There are uneducated people who are hell-bent on self-extermination. I am not one of them. I am into building up my kings and queens.
She could have been my neighbor.
28-year-old Sandra Bland was on her way to changing the world. Outspoken in the Black Lives Matter movement, courageous and compassionate, she was on her way to claim a job she had earned at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, in student outreach. What should have been a joyful and celebratory time in her life ended in tragedy. Pulled over for allegedly failing to signal a lane change, she was accused of assaulting the officer who stopped her. Video footage shows her head being slammed into the ground before she was forced into the patrol car. Three days later, she was dead in her cell. Authorities claim it was suicide. Her friends and family beg to differ.
The pain in my gut has barely subsided since I read about this news Thursday morning. Part of it is because she lived about 10 minutes away from my home in Illinois. Part of it is because I know I have made driving mistakes worse than a lane signal failure, and I feel privileged to have been let off without a ticket, let alone without an arrest ending in death. And part of it is something far more visceral: a disgust, a bewilderment, an aching that defies words. It is the awareness of a world that I am seeing from the outside coming into sharper focus with every injustice, every unwarranted or disproportionate arrest, every instance of police brutality, every knee in the back, every arm around the throat, every trigger-anxious finger gripping a gun pointed at a black body. It is staring through the eyes of privilege at an America that is a different world to those with skin darker than my own.
Sandra spoke of that world, asking white people to try to understand the difficulties of black life in the United States. And as the tragedies of the past year have compounded, from Ferguson to Charleston, I have tried to educate myself on these difficulties and write about them in my “Dismantling Racism” series. But as my education on the engrained institutional racism permeating and poisoning our nation is punctuated on a near-daily basis by any given particular outrage, I have to struggle to keep despair from crushing my spirit. It’s too deep, too horrible, too much.
These outrages don’t always come in the form of murders. Sometimes they come in the form of high school graduations that end in cheering relatives being arrested for “disturbing the peace.” Beyond the pettiness and insult of taking offense at an expression of joy, the fact that pride in a family achievement — an achievement that is disproportionately not guaranteed for black families due to factors controlled by white people (economic disparity, targeting by police for the school-to-prison pipeline, etc.) — was undercut and punished is a slap in the face that should make anyone sick.
Sometimes they come in the form of black teenagers being detained, berated and assaulted for accepting an invitation to a pool party. Dejerria Becton was brutally harassed by Officer Eric Casebolt, his knee digging into her bare skin as she lay face down on the ground in a bikini. He also pulled his gun to intimidate and enforce his power over a crowd of unarmed, terrorized teenagers. The fact that they posed no threat and quite obviously were not carrying weapons did not mitigate the cruelty and nastiness with which they were treated.
But all too often these outrages come in the form of chokeholds, severed spines, multiple bullets tearing through bodies, and children mistaken for adults and shot within 2 seconds for reaching for toy guns. In the last case, that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the officers’ crimes are compounded by the treatment of his 14-year-old sister, Tajai, who was handcuffed and thrown into the police vehicle for trying to attend to her brother. She watched helplessly as he died. Although a judge found probable cause to indict the officer for murder, he lacked the legal authority to do so, leaving it up to a grand jury to determine if charges are even warranted at all.
These outrages are only a few of those that made the news, which themselves are only a few of those that actually take place. Statistics claim that one African American is killed by police every 28 hours. And these individual injustices are simply outward incarnations of the toxic culture of racism that penetrates to the core of our nation. I recoil as I plunge into the depths of Christianity’s unholy alliance with white supremacy that allowed white slave-owners to demonize and assault their human property and claim themselves fulfillers of God’s law. I shudder as I gradually grasp the magnitude of the denial of the humanity of the African race by the nation’s revered Founding Fathers. I realize that these spiritual and national ideologies allowed a nation to be built on stolen labor and a sense of identity for whites to be built over and against and at the expense of blacks. Stolen black labor was the backbone of our national economy, but the workers who provided that labor were considered mere bodies to be used. Even the white abolitionists were rarely guilt-free when it came to the influence of white supremacy.
These vicious myths so blurred white vision that to this day we are unable to see our black brothers and sisters clearly. They eroded our souls just as surely as they destroyed black lives. I trace this mythology through slavery and Jim Crow, through lynchings and mobs of opposition to human rights. I trace it through laws designed to deny housing and benefits based on race and through a highway system that deliberately tore black neighborhoods apart. I trace it through gentrification and the enduring concept of “white value” that devalues black integration and tells parents of white students that their children are better off in schools without diversity (while giving black parents the opposite message). I realize all the ways in which de facto segregation undermined the Civil Rights movement, and realize that, even though it is now politically correct to claim racial blindness, the marginalization and stigmatization of black people over time has created hidden fears and prejudices in the white psyche.
And then I look at the greed of the prison industrial complex, and realize how easy it is for a nation that has never confronted its diabolical racial history to design a system of for-profit prisons reintroducing slave labor via prisoners, mostly African Americans disproportionately arrested and convicted. Our nation is still running on the marginalization, brutalization, and exploitation of African Americans. The 13th amendment still allows for slavery as punishment for a crime. But prison labor is just the tip of the iceberg. As Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report says, “black mass incarceration serves the vital purpose of morally justifying America’s viciously unequal and racist economic and social order.” By disenfranchising and stigmatizing prisoners and ex-prisoners, the incarceration system limits resources for many African American communities and blame the victims of a heartless economic system instead of the system itself. We could not get away with our bloated prison industrial complex and corrupt criminal injustice system without the persistent devaluation of black lives, and the persistent devaluation of black lives helps uphold our corrupt criminal injustice system.
The deeper I go, the uglier it gets. Privilege has clouded my eyes by sheltering me from the indignities of the realities faced by African Americans. Even those who emerge successful from this lopsided system are still met with distrust, prejudice, and belittlement. And they are still in danger of a more blunt and vicious racism – still in danger of having their heads slammed into the sidewalk by police officers for offenses as benign as failing to signal a turn.
I can read name after name, see face after face, lose count as I try to tally all those who have fallen prey to racism at its most lethal (even as I resolved to write this article I became aware of 18-year-old Kindra Chapman, also found dead of alleged asphyxiation). I can plumb the depths of the systemic racism that form essential context to every one of these stories. I can feel rage and disgust at the cruelty and ignorance of my racial ancestors. The fact that some of my personal ancestors were fairly liberal and compassionate (though they evolved from their own blind spots, just as I must continually evolve from mine) is irrelevant to the fact that they and I have benefitted from a nation that has profited off of exploitation. I can even claim that white privilege is harmful to white as well as black people, for it robs us both of a fuller relationship. I do honestly believe that, but of course, I cannot compare the debits I experience as a result of white privilege to those of an African American.
But no matter how much empathy I cultivate, I cannot know what it is like to fear for my life or those of my loved ones every time they or I get into a car. I cannot know what it is like to walk down the streets and evoke misgivings and fear that might easily rebound against me. I cannot know what it is like to mourn a loved taken in a crime and fear that the law will not be on my side. I cannot know what it is like to need protection from those whose job it is to serve and protect.
My heart aches for Sandra Bland. I have no proof of how she died, but I cannot believe she committed suicide. Look again at her opening quote, taken from this video. She was about to start a job in student outreach, and from the video, showing her radiating kindness and confidence, I believe that she would have excelled and enhanced the lives of all with whom she would come into contact. Like her friends and family, I have questions about how she died and demand a full investigation. The pattern of police brutality against African Americans, rooted in the myth of white supremacy, is enough reason to doubt the official story, but the particulars of Sandra’s case make the allegation doubly suspicious. She was outspoken against police brutality and grateful to the gentleman who videotaped her arrest despite the officer’s protest. The officer’s illegal command to stop the filming is evidence that he wanted Sandra silenced, no matter what further action may have been taken.
If Sandra did commit suicide, then authorities managed to break her spirit as well as assault her body. And I find that much harder to believe. Her spirit lives on in those who continue her struggle to assert that #BlackLivesMatter. I join this struggle. Taking my cues from Sandra Bland and my African American friends, I strive to transform white privilege into true equal rights for all, repent of my complicity, and help untangle this wicked web of racism– a lie that has caused true suffering and stolen too many black lives.
Image via Twitter #WhatHappenedToSandraBland
See other posts in this series: