is more important to me than the safety of my family, and yet there was this dissonant part of me–that privileged post-civil-rights-era, Generation X sensibility that was evoked–asserting that “we’ve been niggers long enough,” as I recounted the generations and diversity of indignities my family has had to withstand with no recourse.
Such indignities still abound in popular culture. Consider comedian Michael Richards, who recently unleashed a racist tirade after being heckled by a few black men in the audience. Worse, he made graphic reference to lynching when he explained what would have befallen them had they “mouthed off” to a white person fifty years ago.
But whether or not we use the word “nigger” or discourage its use by others–or among black folk–the discrete events that trigger that visceral feeling in us will remain as long as black lives continue to have less value than white lives. Because they do. To invoke a newer, insidious rhetorical tool of conservatives, it is white “innocent life” that is sacrosanct, not society’s moral outrage against violence and brutality, physical or psychological.
More than a decade after the O.J. Simpson verdict, Simpson is still the poster boy for brutality and injustice, whereas former detective Mark Fuhrman is all but legitimated as a bestselling author despite a long history of his admitted brutality as a member of the LAPD.
For many African-Americans, whether or not they believe a guilty man was nearly framed, to cast Simpson as a symbol of brutality gone unpunished is not only bizarrely misplaced and insulting; it is also symptomatic of a society intentionally blind to the daily realities of what it feels like to be seen more as a problem than as a person.
Every day we are made conscious of our own race and status in society by a host of peers and judges in a range of venues. And even if we never have to endure an altercation with the police, we still are acutely aware of how easily we can be made to feel like niggers: our gait, tone, behavior, our proximity to valuables (or more valuable people) is scrutinized. And our choice to accept this reality and conform to earn that eye contact, that begrudging customer service or that success in hailing a cab is related to this issue of brutality, because it is an assault on our citizenship and very humanity.
“Contagious shooting” may very well be a legitimate assessment of the events that culminated in Sean Bell’s death hours before his wedding. But it is symptomatic of something larger that undoubtedly correlates to when such contagions most often occur and to what degree. If there is a presumption of guilt or reason to fear or distrust someone irrespective of context, that itself is a crime; it represents the psychological brutality and ubiquity of institutional racism.
But perhaps institutional racism sounds a bit too harsh for the thin-skinned mainstream media, the proxy of our willfully ignorant body politic. Society prefers what is in essence “situational racism” that dissolves with a well-placed, well-timed apology to the right brokers of contrition. “Some of my best friends are black.” “I was drunk.” “He had a wallet.” All socially acceptable mitigators of brutal speech are deftly untethered from their more vile origins, too shameful and heavy for those most complicit to bare. But the weight of its impact never lessens on those of us who do not have a choice as long as we’re breathing while black.