Ferguson, HBCUs and the Post-Racialism That Never Was

Electing and re-electing President Barack Obama did not wipe out anti-blackness.

The president’s presence has not reversed white supremacist policing or perception. For all the black excellence and diversity of some Obama appointees, regular black folks’ blood stays on the leaves. And our legal processes and state actors often keep it that way.

Injustice in Ferguson, Missouri reminds us. The ultimate victim was Michael Brown, who was gunned down. His family and friends are victims. His community is victimized. Last Monday night’s failure to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed 18-year-old Brown revisited cultural trauma upon countless black people and sympathetic others.

It’s a familiar pain captured by Spelman College student government president Mary Pickard, who told the International Business Times, HBCU student leaders adopted the mantra, “If my brother is in jail, I’m in jail. If my brother is not free, I’m not free.”

It’s clear: We are not free.

A police officer should not have choked Eric Garner to death. A police officer should not have shot and killed seven-year-old Aiyana Jones. Police officer wannabe and neighborhood watch self-appointee George Zimmerman should not have pursued, much less killed Trayvon Martin. Michael Dunn should not have killed Jordan Davis.

Oscar Grant. Yvette Smith. Tarika Wilson. Amadou Diallo. So many more black victims could be named. After all, when a police officer’s push comes to shove, the pushed and shoved, and shot and killed, and left without dignity, and impugned once killed and unable to rebut, are often black people.

Frequently, shooters fit a profile: police officers, cop aspirants or people whose racist assumptions give them a sense of entitlement to police public spaces. See: Michael Dunn.

So yes, we must keep having painful and awkward conversations. We tearfully and fearfully scroll timelines, watch TVs and stream online coverage as institutional failures and judicially sanctioned immunities and defenses pile black bodies.

We keep emphasizing black people’s humanity and our supporters. We appreciate Palestinians who gave domestic protesters messages of hope and tips for dealing with police brutality.

We watch reporters, activists and black intellectuals like Cornel West get arrested for being on the right side of history. We follow journalists of color whose lived experiences when combined with training and ethics add more substance to their stories.

We have to keep the save-black-people-from-police-brutality campaign accessible. Because as black people, black parents, parents of black kids, friends, lovers, spouses and supporters of black people know, the stakes are too high.

We have to keep saying blackness and big blackness are not inherent weapons. As a result, these Hulk smash depictions of unarmed black youth shouldn’t fly. Remember when Zimmerman’s attorneys argued Martin was armed because he possessed the concrete sidewalk?

We cope with realities like those music and culture critic Greil Marcus told The Daily Beast about, “When you look at the murder of Trayvon Martin, when you look at the murder of Michael Brown, when you look at those situations, it’s not unrelated to Obama being president.” He argued the shooters subconsciously thought by killing these black teens they were also killing President Obama.

It’s an ugly thought, but we face ugly realities. We need police officers to receive socio-cultural training. We need them tested for and trained against implicit biases. We need them to value black lives, but also to appreciate black youth and stop accelerating black ages to rationalize undue force.

American Psychological Association research released earlier this year highlighted wrongheaded beliefs that black kids are older and/or more criminal. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” said author Phillip Atiba Goff.

We need police officers to use proportionality. Is their level of force appropriate in relation to the threat? What if the threat is inborn, i.e. race?

Many call for officers to wear body cameras. Others emphasize the need for black people to keep using our phones to photograph and record police interactions. We need officers to keep their names and badge numbers visible. We need them to support, not subvert, law and order.

We need help. We need allies to speak in spaces in which we aren’t welcomed or present. We need to vote. We need to read. We need to write. We need to march. We need to protest. We need to contribute how we can. We need to support organizers, our foot soldiers. We need to teach our history. Admittedly, this means continued funding of higher education and especially HBCUs, whose unique missions and histories equip us to address racial injustice.

As a society, we need a lot. As black people, we need to live long enough to even need.

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