In 1903, in his seminal book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois argued that the defining challenge of Black folks in America was being viewed as a perpetual problem—Dubois wrote, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
More than 100 years later, DuBois’ analysis of “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” being a central issue that cripples true progress and impacts the safety and well-being of Black folks in America is a persistent dilemma. This dilemma that DuBois grappled with at the turn of the century still haunts us today. The notion that we live in a color-blind or post racial society fails to acknowledge racial profiling, institutional racism, white privileges and a general disregard for Black life.
Over the last few weeks the verdicts in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases have sent shock waves causing acts of civil disobedience from London to Miami. The 24 hour news cycle from CNN to MSNBC and hundreds of other media outlets has brought images into our living rooms of children holding up signs that reverberate messages like “Black Lives Matter” to the entire Georgetown Basketball Team wearing “I Can’t Breathe” during warms up prior to their scheduled game with University of Kansas.
These tragic murders of unarmed Black men at the hands of police officers is a glaring example of law enforcement viewing Black men and boys as a problem within society that needs to be dealt with and controlled. During a recent interview with Darrin Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, Wilson characterized Michael Brown as a “monster” and a “demon.”
If one viewed any of the various social media platforms, one might be amazed by the rhetoric and demonization of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and a host of other Black men and boys who have died violently during encounters with police and vigilantes. These derogatory comments range from “put them back into slavery” to “shoot them on sight before they break into your homes!”
These views have created a mindset, fueled by the media and a broken criminal justice system, that suggests it is okay for an “ordinary” citizen to stalk an unarmed, 17-year-old Black male walking down the street carrying a bag of Skittles and a cell phone. Trayvon Martin, a boy, is profiled, pursued, and ends up dead and the perpetrator is found not guilty of any charges due to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law?
In recent remarks from Attorney General Eric Holder, he purports, “All lives must be valued. Mr. Garner’s death is one of several recent incidents across the country that have tested the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve and protect.”
Attorney General Holder’s comments, while sincere, fail to comfort African American parents who are concerned about the health and well-being of our children who will undoubtedly be confronted by the police. Have a conversation with any African American parents who have raised young men and you will find these issues to be ingrained in their psyche. Media outlets periodically run ongoing coverage of the protesting but fail to address the elephant in the room– race still matters! How often do you hear about unarmed white males being killed by the police? Last week while sitting in a barbershop in Baltimore, several men, young and old, shared horror stories of police encounters that spanned seven decades. The men ranged in ages from 21 to 70 years old—each traumatized by unfortunate experiences at the hands of officers who have taken an oath to protect and serve. One older gentleman, a retired postal worker, shared a story of being humiliated in front of his wife and grandchildren over having a broken tail light. A man well into his 60’s asked to sit on the curb while the police searched his car—all the while afraid to question the police for fear that his life was in jeopardy.
All of the stories are painful and frustrating to hear as the nation who constantly debates notions of democracy and fairness. When will America be fair to Black men? How do I explain to my son the images of Eric Garner being suffocated and pleading for his life at the hands of the NYPD? These become the central questions that African American families grapple with daily.
Police body cameras, increasing training for officers is needed and necessary but a shift in the mentality and mindsets of those who patrol the streets in America is essential. All the training in the world can not address the racial bias, bigotry and hate that many officers have adopted. While most would agree that the majority of men and women who patrol our streets are honest, decent people, the evidence is very clear that we have a problem. This problem can’t be explained away by blaming the victim, calling into question how young men are dressed, and/or their size.
Additionally, the issue of Black on Black crime seems to always enter the dialogue when discussing the untimely deaths of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and a host of other young men. I have personally been fighting for the last 20 years to address issues of community violence and criminality.
These are all issues of grave concern particularly in urban communities but the fact remains that an alarming number of unarmed young Black males are being killed by the very people we entrust to serve and protect us. Men and women who are paid through our tax dollars must be held accountable in a civil and just society! According to the National Safety Council, statistics show that Black males are 21 times more likely than any other racial group to be shot, maimed, or killed at the hands of police!
Finally, if we are serious about freedom, democracy and repairing the “breech,” we must be committed to addressing the racism and bias that permeates American society. While many Americans are uncomfortable talking about race, we must recognize that racism has become an integral part of the American fiber. Professor Angela Davis, University of California, Santa Cruz states, “Racism is a much more clandestine, much more hidden kind of phenomenon, but at the same time it’s perhaps far more terrible than it’s ever been.”