Black People Dying Ain’t New, It’s the Status Quo of American History

black-lives-matter-atl Last month, a man was shot six times while being restrained at a gas station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His name was Alton Sterling. He was black, and the cop who chose to kill him was white. Many people would argue that racial identity doesn’t matter in a case like this, but for black people, Alton Sterling wasn’t an exception, he was the rule. For anyone arguing that #AllLivesMatter, they only need to see the video of his killing to know that right now, the word “All” excludes black lives.

For the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the slaying of Alton Sterling was a tipping point. Watching a man be senselessly murdered, shot six times in the head while on the ground—that will wake people up. And what we saw in the days to follow was a growing understanding that this can’t continue.

This past year, we aren’t seeing anything new—the black experience in America has always been defined by violence— but now more people are starting to take it seriously. Black America’s pleas for life are being heard for once, but that isn’t relief, it is frustrating that it took this long. What is equally frustrating is that some people still will not be swayed.

A week later, five cops were killed in Dallas, and any potential momentum from the death of Sterling was met with a wall of resistance. Maybe some will never say #BlackLivesMatter because in their minds, black issues have never been view as urgent. To say #AllLivesMatter is to take the blue pill of American history and pretend that we got to where we are with no tension, no injustices, and no blood shed. To simplify the hurt and fear by black people is to either ignore how real violence has always been in black people’s lives, or to just not care.

white-lynch-mobsAt the height of lynching, around 1890, around six black men were killed every month by white mobs. This is not hearsay, or speculation, this is fact. Nor is this just “black history”. It is American history, as American as the Declaration of Independence and the Hamilton musical. More alarming is that in the heart of Dixieland, the mass murder of African-Americans at the hands of lynch mobs was not just public knowledge, it was public entertainment. Look at archival footage of the lynchings and see white children, white sheriffs, white politicians—all smiling. Members of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist organization, were regarded as respected individuals in their communities. To many whites, they weren’t breaking the law or committing murder, they were preserving white dominance. Through the lens of white supremacy, those who participated in lynch mobs were viewed as heroes.

1890 was almost half a century after slaves were emancipated. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments had been passed. African-Americans were free citizens, entitled to the protection of the law, and on paper, black men could vote. Yet 40 years after emancipation, blacks living in the South still were living in a state a fear. Six lynchings a month is not just a number. It is a Trayvon Martin, a Tamir Rice, a Sandra Bland, an Eric Garner, a Michael Brown, an Alton Sterling, every month. Those are the same numbers we are seeing today. 

Lynching wasn’t what solely defined black existence in the South. There were the Jim Crow laws, which told you if you were black that your skin color, not your merit, will determine life prospects, which school you can go to, what restaurants to avoid, and the occupation you would be allowed to pursue. There was sharecropping, where even if slavery had ended, other systems of servitude could be used  to lawfully maintain a caste system based on race. Laws were enacted that placed black men in prison at disproportionately higher rates than whites, who were then leased to companies for cheap labor. Black men could vote, but poll taxes, literacy tests and other clauses would keep them from the polls. If all these tactics failed to keep black Americans as second class citizens—if blacks still aspired for something more—violence would be used without the least bit of hesitation.

This is what it meant to be black in a Jim-Crow South. Post-slavery, but not even close to post-racist. Violence may not have always been the first resort, but it was never absent as a possibility. If you didn’t step out of the way on a sidewalk for a white person to pass, if you didn’t address a white as “sir” or “ma’am” no matter the age, if you spoke your mind at the wrong time, you might as well have had a death wish.  As soon as black people’s bodies were no longer seen as valuable under slavery, they would be easily disposed of if need be. If you were black and chose not to prescribe to the racial hierarchy, you could be killed.

This barbarism was known throughout the country, including on Capitol Hill, where just as many legislators came from the North as from the South. Any idea that the terror in African-Americans’ lives was unknown to whites in the North needs to be dismissed. People in the North were well aware, and their silence was an acceptance of a way of life in the South, an acceptance that black lives did not matter, that blackness meant a deserved onslaught of oppressive forces, approved by, even if not directly administered, the state.

Only in 2005 did Congress apologize for their inaction during this dark period in American history.

Chicago-1919-preriot_webThat culture of white supremacy fueled the mass exodus of blacks from the South to northern cities. From 1910 to 1970, 6 million African-Americans came north in hopes of better prospects, but found no escape from white supremacy. Black folk leaving Jim-Crow South would arrive only to find new legal systems in place to limit their prospects. Around the same time that northern cities were seeing an increase in African-American migrants, the Federal Housing Administration  began granting home loans at better rates than ever before. The suburbs were being formed and the middle class was expanding, but blacks would have a harder time grabbing hold of these incentives. Many mortgages had racially discriminatory clauses in the contracts, denying any chance of a suburban, middle-class life to anyone who wasn’t white.

As whites moved to the suburbs, blacks remained in the cities, where they continued to be subject to racist policies like redlining. Redlining restricted and decided how funds would be allocated throughout a city and where city would invest its funds. City officials would color code a map. An area colored in green would get the most amount of resources, whereas an area with red would get little-to-none. This is where the term redlining comes from. Most areas colored in red were areas with a high demographic of Blacks.

To make bad situations worse, the construction of Highways in the 1960s would segregate and impoverish black communities even more. City officials would often decide to construct these highways in communities where people of color resided. The construction of these highways would displace the people living in these neighborhoods that would soon be torn up, but they didn’t have much options on where to go from there. The end result was more concentrated and segregated communities based around race and class than before.

This is how the northern ghettos were formed, and the rest of the tragedies and injustices that define the modern black American experience—poor schools, the crack epidemic, mass incarceration, drug trade—became natural consequences of racist policies towards black and brown people. White supremacy existed even with legislation. It is too strong to be held down by law. At the core, it is not American policing that black people want reformed, but the state to finally commit to upholding the dignity of what it never has before: black lives. Just like the days of lynching, the police has terrorized these communities in order to preserve white supremacy. The names we see behind hashtags aren’t a new trend, they are the status quo since Jim Crow south, and they define what it ultimately means to be black in America.

It is easy to condemn the anger of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But that anger comes from how history has always treated black lives, spat at them and told them “your issues will take second seat”. When the state has perpetually given little regard to not just your humanity, but your fathers, and your father’s father, and a whole line of black men you have descended from, who look like you, and have continually lived life with hopeless outlooks, it is hard to not be jaded and to remain calm and collective at every new death we hear.

Yes, Black people are angry, but Black rage can’t exist without a history of white hate. This history has always been known to black people, only now are white people perhaps beginning to realize they never had to know this history, and that makes them uneasy. The case for #AllLivesMatter is only validated by people who either choose to minimize the history of violence in black people’s lives or completely ignore it. The slogan is for people who want to continue to be comfortable in a bubble that lets them ignore the issues pertaining to black people, but the movement won’t stop for whites’ uneasiness over addressing racism. If it wasn’t for the brave souls who stood up, made white people uncomfortable, blacks would still be in chains. You don’t get progress without a little bit of tension, of making the status quo be questioned, and the power group feel uncomfortable. This idea that the only way we can achieve true unity is through never fully acknowledging all the horrible things that have been done is nonsense. Black people are dying, have died, and will continue to die regardless if we chose to confront reality head on or wipe it under the rug. Some people can choose whether or not they want to acknowledge this history, but their choices will continue the extermination of black people.

Throughout history, what the state has never done is value black lives. We need to accept this as fact before anything else. Progress is only predicated on honesty.

 

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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.

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

Sixth-Grade-Boys-Pen-Letter-To-Obama-660x450

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

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.

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.

Four African American 6th Graders’ Open Letter to the President on the Urgency of Racism

Last week, at the school where I work, I was approached by a 6th grade teacher to review the work by several of his African American students. It was an open letter to president Obama on the bleak fate of African American youth today. The level of awareness these youth display towards their reality is all too clear in this letter. As soon as I finished reading, I knew immediately this needed to be shared. 

I am proud to live in a community that does its best to ensure that all of its youth–especially the black and brown–are given an equal chance to success. Most people I interact with here–many who are white–would agree that racism is still manifesting itself in society today, and that there is a certain civil-responsibility we all have towards eradicating racism. But that seems to be where the conversation usually ends.

What makes this letter so raw is that these youth are acknowledging how real and unrelenting the forces of racism are in the world that they are growing up in. They make the connections that no matter how many resources are given to them–even when living in a community that does its best to not fail youth that look like them–that the rest of society just isn’t there yet. The rest of society will see their skin color first, and however made up racial differences are, peoples’ prejudices can have real outcomes in these boys lives–as it has in the lives of  Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Mike Brown.

In their own words: “this is a state of emergency.”

But however discouraging the statistics these kids raise in this letter are, seeing these words being penned by a group of 11 to 12-year-olds raises hope within me, and I hope it will do the same for you.

So here it is, with the permission of their parents, and no added ideas from me or any other adults, their words alone:

 

 

Dear President Obama,

       Our names are Phoenix, Zayd, Bryson and Keidy, we are four African American boys who live in Amherst, Massachusetts. We are in 6th grade, and we are researching the Black Lives Matter Movement. We want law enforcement officials to treat everyone equally.  As you are already aware, there have been several concerning incidents of African American boys and girls, who are unarmed and have not been breaking any laws, being  murdered. This is a state of emergency because if police keep on killing black lives for no reason and there is no one doing anything about it, nothing is going to change.

Law enforcement officials and the justice system treat African American males differently.  For instance data from americanprogress.org shows the difference in treatment between white and black men:

“While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.

Clearly,  African Americans are treated differently by the criminal justice system.

Black Lives Matter movement started because of the death of Trayvon Martin.  The movement gained momentum with the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. There were reasons those people were killed but it wasn’t worth being killed over.  

Police shouldn’t  be killing unarmed African Americans, but some people take this movement in the wrong way by thinking that they are just saying that only black lives matter but no, we are saying that black lives matter too, which means all lives matter.  Whites are treated like they matter by the police.  For instance, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.  African Americans were twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.  This shows that blacks are treated unfairly.  This movement advocates for our rights.  

President Obama, as a fellow African American, you clearly understand why this is important to every American.  We would like to conference with you about solutions to this perplexing problem.  

 

We look forward to your reply and discussing this with you in person.

 

Urgently,

Zayd,Phoenix, Keidy, Bryson 

Lessons From Mizzou

COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 9: Jonathan Butler (c), a University of Missouri grad student who did a 7 day hunger strike listens along with founding members of the campus group, Concerned Student 1950, during a forum speaking to students on the campus of University of Missouri - Columbia on November 9, 2015 in Columbia, Missouri. Students celebrate the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe amid allegations of racism. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

When the University of Missouri was founded, slavery was not just an acceptable practice, it was the law. Slaves built the buildings of Mizzou, and in 1839, blacks were not allowed admittance. Mizzou wasn’t different than any other university at the time, where it was common knowledge the only place a black person could go for an education was at an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). Much was the rest of the country and its wealth: built on the backs of Black Americans, but never for Black Americans.

In October, the students of Mizzou were protesting against that history, and an institution’s neglect in how it has continually persisted to marginalize its students of color. More than a hundred years after its inception, in 1950, did Mizzou allow its first black student to enroll. Several years ago, their black cultural center was vandalized, and no actions were done. When standing up for their rights during a homecoming parade, black student activists were not well received. The power of white-privilege over shadowing their own voices and demands, and the silence of a president who was watching all along.

A month went by, and the university’s president continued silence implied much. The magnitude of his inaction can be measured in weeks, in an activist’s hunger strike, and a football team’s refusal to suit-up until he step down from his position, thus threatening the university a $1 million loss per game. The sad thing is, you can measure how much black lives matter not by what they demand–or by the level in which they feel safe—but by how many dollars are at stake.

The students of Mizzou were not the first students of color to demand change. We’ve seen it on many occasions. The sit-in movement, the freedom riders, and the black power movement hail from students demanding institutions eradicate racist traditions. At my own Alma Mater, the black students shut down the library and demanded it be named after one of the great black scholars, a native of the school’s state: Massachusetts. That was in 1992, and to this day the building is named the W.E.B Dubois Library.

When we see students experiences being diminished, and when their sense of a safe space isn’t so safe anymore, we can say this ain’t a movement football players can squash with a strike, or that can be solved by a president’s resignation. Racism built Mizzou, as it did Yale, and many other institutions we value as sacred. The lessons from Mizzou is that if we don’t easily escape these legacies with the elimination of people in power, then how do we eradicate racism from institutions whose success was predicated on it?

What’s happening in Missouri is not only a characteristic of the campus, but to black students across the country attempting to navigate freely on predominantly white colleges, because they believed the world would not question their merits. They believed they could blend in. Maybe they did not consider all the questions they would have to answer to validate their identity, their presence, or their blackness. They did not put into consideration that white students would laugh at the idea of ‘Black-Studies,’ and the list goes on of all these things black people took for luxury, because white students can. 

I know if I could go back in time when I turned down the chance to go to Howard, the ‘mecca,’ and speak to my past self, I would have made different choices. I would have saved myself the trouble of four years of feeling othered, of the stares, and the feeling I was never good enough as is–black.

Mizzou hails from the state that chose not to honor Mike Brown, because he was not seen as worthy. One year later, students protesting at a homecoming parade were not deemed worthy, nor was a hunger strike. What was worthy, was the revenue a football team could bring in, and how such revenues were dependent upon black bodies.

It was black bodies that such a campus was founded on, or I should say the free labor of such bodies. Racial incidents are not uncommon on the campus, nor in the state, nor in this country. The fact that in 2015 black students feel as safe as the Little Rock Nine did, but that no one is willing to admit it, that should tell us the path we are treading on.