Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why it's Hard to Be Black in America

When I was in high school I used to work as a dishwasher at a nice restaurant. Most of the guys who worked in the "back of house" area with me were young high school or college students like myself, trying to make some extra cash to help pay for school.  We'd often shoot the breeze to help pass the time.  I'll never forget one day when one of my White co-workers, frustrated with his financial aid situation, told me that he wished that he could trade places with me in order to get minority-based scholarships.  "Let me get this straight," I asked, "you want to be Black because you think it will help you get more financial aid for college?"  He answered with a resounding "Yes!"  Even at the age of 17, I knew he was missing the larger picture of what it truly means to be Black in America.  But he was convinced that if he were Black then he would be on easy street.  Finally, I said something to the effect of "even if that were true, what good is extra financial aid money if you can't get a job after you graduate?"  But that line of questioning doesn't even begin to capture the reality of the Black experience.  Given the fact that every time I turn around another Black youth is gunned down for "being up to no good," apparently what I should have been asking my fellow dish washing colleague is why he would be willing to trade his life over a few extra dollars.

By now you've (hopefully) heard about the latest police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager (Michael Brown) in St. Louis county.  If you haven't, here's the gist:

Ferguson, Missouri (CNN) -- Hours after federal civil rights investigators and the FBI opened an inquiry into the death of a teenager shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, violence flared again in the St. Louis suburb.
Police Chief Thomas Jackson told CNN shots were fired Monday night in Ferguson, and police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd that had gathered in an area where looting occurred Sunday.
"Officers were brought in to quell the hostilities," he said. "Tear gas was deployed."
The Saturday-night shooting, which left 18-year-old Michael Brown dead, has fueled rising tensions in the town of 21,000 and sparked national debate.
One side says the African-American teenager was surrendering, his hands in the air to show he was unarmed, when the officer opened fire. Authorities counter that Brown had attacked the officer in his car and tried to take his gun.
Clearly, the officer should have to answer for his actions, and if the facts bear out that the witnesses in the crowd are telling the truth then that officer should be convicted of murder and go away for a very long time.

But that's not what I want to talk about.

To talk about the officer's actions here is the easy analysis.  Stated differently, that would be treating the symptoms but not the disease.  Instead, let's go to the root of the problem - our deeply held racial biases that are passed on from generation to generation.  The racial biases that inform our decision making when we're placed in situations with people who don't look like us.  The racial biases that would have us believe that it's OK to take Black life but an outrage when White life is lost. We all have them.  That's not the issue.  The issue, rather, is whether we have the courage to challenge them. 

I was skimming through one of the articles on the Michael Brown shooting and I saw a comment by one reader that said something along the lines of "there are a lot of Trayvons out there, glad this cop had his gun too just like Zimmerman."  The statement, of course, is ignorant on a level that ordinarily should be staggering in today's society . . . if only today's society didn't actually bear out that this commenter is not alone in thinking that way.

I guess what bothers me still in 2014 is not only the fact that I can be shot for no reason by a White person who has succumbed to their own personal issues with people who look like me, but more so the fact that after I'm dead and gone, a significant plurality of this country will automatically assume that I was some kind of "thug" who had it coming.  That I was "up to no good" as it were.  As if being Black, in and of itself, naturally means that I must have been in the wrong and that my shooter was justified in taking my life.  A life that, of course, couldn't have been too significant to begin with, right?

We're not going to change 400+ years of racial biases overnight, but we can damn sure start challenging some of the unchecked ignorance that has been allowed to run free for far too long in this so-called post-racial society we find ourselves in.  Michael Brown's shooting was tragic to be sure, but the real tragedy will be to allow this event to pass without having some meaningful dialogue about the racial biases that exist within each of us and doing something to challenge those beliefs.  And don't fall for the head fake: this is not the time to change the subject and start talking about Black-on-Black crime.  There is a time and place for that very important discussion as well, but this is not that time.  I submit to you that in order to make progress on eradicating the disease that led to Michael Brown's death, we have to stay on topic.     

Open to hearing your thoughts.
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