Dangerous to be Black in America

The man who is accused of shooting and killing 19-year-old Renisha McBride says he was afraid for his life …and that he shot her in the face “accidentally” with his 12-gauge shotgun.

Sounds painfully familiar. Didn’t George Zimmerman say the same thing when he shot Trayvon Martin? And the police officer who shot Jonathan Ferrell  – didn’t he say he was afraid, which was why he pumped 10 bullets into Ferrell after having shot at him 12 times? What

What is clear is that it is dangerous to be black in America. Because black people have been criminalized and objectified, it is easy for a police officer or citizen or vigilante to claim that the killing of any given black person was “justified,” and that the shooting happened because the shooter …was in fear of his life.

Whenever I am in a strange neighborhood which also happens to be predominantly white, I am nervous. If I have to pull into someone’s driveway to turn around, again, I am nervous.  I realize that fear and racism, mixed together, make for deadly consequences. There has been, says Ruby Sales, founder and director of the SpiritHouse Project, a “rampant return of white vigilante violence that has resulted in black bodies being thought of as disposable and black people thought of as human waste.”  Instinctively, I know that that feeling is pervasive, and I have seen black people try unsuccessfully to defend themselves or loved ones in cases where there has been a tragic shooting.

Nobody listens to or believes the black accused.

In New York just this week, a 20-year old black male was released from prison after he had been accused of , tried, and convicted for a robbery. From the moment he was “snatched” off the streets in the Bronx, where Kalief Browder was walking home from a party, he protested his innocence …but nobody listened to him. Nearly in tears, he told reporters that he had missed his last years of high school, his graduation and momentous events in his life. In his face there is still a look of shocked and pained incredulity. (http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news%2Finvestigators&id=9317078)

Somebody needs to say something. I mean, not just somebody, but a lot of somebodies, black parents and relatives who are, as Fannie Lou Hamer said, are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  The late Gordon Cosby, pastor of Church of the Savior, remembers Sales, would say today, in light of the shootings and killings that are happening at the hands of police and vigilantes, that it is not enough to be outraged. People who care, Cosby would say, would be “compelled to change” what is going on.

The question is, “how does one change something that is so completely systemic, insidious and basically ignored by “the law?” How does one change something that “the law,” in fact, seems to implicitly support? It seems part and parcel of the same attitude that accepts violence in black neighborhoods and schools, even as children are gunned down, without a word, and, in fact, assists in the criminalization of even the youngest students by arresting kids for things that used to get kids sent to the principal’s office.

Change can only come if those who are outraged speak up and speak out,  making more and more people aware of what is going on. Onie Johns, the founder of The Caritas Village in Memphis, Tennessee, has set up a “ministry of presence” there. She moved from the comfort of the suburbs to a house in the inner city where she sees and lives how “the least of these” lives daily. The mission of Caritas is to “break down the walls of hostility between the races and build bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor.”

Such a “ministry of presence,” practiced by those who are content and willing to accept the outlandish story of the man who allegedly shot Renisha McBride in the face, might help cut down this senseless, cruel and racist trend – and far too frequent trend –  of fearing for one’s life when a black person is in distress, seeking help. It might make people show compassion and concern, instead of cruelty and viciousness, supported by that fear.

Black parents know the drill in teaching their kids how to interact with a police officer, should he or she ever be stopped. Funny, we haven’t so much given the same drill, instruction on how to act when confronted by a vigilante, or what to do if they get into trouble and need help if they are in a white neighborhood.  We haven’t been teaching our kids on how to act, live and survive in a world where, apparently, far too many people look at us as “the boogie man.”

Perhaps we ought to begin. I am so tired of white people being afraid of black people …just because we’re black.

A candid observation …

Objectification Be Damned

Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...
Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. Original caption: “Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

In this nation, there are left-overs from slavery, one of the biggest being the criminalization of black people, and especially of black males.

Black people were objectified while they were slaves; the objectification morphed into criminalization after Reconstruction as blacks were arrested for the slightest offenses to justify them being imprisoned and made to work for individuals and corporations. The situation is classically described in Douglas Blackmon’s book, Slavery by Another Name.  As more and more black people were arrested, the canvas was being painted that had on it the picture of black people; they were “bad” and not worthy of freedom.  It did not matter that black men were being targeted and manipulated by an angry South that resented their free slave labor having been taken away by the emancipation of the slaves.  All the public saw and heard was that black people were being arrested.  There was more trust in an unjust justice system than there was of innocent people who were being railroaded, their lives and the lives of their families forever destroyed.

That criminalization and objectification has made it easy and justifiable in the present day for law enforcement and vigilantes to shoot and kill black people, especially black males, with little chance of being held accountable, and/or to arrest them for non-violent offenses, most often drug related, offenses for which their white counterparts are forgiven.

But perhaps there is a bigger problem that we seldom talk about, and that is, how black people may have criminalized and objectified ourselves as well.

There is systemic injustice , supported by an insensitive and calloused justice system, that has resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of black males.  According to Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, one in three African-American men is currently  under control of the criminal justice system – in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole.  That is an inordinate number of individuals, the vast majority of whom, according to Alexander and others, are in prison for non-violent offenses. There is in America a racial caste system, and nobody seems to care.

But black people, too many of us,  don’t seem to care about ourselves. We kill each other with abandon.  The self-hatred comes right out of slavery and the racism that slavery spawned.  America did a good job of associating “black” with “bad,” and unfortunately, that association bred a sense of self-hatred in us that is obvious in how we too often treat each other.

There are some warriors of the race, people who refuse to accept what society has fed us. They stand up and fight for justice, no matter the odds against them. The work that Ruby Sales of The Spirit House Project supports the parents and relatives of people who have been victims of systemic violence. The bravery of Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, continues to inspire me, and recently, the tenacity of the parents of young Kendrick Johnson has been inspirational.  The parents of slain young black men have too much pain to be stymied by the doubts that self-hatred so often and too often produces. Historically, Mamie Till was one of those warriors who refused to let criminalization and objectification and racism and hatred stop her quest for justice in the death of her son.

The prayer is that more and more black people will step out of the tent which likes to house the disenfranchised, dispossessed and unwanted.  Staying in the tent only exacerbates the sense of hopelessness and gloom that inhabits people who hate themselves.  It feeds self-hatred. Getting out into the light, risking  failure in order to have a victory, is what is needed, objectification and criminalization aside.  The parents and relatives of slain black people need not be afraid, but need to take their cues from those who have entered the ring of injustice, determined to win, whether the violence against their loved one was done by police and vigilantes, or by angry black youth.

Just because there are left-overs from slavery doesn’t mean we have to eat them. They are spoiled and need to be disintegrated.

A candid observation …

 

 

 

George and Trayvon …and Justice

Trayvon Martin Protest - Sanford
Trayvon Martin Protest – Sanford (Photo credit: werthmedia)

 

 

OK. What is self-defense?

 

In the George Zimmerman trial, the defense is that George shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense. One witness last week said that Trayvon was on top of George Zimmerman. Proof, they say, that the horrific outcome of their encounter was self-defense.

 

But this is where I get stuck.

 

How can the incident have been self defense for George Zimmerman when it is HE who apparently followed Trayvon, in spite of being told by police not to do that?  Did he get out of his car and approach Trayvon, or did Trayvon go over to his car and confront him? If  Trayvon did that, then maybe we can say George was acting in self-defense.

 

But, unless I’ve missed it, nobody has said that. In fact, nobody has said how it is that George and Trayvon got into their encounter! Trayvon wasn’t shot and found at the side of George’s car. The pair was found on the grass. If Trayvon was on top, couldn’t that be indicative of Trayvon having had to fight for his life?

 

Though the criticism of Rachel Jeantel has been met with mixed reviews, and though her appearance in court was unpolished and unsophisticated, her testimony was consistent and honest. This young woman, it seems, would have had no problem saying that Trayvon encountered George, at his car. Her testimony, to the contrary, has her saying to Trayvon, “run!”  From what I’ve read and heard so far, it just seems that George and Trayvon were fighting because George continued to follow Trayvon and finally, got out of his car. One wonders if that happened if Trayvon turned toward what was his father’s apartment, and George, fearing the teen was going to do something wrong, decided to stop him.

 

That some of the television defense attorneys seem so confident about this self-defense claim of Zimmerman is upsetting. There seems to be a great deal of disdain that the case became “political.” But the case begged closer examination from the start. In the history of law enforcement officers and black people, there have been far too many suspicious deaths and questionable arrests with no accountability from law enforcement. That ongoing reality in black, brown and poor neighborhoods has created a spirit of distrust of law enforcement …but in this case, it was law enforcement that told Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon, and it was a detective who wanted to arrest Zimmerman at the outset for manslaughter. In spite of the complaints that the case became “political,” it was a politicization that needed to happen. Zimmerman needed to be held accountable.

 

In the history of black people and the law, the latter has been woefully unjust. If one reads Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow, or reads the story of how Emmet Till‘s mother pressed for the world to see what the men who killed her son did, one gets a snippet of what has been a painful reality for black people. Historically, it didn’t matter that facts may have clearly indicated that a black person was innocent, or a law enforcement officer had clearly been wrong; blacks were declared guilty and sentenced to long prison terms or death; law enforcement officers went on doing what they had been doing. The system protected them, in a way no less heinous that the Catholic Church has protected priests who molested little boys. That is a hard reality, but a reality nonetheless. If one reads Slavery by Another Name it is again fascinating to see how black people were systematically criminalized as the Convict Lease System sought to have blacks continue to be available for hard labor, in spite of the fact that what was being done by law enforcement – in cahoots with industrial and agricultural enterprises – was illegal. Blacks do not cry salt-less tears; the pain wrought by being treated as criminals by a system which is supposed to mete out justice, is and has been, very real.

 

So, this case, in spite of the complaint of things being “political” needed to come to be. Trayvon’s parents demanded, rightfully so, that there be an arrest so that their son just didn’t disappear and be categorized as just another troubled, trouble-making black kid. Now, if this thing about self-defense can be clarified. Did Trayvon confront George at his car, or did Zimmerman get out of his car and confront Trayvon on the grass?

 

It is a small point, but one that will help some, like me, understand what really happened that evening. Without that, if Zimmerman is acquitted, there will be just another layer of hurt added to the already present history of hurt that black people have carried because of the injustice of the justice system when it comes to blacks.

 

That kind of hurt doesn’t go away. It represents a dream,deferred. The dream is that, in spite of racism, there can be justice for black people. Who was acting in self-defense, really? If we can get that cleared up, then maybe some of us who are not understanding how anyone can say that what has been described is or was a case of self-defense, can relax…and wait for justice.

 

A candid observation …

 

 
 

Black Men, Dying

Some time ago, the late playwright James Chapmyn wrote a play entitled, Our Young Black Men Are Dying and Nobody Seems to Care. The play highlights the struggles African-American men face in this country and shows how it affects their very psyches, their spirits, their will to go on …

I thought about that as I read about the latest incident of a black man being shot and killed in Chicago. The 30-year old father was sitting in his home when a shot rang out from a passing car. It went through a window of his home, hitting him in the head and instantly killing him.

Ironically, his mother was visiting a friend not too far away. The two of them were talking about another son of hers who in April of this year was killed by gunfire. He was 25 years old. When she heard the shots fired while she was visiting her friend, she immediately bolted out to see what had happened. To her horror, her second son lay dead.

The rate of black men dying by homicide is high and has always been high; the homicide rate in the city of Chicago for the month of November was 49 percent. Black men are dying, either on the streets or in prisons, and nobody seems to care.

There has been legitimate outrage over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, allegedly by George Zimmerman earlier this year, and just a couple of weeks ago, a young, unarmed African-American teen, Jordan Davis, was shot after a white man, irritated because the music in the SUV in which a  group of young black men were riding was too loud, allegedly fired eight shots into the vehicle, killing Davis. Again, there is outrage as the accused man, Michael Dunn, may try to use the same “stand your ground” law that Zimmerman is using as justification for his actions and that outrage is legitimate.

But where is the outrage over the fact that black people keep killing…black people? Is there outrage and the media simply does not cover it, or has the African-American community grown numb to the widespread violence in so many of its communities?

There are a few isolated souls who protest against the violence that rips through too many African-American communities. Fr. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church. leads an annual march against violence in Chicago. Other pastors have been known to lead protests and hold conferences to address the issue.

But their efforts get little national attention. It is as though the country has fallen asleep on this issue, not caring about the young men, dying…

This issue is difficult to even write about. Dr. Robert Franklin, the outgoing president of Morehouse College, said in passing last week that our young black men need much help. Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, has identified the so-called “cradle to prison” syndrome. Tony Harris, a former CNN anchor, recently did a documentary about the plight of young black men living in Baltimore. He, too, said that there is so much to be done.

Violence often comes, writes Dr. Joy Degruy Leary in Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America‘s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, because of anger, and anger in African-Americans is directly linked to legacy of chattel slavery in this country. She asks, “Why is it that anger is such a large part of the experience of most African-Americans?”   Her answer, quoting Dr. James Samuels, is that “anger is the normal response to a blocked goal. Often, if a person’s goal remains blocked over time, they will begin to consider the possibility of failure and so experience fear, and when we are fearful, we also lash out with anger.”

Young African-Americans are faced with feeling “less than” and “not worthy” early on in their lives. They are parented by parents who wrestle with feelings of failure, and then they go to school which are often in bad physical shape, with substandard teachers, huge classes, outdated books, and far too little of what they need to receive a quality education. Jonathon Kozol writes that he has seen little black children enter school excited about being there, but by third grade, their excitement is gone; they have internalized that they are “not so special.” They stop trying. They fall into a mindset that is ripe for the anger that produces violence.

Dr. Leary says that African-American parents continue to raise their children “in the face of a multitude to indignities, disrespect and blocked goals. Their frustration is passed on to their children…

And so, black men, black youth, black boys are dying, either on the streets, or they end up in prisons and die spiritually while they are caged up.

More of us need to care.  The 49 percent homicide rate in Chicago for the month of November is scary, and Chicago is not the only major urban area experiencing this kind of violence.  If we in the African-American community have fallen asleep in order to numb ourselves to the constant pain of our young men, dying, we need to wake up and look at the issue in a new way…and do something. White America needs to understand that much of the violence in our country is due to young people feeling hopeless and frustrated due to the shock waves of slavery and its child, racism; Michael Dunn, accused of shooting and killing Jordan Davis, is a victim of racism, too.  Nobody, black or white, can afford to ignore  or escape the problem.

Author James Baldwin said in an interview with Studs Terkel in 1961 that he was no longer angry with America. He said he is very worried about it…because the “country has no notion whatever of what it has done to itself.” The price of keeping blacks and whites separated, stepping on one race while lifting up the other, has had disastrous effects on both races. Both races are violent.

But the violence in urban communities comes too often from black people hurting black people. Too many African-American communities are sleeping and too many white communities are point accusatory fingers and shaking their heads about “those people.”

There is not “those people.” There is “us people,” and “us people” need to all be concerned and working against the epidemic of black men, dying.

A candid observation …

 

An Uneasy Peace in America

Ever since President Barack Obama became president of the United States, there has been an uneasy spirit, an uneasy peace that is brazenly obvious.

Although in 2008 there were tears of joy and the cry of America being “post-racial,” many people, both black and white, knew differently.  America has always refused to look her racism squarely in the eye; she has been content to live within comfortable walls of myth as opposed to agreeing to stand in the hot sun of reality.

America is a nation that was formed with a racial divide.

Author James Baldwin wrote, in Nobody Knows my Name,” that America “has spent a large part of its time and energy looking away from one of the principal facts of its life. This failure to look reality in the face diminishes a nation as it diminishes a person…” He says that we as a nation are obligated to look at ourselves as we are, not as we wish to be, and he said that “If we are not capable of this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations.” (p. 116)

The peace between blacks and whites is …uneasy and inauthentic.  We have not looked racism in the fact and challenged it. We have not done the work to become whole.

The most exasperating thing about our situation is that everybody knows it exists. Before this last presidential election, I was having a discussion with a white friend of mine about the political ads on television and radio that we both wished would go away, and, out of nowhere, she said, “…there is so much prejudice in white people. People are so prejudiced against Obama but nobody wants to say it out loud.”

It felt like she needed to say that, to do a “mea culpa” on behalf of people with whom she had close and frequent contact. What it made me feel was …uneasy, because the uneasy peace that exists between blacks and whites in this country feels very volatile and very threatening.

It is not as though the very most virulent racist feelings are confined to a particular region of the United States. Yes, the South has the history of being most blatantly racist, but there has been no love lost for black people in any part of this nation. John Hancock lived in Boston, and owned slaves. James Madison, a signer of the United States Constitution and a president of this nation, wrote that slaves were both property and human – but human only for the purpose of giving states more representation in elections. They were property in general, and did not, could not, receive the rights of being American citizens.

There has been resentment between the races, then, from the beginning of this nation’s life. Blacks have been under the heels of a race that has deigned itself as superior and blacks as inferior. Whites have enjoyed freedom by virtue of their race, and blacks, because of their race, have had to fight for every ounce of “freedom” they have gained. Blacks have resented whites for thwarting their efforts for freedom and whites have resented blacks for wanting more and more freedom, somehow nurturing the belief that blacks are “moochers” who feel like they are “entitled” to what whites freely enjoy.

There is no peace between the races. The issues have been pushed under the carpet and whites and blacks as well work very hard to keep the issues right there.

But truth always comes up and out. The resentment of blacks and whites periodically rises to the surface. There has been no real effort for reconciliation between the races because blacks and whites have been more interested in keeping the disease and its issues hidden. That’s why we have seen and heard so many unkind and racially tinged insults against President Obama. That’s why the Trayvon Martin case is so volatile. That’s why the incidence of hate crimes is on the rise. Though slavery as a formal entity does not exist, blacks are still disproportionately detained in prisons (read Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow and Douglas 

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘s Slavery by Another Name) as a way of keeping them in their place. Blacks and whites are as far away as we ever were, made worse by the fact that we will not “look reality in the face.” It is as though we have strep throat but will not acknowledge it or get an antibiotic to kill the bacteria, and as a result, our nation is suffering from a system rheumatic heart disease.

An uneasy peace is no peace at all. Peace comes only after the work of peace is done…and we in America have not done that. It is scary and troubling, but our nation, while it is off trying to help other nations in the world embrace democracy and freedom, has not attended her own broken democracy.  There is an uneasy peace, and it is truly scary.

A candid observation…