I wrote this piece 18 months ago in the wake of the death of Eric Garner, whose murderer, officer Daniel Pataleo, was not indicted. As I processed the recent murders of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota, I took to my laptop once again to write another damning article – supported by peer reviewed papers, Ivy League experts and historic references on the systemic injustices suffered by people of color since the land was first Columbused in 1492. I photo-copied articles at the library and started to highlight them on the bus heading back when I received a Facebook message from an old friend back at home, asking me how she could move to Australia or New Zealand because she was pregnant with a baby boy and feared for his life before he had even left the womb. I burst into tears. I haven’t seen her in years, but we speak frequently and I wanted more than anything else to give her and her family refuge from the systematic slaughter of black bodies in America.
That was the latest of six messages I received that day from friends. The next day, I received a dozen more, this time from complete strangers who had found my writing on Discordia and contacted me through my professional Facebook page. This morning, I had twenty more. They are mother’s of sons, fathers of daughters, young students who want to study and couples my age who want to start a family but are too afraid to do so. One man told me about his son, who was stopped and interrogated by the police, while he walked to school with his white friends.
I went to my copy of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and this quote sprung out:
“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
No matter where I am in the world, I cannot look away.
What my friends and what these complete strangers have been experiencing is nothing short of the corporeal trauma caused by racism, that lands upon the body, enters the bloodstream and often, in the case of children, taints a life before it even has a chance to begin. I cannot forget that reality. But I am nonetheless privileged to geographically distance myself from a quintessential truth with which my loved ones are forced to live every single day – it is a dangerous thing to be a black man or woman in America. In the case of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and countless others whose names you don’t know because their deaths were not recorded on smartphones, it is a death sentence.
A 2008 research paper by Utsey, Stanard and Giesbrecht entitled, Cultural, sociofamilial, and psychological resources that inhibit psychological distress in African Americans exposed to stressful life events and race-related stress, did a study on 215 African-Americans using statistical analyses to draw correlations between race-related adversity and physical illness. The study, supported by initial research conducted by the Center for Disease Control, concluded that due to sustained race-related stress, African-Americans, by direct comparison to their white counterparts, are more likely to live in poverty, suffer from diseases like diabetes, breast cancer and prostate cancer, are seven times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS and eight times more likely to die from homicide.
“Researchers have posited that the growing health crisis facing African-Americans is exacerbated by their psychological and physiological responses to chronic exposure to racism.”
So the next time that someone says #AllLivesMatter, remind them that white lives in America matter eight.times.more.
I’ve stopped engaging in Facebook debates on the subject because they change nothing. The people who close their ears and shut their mouths to systemic injustice have no interest in hearing what I have to say, regardless of the research I cite or the rhetoric they parrot. I’m tired of even acknowledging the opinions of people who only speak when they want to de-escalate the urgency of racism, delegitimize the anger and silence the oppressed with false notions of equality that never applied to people with dark skin.
I do not know any of the people who contacted me through my professional Facebook page, but my heart is torn a part for them. I know exactly what they fear and I know exactly why they’re angry. Living in Australia, I find myself often explaining the events in America to my local friends. But the experience of American racism to them is as foreign as the experience of enjoying white privilege is to me. So I want to explain. While dated, I’ve read through this piece and can safely say that even though the names are different, the message hasn’t changed one bit. Isn’t that sad? Approaching nearly two years later…and the message is still the same.
So read on, if you like, and think about what I’m saying. But do not for the love of God tell me you don’t see color, that this doesn’t apply here [a post-colonial white hegemony? Ummm, chyeah] or that I should just “get over it.” Don’t come for me that way. You’ll regret it.
“One of the chapters of history that’s least studied by historians is the 300 to 500 riots in the U.S. between 1965 and 1970.” – Tom Hayden
Every day when I wake up in my bed, I read the morning headlines on my phone while the alarm snoozes. It’s a nervous habit, cultivated by the fear that something horrible has happened in America while I was busy trying to sleep. It does not matter how many days pass since I last stepped foot on American soil, my first inclination when I wake up anywhere in this world, is to see what happened back there. Perhaps this speaks to my ‘national identity,’ [not to mention my incessant insomnia] where the first thing on my mind when I wake up in the morning, isn’t the desire eat, the urge to pee nor the good sense to dread the work day ahead…but the deeply reinforced need to know that everything is okay, because I’m always expecting it not to be. This was how I learned about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. This is how I learned that my friend from undergraduate university, Myron May, had been responsible for the shooting at Florida State University’s Strozier Library. Yesterday morning, that is how I found out that the grand jury had decided not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo, a white man, for putting Eric Garner, a black man, into an illegal chokehold that resulted in, what the medical examiner’s office of Staten Island ruled, a homicide. Unlike the grand jury in Ferguson Missouri, which decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson late last month after the murder of Michael Brown, a video filmed by a bystander’s camera phone has left absolutely zero room for debate on this matter. Officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, on camera …and for this, not only will he go free, not only will he not even stand trial…but the person who filmed the incident, will.
At that moment, lying in bed, the only thought that went through my head just so happened to also be Garner’s last words: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
These words are now the mantra of the thousands of protestors stomping the streets of New York City. The grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo has confirmed to America and the world at large what black men and women have known all along – That the legal, economic and political system upon which the very bowels of America’s so-called democracy is based, is constructed on the systematic oppression, marginalisation, economic enslavement and cold-blooded murder of people who are not white. As a country, America has never coped with its history of racism – but even more to the point, slavery is inextricably intertwined with America’s inception, where black subjugation and white supremacy walk hand in hand through every stroke of James Madison’s hand in The Declaration of Independence. Either the founding fathers owned slaves themselves, or they were willing to turn a blind eye to those who did in order to achieve a vision of democracy that would never apply to people who look like me.
As historian Edmund S. Morgan said, “None of them felt entirely comfortable about the fact, but neither did they feel responsible for it. Most of them had inherited both their slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew the two were not unconnected.”
Not only would the American Revolution never have happened without the conscious capitulation of ethical righteousness to moral bankruptcy, but the very idea of an American democracy requires the systemic oppression of one class by the other in order to even function – one that has never been subverted. Not with the Emancipation Proclamation. Not with the Civil Rights Act. Not with the election of President Barack Obama.
French economist Thomas Piketty further reiterates this point in his seminal work Capital in the 21st Century drawing undeniable parallels between the American Revolution and the current economic stranglehold on black American communities: “Although the American Revolution established the republican principle, it allowed slavery to continue for nearly a century and legal racial discrimination for nearly two centuries. The race question still has a disproportionate influence on the social question in the United States today.”
And so, while I more than want to shout out and scream and tear at my chest about how the system is broken, I have to wholeheartedly disagree. The system is functioning exactly as it was meant to. The system does not exist without racism.
But sure…let’s talk about the riots.
Violence Never Works…Until it Does
First, let’s talk about the conversation. The conversation sparked by the recent uproar of white cops killing black people is tantamount. In a single word, you can voice your willingness to perpetuate the status quo, or your desire to destroy it. And you know what I learned after the Darren Wilson grand jury’s decision not to indict? I learned that conversations also kills…in its tacit encouragement of a system fuelled by fear and subjugation. I learned that casual racists don’t want to converse about the fact that grand jury’s almost always choose to indict. Nobody wanted to converse about the fact that the prosecutor had ties to a Darren Wilson fundraiser. Nobody wanted to converse about the fact that the jury was intentionally misled with an out-dated piece of legislation which erroneously stated that it was legal to shoot a fleeing suspect. Everyone wants to talk about the riots. And not just white people. Black people are jumping on the bandwagon of good behaviour and social responsibility all while functioning under the illusion that good old-fashioned peaceful assembly is what will eliminate racism. This is garbage, pure and simple. Riots do not cause racism; racism causes riots. And yet the conversation centres, not on the root of the problem, but on the symptoms. Racists thrive off of dehumanizing the people in the riots, removing any emotion or comprehension of history, economy, or politics from their depiction of black people. We are not in pain; we are criminals. We are not angry; we are looters. We are not people who are fed up with police brutality, oppression and injustice…we are animals. For some reason, condemning a monstrous legal system that perpetuates the systematic oppression of black and brown men and women somehow equates to condoning violence. But rioting is symptomatic of the problem, not the problem itself. If we want to stop race riots, then we need to fundamentally stop the way that race is perceived, discussed and experienced in America.
And yes, that requires rage.
As Syreeta McFadden put so passionately, “Sustained rage is the fuel – it is the best tool we have to insist for equitably applied justice, to compel police departments to respect the social contract it has with its citizens.”
And can we really tell people not to be infuriated, when we continue to perpetuate a social construct that allows them to be suspect just for walking across the street while black? Riots may not be rational, but they do make sense, because rage makes sense. Anger makes sense. Pain, in its deepest most intimate meaning, down to the very core of the human condition makes sense. On the contrary, if nobody were rioting, if flames weren’t burning, if people weren’t marching down the streets and shutting down traffic from New York to Ferguson to Oakland and back…I would be fucking baffled.
People love to preach about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. They love to laud and praise his methods…but this affection for Dr. King has only increased with the benefit of time and distance. People are so quick to forget the fact that he was assassinated, not for preaching love and peace, but for doing so while black. The same people who hold Dr. King up as a shining example of how we “should” behave, are the same people who would have been hurling rocks and pepper spray at him during the Selma protests of 1963. His message has been whitewashed not by people who truly loved and understood his message, but by people upon whom it is completely and utterly lost. Dr. King’s message has been stripped of his revolutionary concepts, and it was nothing short of that, removed of the anger and resistance that made it relevant and reduced to a nominal water cooler conversation. People now discuss the teachings of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as if they operated independently of riots, or even the threats of violence when it is an undisputed fact that without riots, without anger, nothing would have changed. Governments don’t respond to peaceful protests. They never have. Tell me the Ukrainian revolution would have happened without violence. Tell me they would have toppled Viktor Yanukovych in support of joining the European Union…without violence. Tell me the Arab Spring would have happened without violence – without people taking to the streets to protest corrupt government officials, human rights violations and dictatorship. Tell me that France would have created a “political and social order based entirely on equality of rights and opportunities” (which shames America to this day). Tell me that America would have gained its independence from England in 1776. Tell me that all of this would have happened…without violence.
But sure…let’s turn the conversation towards the riots, and away from the racism which causes them.
To quote Jay Smooth, DJ for WBAI’s Underground Railroad, “the fundamental danger of a non-indictment is not more riots, it is more Darren Wilsons.”
Speak of the devil…enter Daniel Pantaleo.
That’s not to say that NON-violence doesn’t work. It does…but when has it ever worked in isolation? The biggest lie we keep telling ourselves is that Dr. King’s methodology of civil disobedience existed within a vacuum. That he and he alone achieved Civil Rights in America by peaceful protests and turning the other cheek when, in actuality, no progress would have been made without Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, The Black Panther Party for Self Defence. To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil-rights movement.”
And if the conversation that we are morally and ethically bound to have now in this moment of gross national shame, is guided not by these very simple historically reiterated truths, then we are not having the conversation to END violence. We are only having the conversation to further its cause.
Institutional Racism Defined
The Macpherson Report defined institutional racism as “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”
You don’t need to read about this in a textbook or look it up in a dictionary in order to observe an infinite spectrum of people all too happy to perpetuate institutional racism. Just go on Facebook and watch the talking heads flap away.
If I was disgusted by the reaction of many of my white friends and acquaintances after the grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson last month, then I am sick to my stomach by the complete INACTION and VOICELESSNESS of them now. Everything is different about the Eric Garner case, and yet everything is exactly the same. The people who once all too willingly jumped to the rescue of a police officer who, despite a mountain of conflicting evidence and testimony, somehow managed to escape even a trial…are now completely silent on the Eric Garner case. I would like to think that it’s because they are just as appalled as I am. I would like to think to myself that it’s because they are maybe, just now, realizing that everything their black acquaintances have been talking about for years was not some paranoid delusional fabrication. I would like to think that maybe it’s because they are processing the fact that a father of six was robbed of his life on film, and the murderer will not even stand trial.
I would like to think all of those things…
But given that these are the same people who “confused” Michael Brown with convicted murderer Joda Cain, thereby reducing him to a criminal instead of the unarmed black teenager he was when he was murdered… and given that these are the same people who tell me to “leave race out of it” when I talk about Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy who was shot and killed by Officer Timothy Loehmann, a white man who was determined to be “unfit for duty” in 2012….and given that these are the same people who tell me that racism only exists because * I * keep talking about it [because they ‘don’t see colour’]…and given that these are the same people who appropriate the hell out of a culture whose survival for which they have no intention of fighting…I think my hopes may be misplaced.
This tacit denial, this unashamed dismissal of the plague of institutional racism in America does not make it go away. It, instead, provides the perfect breeding ground for this disease to thrive. Even when a video is recorded and released of racist police brutality resulting in death, far too many white people choose to be silent. And their silence adds fuel to the already raging injustices that allowed this to happen in the first place. One of the hallmarks of white privilege is the mentality that “if it doesn’t affect me, then it does not matter.” Secondary to that, but equally as important, is the fact that privilege does not exist without one group controlling the conversation for another. In other words: Me discussing race = angry black woman. White person discussing race = Everyone shut up and listen. Even when my words pertain to my own experience, which cannot be disputed by anyone else, they can be dismissed as prejudicial and ridiculous. The times in which my experiences of racism are openly validated will never reach as far as the audience that listens to a white advocate of racial equality. Even today, my rights and freedoms to even speak on my experiences as a woman of colour in America are determined by white America’s willingness to listen, and acknowledge.
To echo Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in his infamous statement during the Dredd Scott ruling of 1857, “It is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration…black men had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Apparently, these rights, which were never bound to be respected, now include walking home in a hoodie carrying a bag of Skittles; playing loud music in a car; walking on the street; twirling a toy gun…and breathing.
And for me, institutional racism now includes the right to sleep peacefully…something that I will have a much harder time doing from now on.