Criminal Justice · Police Violence · Racism

Respectability will not Protect Us

I originally wrote this on September 2, 2014

On August 9th, 18 year old Michael Brown was murdered by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson Missouri. Michael and his friend were walking home when Darren Wilson pulled up next to them and told them to get out of the street. What happened next is in dispute, as the police and eyewitnesses have different accounts of what transpired, but the end result being that Michael was shot at least six times by Darren Wilson, while his hands were up in surrender. His lifeless body laying in the street for four hours, uncovered, along with the disappearance of Darren Wilson, inspired 10 days of peaceful protesting by Ferguson residents and organizers across the country, who traveled to Ferguson to provide solidarity and support to the community.

A community-led uprising, protesting police murder of another unarmed black man, the treatment of his black body as worthless, and the fact that Darren Wilson had (and still has) not been arrested, was met with militarized police violence. For 10 nights, men, women and children demanding justice were pummeled with tear gas, rubber bullets, threatened with more violence, and the suspension of first amendment rights to document the terror (add link to news article). In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing, along with the murders of Eric Garner, Ezel Ford, Jonathon Crawford, and others, there has been increased mainstream media attention to America’s militarized police forces, police brutality, and continuing racial inequality.

There also the voices of people, both conservative and liberal, black and white, from President Obama to the anonymous internet commenter, who clamor to place the blame for racism and police violence on the black community itself, while also chastising the black community for not caring about “black on black crime.” For these people, the end of racism will only come about when black people stop sagging their pants, saying nigga, and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. What they are choosing to ignore is that racism is systemic, and that black bodies have been marked for centuries as inherently deviant, dangerous, criminal and threatening. Our skin color, our existence as racialized bodies, are why we are victimized by not only individuals, but the state, and individual changes in behavior and attire will not change that reality. I have created a list of the six most common actions that people suggest that black people partake in order to prevent racism against ourselves, and how they will emphatically NOT end racism.

6 Actions That Will Not End Racism

  1. Black people ending usage of n!gga. A derivative of the racial slur n!gger, many Black people have chosen to reclaim and change the original meaning of this word. The word that has different meanings depending on who is saying it and how it is being said, from Yo Gotti’s “My N!gga” and Jay Z featuring Foxy Brown, “Ain’t No N!gga” to Mos Def’s “Mr . N!gga”. Despite the fact that there is much debate within our community about the usage of this word, racism will not crumble to its feet if people stop using the word tomorrow. The colloquial use of n!gga in the black community has no relation to systemic racism and state violence against us.
  2. Black boys and men not sagging their pants. Sagging pants, while not being aesthetically pleasing to many, does not mean the men who wear them are thugs or criminals, and it is not an excuse for inequitable treatment of black people. Black boys and men sagging their pants has no relation to systemic racism and state violence against us.
  3. Black people not committing, “black on black crime”. Brilliant writers have written extensively on why this phrase makes no sense, since most crime is intra-racial. The violence that plagues many poor black communities IS related to state violence against black bodies, and is a symptom of entrenched poverty, unemployment, inequitable education system, and is fueled by the prison industrial complex.
  4. Black people not listening to or creating hip hop music. In a NY Times article on Michael Brown, the writer used the fact that he recorded “violent” rap lyrics as one reason he was “no angel”. Violent and misogynistic rap lyrics are extremely problematic, but too many people blame the music for black youth’s behavior and violence in our community, instead of the systemic causes listed in action three. Rap lyrics have no relation to systemic racism and state violence against us.
  5. Black people wearing their Sunday best seven days a week. The organizers of the civil rights movement in the 1960s dressed in their best when they marched against segregation, because they believed that it showed that black people were deserving of equal treatment. But guess what, those sharply dressed protestors were still met with water hoses, dogs, and billy clubs. This also relates to employment, education and class status; Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Black Harvard professor, whom I assumed was probably dressed very nicely, was arrested because a neighbor thought he was breaking into a house, when he was actually trying to get into him own home. From AAIHS, writing about the history of black respectability politics, the author states, “No degree of black respectability is sufficient to offset pre-conditioned prejudice and the privileges offered by white supremacy. The message is: act obediently, and maybe, someday, we will stop kicking your ass. But probably not.”
  6. Black people only speaking the king’s English and giving up African American Vernacular English (AAVE). If you don’t understand by now that AAVE has been recognized by linguists as a legitimate form of the English language, with its own grammar rules, and that many black people have mastered the art of code switching in order to both make a living and communicate with each other, then there is nothing more for me to say.

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