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The American Nightmare: A reality for too many

April 6, 2012

This article was written by GVSU student, Christina Reseigh.

About a month ago, another tragedy occurred in America.  A bright, young man with a promising future was murdered.  One may agree that this is sad, but wonder why this particular tragedy is singled out. The death of Trayvon Martin was much more than just another fluke incident beyond our control.  It is the direct consequence of our failure, as a society, to acknowledge and address some of our biggest flaws.

Trayvon, a 17 year old in Florida, went to the store to get some skittles and an ice tea.  On the way back from the store, he realized he was being followed and began to walk faster but could not lose the man.  Finally he asked “what are you following me for?” which prompted the man to pull out a 9mm shot gun.  Trayvon cried out for help but it was no use.  A nearby neighbor heard cries for help and called 911.  As she was on the phone with them, a gun shot rang out.  The killer, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, confessed to the police that he shot Trayvon because he had felt threatened.  He had called them earlier reporting a suspicious young male who he proceeded to follow, even after ordered by the police to stand down.  The Sanford police found nothing on Trayvon’s dead body other than his candy, beverage and phone, and knew who had killed him.  But they proceeded to send the body to the morgue, let Zimmerman go, and neglect the Martin family and witnesses’ attempts to contact them.

The local community united in support of the family to protest this complete disregard for justice.  They helped expose the police department’s obvious lack of compassion for its citizens whose safety it is their job to ensure.  Cities nationwide followed suit holding demonstrations sporting signs saying ‘Justice for Trayvon’ and ‘Prosecute Zimmerman.’  Millions of people have been wearing hoodies, holding ice tea and skittles while asking “do I look suspicious?” and demanding the justice system to enforce its laws and charge Zimmerman for the crime he committed.

When trying to stay optimistic about this tragedy, some people to whom I have spoken have said, “at least the boy did not die in vain.  Look at the protests breaking out across the county, and as a result now Obama and the F.B.I. are getting involved.  Sometimes it takes a horrible incident like this to shed light on an issue that has been left in the dark.”  Seeing the outrage and support spread like wildfire with the help of social media is almost encouraging.  It can lead one to think that maybe the death of Trayvon will at least help to prevent others from suffering a similar fate.

However, I stumbled upon some very disappointing and disturbing news, summarized below, that burst this small bubble of hope.  It turns out, Trayvon was far from the first, and he will not be the last unless we do something different this time.

James Craig Anderson, a 49-year-old, auto-plant worker was killed in June of 2011, in Jackson, Mississippi.  He was beaten by two truckloads of drunk, white teenagers who had driven 16 miles to mess with the first black person they could find.[i]  After beating Anderson, they ran him over with their F-250.

Barry Deloatch, an unarmed, 47- year-old man was fatally shot in September of 2011 by New Brunswick policemen who jumped out of their car with their guns drawn and chased him into an alley.

Aaron Campbell was killed by the police in January of 2010.  The officer who shot him in the back with an assault rifle said he saw Campbell reach in his waistband for a gun but the man was unarmed.  The jurors wrote ‘we could find no crime committed.’

Phoenix City Councilman Mike Johnson, in March of 2010 was handcuffed and thrown to the cement by police for trying to check on his neighbor, whose house was on fire.

Steven Eugene Washington, an unarmed, 27-year-old, autistic man on his way back from a friend’s house was shot dead by the police in March of 2010 because they “thought he was manipulating something in his waistband.”

Steven Rodriguez, in January of 2012, was first tased and then shot to death by the police after walking out of a restaurant in Monterey Park, California.

Victor Steen, killed by the police in October 2009, was riding a bike when the police saw him, ‘thought he looked suspicious’, and decided to pursue him.  The officer tased Steen and then ran him over with his car.  The judge issued a verdict stating the officer did not commit a crime.

Oscar Grant was killed in January of 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer who pulled him off of a train in Oakland and shot him in the back.  The officer said he thought Grant was reaching for a gun in his waistband and meant to tase him.  He was sentenced to two years in prison. (Possession of marijuana will get you more time than that, if you are black.)

Sean Bell died in a hail of 50 bullets just hours before his wedding in 2006 because the police ‘thought he had a gun.’  The three NYPD detectives who killed this unarmed man as he and his friends left his bachelor party were found not guilty.

Of course the tragedies above are only a few among many examples of completely innocent black men, abused and murdered by the police who, in nearly all instances, end up being cleared of all charges.  In most of these cases the communities affected got involved: demanding justice, holding demonstrations with signs calling for the conviction of the killers and protesting police brutality, etc.  The Rev. Al Sharpton and the ACLU even got involved in some of these cases.  In fact, the public’s current reaction to the Trayvon Martin case is almost identical to the way the public responded to all of these previous atrocities.

It is extremely obvious that the way in which we choose to respond and attempt to restore justice and affect change IS NOT WORKING.  Why is it not working?  Because for some reason we always focus on the aftermath instead of the true, underlying cause of the tragedy.  Plucking off the leaves of the problem may be a temporary resolution, but it is also a waste of energy because until that root is ripped up, the weed will continue to sprout.

As Diane Nash, one of the leaders of the Freedom Riders who largely contributed to the eradication of segregation, said: people are never your enemy.  It is ignorance, attitudes, beliefs, unjust systems that are the problem.  Killing the people, or getting them locked up will leave the problematic system or unjust environment intact allowing it to continue to produce more of those horrible people.

In Trayvon’s case, Zimmerman is not our enemy.  Everybody is putting all of their energy and resources into helping Zimmerman get charged (or getting side tracked by hoodies, skittles, and ice tea).  The same thing happened with Sean Bell, Aaron Campbell and everyone else.  The communities rallied for the conviction of the murderers and maybe an end to police brutality or racial profiling.  In a one or two of the cases, the killer got the sentence he deserved.  But one can see this did almost nothing to stop similar instances from occurring.  Even if we could get Zimmerman a life sentence, this would have a very small effect on protecting potential future Trayvons.

Do not misconstrue the previous sentence.  Yes, of course these murderers need to be incarcerated for life.  But that, by itself, is far from enough.  Locking Zimmerman up will not bring Trayvon back.  Nor does it address the cause of his death.  And merely voicing disgust for police brutality, racial profiling and injustice will not produce much change.  A much deeper analysis is necessary to ensure we direct our efforts towards fighting the true culprit.  We need to ask: why did the police kill these innocent men?  Well, some officers were overtly racist bigots consciously abusing their authority.  Some actually feared for their lives.

We need to focus on the latter.  Why did they fear for their lives?   Because America has a serious psychological disorder.  It is Black Male Phobia.   We are deadly afraid of all black males.  Their attire, socioeconomic status and behavior are irrelevant factors in this fear.  Size and shade of skin color alone (biological factors outside of their control) determine the amount of fear that will be immediately felt by those in their presence.  They could be walking down their very own street, trying to help their neighbor with her groceries, wearing the same exact outfit as the white boy next to them, or probably even knitting a scarf and they will be perceived as ‘shady’ or ‘suspicious.’

Why is ‘suspicious’ a synonym for ‘black man’?  Why do we have this unbridled fear?  The list of reasons is lengthy so we will only indulge in a few.

  1. Segregation.  You fear what (in this case, ‘who’) you do not know or understand.  Even though the laws that required segregation were eradicated 50 years ago, this did not cause any reversal of white flight nor did it by any means undo the long-term damages of redlining.  The abolition of segregation made it legal for blacks to leave the deteriorating cities but not necessarily economically feasible.  Most Americans have been led to believe that we have conquered segregation and even racism (since apparently they are one in the same) because some very brave and truly heroic individuals killed Jim Crow.  Don’t be mistaken, the death of Jim Crow was absolutely necessary for the re-routing of this country’s destiny and I am overwhelmingly grateful for all that these freedom fighters accomplished.  But, even they would agree that there are some mandatory follow up measures that have yet to be taken to keep this country on the right track so that the sacrifices they made do not end up being in vain.  As a result, one only needs to open both eyes, take a step back and look at the big picture or do some research in order to see we are nearly as segregated as we were 50 years ago.  There is a huge misunderstanding going on between white America and black America and the physical gap is doing nothing to help close the mental gap.  The majority of whites do not know many blacks on a personal level making them even more susceptible to the brainwashing of the media, which leads me to the next reason.
  2. Media vilification.  America has persistently portrayed black men as criminals since they were first dragged here against their will. 
  • Slaves were not allowed to reap the benefits of their own hand and therefore, when caught taking some of “master’s” crops or livestock which they sowed, harvested and raised and needed to survive, they were considered thieves.  When some of them managed to escape, they were “wanted” as criminals, and treated as such.
  • After slavery ‘ended,’ southerners sought to maintain it, of course.  The law said that Slavery was abolished except as punishment for a crime.  So, all the white supremacists had to do was accuse blacks of committing a crime.  Political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson explains in his book how they established Black Codes.  These were petty laws exclusive to blacks (making “mischief” a crime, for example) which were created solely to assist in the criminalization of black men to achieve the goal of continuing the system of slavery.
  • The criminalization of black men continued as they were repeatedly lynched, especially during the Jim Crow era, for ‘raping white women.’  But research, particularly an extensive study done by Ida B. Wells, discovered that very few of the men actually raped anyone.  The reality was miscegenation (also known as interracial relations) was illegal, so black men in genuine relationships with white woman, having consensual sex were considered rapists by society.  Many were also lynched under the “rape” allegation because white men did not like the competition they served to be at work and in other aspects of life.  The myth of the black male as a ‘white woman rapist’ was also used to rationalize segregation because white men (who had been raping black women since they departed from the coast of Africa, or probably since they set foot in Africa) could not stand the thought of their women brushing shoulders with these ‘predatory’ black males.
  • Sadly, today nothing has changed.  Black men are continually portrayed by the media as nothing more than criminals.  Many argue, ‘if they would stop committing so many crimes then that wouldn’t happen.”  This is not true because they are disproportionately portrayed as criminals, meaning the extent to which they are portrayed as criminals in the media is not a reflection of how many are actually criminals in society.  For example, a study done by Travis Dixon and Daniel Linz in the Journal of Communication discovered that blacks were more likely to be depicted as felons on television news (44 percent) than to be arrested for felonies (25 percent).   The media has always portrayed blacks inaccurately and negatively.   Even if 95% never committed a crime, the media would primarily cover the bad 5%, leading society to assume that they are an accurate representation of the entire population.
  • 3. Prison Demographics .  The fact that Black men make up only 6% of the entire population but roughly 50% of the prison population contributes to the perpetuation of black criminality.

However, the majority of those in prison are in there for nonviolent offenses, meaning they are not dangerous.  As found by social activist Michelle Alexander and stated in her best seller The New Jim Crow, the number of those locked up for mere drug offenses alone today, is more than the total number of people in prison at all in 1980.  And despite the fact that people of all races violate drug laws at similar rates: “blacks are nearly fifty times as likely as white youth to be incarcerated for a first-time drug offense, even when all the factors surrounding the crime are equal,” as found in Dear White America by Tim Wise.  In simpler terms, Americans all across the board violate drug laws; 1 in 10 people each year (Alexander, 123). But the majority of those doing time for it are black males; 9 in 10 people locked up each year for a possession offense are people of color (Wise, 35). And again, this is not because black males use illegal drugs at a higher rate than anyone else-that is just another myth fed to us by the media.

So, thanks to de facto segregation, media vilification, and prison demographics, as well as many other factors, the racist rooted, bogus belief of the inherent criminality of black men has been embedded into our psyches.  The environment in which we live has taught us for centuries, from all directions, that black men are dangerous.

That is why America is scared shitless of black men.

This is how an innocent boy buying skittles gets murdered.

This is why a wallet in the hand of a black man will be mistaken for a gun.  (He doesn’t even need an object in his hand, only for it to fall in the vicinity of his waistline.)

This is how police can get away with murder and find the majority of the public backing them up.

This is why, as long as we all suffer from this mental illness, the claim of ‘self-defense’ will always be unquestionably considered legitimate when made against a black male; even if he is autistic or his back is to the gunman, or the killer was chasing him.

The majority of Americans suffer from Black Male Phobia but I think it is safe to say that white America suffers from the worst case of it, despite the fact that they are 4 to 5 times more likely to be victimized by a white person than a black person (Wise, 68).  By medical dictionaries, a ‘phobia’ is defined as an obsessive, irrational, intense fear of a specific object or situation (in our case; person) and is considered to be a mental disorder when it interferes with social functioning.  (I would argue that the deliberate and unremorseful killing of innocent people is evidence of major social dysfunction). A phobia manifests itself in many ways such as panic, tremor, perspiration and, when pertaining to us, trigger-happy tendencies.

Zimmermans will come and go, get incarcerated and released, but as long as we do nothing to eliminate this deadly fear, black men will continue to be, by far the greatest victims of murder as they are safe nowhere-well except maybe with a jersey on, in the sports arena.

So let us not get caught up in trends that accomplish practically nothing, such as taking a picture with one’s hood on for Trayvon Martin.  Let us not only scream “Justice for Trayvon” or “Justice for Troy Davis,” lest we be filled with the same pain just screaming a different name (maybe even of someone we personally know) in a couple months or years.  Let us scream “Protect our Black Men” and work to cure this debilitating illness that turns even kind, relatively non-racist, fairly intelligent men into murderers and judges and jurors into complete imbeciles.  And let us do so expeditiously because I’ll be damned if one of my loved ones ends up being next and I am not the only one who feels that way.

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