The Emancipation of the Black Athlete

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When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the National Anthem, he did so to raise the conversation of black genocide at the hands of the state. If there is any indicator as to how urgent it was for him to do so, it was in the response from the viewers, the fans, the owners, and even our President. It has been a message that has always been given to athletes–black ones especially. That message was, and remains to be, to stick to sports.

That saying is the definition of black life in America. Many remember in the movie The Great Debaters, where Denzel Washington’s character references Willy Lynch, one of the early white supremacists, inventors of lynching, and author of How To Make African-American Slaves For A Thousand Years. In discussing how to make slaves useful, the idea was to ensure the physical strength, but mental weakness of the enslaved. He wrote of a system that would enable slave owners to control their slaves in order to ensure maximum productivity, with the least likelihood of rebellion. He writes, “Keep the mind, take the body! In other words, break the will to resist.”

When Trump told owners to “get that son of a bitch off the field”, he was carrying not just the tradition of Willy Lynch, but the idea that black athletes value rests only in their body, and any other worldly pursuits should be abandoned. It’s that rhetoric that would have kept black folks from obtaining an education, from having the right to vote, and kept our enslaved ancestors from learning how to read. It is also the rhetoric that has kept Colin Kaepernick from a job, and a means from NFL owners to teach a lesson to the other field negroes that they just need to stick to sports, lest you end up like that other nigger who talked too much.

To see the growth  Kaep has made over the years is empowering. But his growth does not exist within a vacuum. For anyone (wypipo) who can’t understand the significance of what is happening on the field right now: just know it’s book 2 of The Hunger Games, Trump is President Snow, Kaep is our Mockingjay, and all the other tributes are finally getting in formation, with the power of the people behind them. Kaep did not invent the wheel, a whole lot of folks been on the ground working and dying up until now, but he came at the right time to make a point. He added oil to an already burning fire.

The conversations in sports have always mirrored society’s consciousness. We can look to the field to show us how low we can go as a people, but that same field can also show us something better to aspire to. 

Black folk have looked to sports to not just escape our reality, but to empower it. In this sense, athletes could never just stick to sports, because their existence transcended it. Kaep is not the first, nor will he be last. In Kaep, we can see the 1968 Olympics, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Jack Johnson and so many others who today’s black athletes stand on the shoulders of.

What we are witnessing is a century long battle of the emancipation of the black athlete, and thus the emancipation for black folk. Black athletes are showing their value is not in their bodies, but in reclaiming the power in their voice.

Whether or not every player in the NFL kneels or not today, it won’t matter, because the wheel has been set in motion, and it won’t turn back. We will be free. 

 

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From 60 Years Ago Until Donald Trump Today: A History of Making Racism Sound Socially Appealing

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Last week,  we saw the unimaginable happen–the UK voted to leave the EU in the name of xenophobia and fear of all things non-white. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. For me, being black and living in the US,  this is frightening. Because what divided the UK vote and put Europe in shambles was the same conversation that are dividing voters in the U.S. 

How did we get to where we are today? Where politicians can be so openly hateful and divisive, and through doing so, they only become more popular?

Just like #Brexit, I never imagined Donald Trump making it this far. From the whole backlash after his remarks about Latinos at the beginning of his campaign, he seemed doomed. His poor choice of words caused him to lose endorsements and business deals, tv stations like NBC and Univision were publicly denouncing him, and we all just assumed that eventually he would fade away. But what no one seemed to acknowledge was that the power was never in news stations attempting to cut ties with him, the power wasand still isin the hands of the people who are choosing to vote for him, show up to his rallies, and stand up for everything he saysno matter how ugly the words may turn out to be.

When most presidential candidates would soften their language to ease the backlash and gain support, Trump keeps pushing the hate, and people not only keep coming, they are being more enthusiastic than before. His rallies have been anything but normal. He has found a group of people that are not appalled, but attracted by all of his antics. The more divisive his language gets, the more solidified his following becomes.

As the number of followers grows, so does the media attention corporate support. One month, mainstream news media outlets are distancing all ties, and the next, they can’t get enough from him. You turn on CNN any given morning, and they will be either broadcasting a Trump rally, showing highlights of Trump speaking, or talking to him directly on the phone. The same goes for every other mainstream network. NBC, the same network that dropped endorsement after his initial remarks about Latino immigrants, had him on Saturday Night Live! as a host two months later.

What Donald Trump realized is that there is a segment of Americans who are clinging on to a certain idea of what America should be–and that is what America once was. Trump supporters don’t want America to be great again, they want it to be white again. The more this is being realized, the more we are seeing other politicians also change their rhetoric. And we are seeing a group of closeted racists feeling empowered by Trump’s words and unashamed in their own prejudices.

This didn’t happen overnight, and this didn’t start with Trump. This sort of extreme hateful rhetoric has been used to appease to a certain voter basewhitesfor more than half a century. The difference now is that we are seeing it reach new extremes and being taken more seriously than before, which is why it’s important to know how we got to a point where a man like Trump can be taken seriously as a presidential candidate: because he is a product of partisan politics gone wrong, and how dangerous this type of strategy is–and has been–for democracy.

 

George Wallace: “Segregation Forever!”

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In his inauguration as Alabama governor, George Wallace stood in front of a large crowd on a cold January day in 1963, proclaiming:

Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Those words reflected a reality in the American South: white Southerners were not willing to compromise a way of life that had been the backbone of southern identity—the oppression of African Americans through Jim Crow.

The irony is that just four years prior, George Wallace ran on a much different platform. He had a moderate stance on civil rights, and was even endorsed by the NAACP. Had he ran for governor a decade earlier, perhaps a moderate stance on race would not have hurt his chances, but by 1958, civil rights had come to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, and it impacted white Americans’ way of life. No longer was ‘Civil Rights’ just some abstract idea in the distant future—it was in their front yard, staring them in the face. By 1958, the country had seen the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Brown decision, and the Civil RIghts Act of 1957. More black organizations were being created and a collective black voice was growing to tackle once and for all a century-long battle for equality. The more gains the Civil Rights Movement made, the more white Americans would be forced to open their arms, their restaurants, and their schools to black Americans. As tensions grew, whites who opposed integration started looking for a politician who would voice their hate.

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“Then I began talking about niggersand they stomped the floor.”

 

In 1958, Wallace didn’t take those events into account, and he lost because of it. Four years later, and he would not allow himself to make the same mistake. His opinions—along with his rhetoric—changed drastically. Whereas he was once backed by the NAACP, four years later he was wooing the Ku Klux Klan with white supremacist language in order to secure his place as Alabama governor. In his own words, the response from the white South to his change was clear: “you know, I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes—and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about niggers—and they stomped the floor.”

While campaigning, Wallace made it clear how strong he favored keeping Alabama schools segregated. In June of his first year as governor, he had his chance to show how far he was willing to go in order to preserve the traditional—racist—way of life in the South. It was that same year the Federal Courts ordered that the University of Alabama desegregate and enroll two black students—Vivian Malone and James Hood. The Deputy Attorney General came in from Washington in order to ensure the law would be upheld, and was joined by hundreds of print and television reporters, all watching to see how the Alabama governor would handle the event.

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Wallace stayed true to the word and flair that he was becoming known for. He read a speech full of fiery, staunchly segregationist language in front of a crowd of people who only wanted to hear the words of someone in favor of segregation, and they loved it. He spoke of the federal government’s commitment to racial justice as a tyrannical force infringing the rights of Southerners. Without any sense of irony, he went on to say, “I stand here today, as Governor of this sovereign State, and refuse to willingly submit to illegal usurpation of power by the Central Government.”

 

“Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern. The whole United States is Southern.”

 

Wallace wasn’t able to change the court order with such antics, and the students were eventually admitted. But even if he didn’t get his way this time, it turned to be a learning experience for him, and one that would alter the rhetoric of politics from that point onward. Yes, the federal government had ruled in favor of supporting civil rights, but just like Donald Trump today, Wallace was learning that many of his constituents desired something different. He realized that channeling white hostility towards black Americans didn’t need to be restricted to the South. “They all hate black people,” he said, “all of them. They’re all afraid, all of them. Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern. The whole United States is Southern.” It was not a matter of getting everyone who didn’t believe in him to vote for him. It was a matter of getting everyone who did believe in him to vote for him. Wallace wasn’t targeting America, he was targeting racist white America.

With that understanding of going after a very specific demographic as a voter base, he decided to take his politics beyond Alabama and to the White House. Not under “white supremacy,” but by catering to the idea of “States’ Rights” and demanding the federal government stay out of affairs that, in his opinion, they had no say over. By demanding “States’ Rights”, he argued for self-governance, and the idea that even if racism was immoral, it was the right of each state to decide that, and on what terms. He carried on the tradition that began when slavery was established and then debated, and what the Civil War—or as many southerners still call it, “The War of Northern Aggression”—was fought on: state autonomy versus federalism. Only now, Wallace was softening the language to be used at a time when you couldn’t be openly racist, even if the rhetoric clearly showed it.  Like Trump, he was creating a socially acceptable racism, and he was finding an audience that was more than willing to hear him.

It didn’t matter that Wallace never made it all the way to the White House. By his later campaigns, hundreds of thousands of people would come to see him speak at campaign rallies, not only in the South, but the North as well. That turnout should say something—even with laws being passed that favored equality, not everyone was willing to move with the times. The shift in Wallace’s rhetoric doesn’t show that his ideologies changed, but rather how he capitalized on the fact that the general consciousness of many white Americans had remained the same.

 

Barry Goldwater’s ‘White Lilies’ Start to Bloom

After Wallace’s presidential bids, other politicians  began to take note of these trends as well. At the same time as Wallace, Barry Goldwater was courting the segregationist vote. Even if Barry wasn’t from the South, he knew the right words could win him white votes, and that’s all that mattered to him. Like Wallace, in the late 1950s until 1960 Goldwater voted for civil rights legislation, but by 1961 he was realizing that maybe there were more gains to be made by courting white segregationists. He took the idea of “States’ rights” as a fight against a looming government on the verge of controlling everyone’s lives. Similar to Wallace, Goldwater was using the case for segregation as a means of states exercising their political liberty. The irony: it was liberty through denying black Americans their own freedom.

Goldwater was one of only five senators from outside the South who voted against the Civil Rights Bill in 1964. For his 1964 presidential bid, he campaigned throughout the South with theatrical tricks to talk about race in coded language and imagery. His campaign rallies would be filled with full-bloom white lilies, in addition to a sea of white Southern ladies in all-white gowns. In doing so, he was making a very clear message to a white base: he was here to preserve whiteness in all its purity.

 

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To give some context, it should be known that the fear of black men raping white women is what allowed lynchings to go unchecked for almost 100 years, and it was the same notion that allowed segregation to flourish. The myth fed to the public was that by keeping the races separated, white women would be protected from black men. Goldwater knew what he was doing. From the flowers to the white gowns, Goldwater was attempting to be seen as a white savior against civil rights without ever having to mention race.

 

Nixon’s ‘Tough on Crime’

Even if Goldwater or Wallace never became president, they both set the tone for other candidates, like Richard Nixon, to carry on and fine-tune their ideas. By Nixon’s second term, he was outspokenly against the forced busing mandated to desegregate schools, and he adopted a tough-on-crime rhetoric that spoke out against the civil rights movement as being “lawless”, and argued that allowing such protests—no matter how peaceful—to go unchecked would tear down the foundation of a civilized society. He was equating civil disobedience to criminality.

It was that definition of lawlessness that Nixon was able to refine to a high degree in order to speak out against black Americans, even if he wasn’t the first to attempt to make the relationship. In fact, the first argument  during the 1950s in response to civil-rights activists was the idea of “law and order.” In the same way Barry Goldwater appealed to racial fears of black men raping white women at his rallies, politicians were catering once again to the fear of poor and working-class whites, especially at a time when whites were being asked to make an effort towards achieving equal civil rights for black Americans. Civil rights legislation had been passed, and now it needed to be implemented. Federal court orders gave schools a strict deadline on when to desegregate and required busing from lower income—usually black—communities. Predominantly white communities were now being affected by such court orders, and many—in the North and the South—weren’t happy with how their neighborhoods, schools, and institutions were being impacted by such decisions.

Nixon knew of this contempt that many people had towards civil rights, and he offered solutions that reflected that. He had to show that segregation was the answer to whites’ problems. But it had become politically dangerous to say that openly, so instead he discredited the civil rights movement by labeling it as “lawless” , and then standing against policies that were pro-civil rights–such as forced school busing, and being tough on crime. Nixon’s “tough on crime” agenda wasn’t directed at crime, but at black Americans through attempting to associate race and crime and then appealing to racist beliefs without openly doing so.

 

The Southern Strategy

Nixon didn’t come to these conclusions on his own, and maybe that’s why he was so much more successful than Goldwater and Wallace. in 1969, a Nixon strategist by the name of Kevin Phillips published a 500-page document titled The Emerging Republican Majority. In it, he made the well established argument that what divided voters was not issues of class, but race. And NIxon’s actions showed this could be true. In 1968, Nixon won his first term by a close margin, and his agenda was much more racially ambiguous. By the 1972 election, his policies had changed to reflect Philips’s wisdom, and he won by a landslide.

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From that point onwards, the Republican party, not just Nixon, would adopt what would be known as the “Southern Strategy”. It entailed an understanding that to stay relevant and keep a strong voting base, they would appeal to southern white men and what southern white men valued most: white supremacy. “We’ll go after the racists,” one of Nixon’s aides, John Ehrlichman, wrote. “That subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always in Nixon’s statements and speeches on schools and housing.” H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff, would also say that the “whole problem is really the blacks….the key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

 

“We’ll go after the racists.”

After Nixon, Ronald Reagan carried on that tradition. Firstly, he went one step further by adding to the tough on-crime-rhetoric with a specific stance on poverty, associating welfare with giving handouts to ungrateful blacks for the hard work that white Americans were doing. Not only was he associating race with crime, but with poverty as well. Even if Nixon first proclaimed a war on drugs, it was Reagan who made it what we know of it today, one that would disproportionately impact communities of color, a fact that many people would be completely okay with.

What started as just racially coded language in the 1950s in response to civil rights turned into a war that terrorized black communities while catering to white fears. The “welfare queen” of Reagan’s presidency, the drug laws he passed, which flourished under Clinton’s and George W’s administrations, can trace their origins to the rhetoric of the likes of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater.

This is how we get to where we are today. This is how we herd millions of African Americans into prisons, continue to fund schools unequally, and keep urban conditions the same, if not worse, than 50 years ago. This is how we solidify a racial caste system without ever vocalizing the word “race.”

 

The Birth of Trump and Modern Politics

The parallels are too similar between 60 years ago and now, and history tells us that this can get more extreme. Donald Trump represents everything that is wrong with American democracy, and how partisan politics undermines democracy—that to be elected by the people, we should aspire to be the people, no matter how ugly their sentiments may be. In Trump, we look to a country that was founded on whiteness and black oppression, and that has continually remained unapologetic to such racist origins. His success is not that he could be president, his success is understanding what many Americans still hold dear to them—white supremacy. 

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I can imagine that, behind closed doors, Trump and his associates were having the same conversations that Nixon, Goldwater, or Wallace were having: how to cater to a voting base, or use hate and fear for political gain.

How is Donald Trump discussing building a wall any different than Wallace’s “Segregation forever”? How is his criminalizing of Latinos for wanting a better life different than Nixon’s labeling of African Americans protesting equality as “lawless”?  From Trump’s polarizing Islamophobic language, to his anti-Immigration hypocrisy, to the general racist atmosphere that permeates everything he says and everywhere he speaks–the rise of Donald Trump is no mystery, however frightening the outcomes seem to be. Trump is America’s #Brexit, just a more openly racist agenda and a playbook that has continually been added to. His whole rhetoric is taken from his predecessors–Wallace, Goldwater, Nixon and a host of others who realized that there was more to  gain by dividing than unifying through partisan politics.

We may not get a president out of Trump, but we are getting a public acceptance of being openly hateful, and that is just as dangerous. 

 

Barack Obama Responds to the Four African American 6th Graders’ Letter on #BlackLivesMatter

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It’s been almost 3 months since I first shared the letter from the four African American 6th graders–Zayd, Phoenix, Keidy, and Bryson–addressed to President Barack Obama. In the letter, they point to the depressing statistics facing African American youth today, and inform Obama that as an African American in the highest elected office, he has a duty to helping find solutions to institutional racism.

The letter has since touched many hearts, and received thousands of shares over social media sites. National news sites, blogs, and TV stations have all kept these boys’ words alive. Since the letter has been posted, these boys have been asked to speak on panels, recite their letter in public, and answer questions so many people now have for them. They were even nominated and won the Human Rights Heroes award in their hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts.

And just last week, four large envelopes appeared at Wildwood Elementary School. Each addressed to one of the boys, with a return address of none other: the White House. These four 6th grade boys wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, and the President wrote back.

LetterFromObamaThese kids, are just that–kids. But they are black, and thus have to learn harsher lessons of what adulthood means earlier on, because society doesn’t put their childhood into account. They found this out the hard way when racist comments began trolling the various websites their letter was posted on.

But more importantly, they are learning that the power of words transcends racist bigots, and can go all the way to the White House.

I’m proud of what these boys have been able to achieve, and look forward to seeing what more they have to say, because this is just the beginning.

Here is the full letter from President Barack Obama to the boys:

Dear, Keidy, Zayd, Pheonix, and Bryson

Thank you for your powerful letter. I appreciate hearing from you, and I admire your courage in speaking out on the important issues our Nation faces. When any part of our American family doesn’t feel fairly treated, that’s a problem for all of us–it means we are not as strong as a country as we could be. All young people deserve to live, learn and grow in safe and supportive environments, and providing your generation with every chance to realise your full potential is a priority for me in everything I do as President.

As a nation, we have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I have witnessed that in my own life. Still, important work remains to be done. That is why my administration is working to build better relations between law enforcement and those they serve, and we will keep striving everyday to help communities heal and recover so students like you can reach for your highest aspiration.

As you continue to build on your unique talents and skills, I hope you never forget that ours is a country where, with hard work and determination, you can accomplish anything you can imagine. So dream big, always look to help others, and put your best effort into everything you do–because I’m counting on your generation to chart our Nation’s course.

Again, thank you for writing. I hope you will remain committed in both thought and action toward the solutions needed to help shape a brighter tomorrow. Please remember your President expects great things from you.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama

The Importance of Black History

Last month, I was invited to speak at Amherst Regional High School as the keynote speaker for their Black History Month Teach-In, here is the full talk.

The Nuances Behind Charlie Hebdo, and How We Act

461143542-people-gather-at-union-square-in-reaction-to-the.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlargeOn Wednesday, we witnessed 12 people people pay the ultimate price for free speech. I of all people know how valuable free speech is, this blog is a testament to that sacredness. But we need to be honest about how we honor these lives, and to what extent we criticize what Charlie Hebdo stood up to. There is a fine line between defending free speech, and perpetuating racism through ignorance.

As in any event of violence, the appropriate–and no doubt expected–response to such events should be remorse and sympathy. All of us who were affected by the Boston Bombings, the shootings of Sandy Hook Elementary, and more recently, the deaths of black men to the state stand in solidarity with the people of France.

The most important thing for these events is to remember that sometimes random acts of violence are just that: random. To place them in a larger context of systemic problems can be accurate, but sometimes we end up only fueling the problem. As so many people did last week with the shooting of two NYPD officers by someone who is clearly mentally ill, it seems the same goes for those hoping to ignite an argument against Muslim Extremism. To use these events as a means to lump an entire region together seems not just wrong, but a double standard to the success of western capitalism and its own history of religious extremism.

To defend free speech is one thing, but to use it as a means to generalize a world full of people who practice a peaceful religion is a dangerous path to take, and it seems like that is the one so many people are leaning towards. The work of Charlie Hebdo reflects trends of a worldwide view already established. Their deaths will only fuel a movement to discredit peaceful muslims all over the world that is already gaining momentum. Attacks against Islam are not just racist, islamophobic, or xenophobic, but show our willingness to be ignorant of what we don’t fully understand. To say Charlie Hebdo stood for free speech and call them heroes without giving a critique of how their drawings were not just offensive, but mocked the legacy of real heroes of free speech is lazy. It will only fuel more persecution of the peaceful, law-abiding muslims around the world.

Muslim extremism must be criticized and ridiculed.  I’m a strong believer in religion–all religions–and holding those religious adherents to the standard of the words they preach, but we can’t claim that interpretations are the origins of a religion. If that were the case, we should be passing the same criticism towards Christianity and the inequality it not just perpetuated, but created. It was in the name of Jesus Christ that Europeans justified colonizing Africa. It was Christianity that helped so many white Americans justify the enslavement of Africans, and the manifest destiny behind exterminating millions of Native Americans and the western colonialism of Central and South America. It was the Christian cross that burned–with the intent to instill fear in African Americans–for much of the 20th century. Yes, Christians don’t do that today, many will argue that point, but the damage has been done and  western privilege established.

So many of us in the West today  use our global privilege to ignore the history we are products of, and only examine events that seem like we took no part in. What the Muslim extremists are doing is no different from what the Church did in Europe for much of the last Millenium. We may not do so today, but we built a civilization on religious extremism, and when other regions of the world attempt do the same, we call them barbarians when all they are doing is taking note on what has been done so many times before. Muslim extremism does not exist in a vacuum. Those countries we look at with suspicion are the same countries with histories of being placed at war to the Christian extremism of the crusades. When Israel bombs Palestinian children, we never say Judaism is inherently flawed, so what makes Islam any different?

We are the proponents of free speech and democracy–this much is true–but we need to also understand that we hail from people who weren’t much different from these Muslim extremists. The history of western freedom was fueled by the economics of religious extremism. Missing from so many conversations and debates is an understanding of the commonality of those people the media perpetually casts as the other. It is either intentional, or by the blindness we’ve been conditioned to think with.

At its worst, Charlie Hebdo was simply racist, and the double standard of our history guarded this as free speech. When we don’t realize this, we fail ourselves.

Reflections on Ferguson: Notes From Malawi

RIP michael BrownAs I write this, I sit in a cafe in the city of Blantrye, the second largest city in Malawi. It’s a beautiful country–from the people, the scenery,  and the mood that fills my soul. But what’s most beautiful is how I fit into this space. This is the land of the resting place of my grandparents, of their parents and grandparents as well. I have seen almost 60 acres of land in my family’s name. I have seen a giant monument in the capital in honor of the late president–designed by my uncle. I have gone back to my native village that my family has lived in for generations, and where a long line of Bandas have served as chiefs. I have heard stories of my grandparents, and how my grandfather–the man who I am named after–served this country as founder of the first black political party in Malawi, and then served as one of the first foreign servicemen upon Malawi’s independence as an Ambassador. In the states, my history is always clouded by slavery, Jim Crow, and the refusal of basic human rights. In Malawi, my history is that of chiefs, public servicemen, and humanitarians.

Just the other day, I attended an event with Malawian politicians, diplomats, and other higher up officials. I was sitting in between the CEO of The Nation–the leading Malawian newspaper, and a Malawian Parliament member. Immediately after introductions, we began discussing politics, and they asked me about my critique of Malawi compared to the States. I didn’t need to tell them my credentials, what I studied, who my family in Malawi was, and yet, my opinion had value. The same was the case when I walked into stores, no one questioned or followed me. When I came to Africa, I no longer was seen as a black man, and blackness was no longer negative–I became a man who happened to be black, but I was an individual person first.

In contrast to all of this was that only a few weeks prior to this trip, I was walking in my own neighborhood, and was pulled over by the police, asked my name, and then had to prove my identity by showing my identification. I knew I was in the right. But what I also knew was that just a week prior a man in Staten Island died under the same circumstances, so I didn’t talk back. I’ve always known, but more so now, that every situation for a black man is a proving ground. In the classroom, I am proving how smart I am, that I deserve to be there. And then in the streets, on the basketball courts, in the barbershop, I have to prove how down I am to the code of the street to blacks. It was that dynamic that killed Michael Brown. He was a scholar, going on to college, but he may have presented himself to what the outsider would label as a “thug”. To be black in America means to constantly wrestle with that internal struggle of being who you are, and risking death, or subscribing to perceptions of ignorance and bigotry in order to survive.

When you are black in America, it’s only when you leave America that you really understand what it means to be black and in America, and then the idea of never returning becomes completely reasonable. The label that “black” puts on the imagination–it chains it up. I’m beginning to understand that now. When you see an African navigating through the states with pride, you aren’t seeing arrogance, you are seeing someone who has never been told they must see life through certain socially constructed limitations.

Now that I am in Malawi, I can say with certainty: black lives in America are extremely undervalued. It’s hard for anyone who isn’t black to imagine a reality that can produce the events of Ferguson. But for anyone who is, we know well the context that it is placed under. When you look at an American history, you see how black lives have been mistreated, and you almost become desensitized to a system that has always regarded you as a second class citizen. I think that is the same realization that made it so easy for James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, W.E.B Du Bois, and so many other prominent black leaders to leave this country. There is something very poetic about being so distant from the events that are taking place in Ferguson that define the African American experience, but then being so close to the land that defines my African experience. You see the veil you have been trained to live under, but you acknowledge how free those are who have no idea what that veil is.

FergesonProtestYou can’t ignore the historical context that sparked the American race riots in the late 1960s, and thus the protests in Ferguson. I can only imagine, but I am almost certain that when you grow up in a world that says if you make the wrong facial expression, walk into the wrong bathroom, say the wrong thing to the wrong person, and if you attempt to register to vote that you could be killed–that says something very real to you. When you see what little leaders you have had that speak to your needs be gunned down, that says something to you. When you see everyone older than you telling you to work hard, to play by the rules, only to still be denied equality, this all says something to you. It says your worth will never be valued  because of attributes of your own being you have never had any control over.

Anyone who judges what is happening in Ferguson as a singular event is not only misguided, but extremely fortunate to be able to look at history from such privilege. The atmosphere that killed Michael Brown was the same that let George Zimmerman get away with killing Trayvon Martin, it was the same air that allowed a Stop and Frisk policy to control the NYPD for decades, the same that allowed legislatures to continue to deny blacks the right to vote, it allowed Rodney King to be beaten to death, it allowed racially restrictive housing covenants to be seen as acceptable practices, it was the same atmosphere that killed Emmett Till, that separated blacks and whites under Jim Crow, that passed Plessy v. Ferguson, that allowed blacks to be hunted down like dogs and publicly hung like a circus act, that had blacks hiding under their beds as the Ku Klux Klan would burn crosses outside of their homes–and that saw our value as being higher in chains than without for almost 250 years. A world that leads a college bound, and unarmed, 18-year-old boy to be gunned down eight times doesn’t seem much different then the world we have been continually trying to reshape since the first slaves arrived in 1619 Jamestown, Virginia.

To be black in America means to constantly have events like Michael Brown remind you that your imagination of what you can be will only be allowed to go so far. That your odds at success–let lone, survival–are only predicated on how lucky you are. When I see the anger of those protesters, I don’t judge, I am only just reminded of the history of an America that produced such frustration.

A Tale of Two Drug Wars (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote about how the legalization of weed in Colorado doesn’t automatically connect to the War on Drugs–or to the incredible racial bias in a blatantly racist criminal justice system–unless we allow it to.

Today, in 2014, the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country. When the majority of these people are of color, and who–as studies show–are serving time for an activity they do at similar rates to whites, then we can’t ignore the role policy can make in changing the outcome for the fate of entire group of people.

David Brooks wrote an article in New York times about the use of Marijuana, and how it could have dangerous outcomes if made legal. His argument is valid, and I think everyone should give it a read. And although I understand his views better than many may think, I don’t think Brooks understands–or if he does, then he just chooses to ignore–one important detail: the cost of racism in the lives of African-Americans, and if policy is responsible for it, then we must look to policy to change it.

blog-72The War on Drugs is one of the leading catalyst when you examine urban inequality. It has destroyed black families, communities, and has left a third of African-Americans without an actual political voice. When I think of the legalization of marijuana, I’m not thinking about a drug that people want to use for recreational use, I’m thinking about so many young African-American men who have given up their lives to an unfair justice system, while white men the same age will never have to pay such consequences because the privilege that is hidden beneath their skin.

Brooks’s article boasts of white privilege. It’s convenient for a middle-class, professional, white male to feel comfortable with weed remaining illegal, because that would never impact his own success, or the success of his children. But on the other side, it’s also convenient to expect that legalizing weed won’t be the host of another set of problems.

The problems with so much discourse on the war on drugs is that it ignores key realities: even when drugs are being used at similar rates, when you put drugs in  communities  that are majority of people of color and poor, the outcomes become a lot more dangerous–with or without laws to incriminate.

 The liberal agenda, with all of its pure motives, ignores what drugs represent to many inner city, marginalized communities. You go to any urban metropolitan city with a large black population, and they’ll tell you what drugs represent in their communities. On one end, they will tell you how drugs are the broken dreams and aspirations of forgotten youth, the destruction of families, the last barrier behind the salvation of black America. They’ll tell you that drugs have done more damage than good, and that they want them completely vanished.

And then there becomes another narrative, where in some cities that once were industrious havens like Detroit, they’ll tell you how de-industrialization, globalization, and discrimination kept African-Americans at the margins of an ever-changing and evolving economy. How the shift from industry to service jobs put African-Americans at a disadvantage. In hard times, African-Americans have never benefited, and the only way to survive was through an underground economy. To an African-American, when the country you live in has never played by the rules or treated you fairly, and when you’re looking at a world that will hardly except you, then selling drugs doesn’t look so bad.

Pretending that legalizing marijuana is going to solve all the problems that were perpetuated from the war on drugs is as ridiculous as it sounds, and that very idea underestimates–or maybe just chooses to neglect–how persistent American racism is. Ending a war on drugs means bringing to account the forces that have historically marginalized people of color, and that is something this country has never been good at.