heard one of the most depressing comments of my life while I was sitting in my psychology class at the University of California, Berkeley. You see, we were talking about a movie that we had been assigned to watch, The Color of Fear, and we were asked what we thought about it. Right after I spoke and attempted to explain that re-education isn’t working as well as we tell ourselves it is, a guy popped up to respond to me. “I mean, I’m a practical guy,” he said, in his purple polo, with his blond hair cut short and a small smirk on his face, “I think that re-education is the best thing that we can come up with. I mean, its not like you can put people in jail for social injustices.”
You might wonder why that comment was the most depressing that I’ve ever heard directed to me. Let me explain a little bit to you. Really, this goes back to World War II. How?
It all started during the Nuremberg Trials. After the United States took credit for defeating the Nazis (side note, it was totally Russia), the Allies decided that they had to make a stand, since this had been the second major war between capitalist powers in less than one lifetime. So, they placed all of the Nazi leaders on trial. During the trials, the strongest of the Allied Powers, France, the USSR, the UK, and the United States convicted the leaders of the Third Reich of genocide, and crimes against humanity. The problem? Many of the crimes that these men were convicted of were also commited directly by the judges, or by the countries that the judges represented. So the only way that the Allies could continue with the trial was to declare that anything that had happened before this time didn’t count and could not be grandfathered in. In fact, this political move of the Allied powers allowed the United States to enter the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as the only major industrialized country on the list of members who have barred access to the United Nations to review any case regarding the actions of the State before the intentional law against genocide was created.
In the decade after the Nuremberg trials, the National Negro Congress (NNC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and several others would bring cases to the newly minted United Nations, in an attempt to gain recognition for the genocide of the Black peoples within the United States. The last case, brought to the UN delegation in San Francisco by the Civil Rights Congress, appeared as a document called We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People.
Within this document, the CRC listed cases of murder through lynchings and wrongful executions, detailed the role of the government in preventing Blacks from voting using illegal poll taxes and literacy tests as well as its financial support of the Ku Klux Klan as a “benevolent society,” and in short clearly documented the prevalence of white supremacy that ran through all levels of American life. The U.S. government actively blocked many of the Black leaders as they attempted to present the case before the UN by physical and political means, going so far as to revoke the passport of one of the presenters. Once the petition actually reached the UN the petition, like the ones before it, was largely ignored after the United States government made it known that it did not want the case to be heard. A few years after the U.S. government made sure that international justice was inaccessible to Black folk, they blocked off national level was as well. In 1987 Warren McCleskey, a Black man accused of killing a white police officer during a robbery, petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn his death penalty on the grounds of inherent negative racial bias within the justice system. McCleskey and his attorney presented a study that showed that a defendant was at minimum 4.3 times more likely to receive the death penalty when the victim was white than when the victim was Black. While the Court agreed that the study did show a “racially disproportionate impact” in Georgia’s death penalty cases, they decided that this was not enough to over turn the guilty verdict.
“To prevail under that Clause [Equal Protection Clause], petitioner must prove that the decisionmakers in his case acted with discriminatory purpose… For this claim to prevail, petitioner would have to prove that the Georgia Legislature enacted or maintained the death penalty statute because of an anticipated racially discriminatory effect. There is not evidence that the legislature either enacted the statute to further a racially discriminatory purpose, or maintained the statute because of the racially disproportionate impact suggested by the Baldus study.”
SCOTUS — McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987)
Essentially this meant that from that moment on, in order for any Black person, or any person really, to prove that they were being discriminated against, the person accused had to out-right say that they were intentionally discriminating against the victim. Which happens so often, let me tell you. This allowed the United States to continue to deny any wrongdoing, and silenced Black Americans in their attempts to seek justice. Because it wasn’t like they did it on purpose, right?
So Polo Guy was correct. As a Black American, I can’t ask for people to be jailed when they discriminate against me, beat me, shoot me, rape me, or steal my civil liberties, despite the fact that the number of Black Americans killed by the police in 2014 is higher than the number of Black Americans killed during the 9/11 attacks, or that the school-to-prison pipeline even exists, or that the majority of homes within food deserts are Black homes. I am silenced when I remind someone about the fact that the last recorded lynching wasn’t that long ago. Or when I explain that many, many, many economic systems were built upon the subjugation and oppression of Black bodies. Or the fact that Black women have been rendered invisible by the political and social norms of society. Or that we’ve been subjected to hundreds of forced sterilizations. Or that nearly one million black folks, from 1991 to 2000, died because of their Blackness.
You see, this is in fact, a silent, not so secret genocide of an entire people. A genocide that started hundreds of years ago when a European first stole a another human being from their own land, placed them in chains, stripped them of their rights and humanity, and built an entire economy on the labor of their bodies. It continued when whiteness publicly murdered Black folk, then stole their land. It happened again when whiteness beat their Black neighbors and chased them away from their homes. It continued when the white middle class pushed Blacks into the least desirable housing areas, places without easy access to food, public transportation, lower and higher education, or work. And it happens today as whiteness continue to blame Black folk for their circumstances.
emember the video that sparked this conversation, The Color of Fear? In it, nine men spend three days doing what many of us avoid at all costs: they talk about race. Its an incredible video, and one that still resonates through me to this day. One of the most striking moments comes when Victor Lewis, a Black man, responds to a suggestion that he forget about his Blackness, and claim ‘American’ as his ethnicity. This moment that Victor experiences, one that happens to me every day through various micro-agressions, is the new type of genocide that the Black population faces.
Whiteness has alienated us from society. We are a people in the nation who are not of the nation, who are not granted protection of the nation, or respect of the nation. Whiteness blames us for that alienation, tells us that we have not assimilated quickly enough, and then points its finger at our music, art, literature, ways of speaking, and even the way we name our children as reasons why we remain oppressed. And this newer form of racism, this implicit racism is more insidious. It’s the type of racism that allows people like Polo Guy to look people of color in the face, listen to their stories of heartache and pain at the hands of discrimination, and to dismiss it.
Because to Polo Guy, when I told him about my experiences in the predominantly white schools of my youth, I deserved what had happened to me. I didn’t fit in, or didn’t learn quickly enough, or didn’t dress correctly. In ways, it was my fault that my teacher often mistook me for the one other Black girl in the class, probably because we didn’t distinguish ourselves from one another, right? It was my fault that my mother spent a year and a half fighting to get me into a math class that I had already tested into in the fifth grade. The idea that any of that was because of my race, because of the problem of the normative white gaze, is inconceivable to the Polo Guys of the world. To them, it has to be my dark kinky hair, or my ambiguously ethnic name, or my refusal to listen to the same type of music.
You see, according to whiteness the problem in these situations lies with me, and my inability to adapt. In actuality, the problem lies in whiteness, and its inability to connect. From the moment that whiteness was invented in the U.S., it has held on to the idea of the ‘problem people’. As Victor Lewis says, “racism always gets looked at as a person of color’s problem, and it’s not”. Or, even more poignantly:
“Don’t you understand that the people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft? There is something distorted about the psyche. It’s a huge waste, and it’s a corruption, and it’s a distortion. It’s like it’s a profound neurosis, that nobody examines for what it is. It feels crazy, it is crazy.”
According to Raphael Lemkin, the creator of the term genocide, indicated that genocide was not just physical and biological death, but also cultural death. Therefore, by creating a system where Black folk are forcibly pushed to deny their culture in order to survive, whiteness is committing cultural genocide. And Black folks are starting to get angry about it.
We’re also tired. We’re exhausted from explaining why our history and the history of the nation needs to be remembered. We’re worn out from telling you about the death, and the injustice that continues to to this day. We’re tired of living in the poorest neighborhoods, with the crappiest jobs, struggling to make ends meet and knowing that our children will have to experience this same struggle. You see, a movement is starting, and its one that I’m proud to be a part.
ow, I want to congratulate the readers who managed to make it this far down the page. What I had to say was tough, and it’s not going to get any easier. You see, this isn’t the first or the last time that you’re going to read something like this. Black folk have been shouting this from the rooftops for decades. It shows up in music, from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn”, to Tupac’s “Trapped” and The Game’s “Don’t Shoot”. We tell you in literature, with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Gayle Jones’ Corregidora, and Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child. We even tell you in film, (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing), news articles (Ta-Nehisi Coats’ “The Case for Reparations”), and entire — you know what? You should really learn about all of this for yourself. I’ll get you started.
You might be curious to know what I said to Polo Guy, after his comment. Well, I didn’t get a chance to say anything since the class was over, and I was frozen in a state of did-that-really-just-happen. Rather, I should say that I didn’t get a chance to say anything to him directly. But I’ve been talking to him for months now, in my head. (Dude, if you’re reading this, I hope you take some of this in, and stop acting like such a fucking caterpillar. Also, I hate your fashion sense, ‘cause it makes you look like a douchebag.).
The sad thing was that he wasn’t alone in his feelings. If I was able to go back to that moment, to turn back time and be just a moment faster with my response, I wouldn’t say much to him, because there comes a point where you just can’t be saved by anyone other than yourself. Frankly, I wouldn’t have much to say to the rest of the students who sat in their chairs and nodded their heads along to the ridiculous drivel that Polo Guy was spewing. Who I would speak to in that moment, with the light of the sun pouring through the windows to illuminate our little tableau, are the other students of color. “Don’t worry,” I’d say with assurance. “That day will come. I’ll make sure of it.”
This piece was edited by the following, in no particular order: Alexander Lee-Thomas, Tyri Watson, Michael Mark Cohen, Kristin Wilson, Sharqueya Drake, Maliq Hunsberger, Román Ramos-Baez, Erika Margaret Reiko, and Sara Trail.