with Janee Woods
The month of March so far: we’re barely halfway through and already such madness.
Cleveland, Ohio’s attorneys blamed 12 year old Tamir Rice, a black boy, for his own shooting at the hands of a police officer. Tony Robinson, a biracial teenager, was unarmed yet shot to death by a police officer in Madison, Wisconsin. Anthony Hill, a black Air Force veteran suffering from mental illness traceable to his deployment overseas, was naked and unarmed when the police killed him in DeKalb County, Georgia. The brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon from University of Oklahoma were quite joyful in singing their traditional little ditty about how lynching black men would be preferable to admitting them to the fraternity.
Sometimes I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall by explaining time after time and again how tragedies like these exemplify the deeply embedded structural racism that runs our country and just won’t go away. Lots of other people feel the same way. And yet, of course, there still are people who refuse to acknowledge that all of these situations are about racism.
So maybe let’s shift the conversation to violence instead, because can we all at least agree that when two people get into a situation and one of them ends up dead, especially if they are unarmed and the other is armed, violence is involved? Consider the role of structural violence in determining how different people experience living in our society.
American culture’s bootstrap mentality and the flawed idea of meritocracy deludes some of us into believing that poor people are poor because they are lazy, so they should be blamed and shamed for their unfortunate circumstances, which means that poverty suddenly becomes a proxy for inhumanity, worthlessness and criminality. In a culture divided across color lines, where white privilege accrues not only social benefits but also financial benefits, people of color bear the heaviest burden of economic injustice, so they are more likely to live in poorer communities with higher crime rates.
So when a black person allegedly steals a handful of cigarillos and then gets shot, people feel comfortable arguing that his death was justifiable because he was a criminal. Or when a black teenager walks through a gated community he looks suspicious and menacing to white residents because black people don’t belong in gated communities. When he gets shot, the shooter is then justified in claiming self-defense. Structural violence fills our heads with lies about how the infliction of deadly force on black people is acceptable because black people are inherently criminal or dangerous, especially black people in poor communities.
We are socially conditioned to be fearful of strangers, fearful of veering from the status quo, fearful of failure to succeed. But most of all we are conditioned to be fearful of male blackness, without even realizing it. This is the crux of how structural racism maintains systems of violence. Fear diminishes our ability to see each other as fully human, worthy of dignity and respect. This fear makes it hard for us to build relationships with people who are different, crippling our chances to build solidarity with one another against oppression. This is a primary tactic for separating poor white people from people of color, to keep power in the hands of the wealthy elite.
Acts of violence don’t happen in a vacuum. When leaders refuse to accept responsibility for thorough, honest and equitable examination of the conditions creating the violence, they are not acknowledging the violence as morally deplorable. What they’re basically doing is invalidating the public outrage and shared pain of the community that protests the violence. Then, when the community rises up, leaders militarize police forces to enforce collective punishment against the entire community, regardless of involvement in the uprising.
In the words of bell hooks, “there is no life to be found in violence.” A profound statement but also quite literal — almost every person of color I named in this piece is no longer alive. They were murdered. I search hard for a deeper meaning behind their deaths, and I am at a loss. Their deaths were untimely and undeserved. Their deaths make me feel frightened.
If we, regardless of our color, remain complacent and don’t make a commitment to actively resist these violent structures, then we become our own executioners. We need to rip the veil of complicity from our eyes so we can see the deeper truth of what’s happening, over and over.
What are we so afraid of?
This post (including the awesome graphics and photos) was published originally on Scenarios USA, where I am a new contributor to The Scenario, a blog where young people and millennials go to talk about social justice issues, the Internet, culture, film and whatever else is on their mind! Scenarios USA is a national organization that uses writing and film to foster youth leadership, advocacy and self-expression, with a focus on marginalized communities.