Everything Has Changed & Nothing Has Changed
“When it comes to the economy, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the challenges that inner cities experience, [Martin Luther King, Jr.] would say that we have not made as much progress as the civil and social progress that we’ve made, and that it’s not enough just to have a black President”.
These are the words of President Obama during an interview with Tom Joyner earlier this week. His words are poignant in a time when scrutiny is mounting against the validity of the theoretical environment called Post-Racial America. Yes, the President is Black and your Tumblr is filled with Instagram pics of White people reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but there is still much work to be done.
My generation gets a bit of flack from elders for not being more active for the promotion of civil rights. We often get stereotyped as lazy or entitled when faced with racial transgressions. Such criticisms often overlook changes in social norms and interactions. For instance, I went out with some friends to a dive bar this weekend. After whiskey shots, shameless PBRs and some rap-infused house music, we had entered an adequate level of muted inhibitions. It was the moment when most people had been at the bar for so long, that strangers had entered slurred conversations and debates. The diverse mix of races, genders, ages and orientations reflected the benchmarks of recent social history. The remnants of segregation, desegregation, White Flight, gentrification and Black Flight culminated in this complex blur of inebriated socializing. One particularly blasted White guy, Brian, sparked up a conversation with me. I forgot how the conversation started, but we had ended up in the subtle flexing that often occurs between young professionals. You know, faking humility while listing as many accolades as possible.
He worked in quality control for an aircraft manufacturer, with my experience in research consulting we were able to debate about whose level of analysis was most difficult. Our conversation dove into the stagnated growth in industry salaries in the last few years. Brian talked about all of the hard work he had done, taking the right steps to become a successful professional, but hadn’t yet obtained the things he thought he deserved. I decided to focus on how the current environment allows us to move from firm to firm without hurting our marketability. I talked about how my father worked for as few companies as possible in his time and was able to move up through the ranks through hard work and academic drive. Brian nodded and said,
“That’s the great things about dad’s like ours, their hard work helped us get to where we are today.”
He then recounted the private schools he was sent to, the academic enrichment programs he was afforded and how his father paid for his undergraduate tuition and brought him in as an entry level analyst after graduation. It was at that point that I politely ended the conversation and decided to hit another bar.
I didn’t feel like going into how our father’s were quite dissimilar. I wasn’t about to explain how I had been homeless for a portion of my early childhood. I wasn’t about to talk about my teachers trying to set my Black ass back a grade in elementary school, when I actually just needed to skip 5th grade. I didn’t want to go into how teachers pegged me as lost cause the moment I walked in the classroom. I didn’t want to talk about discrimination against my immigrant parents, police harassment during my college years, my debt woes, the endless stereotype threat I continue to contend with or the adverse impact that European colonization has had on the state of my family and my people. That all may seem like a lot to recall in such a casual environment, but those are the variables that are being ignored more and more as the “Post-Racial” campaign is promoted by the majority. Brian may have been very aware of the discrepancies between our afforded opportunities, but his words didn’t reflect that sentiment. I don’t expect for strangers to delve into my past circumstances every time I have a conversation. I’ve just developed a low tolerance for the “even playing field” perspective of Post-Racial Society.
The daily stressors we encounter as Black people in America have always been an annoyance. When the White guy calls you “bro” and calls everyone else by their name, when security personnel creeps behind you through a Nordstroms, when White spring breakers assume you know where to acquire weed, or when White people make muppet hands and the Shanaynay face whenever they say something “Black”. The annoyances are increasing in magnitude since Black people are often the creators of cool. Black people invented “cool”, the idea of “cool” and the use of “cool” as a slang term, so I kind of understand why Miley Cyrus is now “about that life”. Her and Justin Beiber are losing their self identities, trying to be as cool as possible while backstage at Juicy J concerts and Mayweather fights.
Our capacity for cool has increased the amount of “borrowed culture” pervading the media. While White folk get the best of both worlds, Black folk still endure oppression and discrimination in all aspects of life. All of that used to get under my skin, but now I’m in Post-Trayvon-Post-Racial America and I just feel ridiculously Drake; I mean, ridiculously sensitive. I just saw Fruitvale Station last weekend. I had been stalling for a while. My fiance had been pressing me for weeks to see the film with her, but I needed some time to calm down from the Zimmerman trial. I spoke with some of my friends and a few of them shared my sentiments. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that don’t watch movies to experience angst, I experience enough of that shit in real life. I was just too generally pissed to be reminded of this nation’s daily betrayal to actually want to spend night of my weekend crying about it in a cold, dark theater. As I watched the film, I started to think about all of the negative experiences my friends and I have had with the police. I mean, I was hosting a dinner party with several young professionals, and somehow all the Black men drifted into a conversation about the jail time we all served. It’s ridiculous that many of my Black professors have had comparable stories. I remember when my friends caught a flat tire and a police officer arrived on the scene yelling, “Y’all got guns!?” before asking us if we needed help. Then I remembered Trayvon Martin and I started crying harder than Derek Luke. I was on edge for the week following the credits. My coworker, Emily, came up to my desk at work and said, “Sigh…. Mondays right?” All I could think was,
“You don’t know me. You don’t know my life!”
But then I’d definitely be labeled as the angry Black man. Young professionals in my racial group are faced with stereotype threat at every turn, especially as we continue to hop from company to company. First impressions, breaking the ice, establishing a rapport and building trust require an added layer of assessment on the part of the minority. We often adjust our behaviors according to the racial composition of the environment. Sometimes a situation necessitates an, “Oh haaale naw,” but we keep it in, just to reduce the likelihood of a “nigga alert”. Whether we act like we care or not, the majority of Black people must at least consider the ramifications of their “Blackness” in public spaces. Our decision is, at the least, influenced by possible judgement from White or Black people.
This dissonance between thoughts of integration vs. rebellion are only augmented by the nation’s adverse reactions to public objections to racial transgressions. States are rejecting the application of affirmative action in public institutions and the section of the Voting Rights Acts that limited racially discriminatory redistricting was recently struck down by the Supreme Court. Bill O’Reily refers to civil rights activity within the Black community as “the grievous industry”. A lot of us talk about Fox News as if only the most daft of us watch it. The fact of the matter is that Fox News is the number 1 news network in America. That means that the degree of ignorance displayed during their programming is not perceived as such by a substantial proportion of the country. That being said, when Bill O’Reily refers to the “grievous industry”, it’s safe to assume that an unsettling portion of the country agrees with that characterization.
Something must be done to bring about real change, and progress has to be made by my generation and those that follow. We cannot sit idly by, content in our adaptability within White America. Living in a neighborhood where White people run in the morning should not be our metric for successful personal development. We also cannot continue to mute our objections to oppression and discrimination. Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, has an anecdote that could shed some light on a possible solution.
No, the solution isn’t light skinned people. Dr. DeGruy’s White-looking sister was able to call out a cashier who was implementing racist check verification practices because the cashier found familiarity with the sister. Dr.DeGruy had a representative on her side who was willing to point out discriminatory practices. We need to strengthen our representation among legislators and policymakers at every level of government to do the same thing. Economic strains will continue and have continued to disproportionately impact the Black community and the vote is still our most powerful tool in this republic. The 2012 presidential election is a testament to the kind of impact that improved voter turnout can create. We need to do our part to continue this trend and increase our brothers’ and sisters’ involvement in the democratic process. Legislative and legal action reducing our voting power cannot be tolerated. Racial profiling, sneaky redistricting and dealing with no Chipotles or IKEAs near HBCUs are problems that pale in comparison to the daily threats our elders endured. Daily life in previous eras elicited more fear and insecurity within the Black community than Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin and current unemployment rates combined. We understand that racial equality is not racial neutrality. We cannot allow ignorance and convenient naivete to erase the work of our ancestors or stifle the progress of generations to come. Everything has changed, and nothing has changed. Change what you can with the opportunities you’ve been afforded and don’t be afraid to remind people that there’s still plenty to be angry about.