I am interrupting the regularly scheduled health and wealth for Black women program today to address a particular aspect of the racial tension in America, especially as we watch events unfold in Baltimore. Today’s post isn’t about merely adding my voice of concern, anger and hurt at police brutality perpetrated against Black men and women. Today, I want to address this notion I keep hearing in polite company that if “those” Black people obeyed the law this wouldn’t be happening to them. The underlying message being that we need to be “good Black folk” and these injustices wouldn’t occur. Police would have no reason to engage us if we weren’t committing a crime. This message is based on a dangerous assumption, that these things don’t happen to “good Black folk”.
Good Black Folk vs Those Black People
I was first exposed to the idea that White people regarded us as “good” and “those” in high school. However, it’s important to give some background on how I came to know this. Though I was born in Chicago I spent most of my formative years in a far suburb, DeKalb, where my parents went to college. There I was subjected to blatant racism by my classmates, teachers, and people in the community. Majority of the time the assaults were verbal, your run of the mill racial epithets – nigger, jungle bunny, coon, etc. There were times of physical assault or bullying primarily on the school bus but at times in school. Most of my teachers weren’t just part of the problem, they perpetuated it. Where do you think my classmates got the idea? Some teachers would literally withhold education from me by dismissing me from class for the slightest infraction or in-school suspension for an incident I admit being involved in but did not instigate. We know from studies mentioned in a USA Today article in February of this year that Black girls and boys are six and three times, respectively, more likely than their White counterparts to be suspended. In my case, the other female students, who were White, were not suspended though they started the whole thing.
My parents moved to Oak Park where I could attend one of the best public high schools in Illinois thus preparing me for college. This is where I came to understand two things – your own people can be just as cruel or crueler and that Whites see us as “good” and “those” Black people. How Blacks treat each other is a post for another day. The short of it is after enduring such hatred in DeKalb I couldn’t wait to have Black friends in Oak Park but they judged me to be “too White” and ironically I ended up with more White friends than Black, though my closest friends were Black. In the cafeteria a White girl felt comfortable enough to express to me that she liked me because I wasn’t like “those Black people” and she pointed to a group of girls who were laughing. They were being loud yes, but it was lunch time. I didn’t understand what they were doing that was so offensive. It was at this moment I realized I had a much bigger problem though – I had been labeled as “good” Black people. Thus I was in an exclusive club where [some of] my White classmates felt comfortable telling me what’s wrong with Black people. They had mistaken my friendship with them as a rejection of my own race. Not good. Not true.
These girls didn’t like me because of who they thought I was, they liked me because of who they thought I wasn’t. I was an acceptable “good Black person”. But I was still a Black person which I found out when a police officer approached me and my male friend at the front door of my building one morning. I lived in a three flat and one of the White residents called the police because my friend accidentally rang the wrong doorbell. We were dressed for school, back packs and all. The officer pulled my friend over to his patrol car, made him assume the position and searched him out on the street. I could tell his parents prepared him for this moment. He complied. He was an honor student. We both were. He was a “good” Black person who merely rang the wrong doorbell.
Good Black Folk Don’t Have Problems Because They Follow The Rules, Right?
Allow me to disabuse anyone of the notion that if Black people just acted “good” the fates of Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, or myriad others wouldn’t befall them. If you look at the socioeconomics of places similar to this Baltimore community, they are designed to hold people down primarily through lack of education and jobs. They learn from textbooks from the 70’s and 80’s. There are very few jobs, primarily because they are being shipped overseas. Some of the people make it out of this situation and go to college in order to create more choices for themselves. But then they, along with other Blacks not from those circumstances, attend a university where a White fraternity revels in racist chants, students hang nooses from trees or they get stopped by campus security on the regular to “check their ID” also known as “stop and frisk“. Perhaps their university gets sued for reverse discrimination when attempting to level the playing field through education. Of course one then spends the rest of their college career having to justify being there because White students think you have no father, your mother is addicted to crack and the university took pity on you.
After college you get a good job and become a contributing member of society. At this point your chances of encountering the police are reduced but not eliminated, you simply move into the next phase of racism and discrimination. A short film by Brave New Films highlights the ways “good Black folk” are discriminated against. Blacks are charged, on average, $700 more when buying a car. When they sent out the exact same resume one with a Black sounding name, the other with a White sounding name, the Black candidate was 50% less likely to get a call back. Black people, mostly men, are pulled over for traffic stops far more than Whites. There are far more Blacks in jail for marijuana possession than Whites. At work far fewer people of color move up the chain because they have a longer list of criteria to meet and sometimes they have to meet the same criteria multiple times just to be considered equal or average. Black women are just as ambitious as White men and more so than White women but have a harder time getting ahead due to stereotypes and unconscious bias. And Black women are paid even less than White women when compared to White men, $0.64 vs $0.77 respectively. But these are “good Black folk”, they should be afforded the same privileges as law abiding White citizens, right?
Please, don’t get sick. A Black woman diagnosed with breast cancer is 40% more likely to die than a White woman. Pregnant? You are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than a White woman. If you potentially suffer from mental illness or temporary disorientation and wander out into traffic rest assured the responding officer will treat you with kindness instead of beating you on the side of a California highway even though you committed no crime.
People Should Just Make Better Choices
Yes, life is about choices. Can the people of Ferguson or Baltimore make other choices? Yes. The problem is most of them don’t know that or know little of what other choices exist due to the systematized disenfranchisement within these communities. But even if the choices are made to change one’s circumstance from being one of “those Black people” to being “good Black folk” it doesn’t alleviate the impact of racism or discrimination, it merely graduates them to the next level.
We can continue to debate the merits of peaceful protest versus riots but unless you have scolded those who riot over sports teams with as much vehemence as you do “those Black people” please keep all of your opinions to yourself. If you have witnessed an injustice whether it be on the street, your campus, or in your office but said or did nothing, again I will ask you to go ahead and take a knee on offering your opinion. If you have never taken a look at your biases while you are in the midst of pointing your finger at Black people’s behavior then, you guessed it, shush. Lastly, please stop saying and thinking if “those Black people” would only follow the law this wouldn’t be happening. Don’t be so naive as to think a racist institution has only one outlet for its agenda. This is a multifaceted institution that has been around for hundreds of years. It’s a fallacy to think this system truly distinguishes between good and bad people in general. We are all the same to the machine. The idea of good and bad Blacks was created by slave masters to pit them against one another to keep them subservient and prevent them from working together against the master.
While great strides have been made to tear down the mechanisms of racism and discrimination by both Blacks and Whites (including those in government, corporate america, education and law enforcement), it still exists even in its weakened state. This is not a post-racial America simply because we have a Black President. We must continue to drag injustices, whether they be on the corner or in the board rooms, into the light. We must remember one thing, as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. All lives matter equally if for no other reason than the highest document of our land states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
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