Opinion: Entertaining the Humanity of America
Note: The following essay was crafted by Mike Daniels, interim director of Kent State University’s Student Multicultural Center. The Student Multicultural Center provides counseling, mentoring, financial guidance and other support necessary for educational access and retention.
Is this America? Where popular culture is largely represented by Black culture? Where musicians, artists, and athletes can be praised and celebrated for their talents, but criminalized for their skin color? Where the beginning of one month can start with people of every race posting videos on social media of trending dances to Black artists’ songs such as the #SavageChallenge or the #RenegadeChallenge and the next month we have a somber anthem expressing artistic mourning over the death of a (unarmed) Black man at the hands of a White police officer. Eight days into a nationwide (worldwide) protest against racism, police brutality and injustices within our communities, artists are having to engage in a resounding moment of silence to help develop unity within the music and entertainment industry. America, where Black Friday is known for shopping but Blackout Tuesday is a plea to acknowledge the injustices Black Americans are facing daily. Is this America where we can uplift and celebrate symbols of expression from Black culture but fear and abuse Black people?
When I reference the #SavageChallenge and the #RenegadeChallenge, I mean to be ironic, purposefully, because the unfortunate circumstances we find ourselves in as a nation is because Black Americans continue to be portrayed and viewed as savages and othered into positions as renegades. However, the fact is, Black Americans are American citizens and should be afforded the same rights as any American citizen. Seeing human beings as anything other than human is a travesty in and of itself. Isolating a whole population of people out of fear or ignorance is a shame. Exploiting the same group of people’s culture, yet failing to recognize the injustices they face in the land they call home, is deplorable.
I echo the sentiments of Coco Gauff, 16-year-old tennis star. We must first love each other no matter what. We must have the tough conversations. We must take action, and we must use our voices. Coco, who gave a powerful speech at a demonstration in Florida last week stated, “I've heard many things this past week. One of the things I've heard is ‘it’s not my problem’ […] to say, ‘Lil Uzi Vert is my favorite artist, but I don’t care what happened to George Floyd.’ Now how does that make sense?” This is where a strong controversy is rooted. Those who enjoy Black musicians, or are fans of Black athletes, there has to be an alignment of the value you have in these individuals’ skills and talents and their lives as people and the people’s lives who look like them.
These past few weeks, and frankly, these past few decades, have been a lot for me to endure. The emotional roller coaster of witnessing a Black man elected as president, Black women command attention in their industries, #BlackBoyJoy and #BlackGirlMagic, but still seeing violence against Black Americans. When I witness what Black people are subjected to by irresponsible law enforcement officers, and racist white people who are afraid and/or ignorant, it brings me to tears. I cried when I discovered yet another Black person was killed by a white person for absolutely no reason. The saddest part about that statement is, I have to clarify which Black person I am referring to. Unfortunately, I actually don’t need to clarify because I cry every time I hear that another person has lost their life in the midst of doing relatively normal daily activities. Whether it is going for a jog, walking through a neighborhood, playing in a park, sitting in church, driving on a daily commute or just sleeping in their home. In all of these instances there are normal people living normal lives and, in some way, people identified them as a threat and took their lives from them in an act of violence.
My sorrow comes from the reality that people lost their lives, and my sadness deepens when I start to think about my friends, nieces, nephews, father, brothers and wife, who are all Black, and I’m overwhelmed with fear. Additionally, my own life could be taken for absolutely no reason, and I am afraid, of course, to lose my life in a senseless act of violence, but also, to think that people will debate about whether I deserved to die the way I did. People who know me will argue with people who do not know me. The discussion will be about my accolades, my mistakes, my upbringing, all things which I strongly believe are irrelevant when discussing how or why a person has their life taken. Whether I was in a routine traffic stop or walking out of a grocery store, none of that matters. If I lost my life at the hands of someone, whom, I in no way posed an apparent threat to their life, it does not, should not and will never matter! If I’m suspected of committing a crime, then take me into custody, allow me to make my phone call, begin your investigation, and if it escalates to charges, allow me to go to court and be judged by a jury of my peers with competent legal representation. However, we need to ensure that the general public does not begin to take on the roles of a retroactive detective, prosecutor, jury, judge and executioner. Circumventing the justice process is harmful to our legal system, and stereotyping these victims adds to the issues. I should not have to say this, but what if it was you or one of your loved ones?
Is this the America you want your children or grandchildren to grow up in? Where our humanity can vacillate so easily, and loss of life can be rationalized by using someone’s arrest record, occupation or mistaken pocket contents? This is an attempt to appeal to people’s sense of humanity. These are people’s lives being lost taken, senselessly, unjustly and frequently. Please do not trivialize human life, especially with asinine rhetoric rooted in blaming the victim. For those who do not ascribe to assigning blame but find ways to rationalize people’s lives being taken I ask that you, simply, do not trivialize human life.
I want to make this point unequivocally clear: The current events that we find ourselves in the midst of are a result of systemic racism. Though today’s racism is systemic, this is not the racism of our parents or even our grandparents. This is different, still, tragically, and horrifically, similar to the racism of old. “What’s different,” you ask? Today’s racism is cloaked to appeal to the inner voice of Americans that believe in our constitutional rights. A voice that is valid and should be loud and proud. Specifically, the rights I am referring to are related to freedom of speech. Many Americans who are “speaking their minds” truly believe their inalienable rights grant them the privilege to divide what is intended to be a united. Spewing divisive statements and insulting remarks, these individuals consider their comments within their rights. Although, they are not wrong, these comments are damaging to the unity of American people. However, I believe the most frustrating things that I personally struggle with in regards to this new performance of racism is the conflict between the challenge of embracing the new found boldness of bigotry and the desire to remove the veil to how people really feel. The bigotry that people feel the liberty to express is the same tool used to strip others of their liberties to peacefully enjoy life.
The issue is that people feel like they are just speaking their minds and there is nothing wrong with that, they are simply done with the PC (politically correct) version of America. However, the issue is, when it comes to centuries of violent oppression and egregious racism, there is a different tone that comes from someone speaking their mind against whole groups of people. This tone is often perceived and internalized with threat and fear due to the history of racial persecution in America. Although racism continues to pollute the progress made by our nation’s leaders, civil rights activists, Black Lives Matter activists, and other social justice movements, there is another specific issue that continues to plague the Black community. I urge you not to depend on attributing racism as the sole source of the issues that has so many Americans appalled and, to say the least, disappointed. The other issue is the United States justice system is firmly rooted in the troubling realities of America’s deep dark past of, you guessed it, racism. Our justice system is fundamentally in need of reform.
When listening to the protest, demonstrations and outrage against anti-black racism, some folks make the mistake in believing these protests are aimed at our law enforcement as a whole or White Americans as a whole. However, this could not be further from the truth. The exclamations of “Black Lives Matter” is not an absolute condemnation of police officers or White people! These protests are against the justice system and structures that remain in place from the inception of America. The same structures that continue to perpetuate unfair, unjust and overall harmful treatment toward Black Americans. So, it’s not solely Amy Cooper, or Derek Chauvin or even Gregory and Travis McMichael that we are calling out. No friends, these people, although significantly responsible for their devastating actions, they are products of the systems in which they engage, both passively and actively. These are the systems that continue to perpetuate oppressive ideals within schools, families, neighborhoods and media. These are the systems that need to be changed.
We are amid history book chapters being inked in front of our eyes. Consider the past six months. Our president was impeached but was not removed from office. We are in the middle of one of the most monumental international health pandemics that we have experienced in the past century. We are facing overwhelming economic uncertainty with unemployment continuing to rise. And now, we are faced with a video of a man being choked to death for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. On the precipice of COVID-19 which forced the majority of people into social isolation left alone to engage in their media devices, there was no choice but to engage, even partially, in the events taking place across the nation. You cannot turn away or passively observe. The only thing you can do is watch, listen and learn that these instances continue to occur. No, it is not déjà vu. These are different Black men and Black women being assaulted, brutalized and murdered at the hands of law enforcement and other White people.
Again, I plea that the focus is not squarely on our law enforcement officers who bravely risk their lives to protect and serve our communities. These officers do not need to be verbally attacked or criticized for their dedication to protecting the citizens within our communities, for we owe a great debt to these individuals whose tireless efforts keep us safe. Additionally, I petition we avoid shaming, attacking or in any way harming White people as a way to convince them of the realities surrounding the challenges Black people face daily. More importantly, remember that White people’s lives are are also valuable, and they are, in a significant way, a resource to bring about the much-needed change in our society. I have a few ideas of ways to change the racist systems that exist:
- Education on anti-racism and/or dismantling racism.
- Education for White identity consciousness and White identity awareness.
- Legal and justice policy and reform.
- Law enforcement agencies engaging more with the communities they take an oath to protect and serve.
- Transparency from law enforcement.
- Non-lethal and de-escalation training for law enforcement.
- Implicit bias training and diversity education for law enforcement agencies.
- Stricter laws against hate crimes and harsher penalties for those who violate those laws.
- Adapting a multicultural lens within the K-12 and higher education systems to work to include:
- Reformation of administrative policies that disadvantage marginalized groups.
- Inclusive pedagogical practices giving space, resources and value to the diverse population of young people growing up in our communities and in pursuit of education.
I hope that these issues find an audience with you. I hope, as a result your witnessing the events that are occurring across the nation in response to these acts of violence, brutality and hate, you find yourself on the side of history that steers the outcome into a future of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. Let’s work together, as a people to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves for all Americans. Nelson Mandela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” I believe that I, Coco Gauff and Nelson can all agree. We can overcome these systems with education, compassion, collective work and love.