There are a ton of reasons not to write this essay: the fear of being pigeon-holed as someone who only writes on race, the fact that the Mike Brown case hasn’t closed yet, this piece is emotionally and hastily written, people may be dissuaded from reading it because of its length and the uncomfortable nature of the content, and, generally, it makes me physically ill to write on this subject. But, I guess for the same reason that J. Cole had to release “Be Free,” I had to write this.
“Be Free” is not Cole’s best song — the production isn’t great, his singing voice struggles, the samples fit in sloppily — but the message needed to be spread. And, at the end of the day, that’s the real point of both music and writing: to send messages, especially when they carry the authenticity and raw nature that can be heard in J. Cole’s melancholic, strained bars. So here are mine.
Being Black in America
Being a minority in America means you don’t get the privilege of being an actual individual like someone white would. Throughout your life, you will be stereotyped, and if you differ from that, you become a convenient token at best, worthy of the “you’re different” reaction (e.g., Tiger Woods in golf, Neil deGrasse Tyson in astrophysics, or Barack Obama in presidency). Many will go on to keep their narrow view of people like you. Rest assured.
Aggressive and Crime-laden
It’s this viewpoint that leads to being followed in stores or glared at by anyone with a badge (as they clutch their gun holsters). Or being second guessed during monetary transactions, whether they think we’re going to steal something or maybe just tip poorly (for tipping, you should watch this scene of “Dear White People”). All of this leaves us in a state, consistently pre-occupied with trying not to get killed or arrested by someone unnecessarily “protecting” themselves or their assets. Even Obama understands why. Watch from 2:45 to 7:20 of his Trayvon Martin speech:
If the man that became the president of the United States is subject to this kind of treatment, it seems like even being a “different” black doesn’t save anyone from stereotypes.
Example: video of a cop calling protesters “fucking animals” in Ferguson
Example: King Kong reference in Vogue cover featuring Lebron James
Stupid and Simple
It doesn’t stop at people thinking we’re aggressive. Remember, another part of the animal portrayal is mental inferiority — the assumption that we’re dumb, poor, and simple. This leads to all kinds of surprised looks and reactions if we ever come across as intelligent, are able to afford anything aside from the cheapest option, or desire anything more than American mediocrity.
Even if we do succeed, we will forever be second-guessed. This could show up as people not-so-subtly hinting that we are a diversity hire. We may even be be addressed as if we’re part of some temporary service team(e.g., catering, security, etc.), because otherwise, we shouldn’t be there.
And godspeed if you aren’t just “acting white,” but you also want to be different from the rest of society and get famous for being creative. Kanye can tell you that you won’t be treated similarly to your egotistical white contemporaries, like John Lennon or Steve Jobs for example. Your ego will never be seen as confidence and your version of “visionary” becomes their version of “crazy.” Note that John Lennon and Steve Jobs did quite terrible things, and the most people can call out Kanye for is speaking his opinion too openly. But I’m certain you’re aware of the disproportionately negative press he receives by comparison. So prepare to defend being successful as a black male every day of your life.
To further illustrate this point, I refer you to some poignant lyrics from the song “Murder to Excellence” by Jay-Z and Kanye. This song covers topics ranging from black-on-black crime to segregation and being famous (I also advise you to read the breakdown of the full lyrics of the song):
From parolees to hold G’s, sold keys, low keys
We like the promised land of the OG’s
In the past if you picture events like a black tie
What the last thing you expect to see, black guys?
What’s the life expectancy for black guys?
The system’s working effectively, that’s why!
No Real Home
I’ll finish this section with one of my saddest realizations of recent. There are few places where being an American black person is culturally acceptable, barring a few black neighborhoods that aren’t even great options. Being black in most other countries is pretty terrible, too. So we’re essentially trapped in a cage. I posit that this is why many blacks find it easy to empathize with the Palestinian civilians in Gaza, and vice-versa — we both feel like our homes aren’t really homes. So blacks either make America a better place to live or start from nothing.
Ghettos and Culture
Many people have blamed black-on-black crime and ghetto culture for the issues within the black community, but few care to ever investigate how this predicament came to be (if you have the time and are further interested in this subject, I to advise you to watch “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”. It’s particularly applicable here because it is based on St. Louis, and covers a lot of what I’m about to reference.).
Without diving into a full-on history lesson (albeit still long), here’s a summary of what happened:
Following the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves became “free.” Shortly after, the first Klans began to form and Jim Crow laws were created. This made it pretty terrible to be black in the South (while the North didn’t have these explicit laws, segregation and discrimination was de facto). Additionally, the mechanical cotton picker and other machinery were becoming widely adopted in the South, causing a decrease in the need for rural labor. With the consistent threat of lynching and less opportunity to work in the fields, blacks began packing up and moving up North. This move eventually became known as the Great Migration.
Industry in the form of railroads, meatpacking, and stockyards was growing in the North and employees were in demand. The rural blacks from the South weren’t the only ones to move North; there were also rural whites who needed jobs. Racial discrimination was still quite high, and whites were given job preference. Let’s be clear on this: these companies still had tons of work they needed done, they simply weren’t willing to hire blacks for the most part. This led to many relocated blacks being left jobless around northern cities. Unable to afford proper housing, the creation and expansion of slums began.
Fast forward some time, and as these slums continued to grow — as did the problems that often come with having too many people living in small spaces with little to no money, no support, and increasing desperation — disease, malnutrition, and crime became issues (which surely didn’t help the perception of blacks in the future). These problems, in turn, led to a relative absence of police presence based on fear.
This is where the Public Housing Authority — with its goal of providing all these stranded people with proper housing and support — enters the picture. In theory, this goal sounds great; in actuality, not so much.
First, let’s start with the building of these projects. A lot of the primary motivation was self-serving and wasn’t really driven by the benefits it could bring for the poor. The eyesore of the slums would be removed, slum growth would be contained (especially via high rises), and construction would guarantee additional work and money to those growing industries (the same ones that denied blacks jobs).
Next, let’s add the increase of the migration of whites to the suburbs known as White Flight. This was aided by all sorts of things, from the increase in highway construction that allowed easy commuting, to the desegregation of schools that led many whites to move their children away from attending schools with black students. Pair this with tactics like redlining and blockbusting, and you’ll start to see how we have the racial segregation that you can still see in many cities and suburbs today.
While all of this seemed positive to whites, it came at great cost to the projects and blacks. With many of the primary wage-earners leaving the cities, they were left behind with much less tax money. This in turn led to the cities being unable to properly maintain the projects and schools that many blacks lived in and attended. The quality of living rapidly decayed into a state reminiscent of the slums in which they once lived. The police presence continued to be virtually non-existent in the projects, but if blacks went anywhere else, they would surely be hassled and possibly arrested, like animals who’d escaped their cages.
Additionally, there were the laws associated with the projects. Some of these were primarily just annoying — like strict rules with respect to TV and phone ownership. But others included rules that incentivized fathers not to live with their families to qualify for housing (e.g., single-parent, single-income household is what would get you to qualify, and both parents working was a less livable outcome). Wanting the best for their families, many fathers left, staying with their families from time to time, hiding from the inspectors in closets during their stay.
Now we have the scene set, so I’ll give you some examples of how this historical background has impacted our culture. As a disclaimer, culture is very fluid, so many of these are based on speculation, but I’m giving you the idea.
Tie some of the above rules with the increased incarceration rates of blacks, and you got a lot of fatherless households and mothers who had many children to attend to as single parents. In this absence, this left many young men jockeying for power in their communities (and you wonder where some of young gang culture originated from and therein a lot of black-on-black crime? Gangs involve a lot of teens, the Crips were founded by teens around 15). Pair this with the police generally not caring about what blacks did to each other in the projects, and many crimes went without punishment. These kids had to learn to hold themselves down and fight from a young age, because no one else had their or their families’ backs.
Unlike in some cultures in which drugs and alcohol are often associated with happy times and mental exploration, here they often became one of few reliable escapes. This is illustrated in detail in the song “Really Be” by YG and Kendrick Lamar, where the main hook is about how the crew smokes weed and drinks to cope with all the stress and depression caused by the death and troubles of life (you can even hear Kendrick’s voice cracking almost to the point of tears during this song, as he references getting phone calls about his friends dying while he’s on tour).
That’s why I really be smokin’ and I really be drinkin’ I be going through some things, you don’t know what I be thinkin’
Or pant-sagging, which is reportedly traced back to signaling a previous prison stint. In prison, clothes were often ill-fitting and belts were banned (partially for fear of use as weapons or for suicide), so inmates had some time to get accustomed to sagging pants. Even if you hadn’t been to prison, it became advantageous to look dangerous, because remember, the police weren’t going to protect you or your family.
I wish I could say things were a lot better today, but they aren’t. We still have laws that prevent complete families from working and getting support from the government. By making the threshold of eligibility so low, both parents attempting to work could make a family unqualified for public assistance without having enough money to survive. Racial steering is still very much a thing and black health is still terrible. Ferguson’s demographics result from new white flight, where blacks get priced out of cities due to gentrification and move to cheaper suburbs (as recently as 1990, Ferguson was 73.8% white).
So as you can see, a long history has to lead us up to this point, but here we are. The laws and trends really haven’t been on the side of blacks since the end of slavery — it wasn’t until the mid to late 60's that many types of discrimination were made illegal. And that’s just the law; it will take far longer for all of the cultural oppression to be undone and Americans’ thoughts to change. We do not live in a post-racial society.
The Mike Brown Incident
Now that we’ve covered why the Black experience in America is still one of oppression, let’s talk about some recent events.
Why This Case is a Tipping Point
One of the first questions I often hear when discussing Mike Brown is: “Why do blacks care so much about this case? How come the reaction hasn’t been this big before?”
These questions are asked presumably because of the many recent excessive force cases (for anyone older or who’s done their research, you know that the protests could be a lot worse, e.g., 1992 Rodney King riots). But there are a lot of differences here that make this one easier to cling to than some of the others. Note: this is not to belittle any of these cases. It’s tragic when a human life is lost prematurely, especially under the given circumstances. It’s to illustrate a point.
Unlike Trayvon Martin’s case, a civilian “neighborhood watchman” wasn’t involved — a police officer with a badge who should be held to a much higher standard was.
Unlike Eric Garner, Brown wasn’t someone who’d had a history of crimes (albeit minor in Garner’s case) before, and the police couldn’t chalk this up to accidentally restraining someone in an illegal manner or not knowing about someone’s asthma.
Unlike Oscar Grant, the police officer’s actions can’t be explained as a mistake wherein he grabbed his gun instead of a taser in the heat of the moment. Mike Brown was shot at least six times.
And then, there’s just the sheer amount of times that the killing of an unarmed black man has happened — the tension has reached an unbearable point. For instance, four unarmed black males have been killed by police in the past month, not counting the many other cases that we don’t know about. And what of the saddening stat that a black man is killed at least every twenty-eight hours by police/vigilante/security? And that number’s an underestimate due to the number of cases in which no race was confirmed.
The Ferguson Police Department and Character Assassination
Friday started off hopeful. I found out that there were witnesses in addition to Dorian Johnson. Then there was the glimmer of hope when I heard that the police department was releasing the name of the officer who’d shot Michael Brown. But this hope turned bleak when I heard that the name — Darren Wilson — was released alongside evidence of a convenience store theft that had happened just before. I was especially disheartened once the police chief confirmed that the officer who stopped Brown had no knowledge of the robbery.
Reporter: Did he know he was a suspect in a case or did he not know?
Police Chief: No he didn’t.
Reporter: So at this point, why did he stop Michael Brown?
Police Chief: Because they were walking down the middle of the street blocking traffic. That was it.
The simultaneous release was a blatant attempt at character assassination, and unrelated to whether Darren Wilson’s actions were justified.
But for thought experiment’s sake, let’s assume the officer knew about the theft. Is that justification for firing six shots into somebody? Oh, my mistake, he also walked down the middle of the street . . . That clearly makes it all understandable. If we take a look at some of the people who think Wilson was actually justified in his actions, we’re left with people who think that protestors should be handled in the same way as “training your dog” and blacks don’t “get the system.”
I’ve had so many white friends who stole all the fucking time (electronics, car stereos, groceries, etc), and at most, they got relatively peacefully accosted and arrested, even when restrained. Of course later they’d get a slap on the wrist in court, a warning not to do it again (even in repeat cases). Meanwhile, I’ve had black friends who’ve had their faces broken over chips and a candy bar. I even had a friend who was locked up for years based on false accusations and for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, even though the evidence proved him innocent (not too dissimilar from the Central Park jogger case). When you’re black, “innocent until proven guilty” often doesn’t apply.
A paradigm example of this disparity would be the case of Henry Davis, also involving Ferguson PD, but in 2009. Henry Davis took the wrong exit off of a highway and got lost. This small, routine mistake, led the police to take the following actions:
- Arrest the wrong man because of a name mix-up
- Realize that he’s the wrong man while booking him, lock him up anyway (as the second man in a one-man cell, with no bed)
- Enter the cell and beat him so badly paramedics are called and he has to be hospitalized for blood loss
- Charge him with destruction of property because he bled on police uniforms while they beat the shit out of him
- Plainly contradict themselves when answering questions in court and “accidentally” destroy the evidence.
The Value of a Life
But back to Mike Brown. I think writer Greg Howard summarized it best:
“Laying all this out, explaining all the ways in which he didn’t deserve to die like a dog in the street, is in itself disgraceful. Arguing whether Brown was a good kid or not is functionally arguing over whether he specifically deserved to die, a way of acknowledging that some black men ought be executed.
To even acknowledge this line of debate is to start a larger argument about the worth, the very personhood, of a black man in America. It’s to engage in a cost-benefit analysis, weigh probabilities, and gauge the precise odds that Brown’s life was worth nothing against the threat he posed to the life of the man who killed him. It’s to deny that there are structural reasons why Brown was shot dead while James Eagan Holmes — who on July 20, 2012, walked into a movie theater and fired rounds into an audience, killing 12 and wounding 70 more — was taken alive.”
As it stands, as a black male, you should know that you will be treated like an animal in America.
Cover Photo: Jeff Roberson, AP