My podcast, “Double Bass” is up and running. In Episode 4, Wynton and I come out of vacation to discuss the recent events of Charlottesville, Virginia, and why white people need to get their shit together.
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.
At 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.
That 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.
Around 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.
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 was—and still is—in the hands of the people who are choosing to vote for him, show up to his rallies, and stand up for everything he says—no 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 base—whites—for 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!”
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.
“Then I began talking about niggers—and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
These 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.
Once 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.
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.