The Soul-Crushing Nature of Systemic Racism
In the news that we’ve seen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed.
Those are the chilling words of Sandra Bland. Upon her death, many leaped to defend her legacy against the verdict of suicide, asking: Why would a young woman with a new job and so much to live for kill herself?
From my perspective, it doesn’t take all that much imagination. Why? Because I’ve been there, flailing to stay afloat under a torrent of dehumanization. Sandra Bland was — much like myself — a vocal advocate for the Black Lives Matter campaign, a writer and a vlogger who railed against the systemic violence laid down on insolent black bodies.
Bodies. Ta-Nehisi Coates has given a lot of time to this word. In his works he stresses again and again that the American Dream was built on the backs of black bodies, with the threat — and healthy exercise — of violence against black bodies. He does this to highlight the highly visceral nature of racism, which — as he says in Between the World and Me, “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth”.
But the true goal of this violence is not bodily destruction, but spiritual pacification. I say spiritual not in a religious sense, but rather in a more classically Roman sense: spirit as driving animus. However, I also use “spiritual” as a reminder of the cruel irony that European Christianity became a driving animus for African-American self-worth from Underground Railroad hymns to the role of pastors such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr at the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement.
Systemic dehumanization — as racism surely is — has a way of weighing down your spirit, your will, something I’ve characterized as akin to being submerged in icewater. Over time it continues to sap your energy, leaving you weary and defeated.
In the wake of the Ferguson protests that swept the nation, I quickly learned that I had chosen my words all too well. Couch-surfing with various friends in Portland, I quickly found myself entangled in protests across the city after the grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson.
Despite continued police brutality across the States, I thought of myself as invincible, as many young people do. Arms locked with protesters on either side of me, I did not think I was in any danger from the officers pacing in front of me. Even with an officer barking orders to me, waving a can of pepper spray in my face and threatening me with arrest if I did not remove myself from the sidewalk, I could not have fathomed such a senseless display of force.
Then it hit me straight in the eyes. In that moment my spirit faltered, stumbling to the ground as surely as my body did.
For the rest of the day, I couldn’t quite internalize what had happened. Long after the burning physical pain had faded to a lingering tingling, I wandered around in a daze, contemplating the violence done to my self-worth by flagrant disregard for violence done to my body.
It wasn’t until then that I’d quite felt the constant drain of dehumanization around me, and it hit me all at once. I had been scooping icewater out by the spoonful, and now it was being dumped back on me by the bucket. I felt like I had been sapped of any energy to fight, left only the choice between freezing and drowning. Like everything I had done was futile. Like my options were to give up and die, or to fight, be trampled by the system, and die anyway.
Far from feeling like a part of this country, I felt more like a foreign invader being purged by white blood cells. I felt rejected. Worse. Being dumped makes you feel rejected. I felt dumped by a whole country. Worthless. Subhuman.
I knew my friends didn’t see me that way, and yet I could feel their eyes on me as surely as if I bore a Scarlet Letter. Even their pity and support only drew attention to the humiliation I had just suffered: attacked by those who were supposed to protect and serve. Attacked for daring to speak up.
I cried that night, sobbing in a way I hadn’t found myself capable of for years. I remained bedridden for the rest of my time in Portland, wavering between rage, self-loathing, and depression. I thought about dying there, on my friend’s air mattress. I quickly decided that I wasn’t willing to be that poor a guest.
How could a minor arrest drive Sandra Bland to suicide?
It is all too easy for me to understand the possibility, to embrace it. There is nothing minor about suffering under racial supremacy. There is nothing or minor about systemic racism. It is brutal, oppressive, and soul crushing, and anything “minor” could be the proverbial last straw to break the camel’s back under a lifetime of aggression.
White supremacy killed Sandra Bland. Whose body it used — a cop’s or her own — to destroy hers is all but irrelevant.