An unarmed teenager raises his hands above his head and pleads for his life. He is fatally gunned down by Ferguson police officers. He was 18.
An unarmed man is detained at San Francisco’s Fruitvale Station on New Year’s Eve. He is fatally shot in the back by San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit train police while lying face down on the ground and hands cuffed behind his back. He was 23.
An unarmed teenager walks home through an unfamiliar neighbourhood, an iced tea and a pack of Skittles in his pocket. He is fatally shot by a self-appointed vigilante. He was 17.
An unarmed teenager knocks on the door of a house, seeking help after a car accident. She is fatally shot in the face with a shotgun. She was 19.
An unarmed man reaches for his wallet. He is fatally shot 41 times by New York City police. He was 23.
These are only a handful of the lives cut far too short — the victims of American Blackness under siege.
The Stories That Go Un-Hashtagged
Saturday afternoon’s fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown – an unarmed teenager in the process of surrendering to police officers in his hometown of Ferguson, Missouri – has sparked a week-long, nation-wide protest taking place on the streets of Ferguson, at vigils across the country, and in the digital realm of Twitter. As well it should — Michael Brown’s unjust murder at the hands of Ferguson police is a clear example of excessive force, and it should incite outrage in any free-thinking human with a conscience. But the lesser-discussed tragedy of this week is not just Michael Brown’s indefensible killing, but also how what happened to Michael Brown is not unique.
Recently, conservatives have implied a new battlefront in America’s culture wars: a so-called “War on Whites”. This is utter bullshit; there is no new war on Whiteness. There has been instead in America an ongoing 250-year-long war on Blackness, a war that has raged since before this country’s founding.
It is a war being waged in every facet of American life – from the battlefields of our televisions, to our classrooms, to our boardrooms, to our streets. It is a war fought with the weapons of unjust law and unfounded stereotype. It is a war where neutrality is impossible. It is a war that white supremacy is winning.
It is a war justified by the same kind of racist war-time propaganda that arises on the military battlefield — the kind that facilitates violence and death against the enemy through dehumanization and vilification; the kind that normalized the popular reimagination of people of colour as gooks, as japs, as skinnies, as zipperheads and as sand niggers; the kind that mitigates empathy and eases guilt; the kind that suggests there may be just cause in our battlefield murder. In war, so the logic goes, the enemy cannot be allowed to be seen as human. But, in this war, the propaganda appears not on brightly-coloured posters or uttered from the unthinking mouths of infantry; instead, the dehumanization is so deeply-rooted and foundational as to require no articulation. In this war, we so thoroughly believe the myth of Black criminality and menace that we no longer even recognize we are standing on a battlefield.
I am also wrong in this metaphor; it is not a war – it is a slaughter.
For every Michael Brown, whose death rises to the frenzied apex of national conversation, there are thousands of Michael Browns whose deaths spark no candelight vigils and no protest movements, and whose stories go completely un-hashtagged. Hours before Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson and his body left unattended to and uncovered for over ten minutes, 15-year-old Jacob Craggett was killed in my current city of New Haven, Connecticut in a random drive-by shooting that also critically wounded two other young men. Multiple witnesses say that Craggett was allowed to lie dying in a pool of his own blood on the asphalt while ambulances took more than thirty minutes to arrive. Craggett was shot less than 1/10th of a mile (a less than 3 minutes walk) from the Yale-New Haven hospital, where he died later that night. The city’s emergency services failed Jacob Craggett, a young black teenager living in an economically depressed area of the city, that night and he paid for our failure with his life. There has been no hash-tag for Jacob Craggett.
The lives of Black people are so devalued to us that we hardly bat an eye when confronted with the fact that thousands of young Black men and women die of gun violence every year, at a rate eight times that of Whites. In a single year, more than 2000 Black men and women will be targeted for assault and even murder in anti-Black hate crimes, two-thirds of all race-related bias incidents. Yet, we rationalize these statistics by framing the national conversation not around the preciousness of Black lives, but instead on whether or not Blackness is synonymous with cultural pathology and violence – a line of argument so racist, immoral and galling that it would be unthinkable if we were discussing any other racial group of teenagers.
In America, we like to believe we are innocent until proven guilty. But, in America’s siege on Blackness, we have created a political landscape where Black Americans are assumed criminal and violent unless proved otherwise.
This cultural assault on Blackness manifests throughout our legal system, and for every brutal death at the hands of white supremacy, there are thousands more lives not lost but still casually disrupted under presumption of Black criminality, and which engender no headlines. A law built upon racial profiling and harassment that has failed to measurably improve the safety of New York City encouraged police officers to racially target more Black men in 2011 than there are Black men living in the city; the overwhelming majority of Black men stopped-and-frisked were innocent of any crime. Thousands of Black men are arrested and incarcerated every year for non-violent drug offenses – two-thirds of all prisoners serving life sentences for such crimes – despite data showing that drug use rates are roughly equal across race. Michelle Alexander has dubbed this phenomenon the new Jim Crow.
In our enduring siege on Blackness, we make every effort to associate violence and criminality with black skin, whereas we take great pains to distance violence and criminality when it coincides with white skin. A federal report revealed this year that Black children as young as pre-school age are significantly more likely to be disciplined and suspended for the same sort of bad behavior we tolerate from their White classmates. In the same state where George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin based on Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws (which permit a civilian to use lethal force when they feel threatened), pregnant mother Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years for firing a gun into the ceiling in defending herself from her abusive husband who was threatening to kill her.
Bearing Witness to Blackness
Michael Brown was killed by bullets fired by Ferguson police officers, but he was also killed by every interracial interaction that would cast a criminal pallor over Blackness.
I am Asian American. Like Arthur Chu recently articulated in his article for the Daily Beast, I recognize the racism I live with every day. I understand that this country is no friend to me. The racism America perpetrates against Asian Americans is insidious, but I am also reminded on a nearly daily basis how the racism I face is so distinct from the racism faced by African Americans. Racism manifests against Asian Americans by asserting an intellectual, not a physical, threat. I am dehumanizd as inscrutable, emotionless, obedient – capable but uncreative. I agitate to create the cultural space that would tolerate my failures.
Blackness is agitating to create the cultural space to tolerate their successes.
I am not Black, but for fifteen years, I have had occasion to bear witness to Blackness. My life partner (@snoopyjenkins) is a young Black man; anyone who would deny the overwhelming potency of America’s presumption of Black criminality has never had opportunity to live a life next to Blackness, and has never experienced secondhand the daily microaggressions America commits against Black skin. From hotel lobbies to convenience stores, the subtle traces of this racism can be discerned; by virtue of his skin colour alone, Snoopy is greeted with default suspicion. When he and I were walking into the luxury apartments of extended family earlier this year – both of us carrying suitcases and bags and walking just a few steps apart — it was he who was stopped and interrogated by security as to his business there, while I was allowed to walk idly by as if I belonged while he did not. When he, napping in the backseat of a car during a roadtrip, was suddenly awakened when the (White) driver of our car was stopped for speeding, it was he (the only Black man in the car) who was pulled from the car and humiliatingly frisked along the side of the highway. The only times I have ever been stopped when driving a car is when I was accompanied by him and another (Black male) friend; the officer visually searching their seats multiple times for hidden weapons just in case I was being held hostage or something.
We do not live in a post-racial country. These stories are representative of the lived experience of every Black man and woman living in America today.
Michael Brown was executed because his black skin – and his black skin alone — marked him as a threat.
The Myth of Bootstrapping
It would be a fool who would deny there would be consequences of growing up in a world that reinforces at every turn that Black men and women can aspire to nothing more than criminality and violence. It would be a fool who would refuse to believe that there should be scars left by a life in such a world.
There is a concept among social scientists called “stereotype threat”, which asserts that the toll of living as the victim of negative stereotypes creates such a psychological burden that it facilitates the manifestation of the exact kind of behaviours that perpetuate the stereotype. In the context of Blackness, the stereotype threat is profound: when we tell young Black children that they can aspire to nothing more than a short violent life of ignorance, incarceration, and mediocrity, we remove any reason to imagine greater.
When we hijack the dreams of young Black children, we eliminate their capacity to dream.
The corollary is the denial of the impacts of our own anti-blackness; instead we inoculate ourselves from the need to acknowledge (and therefore dismantle) our own institutions of racism by asserting conservative principles of personal responsibility. We argue that Black men and women are not victims of racist institutions, and therefore are substantively choosing pathology over success. In so doing, we ignore the interface of stereotype threat with the multiple layers of socioeconomic oppression that tangibly divert Black children away from academia at every turn. We establish a standard of Black superhumanity by requiring Black children to perform equally as well on so-called meritorious tests like the SATs when competing with twice the obstacles. We celebrate the few who defy expectation as the Black exceptional, who overcame the supposed deficiencies of their race, and we reward them with the privilege of humanity. We condemn the majority who fail to meet our entirely unreasonable standards as deserving of our disdain. We assert by extension a deficiency in Black intelligence or academic investment. We reinforce Black pathology. We refute the possibility of Black achievement.
We lay siege to Blackness, and then we blame them for their own slaughter.
We Are All Culpable
There can be no Switzerland in America’s war on Blackness. Think you are neutral? Impossible. We are all culpable.
Every time you consider a Black person with suspicion, you are complicit. Every time you clutch your purse closer when a Black man enters the elevator, you are complicit. Every time you cross the street to avoid the “sketchy” area, you are complicit. Every time you assume bad behavior from Blackness, you are complicit. Every time you reject Black humanity, the possibility of Black success, and the overwhelming impact of institutional anti-Blackness, you are complicit. Every time you reinforce Black underachievement, you are complicit. Every time you parallel Blackness and criminality, you are complicit. Every time you assert Black pathology when faced with black skin, you are complicit.
Every time you let your own fear and intolerance of Blackness go challenged, you are contributing to the same siege on Blackness that murdered Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Oscar Grant, Amandou Diallo, and thousands of faceless others.
Earlier this week, Snoopy lamented that pointing out the overwhelming pervasiveness of the myth of Black criminality in America provides no tangible solutions. Bearing witness is not enough. He’s not wrong. Bearing witness is neutrality by another name, and neutrality in America’s siege on Blackness is alliance with those laying siege.
This week, anti-Blackness took center-stage in Ferguson, and we saw the appalling lengths to which America will rhetorically and martially defend its own slaughter of Black people. Ferguson police refused to name the police officer who fatally shot the unarmed Michael Brown for nearly a week. Instead, a no-fly zone was declared over the town of Ferguson, and Ferguson PD lobbed tear gas and stun grenades at peaceful protesters and members of the media. They arrested news reporters and city aldermen. Meanwhile, our political leaders – including the state’s governor – have been largely silent.
It’s time to decide whether or not you want to stand on the right side of history. It’s time to reject neutrality. I challenge all of us to stop turning a blind eye to America’s siege on Blackness. We owe it – as people of colour and as fellow humans — to end our silent witness to this war. We have a moral responsibility to speak up, and to speak out, against this injustice.
Michael Brown will not be the last Black man murdered by white supremacy, but we should aspire to make him the last Black man murdered with our silence.