In The Case For Alton Sterling, Excuses Are For White Supremacy

Alton-Sterling-Hollywood-ReactionsAround 12 A.M. Tuesday, Alton Sterling was selling CDs outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was around the same time that the Baton Rouge Police Department received a call that an African-American male in a red shirt was seen pointing a gun at someone outside of the same convenience store. Police showed up, and found Alton Sterling, in a red shirt, selling CDs. He fit the description–if only partially.

The video above shows what happened next. Two officers pinning Sterling to the ground, at which point one of them realizes he may be armed. One of the officers proceeds to pull out his gun, even though Sterling is clearly immobile, and shoots him 6 times. He died shortly after.

People will make justifications in this case. Yes, Sterling was armed, was selling CDs illegally, and had a list of prior convictions extending back 20 years. However, there is no debating this case. It was wrong. When we put into account his prior mistakes to justify his death, not only is it misleading, it’s irrelevant.

I have trouble believing one’s criminal past can justify the error in judgement by the police officer, but I have never held America to a standard that would make it so justice could be carried out with clear judgement. Sterling’s plight comes from a legacy of injustice that traces itself back to the origins of this country, through the lynchings in antebellum south, Jim Crow, up to this past Tuesday morning.

No matter how disheartening it is to see this video, it will never be surprising to me. The era of lynchings  has never escaped us, and that is what this movement is telling the world. That from the days of Ida B. Wells, up until today, in 2016, black folk are still living “Without Sanctuary.”

This video is all the evidence we need to know that Black Lives are still not valued in this country.  In my mind and heart, there is no debate. Alton Sterling deserved better. Freddy Gray deserved better. Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Sandra Day–they all deserved better. Black lives have always deserved better. Excuses are for white supremacy.

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. 

 

A White 6th Grader’s Letter on #BlackLivesMatter and Being an Ally

Recently, four 6th graders at the school I work at wrote a letter to President Barack Obama on the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It’s a powerful letter, and you can read it here. So powerful is the letter, in fact, it received thousands of shares, tv stations ran the story, and just a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama even wrote back.

What’s more inspiring is while all of this was going on, one of the boys’ classmates, a white student named Louis, wrote his own letter to the President–largely inspired by what his four classmates had already written.  

Louis’s letter isn’t attempting to overshadow what the boys have done. It’s a letter of encouragement, and more importantly, it is an example of what white allyship can adequately look like. This may be an issue that impacts Black youth at disproportionate rates to whites, but white youth should still be contributing to this movement. Silence is its own form of oppression, and this movement–this world–could use more people like Louis, where at just 12 years old, he is understanding his privilege and that he also  has a social responsibility: to be an ally.

 

Here is the letter:

Dear Mr. President,

Inequality is a huge problem in our modern day world, even at a young, elementary school age. Studies have shown that black students were three times more likely to be expelled than white students in the 2011-2012 school year. It is hard to imagine that a black child who is doing the same thing as a white child is being treated worse. I feel as though I should give back to people of color in every way possible to make up for the harsh injustices that have happened to people of color in the past. I try to remind myself that I am not one of the many people who believe that the color of someone’s skin makes them better or worse than another person.

In the news I hear about all the horrible things that have gone on involving inequality. I hear about the killing of Michael Brown, I hear about the statistics that are so far from fair, but I also hear about my schoolmates. I am so proud of my four schoolmates for standing up and bringing inequality under a spotlight. They wrote a letter that has gone so far, to thousands of internet shares and a place in the news. I feel strong when I know that they made a difference.

But they also received hate from people who wrote rude things, because these people knew that if they wrote it on a viral article they would get attention. And that disgusts me. I posted a video for a school project on YouTube about the importance of Black Lives Matter. Somehow, someone found the video and posted hateful comments toward me and people of color. He assumed I was African American and said “…As long as too many blacks commit too many crimes, like over half the murders, you are just another scumbag justifying your races criminal behavior your dindu attitude.”  

This ruined my day. It ruined my day because he said those incredibly racist things, but also because he assumed I was an African American.This ruined my day because he thought there was no such thing as an ally, someone who stands up for people who are being bullied when they are not. Every Time I read a disturbing fact about white people treating black people with inequality I feel emotional. I feel emotional about the injustice of it, but I also feel emotional about the fact that I am white. I wish that I did not have something in common with this person who is being so rude to their victim but also to themselves. This person who commented assumed I was black because I cared, but just because I am white and these issues do not affect me does not mean that I do not care.

When you bully someone of a different skin color, you are bullying one of your fellow  human beings. And I say bully because anybody who treats someone differently because of their skin color is a bully. And everyone has been bullied, just on lower or higher levels. They are no different from yourselves. If everyone hated different looking or thinking people it would be a messed up world.

The whole reason I am writing this letter to you is because after reading my schoolmates letter, I learned about the Black Lives Matter movement in America. After reading so many letters, facts, and articles I have learned that black lives do matter and inequality is a massive issue in America that needs to be addressed. Everyone has the right to be treated equal, and that’s not happening.

I encourage you to read their letter as well. We all would like to conference with you about this problem that needs to be addressed. Inequality is an emergency that need to be tended to.

~Louis, on behalf of Keidy, Zayd, Bryson, and Phoenix.

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

‘Ali Bomaye!’: Thank You For Being Unapologetically Black

AliI was 12 years old when my father took me to see ‘Ali’ in theaters. A 12-year-old black boy, staring at who I wanted to become. what black boy wouldn’t want to be the champ?

I got chills with his speech on why he wouldn’t go fight in Vietnam:

“I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home.”

At 12 years old, I had never felt so proud to be black.

In Ali, I saw greatness in the ring, and unapologetic blackness outside of it. His blackness was in his loyalty towards the Nation of Islam, and how it became what defined him and his politics. His blackness was in the way he walked, talked, and lived–black, and unapologetic.  He wasn’t just an athlete, he was a black messiah (speaking up for his people), as well as a soon-to-be  black martyr–crucified for being brutally honest and politically aware about the contradictions of American racism. When he was drafted to fight in the war, his response:

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

ALIpressHe called things how he saw them. He didn’t care what the backlash could–or inevitably would–be. He was convinced in what he believed in, and he never was afraid to say so.

By today’s standards, Ali doesn’t exist. We have yet to have another black athlete that has carried the same voice and with the same platform Ali had.  In a day when most athletes lose their integrity in order to be the best, Ali’s greatness was in his unwavering integrity.

Through all his public antics, the world was witnessing the emancipation of the black athlete in real-time. The world saw a black man take control over what he wanted to say, and how he would say it. Even when his title was stripped from him over his anti-war statements, Ali remained in control.

In a way most athletes have trouble doing, Ali took control of his own destiny through choice. He chose to join the Nation of Islam. He chose to be an outspoken critique on American racism. He chose to speak out against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as contradictory to the unresolved racial tensions in America. He chose to avoid the draft because he was so committed to his beliefs. And because of such decisions, one could make the case that being stripped of the title was his own choice.

ALIsmileAli was freer than most black athletes have ever been, and  the freedom was in his courage to not back down, and to be the black man he always was, and that the world needed to see. Racism had defined his life, like it did for so many other black athletes and celebrities of that time. Ali just chose to embrace it.

Muhammad Ali came at a time when black people needed a voice to validate their concerns and anger, but also to be unapologetically black. He was that voice that told  you to be as bold and black as you could be in every possible situation–never back down.

So, to Ali: Thank you for everything you did. For inspiring me to also be unapologetically black, and to never be afraid to speak truth to power.

 

Black Youth [Interrupted]: Reflections on the Four African American 6th Graders’ Letter

open_speech5Once the letter went up, the internet did the rest. It has been nearly 3 weeks since Chris Eggemeier approached me to look over a letter written by four of his African-American students–Pheonix, Zayd, Bryson, and Keidy –addressed to president Obama. Since then, it has received over 1000 shares on Facebook, they have been approached by television news stations, news sites, and have even had the opportunity to speak on panels and read their letter to the public. They are local rock stars. And not because they picked up a ball, but because they just simply used their words.

The positive responses flowed in from readers all over the country. People are moved by what these kids had to say, and by the fact that it is coming from a group of 11 to 12-year-olds.  The letter is  touching hearts, and furthering the cause of an important movement.  I knew it would be well received, but I could never have imagined to this degree.

But with the positive, you also get the trolls. There were people who clearly read the letter, who understood it was written by a group of 6th graders, and still, that did not reserve them from making certain hateful and unforgiving comments. For a moment, I thought about hiding those comments from the boys. But I knew I wouldn’t be doing them any favors by shielding them from the reality and world that inspired them to write this very honest letter, and so I felt like I needed to be as honest with them about the world they were choosing to step into.

I sat down with the four of them, and read all of those comments–the good and the bad. I was attempting to emphasize a very real point: the more this letter would be shared, the more they could expect to see hateful comments like these. There comes a certain responsibility with doing this kind of work that they should be aware of.  As attention is given to this letter, the bigger the spotlight comes down on them, and the more vulnerable they become to racist reactions. Those were the terms and conditions they should know about. They needed to understand that by choosing to accept these interviews–and to be seen publicly–they would become ambassadors to a movement, and that would  mean being praised, as well as demonized.

It seems like a lot to talk about with a group of 6th graders, but these kids are reminding me that adolescence is a luxury not reserved for black youth. Sometimes,  in order to protect black boys and girls, we have to inform them of how cruel this world can be towards people who look like them, in hopes that they can survive this world by learning how to navigate it.

Sadly, we must accept the idea that the world will not always put black kids’ age into account; and in doing so, nor can we expect everyone to consider their innocence. The moment they posted that letter to my blog and made it public, is the moment their black youth was interrupted.  In the eyes of the public, they ceased to be boys. They ceased to be allowed to express themselves free from ridicule. They ceased to be 11 to 12 year olds with emotions. They have been tried as adults, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon–from either side.

It seems that youth is a luxury not reserved for black children. It’s evident in the responses to the letter, and in how the media found ways to justify the murder of Tamir Rice–for he did not have the luxury of be able to play with toys. They criminalized Mike Brown, because by public opinion and the double standards created by American racism, he was not granted the luxury of being an adolescent. By public opinion, Trayvon Martin was not worthy of that same luxury because he smoked weed, and carried himself as a “thug”. Public opinion says we can only sympathize with black youth who are perfect. Public opinion says we can witness a girl being dragged out of a classroom, and say the punishment most likely fits the crime. Public opinion has never considered black youth as a factor, for it has never even acknowledged it.

These kids are learning that no matter how old they are, people will find excuses to discredit what they say, and in the most hurtful ways. Their youth cannot protect them, because white supremacy has interrupted it.  

Meet the Four African American 6th Graders Who Penned the Heartbreaking Letter to President Obama

Four 6th Graders decided to do a research project on the Black Lives Matter Movement. The statistics they found on the bleak hope of black youth today are what prompted them to write a letter to president Obama on the urgency of addressing racism. Since posting the letter to my blog, the kids have been gaining notoriety and were asked to read it live at a Black Lives Matter Panel in Amherst, MA. Here is the video.
To read the full letter, click here.