America’s one-sided race problem continues unabated. As “post racial” as we want to believe ourselves to be, we, as a society, continue to demonize young Black men and women, in ways that truncate their life opportunities and rob ourselves of their leadership, their business and workforce talent.
America’s current tragedy is not just the murder of Mike Brown, or all the others killed by police, to the tune of one Black person every 28 hours, according to Operation Ghetto Storm.
America’s tragedy is the aftermath of Mike Brown’s murder even beyond and in addition to the looting and the police department’s war ready stance. America’s tragedy is the recurrence of what we do as Americans in situations that involve young Black men and women.
It is America’s comfort at the demonization of young Black men and women− a societal default response in dealing with police-related deaths of young Black men – as if Mike Brown’s being a suspect in robbing a store somehow justified his death. It is the reality that his family and supporters have to constantly emphasize that he was a young man with hope and a desire for a positive future. And it is our insistence that if he has any negative behavior – proven or rumored – we are justified in dismissing him as a “thug,” whose death will not matter even though he was a young man who worked hard and wanted more for himself and his future. That if he is dismissed and demonized as just a “thug,” it is ok to simply shoot him six times. He was just Black in America and disposable.
America’s on-going tragedy is its willingness to stay close to the hypocrisy of its roots: its Declaration of Independence – which states that all men are created equal – signed by representatives of the 13 original colonies in which enslavement was legal. America’s tragedy is one of willful denial: a denial of the fact that with all its progress, it has not much strayed – culturally – from the roles its assigns African Americans in its national narrative and from the way it treats its African-American citizens.
Too many Americans – too many Marylanders, too many Whites, and too many comfortable African Americans who have negotiated America’s racial caste system enough to feel that they have “made it” – look at the events in Ferguson with jaundiced eyes, blind to the reality of structural and institutional racism (and many don’t even know what this means) and blind to the fact that historically, raced-based privileges still exist. They are willfully blind to the fact that cities and suburbs alike in Maryland have their own Mike Brown stories. And no amount of data, anecdotes, or legalized and cultural patterns will convince them of this fact. Too many White citizens will not want to believe it and too many comfortable African-American citizens will be working overtime trying to disprove and/or justify these race-based realities in order to validate their own American success.
Our ongoing American tragedy – playing not only in a city near you, like Ferguson, but in THIS region as well − means we are comfortable denying workforce and educational opportunities to the Mike Browns of OUR world because of where they live. Or it may be their names are too “ethnic,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research or the fact that they do not “present” in a way in which we as a white-acculturated society (and make no mistake, people of color –including African Americans−are white-acculturated, too) demand.
When African-American citizens talk about being illegally stopped by police; when our youth talk about having their pants pulled down by policemen on public streets; when mothers of Black boys talk about “preparing their sons” to survive encounters with police; when we see statistics about the racial disparities in stops, arrests, convictions of Black men and women; instead of listening we immediately think they were doing something “wrong.” We brand THEM as being “wrong,” “broken,” “thug-like,” instead of examining systems and structures – OUR systems and structures – which have historically been proven to be racialized, wrong and broken.
We prefer to believe in our rose-colored glass fiction of a “post-racial” reality when everything – statistics, social indicators, disparities – everything in this society confirms the opposite.
America’s unwavering tragedy is not what is happening in Ferguson. It is the way in which we, nationally – black, white, brown, red, yellow – avert our heads from conversation of institutional and structural racism. And just as tragically, it is the way in which we do it here, and almost everywhere in America.
What is happening in Ferguson is an outgrowth; a symptom of a larger problem, part and parcel of our American tragedy. But make no mistake: it is not THE problem.
Our willful denial of the institutional and structural racism around us and our refusal to look at it, understand it and then take action to change it – THAT is THE problem. Our collective economic future depends upon us dealing with this reality.
Diane Bell-McKoy is president and CEO of Associated Black Charities – Baltimore