Prince George’s County, where I live, is one of the most affluent black counties in the country, and I see it every day: The black middle class has deep disdain for the poor. Here in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, people talk about residents of Seat Pleasant as though they lived in another world and were not 25 minutes away.
Respectability politics are quickly absorbed by children. In high school, black students who were clearly struggling but giving their all were never valued by their peers and administrators as much as the black students with good grades who played sports. From the moment I stepped foot on my high-school campus, I could see that acclaim and recognition was allotted to a certain type of black student. If you didn’t fit the narrative, you wouldn’t be recognized for your efforts. You would not be supported through your journey.
I’m in college now, and I don’t find that anything has changed. If anything, what I’ve realized is that playing by the rules is a guarantee of nothing. Richard Collins III went to college in Prince George’s County. He was one of the good students, the ones that teachers and administrators valued. He was set to graduate from Bowie State, already commissioned as a lieutenant in the US Army. The Root described him as “unstoppable.” And still, he was stabbed to death by a white supremacist in front of his friends.
In this country’s romanticized fantasy of the “American dream,” Jordan Edwards—the 15-year-old high-school freshman shot in the head by police in Balch Springs, Texas—was recognized as a “good kid.” He was an honors student, played football, and was well-behaved. But did that cop care about what Edwards had achieved? In the wake of the shooting, comments flooded social media reminding people that “Jordan Edwards was an amazing boy who was unarmed and non-violent.” “He was a boy with a bright future ahead of him, taken abruptly by the police.” And while these notes may have been written with good intentions, they reveal an insidious assumption that serves to reinforce how remorseless institutionalized racism can be.
Because what inevitably could not save Jordan Edwards is the same thing that I have been told would save me—or, as countless administrators have assured, “separate me from the bunch.” “Don’t sag your pants,” they’d say. “Speak proper; talking like that ain’t going to get you nowhere.” And most counterfactual: “You can get good grades and go to college, or you can chase that street life and end up in jail, or dead,” as though those are mutually exclusive; it certainly wasn’t for Edwards and Collins. And while we mourn their deaths, we have to remember why we are mourning: Just like any other black life in America, neither Edwards nor Collins deserved to become another victim of America’s failed law enforcement.