Nothing Not Named Obama Galvanizes Black Emotion Quite Like the Criminal Justice System
Can it be it was all so simple then… just a few months back?
It was about a year ago when journalist Ellis Cose’s new book boldly announced The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race and Rage (HarperCollins). Cose, best known for a series of books and articles taking the temperature of black life, wrote that black folk circa 2010 were feeling more optimistic about themselves and their prospects than perhaps they’d ever done. Not that everything was hunky-dory, mind you. A sizeable percentage of the young blacks Cose surveyed reported having experienced forms of discrimination in multiple arenas: retail, social, educational, and others. And no one he talked to implied that America had arrived at the nirvana of true and complete color-blindness (assuming such a state is even achievable).
The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage
Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now
Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
(The New Press)
But more crucially, Cose also found evolutional movement in black attitudes from generation to generation. Younger blacks shared little of the crustiness their parents and grandparents held toward the possibilities of personal (if not group) advancement. Likewise, they were more amenable to the notion of having relationships across racial lines.
Even as he noted the damage the subprime mortgage crisis wreaked on black home ownership and personal economics, and the cycle of poor schools, no jobs and temptations to crime that continues to ensnare those on the bottom rungs, Cose landed on an upbeat note:
“…I am suggesting that we are living in a very interesting moment – when black rage has largely been set aside, when a people who previously had a hard time believing in their country’s capacity to acknowledge their potential are rethinking assumptions held for generations. I am also suggesting that this moment may be something of a gift – a period that the nation, ideally, could devote to calm reflection as it reaffirms its belief in the notion that all are created equal and tries to figure out a way to make that motto true.”
As if on cue, journalist Touré posed the provocative question Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now in his book (Free Press), which came out in the fall. Much like Cose, he argued that we are in an era during which the old tropes about how black people should think, feel and live have all but dissipated. They’ve been replaced by black folks, in essence, giving themselves permission to wave their freak flags high:
“I wish for every Black-American to have the freedom to be Black however he or she chooses, and to banish from the collective mind the bankrupt, fraudulent concept of ‘authentic’ Blackness. Some of us still cling to the myth of consensus, the idea that there is some agreement on how we should do Blackness – on what is and is not Black, a right path and a wrong one. We have no race-wide agreement and have never had one.”
Touré is far less dogged than Cose in exploring how we arrived at that point. He’s also far less interested in how widespread across the spectrum of blackness this feeling actually is. Where Cose interviewed hundreds of folks across from a variety of backgrounds, and supplemented his interviews with field reporting, Touré seems to have done little more than survey his address book. The list of people he consulted is dazzling in its eclecticness – academics, journalists, artists, rappers, filmmakers, writers – but almost exclusively composed of the black creative class, and the progressive wing of it at that (Lupe Fiasco and Questlove yes, Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy, no).
What emerges is some insightful conversation and insight into the state of the black condition, but also a nagging feeling that the picture he’s trying to paint is incomplete. Touré relates anecdotes from his panel about their own experiences trying to reconcile their personal aspirations and their societial realities, and goes deep on a few of his own. But it would have been nice to know if there’s a bus driver or a day-care worker or an assistant manager at a fast food joint who’s struggled with those issues. Touré’s educated, celebrity-leaning salon seems instead much like a post-modern construction of W.E.B. DuBois’ “talented tenth”, that uber-strata of black folks which was supposed to light the way forward for the dark masses.
I would argue that every black human being ever has wished for a moment when his/her blackness wasn’t used by someone or another as either a weapon or a boundary, or both. And most black readers, especially those who came of age after the Civil Rights Movement (read: under 40) will see some of themselves in some of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?’s anecdotes. But because the actual spectrum of black life runs the gamut of any class-based metric you’d care to apply, any attempt at a sweeping pronouncement that leaves out the working (or non-working, as fate and the economy might have it at that moment) class of black folk is necessarily incomplete.
But it’s that younger generation of black folks that’s most invested in the notion of not being bound by historical convention. And coming of age is the subtext binding together the essays Rebecca Walker collects in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness (Soft Skull, 2012). The title is something of a misnomer, as it turns out. One might expect meditations on image, style and personal carriage, but the book instead plays out as a series of personal manifestos for living.
Veronica Chambers takes black culinary habits to task in “Hunger”, for example, and Helena Andrews examines stoicism as a coping mechanism in “Reserve”. The selections here are more down-to-earth than the pronouncements in Touré’s book, most likely because they speak from the heart more than the head. The unsuspecting reader might well leave Black Cool with the sense that blackness is a way more complicated, nuanced and multi-faceted thing than is apparent from a Tyler Perry movie, an Al Sharpton press conference, or any other individual slice of it.
So it is, and so it always has been. The diversity of black life has always been news to white folks, whether black folks are in the mood for celebrating it or sweeping it under the rug. This moment we’re living now would seem to be in the camp of the former, as books like these and others suggest that the days when a monolith of racial thought and identity could easily be presumed are long since over.
That monolith, the reasoning goes, dates back to the years when social, professional and economic segregation limited all black folk to the same narrow realm. In those circumstances, some sense of group identity was needed to maintain collective sanity, and to wage battle against the enforcement of those boundaries. But as the successes of the Civil Rights Movement opened some doors, the sense of black-to-black cohesion gave way to individuals pursuing opportunities previously unimagined as available to blacks.
Such as, most obviously, the White House. Barack Obama’s election was widely seen as a turning point for black America. Black people, understandably and not surprisingly, bought into candidate Obama’s messages of hope and change with an especially urgent fervor. Many people, white as well as black, took his victory as the cue to assign all that racial baggage to the attic and proclaim a brand new, post-racial day. With the holy grail of black achievement now in hand, wagged observers across the land, America proved she’d finally turned the corner on race relations, and black folk were officially free to aspire to whatever they felt like aspiring to.
Of course, both those notions are ludicrous. Black folk have always been free in their aspirations, if nothing else – it costs nothing to dream. And the almost-immediate uptick in right-wing nuttery and barely concealed race-based attacks on Obama and his policies after his election proved that while some Americans had moved past race, a whole lot hadn’t, or wouldn’t. But the sense that a cohesion of group identity was no longer a defining factor of black life (this despite Obama getting 90-odd percent of the black vote) had taken a firm hold, and was beginning to set the tone of this era’s what-black-folks-are-up-to-these-days narratives and explorations.
Then Trayvon Martin was killed.
Almost immediately, all musing on how black folks don’t think in lockstep anymore came to a stop. All declarations about this being a post-civil rights era ceased. Martin was hardly the first black youth gunned down under questionable circumstances (or the last), but his story went viral, and provoked an immediate reaction.
Black folks took to the pulpits, airwaves and streets demanding justice. There were marches, there were vigils, and there were calls from far and wide for the right thing to be done. And none of it was whipped up or coordinated by any black “leader”. Once the news got out, people did not need any spokesperson to tell them something horribly wrong had gone down.
Martin’s case tapped into a deep, abiding fear black people, especially black men, carry in our guts. That fear is that no matter how hard we work, how high we climb, or how proudly we carry ourselves, we will forever be considered suspect in the eyes of law enforcement (to apply the phrase “law enforcement” to George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, is very much a stretch, but the sense still applies). Columnists, bloggers and everyday folks all expressed the same misgivings and mistrust about the relationship of police and the black community.
People wrote about age-old warnings given to black boys, survival tips offered almost as a rite of passage: keep your hands out of your pockets, watch where you go, know your legal rights. Previous tragic incidents between cops and blacks were recounted across the land. Indeed, virtually every black male has had some sort of unjust and unpleasant encounter with the po-po at some point or another. Here’s mine:
It was the spring of 1978, and it was the first day of my internship at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago. I was working at its North Side production shop, and it was lunchtime. The guys there directed me to the nearest place to grab some lunch, around the corner past the alley. As I stepped out the door, I saw a car coming down, and stepped back to let it pass. The car stopped. Out jumped a white man who pulled a gun on me, at point-blank range. He identified himself as a cop, and said that they were looking for somebody, and that my stepping out of the (unmarked) car’s way was probable cause.
He put me up against the wall and frisked me. He thought he’d struck gold, when he discovered a long foreign object in my pants pocket. It was my glasses case. He threw me in the back of the car, where he and his partner looked up my record to see if there was a reason to detain me. All they found was some speeding tickets from my early years behind the wheel. With that, they freed me. “Have a nice day,” one of them said. Yeah, right.
John McWhorter’s 20 March column for The New Republic, “What a Florida Teenager’s Death Tells Us about Being Black in America,” is distinct among the numerous published thoughts and reactions to the Martin case only for its succinctness:
“Even outdoors, I scratch when I have an itch and do not consider myself lucky to have avoided arrest for it. But then along comes an episode like what happened to Martin. Suddenly, the narrative that the cops are anti-black, and that consequently, on a certain level, being black is a battle against the cops, seems much more compelling. The feeling of resentment and persecution percolates. Gangsta rap ends up making a kind of sense, as does the title that Ishmael Reed gave his report on the black condition: Another Day at the Front. In short, a case like Trayvon Martin’s is interpreted as a metaphor for how white America feels about black people.”
Of course, Martin’s case is still ongoing. Justice may well be served, eventually. Certainly, the Thousand Hoodie Marches have died down, at least for now. But the fear and discomfort the whole incident sparked isn’t going anywhere. It’s ingrained within our psyches.
It’s also part of our daily reality. The Martin case is merely the latest manifestation of that. Look also, for starters, to draconian sentencing laws, the proliferation of the prison-industrial complex, and horror stories like the NYPD’s shootings of Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo and the dozens of suspects tortured by the Chicago Police Department in the Area 2 scandal of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
For all our diversity, no matter what any one of us thinks about Obama’s policies, whether we care about the rights of gay people to wed, or whether we think those black sci-fi geeks and punk rock fans are the vanguard of a new generation or just plain weird, nothing unites black folks so much, and so viscerally, as our gut-level suspicion and distrust of the men and women in blue. That’s why, for all the insights Cose, Touré and Walker present, the book that has the most resonance about what-black-folks-are-up-to-these-days might well be Michelle Alexander’s expert takedown of the modern-day criminal justice system, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness The New Press, 2010).
Alexander, previously a civil rights attorney, first realized that something was amiss when she saw a black man lying on the ground before policemen while exiting an Obama election night party. Her subsequent experience and research into the effects of the so-called War on Drugs, rapacious policing within the black community, jailing practices which either warehouse men and women or farm them out as cheap labor but do not attempt to get them on a better track, and the vicious cycle they get dropped into upon their release, led her to this conclusion:
”In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
How big a nerve has Alexander struck? Her book prompted the NAACP to formally call for an end to the War on Drugs. She’s already booked for events well into 2013. Faith-based study guides have been developed, and ones for high school students are in the works. And in January, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. offered copies of the book to 50 of his readers to help spread the message. He received 12,000 requests.
If we’ve learned anything from the Martin case to date, then, it’s that while the notion that America is the least bit post-racial has always been laughable, the notion that black folks might be post-“black” carries some weight, except when it doesn’t. We have unprecedented freedom to redefine our relationships to our racial and cultural heritage any way we want, and many of us, especially among the younger and more educated of us, seem to have taken full advantage of that freedom. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. argues that there are 35 million ways to be black. That knowledge adds to the richness to be found in any examination of black life these days past the surface.
The term “post-black” was coined by cutting-edge black artists (including Glenn Ligon, whose work has hung in the Obama White House) about a decade ago. The term “post-racial” emerged from the land of punditry around the time of the Obama phenomenon’s ascent. Although their meanings and etymologies are different, they’ve both come to represent shorthand for “black folk have officially overcome and we don’t have to deal with race as a front-burner issue in American life anymore, thank the gods.”
On a day-to-day level, that might be the case. But nothing not named Obama galvanizes that ol’-time black emotion, outrage and action quite like the criminal justice system, which is where we see the sharpest and deepest vestiges of racial discord, and where all the anger and marching and pontificating and solidarity we’re supposedly “post-” from comes bubbling back up to the surface, as though it never really went away.
Accept the facts, America. It really is still simple: we’re still black.