We are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition as human beings…We are fighting for…human rights. – Malcolm X
I’ve been sitting at my computer for the last five nights, staring at the screen. I need to write about recent events. I have a lot to say and yet I don’t know what to say. I haven’t been able to think of anything else, yet somehow, I can’t organize my thoughts or find the words to express my emotions. And so I’ve been up until 2 am every morning, staring at my screen, typing, deleting, typing, deleting, typing, deleting.
Look at these names.
John Crawford III
Look at these names and say them aloud. Do you know their stories? Do you know their lives? Do you know how they died? Can you imagine their final moments? Can you think of their loved ones? Can you picture their parents, their spouses, their children? Can you hear their friends and co-workers? Can you sense the ripples in their communities? Can you feel the grief, the heartbreak, the agony, the devastation, the anger? I know I will never comprehend it, but I’ve been trying.
This is but a miniscule fraction of names that should be included on this list. It is a tiny sliver of the countless human lives – with stories of love and pain and fear and hope and laughter – violently, senselessly destroyed at the hands of the police.
Value of Life
A black man in the United States is:
a) 2.94 times more likely to be shot by police across all US counties than a similarly armed white man
b) Just as likely as a white, armed man to be shot by police if he is unarmed
c) 21 times more likely than his white peers to be killed by police
d) All of the above
It is easy to get lost in statistics. To read numbers so sweeping we can’t translate them into the lived realities of the people they describe. Names become letters on a page, unattached to the unique individuals to whom they belong.
Every person killed by the police represents such a unique individual. Yet, each incident is not isolated. These names are a constellation revealing a predictable and disturbing pattern that underlies every aspect of our society. Connecting their dots outlines systemic racism that privileges and oppresses, honors and dehumanizes, supports and kills people based on race.
Once you see it, you cannot unsee it.
It is clear that in our nation, the lives of people of color, and especially Black lives, matter less and are valued less than White lives. This devaluing of Black lives is part of our nation’s deeply rooted, institutionalized racism.
The early criminalization of young black boys is illustrated by which of the following:
a) A black boy is 3 times more likely than his white peers to be suspended and expelled
b) In the South, black boys are suspended at rates 5 times their representation in student populations
c) Black children make up 18 percent of the preschool enrollment but 48 percent of preschoolers receiving more than one out-of-school suspension, and they are twice as likely to be expelled
d) All of the above
If I had a dollar for every person who said something along the lines of “Do you feel safe?” or, “Those kids must be really difficult” or, “Do those kids want to learn?” when he or she found out I taught in an urban community, I would be a rich woman. Questions and comments like these infuriatingly illustrate the deeply ingrained ideas we have about Black and brown children, namely: they don’t care about learning; they are dangerous.
Society unabashedly tells children of color, and Black children in particular, that their lives and futures are not as important as those of White children. Walk through a school that predominantly serves Black and brown youth and compare the differences between schools in mostly White communities. The difference in resources alone is appalling. There is no level playing field, no meritocracy. There is only a see-saw on which the weight of institutionalized racism has been placed squarely on the side of Black and brown children.
In schools, Black children are suspended and expelled at alarmingly disproportionate rates to White children. White children are disciplined differently for similar behaviors; White students are more likely to be referred to treatment, while Black children are suspended, expelled and arrested. The criminalization of Black and brown children begins at a young age.
Five-year old Michael Davis’s hands and feet were restrained with zip ties when his school called the police to scare away his “behavioral problems”. Police arrested and handcuffed six-year old Salecia Johnson when her school called the police to deal with what they described as her “temper tantrum”. Seven-year old Wilson Reyes was handcuffed and interrogated for ten hours over a playground dispute over five dollars that he didn’t steal.
These are small children.
I am no longer surprised when I read disturbing news like this. These are not freak, isolated incidents. Add them to the aforementioned constellation and they reinforce the predictable pattern of systemic racism at the root of our nation’s institutions.
Injustice in our criminal justice system is illustrated by which of the following:
a) A Black driver is 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than a White driver
b) Whites use drugs at 5 times the rate of Blacks, but Blacks are imprisoned for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
c) Sentences imposed on Black men in the federal system are 20 percent longer than sentences imposed on White men convicted of similar crimes
d) All of the above
Last year, several colleagues, Andy (and Carter!) and I took three students, all Black, on an outdoor ed trip to Zion National Park. We drove in two cars: three students and one teacher in the minivan; another teacher, Andy, Carter and myself in a sedan.
Around midnight on our 12-hour drive home, red and blue lights flashed behind my car and pulled us over. When the officer approached, he asked Lawrence, a light-skinned Latino man and former Marine if it was his car. Lawrence informed him it was a rental. The officer ran his license and came back noticeably friendlier (we suspect it is because Big L’s ID pulled up his Marine background). He told us that our car scanned as a stolen vehicle when we drove by. We showed him rental papers and he let us go.
Meanwhile, students in the other car were blowing up my phone in a flurry of worried, anxious texts.
It was not lost on anyone in our group that if the student van had been pulled over, or if our car carried more students instead of a White man and an Asian woman with a baby, or if Lawrence was not light-skinned and a former Marine, our midnight run in with the police might have ended very differently. Scarily, terrifyingly differently.
The criminal justice system doesn’t start at the courts and end with prisons. It starts with the funneling process that feeds people into the system. Unsurprisingly, this funneling process targets Black men more than any other demographic; Black men are pulled over, stopped and frisked, and arrested at disproportional rates without correlation to crimes committed. Once stopped, they are also more likely to be given tickets, searched, and it seems, murdered. The stories my students shared with me are harrowing and horrifying. What happens in neighborhoods of color at the hands of the police simply doesn’t happen in White communities.
Once caught up, Black people are more likely to be imprisoned and typically receive significantly longer sentences than White people accused of similar crimes. For example, though Whites and Blacks use marijuana at the same rates, Blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for possession. See also, “Brock Turner” and “Brian Banks”.
Once someone becomes part of the system, it maintains a form of invisible punishment long after he or she is released. We make it nearly impossible for formerly incarcerated people to get jobs, housing, education, or public benefits. They cannot vote or serve on juries for a period of time that may span from years to a lifetime. Thus shackled, many people end up behind bars again.
It is much easier to cage humanity when the lives and communities destroyed have already been devalued and dehumanized in our national consciousness. This is one example of our system of racial oppression at work. Housing, health care, media, the workplace and entertainment also follow the same predictable, racially oppressive patterns. They are the constellation outlined by the names and stories above.
When viewed as a whole, this constellation unequivocally states: Black lives do not matter here.
So, with society’s signs pointing in the opposite direction, it becomes abundantly necessary to declare that Black Lives Matter.
The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial. – Michelle Alexander
This morning as I drove to work, I heard a woman interviewed on NPR. She was out protesting police brutality and cop-killing, but in the same breath that she stammered through tears, Things need to change, this must stop, she also said something amounting to I’m tired of people talking about race. I don’t think about him as a black man, I think about him as a human being. If we keep talking about race we will never get to the root of these problems. This isn’t about race, it’s about individuals filled with hate. I don’t want to go back to the sixties.
To me, this brief interview captures the complexity of fighting for change. In the same breath that this good-hearted woman protested the violent loss of innocent lives – Black citizens, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens – she also upheld the systemic racism that is the root cause of every symptom leading to their deaths.
News flash: racism did not end with the Civil Rights movement, the Black vote or anti-discrimination measures. It went underground and became more insidious as people began to believe we have moved “beyond race” into a “colorblind” society. The truth is, not enough has changed.
The Black Lives Matter movement is about more than the extrajudicial killings of black men by police. And, despite the false dichotomy blaring across our screens, it is not anti-police. It is about more than gun control. It is about segregated schools and communities, and the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s about the prison industrial complex in which people get rich by putting other humans in cages. It is the War on Drugs, the New Jim Crow, the political propaganda about welfare queens and drug dealers. It is about infant mortality rates, access to healthy food, inequitable health care. It’s about the death of affirmative action and the perpetuation of college legacies. It’s about Old Boy Networks and implicit bias, like-me bias, glass ceilings and discriminatory hiring practices. It’s about access to safe housing, the inability to book an Airbnb room, and gentrification. It’s Tuskegee, poisoned Flint water and chemical plants in communities of color. It is the teaching of history from a White male re-writing, an erasure of the perspectives and people of color. It is Hollywood and the media. It is about the hierarchical systems and institutions that devalue, oppress, shame and blame people based on race.
We may not have laid the roots of our racially oppressive system. But we uphold it in our ignorance, blindness, denial, complicity, apathy, and silence. Good, moral people perpetuate racist systems and institutions.
We live in a system of racial privilege and oppression. This system is a constellation of names, stories, brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors, ancestors and children. We are the system. We connect the dots, but we can change the dots. We can break old patterns and create new ones.
I’ve been inspired by the number of people posting on Facebook – people who used to tell me I was too sensitive about race, people who’ve never posted about racial issues – suddenly coming to heightened awareness and calling for change. There is hope.
We can learn about the issues and educate ourselves – in this age of information, there is no excuse for ignorance. We can do our own, internal anti-racist analysis and personal work; it is a never-ending journey of growth and empowerment. We can listen with humility. We can be critical of bias in the media and view all things with a critically conscious lens. We can vote for lawmakers who will work for social justice. We can write our government representatives. We can donate to activist organizations that push for change. We can choose professions that focus on social justice. We can push back when people consciously or unconsciously promote a racist agenda. We can speak up about our own opinions and experiences. We can teach our children through our words and actions.
What are we afraid of? Losing friends, being judged, offending others?
People are losing their lives.
It is time to step up.
Answers: All d
Featured image credit: By Spartan7W