There have been few times in my life when I have heard my mother sob. Saturday night was one of them, when she called me on the phone to tell me about the verdict in the case against Trayvon Martin’s killer. I had thought someone in our family died when I picked up the phone and heard the grief in her voice.
My following 24 hours were filled with feelings of powerlessness and paralysis. Even though I had expected the verdict to go as it did, seeing history play out and repeat itself exactly as it had for Emmett Till, for Medgar Evers, for Amadou Diallo, for Sean Bell – and for the thousands of black men and women who had, like Trayvon, been betrayed by the Injustice System – was a blow. A collective blow.
I couldn’t really talk for these 24 hours – not anything more than a few words or phrases. I initially ignored my editors’ messages about writing a piece for The Daily in response to the verdict (which I’d agreed to days before). I knew I’d be making myself vulnerable. And while I am aware of the support I have within the Stanford community for much of the content I produce, I am also aware that there are some who would express resistance – as trolls or otherwise – to many of the things I would have to say. And so writing from such a raw place for readers who might not or could not sympathize and empathize felt like an exploitation of emotional labor – the anguish of one (token?) black man on display for the rest of the world to consume. And I cannot do that.
This is a time of national mourning – specifically for black people in this country. I do not wish to expend energy trying to explain why this is to anyone. I therefore offer excerpts from a two-part post I wrote last year called “The Weight of My Race.” I wrote the first draft of this piece on the day the state of Florida formally charged George Zimmerman with second-degree murder:
Though Trayvon Martin’s family has expressed faith in the justice system now that George Zimmerman has been formally charged (with second degree murder), I can’t help but feel dispirited that it took this long to happen. There have been few other times in my life when I’ve felt the gravity of what could happen to me by nature of my race and gender. Others have brought this up before – that Trayvon’s case has evoked this in themselves – but today I feel the weight of my race.
I feel the fear my mother felt when she was called a monkey while campaigning for a state senator in a white, conservative neighborhood. I feel the anger and paralysis I felt in the eighth grade when I was racially profiled on the subway. I feel the dejectedness I felt of spending six years of sitting, waiting pleasantly for a white person to take the empty seat next to me on the railroad – and of spending six years watching people squish themselves into already crowded rows or even standing for 40 minutes to avoid sitting next to me.
I feel the shame of watching people (subconsciously?) clutch their bags or veer away from me as we pass by each other on the street. I feel the isolation of looking around my classroom – especially in computer science – and seeing very few people who look like me, a perspective I’ve been considering since I was 13. I feel the threat of the numbers against me and my race: that 1 in 3 black men born in 2000 (up from 1 in 4 for my birth cohort) are likely to be incarcerated; that black students are less likely to do well on standardized tests, in STEM fields, etc. and I felt the negative self-fulfilling prophecy of psyching myself out on the SAT, in calculus and physics, and, now, in computer science.
I feel the clash of cultures when I tell peers that my parents spanked (and sometimes beat) me as a child, that my parents are both active in their black Greek organizations (which are vibrant in their community activism well past their college years), that I grew up in the black church, etc. I feel the disbelief of watching distant high school classmates parade around the world – from house parties on the Upper East Side to clubs on the Lower East, from vacationing in the Hamptons to skiing in Vail to sunning in the Bahamas – seemingly unaware of the privilege of their money and their complexion (if they are not unaware, their behavior is even worse). I look at their insular world, so far from my reality, and wonder what, if anything, they will do with their privilege, besides perpetuating the same process.
I feel the slight acquiescence of self I sometimes experience around adults who are white or wealthy – trying my best to show that I’m a “good black boy” – that I “know how to behave.” I feel more anger and paralysis in being unable to express these frustrations on this campus. I left biology early to watch the live coverage of the Zimmerman prosecutor’s announcement and to hear Trayvon’s family respond – but no one else around me was agitated as I.
Beyond my personal experiences, I feel the frustration of watching educational, judicial, penal and housing systems that systematically fail our poor and/or brown families and children – a frustration that grows stronger in the silence that ensues around it, in the face of those who say “race is no longer a problem,” “the market will fix everything,” “they obviously don’t want to change – we’ve given them the opportunity.”
This is an easy mentality to have at a place like Stanford, where so many people – both of color and from lower income families–have overcome various odds to succeed. Yet our presence here does not mean the struggle is over. In fact, it likely means that we had access to resources that most of our brown and poor brothers and sisters did not have access to – the system as stands would not have likely allowed us to be here without extra assistance.
To be fair to all those who didn’t leave biology yesterday like I did, we are students, and in theory we can put the world around us on pause for now to focus on succeeding, so that we can change the world when we are successful. But how many of our alumni are going to actively combat racism, classism and all the isms of the world? And how many are going to join the hedge funds, the banks, the think tanks that perpetuate the oppression of the masses? How many of us, when presented with the institutional power and resources to enact change, will make the hard decision to go against the grain?
So, attempting to place a kernel of an idea in the minds of people who will one day hold great power, I ask those who know me well in particular to take this post to heart, to think of me and consider what it’s like to live in a world where you are almost always in the minority of people who look like you, to live in a world where your skin color can automatically lead you to become a potential threat.
Consider what it’s like to be born into a system where your classrooms are likely to be overcrowded, where your family is less likely to have access to adequate healthcare, where you are more likely to be unfairly suspended or expelled from school, and where you are more likely to wind up in jail than your counterparts of other races. Consider what it’s like to grow up in a world like this, where so many of the odds are stacked against you, and then tell me that we are in a post-racial society, that we can rely on the market and economic policies that disproportionately benefits and rewards the rich.
And the call does not stop there. You can consider what it’s like to sit and watch as a nation debates whether or not you have the right to marry, whether your love is constitutional – what it’s like to be told to “sit and wait” to be viewed as a regular citizen.
While Trayvon’s case weighs on me so much with all of my emotional baggage about race, the feelings that have bubbled up with respect to being black represent a fraction of the whole. They represent all the anger, frustration, shame, fear and paralysis I feel when thinking about the wrongs of the world. The feelings represent the embarrassment I feel that my people had to wait (1865 minus 1776) years to be emancipated, or (1964 minus 1776) years to have federally protected rights or (20XX minus 1776) years to have the same opportunities for success as my lighter skinned peers, the embarrassment I feel that our society waited (1920 minus 1776) years to grant women the right to vote, and the embarrassment I feel for future Americans to know that their forefathers could have addressed the income, resource and opportunity gap, could have given everyone the right to marry. Wrapped up in the helplessness I felt about having had to wait 45 days for Trayvon Martin’s death to have been officially called even a possible crime is the helplessness I feel in having to wait indeterminably for a better society.
For all those in majority roles and/or positions of privilege, don’t think about or play so flippantly when debating economic or social policies or weighing job options. Do think about the lives of the minority groups over which you hold privilege – ask whether the system that benefits you also treats them well. If the answer is no, please do everything that you can to work to dispel oppressive laws and attitudes.
By my 20th year, I have lived through two highly publicized cop shootings of innocent black men in New York City. And in each case, the (white) cop(s) have been let off without punishment.
When I was eight years old, I remember sitting with my siblings at an aunt’s house, playing with blocks with her children as my mother and aunt listened tensely to the verdict in the Amadou Diallo case. (Amadou was a 23 year old Guinean immigrant who was shot 19 times by four plainclothes NYPD officers who mistook his wallet for a gun.) I remember both my mother and aunt sobbing intensely as they learned all four policemen were acquitted of all charges.
As I grew older and participated in a program called Young Men’s Rites of Passage with my church, I got my first version of “the talk” that has become part of the mainstream discourse since Trayvon’s shooting. We were told if ever pulled over or stopped by cops, to slowly raise our hands above our head and politely, but explicitly state, ‘I would like to reach for my wallet or license and registration — is that okay?’ We were told that sudden or aggressive movements could leave us dead.
Fast forward a few more years to 2006, when five undercover and plainclothes detectives fired 50 shots at three men, killing Sean Bell, after thinking they heard someone from his group of friends say ‘Yo, get my gun,’ while in a nightclub in my hometown of Jamaica, Queens.
My father, who has for decades been involved with the National Bar Association (the legal association African Americans formed after being initially excluded from the white American Bar Association), the NAACP and United Black Men of Queens (as was his father), took me to a rally the NAACP held in Queens shortly after the shooting. I witnessed firsthand the tears and outrage of a people who may be targeted, killed and betrayed by the police. And after seeing a similar judicial outcome occur – all three of the officers charged were acquitted of everything– I lost my faith in what should be a fair system.
I myself was racially profiled on the subway in the eighth grade. I was on my way to our grade’s Day of Service in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights. I was dressed in old sneakers, dirty jeans, and a gray sweatshirt. I swiped my Student MetroCard through the turnstile, walked up to the platform and was shortly tapped on the shoulder by two police officers. They asked me why I was using my student card on a day when public school wasn’t in session. I explained that I went to a private school and was on my way to do community service.
They asked to see my ID and I showed them my school ID and the New York State non-driver’s ID my mother had the foresight to know I’d need when I started commuting into Manhattan for school. They scrutinized them – and me – intensely. I tried to call my dad to help, but service was spotty and he couldn’t hear me. Eventually, they let me go on a warning, but when I got to school, none of my white classmates could understand why I was upset or what had just happened to me. I channeled this energy into writing a story that I read freshman year at our Creative Writing Assembly (read the story here). But, while not the most traumatic thing that has happened to me, I am still traumatized by that event. I tense up when walking past police, and, paradoxically, appear more out of sorts and suspicious by trying to appear normal and unsuspicious.
Today I charge myself, my fellow African Americans, and everyone who feels bits and pieces of their soul silently torn out to act. To speak out and speak up. To always stir the waters and to never shy away from asserting our identities for fear of “making others uncomfortable.
And finally, touching upon the sentiments I raised yesterday–that nearly every legal and institutional policy in this country sets up African Americans to be less educated, less medicated, less well-employed, creating the environment of violence that is perceived among the community (and that does exist to varying degrees)–I see the huge injustice in punishing large segments of this population by incarcerating them and killing them. And while I still charge those who will one day hold power to act fiercely against these polices, this post is more a charge to myself and to those more immediately around me while we are on this campus and before we are in positions of power. Practice being candid and acknowledging the discomfort of race now will make for a better future.