“Don’t worry when I fight with you, worry when I stop, because it means there’s nothing left for us to fight for.” ~ Proverb
The last couple of weeks have been gut wrenching to say the least. Many Americans have looked on in confusion, horror, and despair, as more officer-involved shootings of Black men have gone viral and inspired another round of vigils, rallies, and protests. With each death, despite calls for calm and non-violence from activists and their leaders, some voices of resistance have become more heated and retaliatory. The recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile provoked massive rescission in the ability of some Black people to be patient and positive, let alone rational, in the face of authoritarianism, deadly force and denial. The murderous, ambush-style killing of 5 police officers by a lone, wrathful Black sniper, during a protest march in Dallas on July, 7, is a reflection of the gunman’s mental instability on the one hand, and the predictable violent eruption of a member of an abused and unheeded population on the other. Violence is “the language of the unheard,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr., and we dismiss their wails and weary lament at our peril. For “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Moreover, as heinous as the sniper’s attack was, it is still a statistical outlier in comparison to the number of Black men that die at the hands of police each week.
Sterling and Castile’s deaths reflect the systematic profiling, unjust criminalization, disparate handling, and heavy-handed treatment of Black men in America. Their killings were a huge withdrawal from the “Community Bank Accounts” of all police officers, and they, like the unjust killings of Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner before them, undermined the goodwill many bridge-builders have been working on of late. Sadly, there isn’t enough room to list all of the Black men who have had their lives snuffed out by frightened, overzealous, poorly trained, rogue police officers. In fact, police officers killed over 100 unarmed Black people across the U.S. in 2015 alone, and “although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population,” according to The Washington Post, “they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police.”
Why are Black Phoenicians like me so concerned about our peers in Falcon Heights? Most Black people do not define community by geographic boundaries. The “Black community” is where ever we are. If a Black man is unjustly shot and killed in Louisville, for example, his brothers and sisters in Oakland will be just as angry as our peers in the Derby City. We are a family that has been literally and figuratively bonded together through lock and key, culture, consciousness and custom, for 397 years. Loyal to our lineage and shared struggle, and socialized into a culture of resistance to oppression, our union, although prone to internal conflict like any other, and not withstanding those who Dash into self-hatred, remains committed to our collective wellbeing and permanency.
Our marriage to America, however, despite the nobleness of our founding documents, has been flawed from the beginning. In the face of various intercessions over the years, we, the aggrieved party in this dysfunctional nuptial, continue to struggle. The recent shootings and the tenor and tone of ensuing debates, have shown that our attempts to save this marriage has reached a perilous point of stagnation and intractable reproach. Many in White America have simply taken the position that there is no problem “because we say so.” Never mind our losses, fear, frustration, or the overwhelming evidence that many ne’er-do-well officers, shielded by a culture of Omertà, are wreaking havoc on the hearts, minds, bodies and souls of the Black community, and the ability of good officers to gain the trust of POC. This is no anti-White manifesto, for I am the father of three Black/-Bi-racial children, making me, as a friend recently described in sardonic jest, a “powerful warrior for the bi-racial revolution.” Indeed, I love everyone, but the fact remains, Black men are dying too often, under dubious circumstances, at the hands of educated, trained, professional, leaders, who are resorting to deadly force at the slightest provocation.
POC and America may love the idea of our marriage, we may even fancy each other at times in some obligatory, serviceable way, but it is clear that we neither like or trust one another in ways that will help us close the immense gap between us. Before we apply more Band-Aids to our large and festering inter-racial wounds, as we pay lip service to “working on our issues,” we need to take stock of this relationship. For a time, things had been relatively quiet in our dangerous liaison. That is until Barack Obama was elected President in 2008. We were accustomed to the occasional racial eruption, but most of us believed, despite bumps in the road, that we were headed toward a more unified future. Obama’s election as the first American President of color, however, acted like an astringent, pulling racial impurities to the surface of our societal epidermis in what many prematurely described as a “post-racial” America. Steve Nelson of The Huffington Post captures it well:
From the beginning of his service, Barack Obama has been successfully marginalized as “the other,” with a substantial part of the electorate (and the United States Congress) questioning not only his politics or policies, but also his very legitimacy. Depending on the poll, between 43% and 59% of Republicans believe Obama is Muslim, despite not a speck of evidence. A similar segment of Republican voters remain convinced that Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore unqualified to serve.
The palpable disdain with which Republicans refer to Obama is symptomatic of something far beyond partisan politics. Marco Rubio, for example, aggressively charges that Obama is trying to destroy America. It is not plausible that all of this coded language is just business as usual. Many white Americans deeply resent a man of color leading the country and will do nearly anything to delegitimize his tenure in office. The anger with which the GOP rose to demand that he surrender his Constitutional authority to nominate a replacement for Antonin Scalia is only the latest symptom of race-based antipathy. As an observer of and occasional participant in civil rights activism and deep diversity work, I am sad to acknowledge that the Obama era has seen a steady retreat from issues of racial equality. The Obama presidency is relentlessly cited by racism deniers as evidence that racism is a thing of the past. To the contrary, and quite ironically, his presidency has offered pungent evidence that the rot of racism is broad and deep.
The willful and racialized repudiation of Obama, and America’s denial of it, is part and parcel of our transracial marital problems. Our partner is directly involved or at least complicit in the ongoing neglect and abuse of POC, while often denying that the inequality or abuse exists. POC, however, see and feel the abuse every day, as do millions around the globe. Racial disparities in education, health care, and political power, not to mention the criminal justice system, are a black eye on the collective face of POC, and we did not get it by falling down the stairs. We were pushed in the form of colonization, slavery, Jim Crow, and the injurious legacies that explicit and implicit racial subjugation and bias begat and maintain. Obama’s ascendancy has given us a chance to see who we really are in this marriage, this experiment in multi-racial democracy, and it hasn’t been a pretty picture.
The famous comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, captured this dynamic when he wrote “my wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” We’ve been reintroduced to each other over the last eight years in community centers, churches, classrooms, television studios, legislatures, courthouses, and in the streets, and we have very different ideas about where we’ve come from as couple, what some of us have endured, and what the nature and legacy of this Nation’s marital sins were and are. Most White Americans, the dominant force in this marriage, are often curt and defiant in denying our abuse, and this has exacerbated our suffering and anger, and eaten away at our patience. It has been said that it takes love, respect, trust, understanding, friendship and faith in relationships to make them healthy and enduring. The fact of the matter is despite functional inter-racial coupling at the micro-level, using these terms to describe our transracial, macro-level marriage, would be laughable if the issue weren’t so serious, especially from the point of view of POC. Our marriage to America has not been a Cinderella-like fairytale, nor did we “marry our best friend.” In the words of poet Langston Hughes, “life for us,” in this marriage “ain’t been no crystal stair.”
We were forced into this Union, one characterized by a power imbalance so fiendishly wide that there are few words to describe it. From day one, any happiness we enjoyed was internal and vested in our God, community, and hope for a better tomorrow, not our spouse. Most psychologists and therapists will tell you that severe power imbalances in relationships foreshadow not only exploitation and abuse, but the inevitable collapse of the relationship under the weight of unacknowledged and met needs, and untreated trauma. Feminist writers have spent decades exploring the ways in which socio-economic inequality in marriage often serves as the handmaiden of domestic tyranny. However, we have failed to sufficiently recognize and understand the level of systemic oppression, frustration, conflict, and violence that racial inequality has produced in our transracial Union`.
If America has been POC’s spouse, he has been a hyper-competitive, power-hoarding, controlling, abusive one. And like many purveyors of domestic violence, he is in denial. This disavowal endures even in the face of our streets being baptized with the blood of Black men on an average of twice a week. This number is so high, Amnesty International has argued that America is in violation of international law, as it has abrogated POC’s “right to life, the right to security of the person, the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to equal protection of the law. The United States has a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill these human rights and has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which explicitly protects these rights.” Abusive spouses, however, are infuriated by partners who seek outside support, and they move quickly and decisively to isolate their wives and delegitimize the voices of their supporters.
No matter how you confront an abusive partner, however, the response is almost always the same. In our case, POC can be calm or strident, but our abuser rejects any accusations of wrongdoing at virtually every turn and often goes so far as to blame us, the victim, for our injuries. “I wouldn’t have shot you if you would’ve done what I said. I didn’t hit you that hard. It’s not that bad.” “But you hurt me,” says people of color. Come on, “are you going to believe me,” America responds in his best Eddie Murphy voice, “or your lying eyes”?
Let me make it plain. Most people react in fear when they see a police officer. Having fled a tyrannical British empire, our founding fathers and colonists had deep reservations about a professional, centralized police force. Distrust of law enforcement is embedded in our culture. Due to 397 years of abuse, however, most POC, particularly Black people, have a far more deep-seated fear of White people in general, especially a law enforcement apparatus that is overwhelmingly White, male, cloistered, and propped up by a surrounding, largely unaffected White community who sides with them against us as a matter of course. We also believe that the larger White community has enabled rogue White officers and officers of color who identify with and support them. We know that “not all police are bad,” and quite frankly, POC are tired of having to reassure America that we do. Tell this, however, to the grieving girlfriend and daughter of Philando Castille.
The fear we possess has fueled our distrust, and without trust, honest and constructive communication wanes, and without communication there is no chance for truth and reconciliation. When POC shut down or challenge America, our spouse, he seeks refuge and affirmation in the arms of more affirming and malleable partners of color. These apologists for institutional stereotypes and racism are then propped up as shining examples of the perfect spouse, or in this case, perfect POC. They are passive and obsequious, and willing to ignore or explain-away our abuse. Perhaps more importantly, they are eager to wield a small measure of power on behalf of their abusive spouse to discredit, suppress, and eliminate their fellow POC. They are plugged into the Matrix and are quite content in doing do.
Even these POC who are loyal to their abusers, in the face of pain and trauma, are subject to abandonment, just as their more unruly peers are, at the slightest appearance of discomfort with America’s behavior and dissent. Unfortunately, there will always be POC who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. For the majority of the rest of us, however, the staggering number of unarmed and non-threatening Black people, especially Black men, who are shot down the equivalent of one every 72 hours, will not go unchallenged. We are compelled to look our abuser in the eye and say no more. America, these firm yet non-violent voices must be heeded, for desperation is growing and more unspeakable violence is on the horizon if you do not acknowledge that you have a problem, a problem born of stereotype and cultural incompetence, and rooted in flawed recruiting, limited training, inadequate mental health resources, failed leadership, and machismo culture.
Rodney Dangerfield’s solution to marriage longevity rested upon self-segregation. When commenting on how he and his wife managed to stay together for 30 years, he said “we sleep in separate rooms, we have dinner apart, we take separate vacations – we’re doing everything we can to keep our marriage together.” The ship has sailed, however, on the notion of racial segregation and rightfully so. Moreover, there will be no divorce or annulment. As Martin Luther King, Jr. opined, “we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” America, there is but one choice before you, admit that you have a problem, seek help, acknowledge our pain, suffering and humanity, and empower those who are willing to work constructively to repair our Union. If you, in your pride and obstinacy, fail to do this, chaos awaits us all.
Dr. Matthew C. Whitaker is the Founder and CEO of the Diamond Strategies, LLC, a diversity, equity, and cultural competency firm that inspires, achieves, and celebrates inclusion. He is also an award-winning educator, author, community engagement specialist and motivational speaker. He founded the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, winner of the 2014 Arizona Diversity Leadership Alliance Inclusive Workplace Award, at Arizona State University, and his work can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker and @dstrategiesllc.
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