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 …