The Villain in Black

van heusenWith utter incredulity, I intently listened to a guest on CNN, unabashed and absent shame, posit a theory that perhaps since Eric Garner could articulate the fact that he could not breathe, that he could in fact, breathe. And with that level of doubt in place, the officer reasonably could surmise that Mr. Garner was being untruthful, and therefore the threat had to be neutralized despite impassioned pleas to the contrary. So, if I am grasping this line of thinking correctly, if I ever encounter an individual in physical distress, perhaps experiencing shortness of breath or tightness in the chest; if said person can communicate that distress, then obviously they must not be in that much distress to begin with. Commonsense really isn’t all that common nowadays. Eric Garner died on July 17th, 2014 in Staten Island, New York after being placed in a choke-hold and being forcibly restrained face down on the concrete as he pleaded he could not breathe. He was accused of selling loose cigarettes.

In the United States, it has been an enduring practice to denigrate, vilify, and cloak the black male in villainy. This is not opinion, this is historical fact; please Google Black Americana if you reside in the camp of the unbelieving. We have been assigned the caricature of Brute – savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal. And just because this historical fact is ugly does preclude it from being fact. Seriously, research the subject. The brute caricature has been methodically and systematically embedded into the American psyche for decades. And because of this racial indoctrination, it has unsurprisingly birthed a hyper-response from people who feel the brute must be rendered powerless, usually through violent means.

Now, contemporary times have witnessed a discreet application of this prejudiced practice, but make no mistake, whether the disgusting caricature is perpetuated by media, various companies, or even our own people within the African-American community; the lens through which some Americans view black men has become so distorted, even the most irrational acts of mistreatment and violence are made rational with conjecture and conflation. Look no further than the increasingly all too common incidents of unarmed black men being killed by law enforcement.

Now, I carry and conduct myself in a respectable, gentlemanly, and upright manner. And if you know me personally, you will understand that to be fairly accurate. During my lifetime, I can count at least four encounters with police – all minor traffic stops. None of them resulted in tickets, and apparently, none of those encounters resulted in my death. However, I fully recognize that I have experienced good fortune. I have not had any encounters with an officer, maybe on edge, with visions of Nino Brown, O-Dog, or maybe the last unsavory black guy he had dealt with driving his actions. As potent as any mind-altering substance, medicinal or otherwise, perception can negatively augment a person’s opinion of reality if the atmosphere is right.

Despite meaningful advances in race relations here in the United States, we cannot ignore the existing cruel irony that our country remains largely in part racially segregated. And unfortunately that segregation isolates the African-American experience from certain groups in our nation, thus leaving them to formulate a racial ideology that relies heavily on antiquated stereotypes and prejudices that dictate judgment, all from a perspective of privilege and general societal acceptance. At best, this line of thinking can result in uncomfortable, clumsy conversation; or at worst – a fatal encounter. The power of perception cannot be underestimated.

So, let’s begin an honest dialogue. I have had numerous conversations, mostly entirely with coworkers, where the proverbial foot became lodged in someone’s mouth due to racial indifference or ignorance. The conversations were sometimes brutal, always frank and always candid. Nonetheless, a mutual understanding was accomplished. And that understanding: My narrative should not be scripted by a media bias that traffics fear and misinformation. My narrative should not written by some indiscriminate black male that is not conducting himself with integrity, righteousness, and virtue. Most of all, my narrative should not be written by an institution of racism that marginalizes, reviles, and disparages my character.

Are all people in America driven by racial fear? Of course not. But there are enough people driving the subconscious commentary that black men such as myself are to be feared – until we prove otherwise. Denial or ambivalence to this problem is but tacit complicity to the problem itself. Years ago, I recall leaving work, broad daylight mind you, when I walk outside and find a coworker was standing by the door. She turned around, looked at me, and let loose the most primal, blood-curdling scream one could ever hear. She was scared – hell – that scream scared me too. I am not exaggerating, she let loose a continuous scream that lasted for about 3-4 seconds.

Now, everyone has been startled at one point in time in their life. But how many of you actually screamed like someone was trying to murder you? Seriously, all I did was step outside the door. Did I mention this was in broad daylight at a public building and we were coworkers? Well, I was obviously the Invisible Man because as I had seen her around the lab, my presence undoubtedly went unnoticed. I am fortunate that 1) She didn’t have a Glock 19 9mm and shot me because she feared for her life. 2) There weren’t police in the area that swooped in guns blazing because they feared for her life. 3) There weren’t some overzealous good Samaritans that swooped in guns blazing because they feared for her life.

The common thread – fear. Am I being hyperbolic? Well, it only took a Cleveland officer 2 seconds to assess a police situation, and then  fatally shoot 12 year Tamir Rice. Described as a 20 year old black male when the officer radioed in the shooting, Rice was brandishing a pellet gun. I am not a brute. I am a man – a black man. My life matters. There is a troubling racial disconnect afoot. It has been for a long time, but it’s an ugly topic few want to discuss. So, let’s talk.

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