One Million Hoodies, Racial Justice, & Why “We” Black People Can’t Get It Together

So I got an email from a regular reader of this site asking the following: RiPPa, how come you’re not as fiery and angry about the Trayvon Martin case as I’ve seen you in the past about everything that affects Black people? What? You ain’t down? Don’t you see what those white folks are doing to destroy the boy’s character? I have yet to answer the question posed via email; however, I figured the question could be answered with a few keystrokes in the form of yet another blog post on this here website of mine. Hopefully the following satisfies curiosity.

Remember when Daniel Strauss-Kahn — a very wealthy, powerful, and influential white man — was arrested for the “alleged” sexual assault of a Black woman who worked as a maid at a New York City hotel? Remember how the media made her out to be a whore who lied about her accusations? I wish *we* were all pissed off about it then, much in the same way we’re upset about the attempts of “certain people” to smear Trayvon Martin. After all, charges were eventually dropped against that very wealthy white man without as much of a peep from activists and advocates for justice.

But hey, she was an African immigrant; yep, she wasn’t really Black. So, clearly she wasn’t deserving of justice like Trayvon does, right? Yep, I not only “fight the power,” I fight hypocrisy as well. And please believe, there is enough hypocrisy within the Black community often tossed out by the racial identity police among us to go around. My man, Dr’ Jared Bell breaks it down in a piece entitled: You don’t need a ‘hood pass’ to help Black folks: The politics of identity in Racial Justice activism. In it, he writes the following:

When you, as a Black person, have developed the ability (as millions of us have) to navigate both the world of oppression and the world of privilege, it really strikes a hatin’ nerve in some people. Some White people, yes. But, more painfully for those of us who honestly love ourselves, a lot of Black people! It is an interesting class dynamic that exists in our community, whereby those with higher amounts of income, higher levels of education, middle-class/suburban value systems, or interests outside of the pre-approved list of “stuff Black people like” are deemed to be less down, less real, less Black.

The saddest part is that it’s not just our friends and family that feel free to whip out that Identity Cop badge. Those of us who have spent any time as activists, organizers, or social change workers know that it is sometimes our fellow revolutionaries who are the quickest to play that “po-po” role. Because (like all activists) they tend to be passionate about their cause (whatever it may be) and in a position to lead others into social action, they can sometimes create a “with us or against us” dynamic that devalues and dishonors anything outside of their mission. And when that mission is racial justice, when that perspective is race consciousness, too often the dynamic that gets created is, ‘If you’re not working on this, in this way, at this time, you don’t really love Black people.’

And let’s be real: it goes further than that. In my experience, the message that really ends up being transmitted is ‘If you are not working with these kind of Black issues, these kind of Black people, and this kind of Black experience (most likely related to poverty, criminal justice, drug involvement, violence, or illness), well then you’re just not Black.’ 

Yes, our own close-minded, limited notions of what constitutes Black identity, Black life, Black issues, and TheBlack American experience even shape our efforts to free ourselves from the boxes imposed upon us by others. You can’t get any more ironic than that.

So why is it that Black Justice workers, those dedicated to challenging the structures and systems that restrict the full range of our lives, so often fall prey to these very same notions that 1. ) Black=poor, under-educated, unemployed, disenfranchised, suffering, victim, etc. and 2.) anything else=Not Really Black? Why is it that these activists are sometimes so judgmental towards causes that don’t fit with their notions of “what Black people really need?” Black psychologists might call this internalized oppression, a phenomenon whereby subjugated people begin to adopt and apply to themselves the prejudices and discriminatory practices of their oppressors.

I can remember a fellow Black Justice activist scoffing when he learned that I wanted to attend college after high school. He asked me why I thought I needed to “go learn other stuff” and I responded that I still loved and planned to continue the organizing work I was doing; it was just that I was multidimensional. He rolled his eyes, “Well, I’m unidimensional, and I’m fine. Why you gotta go be multidimensional?”

Then as a psychology student researching global Black identity, I was told that my work was not really relevant to the community, that I should focus on something like homelessness, drug addiction, or youth violence. Obviously, these are important issues on a very practical level. But remind me again why they are the onlytypes of issues deemed relevant to Black people? I think such sentiments say less about the value of my work (after all, even victims of violence and drug addiction need to know who they are at some point in order to fully heal) and more about the assumptions of what constitutes “Black issues.” In my mind, if you’re Black and you have an issue, that’s a Black issue. Case closed.

Issues of disparity and injustice are major, urgent, and extremely important issues to address. No doubt they impact us all at a base level, and they affect us disproportionately. But they are not (and really, never have been) the only important issues that Black people deal with, nor are they a personal calling for every Black person that walks the Earth. For many of us the principles of African humanism are woven into the fabric of our being, ever-present in whatever causes we take up. But the breadth of Black experience in this historical moment requires us to be broader than our basest problems, to grow beyond oppression even as we are still struggling against it. That does not mean that we abandon our efforts on basic issues such as housing, criminal justice reform, education, and other crucial causes. On the contrary, many of us devote ourselves to fighting for these until the most vulnerable among us are secure. I’m not naive on this point. However, we must also acknowledge that many Black people, at least in the industrialized world, have their basic material needs already met. What they don’t have is the freedom to break out of the boxes imposed on the identities and trajectories of our people, both from without and from within. These brothers and sisters, many members of the Hip Hop and Millennial generation, are facing a whole different level of dilemmas. They are navigating a space and time unique to a post-Civil Rights but pre-equality era, trying to individualize while still seeking some communal shielding from the institutionalized oppression they know exists.

When our own social change leaders police our Blackness, and (by extension) the type of work that we view as supporting that Blackness, they play into the hands of those who would have us all facing west as the sun rises in the east. There are some higher level questions we need to tackle, not just as Black people but as human beings, which appear to have nothing to do with our oppression. And yet they have everything to do with our oppression, because it is only in a domineering system that we would collectively be encouraged to neglect and forego these most basic human dilemmas (What is the meaning of life? Who cares…Black people shouldn’t ask such questions).

It is hard to address issues of meaning and purpose when you’ve got The Man on your neck, I know. That’s why our socioeconomic activism and political engagement is, and will always be, necessary. We cannot sleep on that, because we cannot sleep on our responsibility to brothers and sisters whose very survival and existence is constantly under threat. Our people are still more likely than Whites to end up poorly educated, incarcerated, unemployed, and prematurely dead in this society, and that’s real. We cannot hide our heads in the sand and pretend that we don’t all (at some level) constantly serve as targets for oppressive forces in society. Trayvon Martin is proof of that. The System exists.

So what was the point to all of this? Well, aside from what Dr. Bell said above, I’d say that our “selective activism” works against us all. I may not be as fiery or compelled to go into “kill whitey mode.” But please believe that as a Black man with rhythm, I am able to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. I can speak up and out in the interest of justice for Trayvon Martin; but while doing so,  I can speak out in the interest of justice for many more among us. You know, other Black people like Anna Brown, and Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. who they’re not focused on right now?

At the end of the day, you don’t have to be Black to demand justice for Trayvon Martin. As a matter of fact, a coalition of like-minded individuals willing to act in the interest of justice should be encouraged. However, we must realize that there are many issues that can be addressed in the name of racial justice by using Trayvon as the backdrop. Sure this might sound exploitative to some. But, condemning others as “not being down,” because they choose to speak on any of the other issues surrounding this case is counter-productive, in my opinion.