By Dawn Marie Dow
A couple of weeks ago Jesse Williams, an actor most known for his role as Avery Jackson on the hit television show Grey’s Anatomy, delivered an incisive speech at the Black Entertainment Television network awards. Williams critiqued law enforcement, calling it out as a system that may have changed in form and application but has consistently oppressed black and brown Americans. Though some accused him of attacking white people, his speech was directed at a system, and systems are not the same thing as people! Williams called out a system of beliefs, policies and practices that privilege white bodies over black (and other non-white) bodies in many arenas of life. This system views black bodies, particularly black male bodies, as automatically guilty and worthy of death and thus requiring overwhelming proof of innocence. In everyday interactions, blacks in America feel they are viewed as guilty and must constantly prove themselves innocent if given an opportunity to do so. As the recent shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile illustrate, such an opportunity is not guaranteed. While the critique may be systemic, the beliefs, policies and practices that give rise to a systemic state of affairs are enacted by individuals, and are instilled in the minds and hearts of individuals in obvious and subtle ways, and dramatically influence how one acts towards different groups of people. These beliefs, policies and practices have institutional effects in areas like policing that play out in how police officers criminalize those they should ordinarily protect and serve.
Just days after Williams’ speech, over the course of 48 hours two more African American men were violently gunned down by police officers.
In his speech, Williams said:
But freedom is somehow always conditional here. “You’re free,” they keep telling us. But she [or he] would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so… free.
Is this what African American freedom looks like?
Two more deaths! Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s names can be added to the ever increasing toll of young black and brown men and women who have been killed because they made someone else uncomfortable by walking in the “wrong” neighborhood while wearing a hoodie, calling for help, playing with a toy gun on a playground or in a department store, or being pulled over for a minor traffic violation. These men had families, and friends and were a part of the fabric of their communities.
The video of Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, describing the events that led up to his murder is extremely difficult to watch but it is important to watch because of what it tells us about African Americans’ daily lives. In the aftermath of these horrific events Ms. Reynolds summoned super human strength to maintain her composure and calmly describe the murder of her boyfriend, after watching him being shot by law enforcement, and then bleeding to death, while at least two officers stood by. She did this while that same state official was clearly agitated and still pointing a gun in her direction with her child in the back seat of the car! Throughout the interaction with this police officer she continued to display respect and deference to the person who had moments before killed her boyfriend and, rather than administering first aid, watched him die. She did this to ensure that she and her child remained alive. Her boyfriend had just been murdered by those charged with the duty to protect him.
Philando’s “crime” was a broken taillight, later determined not to exist, and his blackness. As a black man, Philando was assumed to be worthy of death. It is telling that Ms. Reynolds felt compelled to prove her boyfriend’s worthiness and make the case that he did not “deserve” to die. His employment, his lack of a criminal record, his lack of drug use or membership in a gang was all evidence that even though the officer made a judgment that Philando’s life was worthless, his life had value and should not have been cut short.
Efforts to bridge the boundaries of the “them”/ “us’ divide” has been a theme that has emerged during these recent shooting deaths. These are efforts to make people see the humanity of the slain. In the ensuing days, the elementary school where Philando Castille was employed described him as a beloved worker (he is an us not a them). The Teamsters also made an announcement that they were mourning the loss of their member (he is an us not a them).
This is what freedom looks like for African Americans. You can be law abiding, gainfully employed, a hard working union member, but that will not protect you from the fears of others. This is not fair but it is a reality for the vast majority of black Americans who have to make efforts every day to emphasize their humanness and, the value of their lives, to the world around them.
Through my own research, I have spoken with middle and upper-middle class African American mothers about having ‘the talk’ with their sons and how they teach them to survive encounters with law enforcement. These mothers also try to help their sons overcome the negative assumptions members of the wider society make about them. For example, when I asked Charlotte about the concerns she had raising her children she described how, in prioritizing living in an area with the best schools and resources, she ended up living in a predominately white neighborhood. That choice had presented challenges in finding a neighborhood that would welcome her family and not treat her sons like outsiders. Charlotte said,
You know, I just worry so much for them. I want them to be accepted, and not judged, and not looked at like a black kid. I want people to look at them, as that is a good young man or a good boy. You know they [white and black kids] are all going to go to the same schools and maybe if they know my sons and me and my husband, it won’t be “Oh, there are the black kids”; it will be “There is us.”
Charlotte looked for, and ultimately found, a neighborhood where she believed with time her family could bridge the “them”/”us” racial divide and ultimately be seen as full community members.
Two other recent studies underscore how individuals are more prone to view African Americans as dangerous. Researchers at the University of Iowa found that people are more likely to incorrectly identify harmless objects as weapons after seeing a black face than a white face. Even more disturbing, this phenomenon of more often misidentifying harmless objects as deadly ones when held by African Americans persisted when presented with faces of five-year old African American children. Research conducted by Stanford psychologists, Eberhardt and Okonofua, using an experimental design found that teachers were more likely to label African American children as troublemakers than white children with similar disciplinary infractions and frequencies.
This is a just a small part of what it means to be black in America. There is a consistent demand to manage the assumptions that others place upon you without internalizing those assumptions about yourself. And, this labor starts at an extremely early age, and is constant and unending in many arenas of life. The efforts made at work, school or elsewhere do not transfer to other places. It must be done consistently and over and over again. At times, like in these interactions with officers and members of the general public, others discomfort and fear, no matter how irrational, can cost you your life.
We need solutions beyond parents teaching their children to dress in a certain way, be extra polite and well behaved and to be careful about their movements to ensure their safety. We know those solutions are, at their very best, partial and reaffirm the idea of a sliding scale for valuing life which translates into black and brown bodies not being worthy of the same courtesies, kindnesses and protections.
Dawn M. Dow is an assistant professor in the sociology department of the University of Maryland, College Park. Professor Dow earned a Ph.D. in sociology from University of California, Berkeley, a J.D. from Columbia University, School of Law and a B.A. in sociology from Bryn Mawr College. Professor Dow’s research focuses on the intersection of gender, race, and class within the context of the family, the workplace and the law. She is currently writing a book that examines the theoretical and practical implications of the structural, cultural, and economic exclusion of African-American mothers from dominant ideologies and practices of motherhood. Professor Dow’s work has been published in Sociological Perspectives, Journal of Marriage and Family, Sociology of Race & Ethnicity, and Gender & Society.