with Janee Woods
The juxtaposition was startling and heart-wrenching.
On TV, I was watching the premier of “Supergirl,” in which a young white female superhero joyfully uses her otherworldly physical strength to defeat a supervillain and also discovers the power of her emotional resilience, cheered on by family, friends, and the rest of the world.
At the same time, on my iPhone, I was watching (on repeat, with an uncomfortable mixture of disbelief and defeated familiarity) a video from Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., in which a burly white police officer brutally attacked a black student who refused to leave the classroom and continued to sit at her desk after being admonished for looking at her cell phone. She did not present a threat to anyone, even if she was disobeying an instruction. Still, he grabbed her, viciously slammed her to the floor, then threw her savagely across the room, while her stunned classmates and teacher watched silently without intervening to save her. That’s not their fault, though.
Unlike Supergirl, the student didn’t fight back. I imagine that, deep in her heart, she felt like she couldn’t. Since birth, she’s been taught by society to believe that she deserves abuse and to expect mistreatment by men, especially white men in positions of authority. She must have known that tussling with a police officer could end in her death and that she alone would bear the burden of blame, no matter the circumstances. She could probably rattle off the names of those who’ve died on the wrong end of a cop’s gun, quick-like, easy as multiplication tables or the ABCs. Torture by police has become a major plot line in the black American experience. We all know the script, by this point: different actors, same story.
Meanwhile, the first episode of “Supergirl” ended on a high note. National City had found its very own champion to protect and serve the people—a lovably dorky white girl in a red cape with a wide open future (literally, she can fly so the sky’s not even the limit) and a strong support network to guide her through any obstacles. By contrast, there’s no way whatsoever for the reality unfolding in Spring Valley to end on a high note. This atrocity cannot be resolved in 60 minutes with a few commercial breaks, nor was it an isolated incident.
Long before Sheriff Deputy Ben Shields decided to lay his hands violently upon this girl, before he was appointed as the school resource officer and years before he decided to join the police force, this young black girl’s life was under attack. She’s not guaranteed safety at home or in her community—an overwhelming percentage of black girls have been sexually assaulted, funneled into the prison pipeline, or both. As this incident demonstrates clearly and painfully, she’s not even guaranteed safety at school, where black girls unfairly receive more frequent, harsher punishment than their white peers. Shields was placed onadministrative leave and then fired but so damn what? That doesn’t undo the disgrace and the unabashed racism of the act he perpetrated, nor does removing him from the force erase the stigmatic memory of public dehumanization from his victim’s mind.
What would Supergirl do? She would vanquish him with her laser vision and thwart his nefarious advances with superhuman speed and agility. Obviously. In her universe, good triumphs over evil.
But what can we mere humans do?
The Justice Department and the FBI have opened a Civil Rights probe into the case. That’s the correct response, but it’s not enough. As a society, we need to take a step further by ensuring that police officers are held accountable for their wrongs. This, however, is a slow process, tainted by our country’s deeply ingrained legacy of structural racism. Collectively and culturally, we suffer from an inability to name things for what they are.
There are people—some black, but mostly non-black—who say that this student deserved the violence inflicted upon her because she was “disrespectful.”
To that I say: “NO.”
Respectability politics are our kryptonite. I wish I knew the antidote to deliver us from the certain death of prioritizing the falsehood of “respectability” over the sanctity of humanity. But I don’t—especially for us black folks, because that’s some deeply embedded internalized racism. We black women are traumatized by sexism and misogyny as well.
We can’t afford to wait for a world like the one in “Supergirl,” where safety is within equitable, sensible reach. That’s never going to happen.
This post (including the awesome graphics and photos) was published originally on Scenarios USA, where I am a new contributor. Scenarios USA is 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.