Christine Emba edits The Post’s In Theory blog.
Last night I dreamed about my brother’s death.
He’s alive, to be clear. Late 20s, in good health, has a great job, just moved states. He’s fine — for now.
The feeling of “for now” is new. I’m a black woman living in the United States of America, but I didn’t grow up with a pervasive sense of fear. I was taught that things were getting better — they’re always getting better. Look, we’ve moved past slavery, past Jim Crow. The civil rights movement worked!
Thinking back, perhaps my parents — like all black parents — were less convinced than I was, and rightly so. Immigrants from Nigeria, a pharmacist and a nurse, they were middle-class professionals obsessed with our educations and far more interested in pushing us to get ahead rather than in looking back.
Yet I still listened to them instruct my brother the day he received his driver’s license: Drive slow; don’t be outside at night; if you’re stopped by the police, always keep your hands in view; never raise your voice; don’t talk back; you’re not like everyone else; this country isn’t safe for you; you should always be on your guard.
And even as the younger, female child, I received my own warnings. Dress well; speak correctly; don’t ever give anyone cause to suspect you; know that you need to be twice as good as anyone else. The threat of bodily harm was reduced, but the implication that certain structures couldn’t be counted on to serve me, and that I would need to work harder than my white peers to stay safe, was not.
Despite all that, I assumed the best — sure, it’s unfair, sure, it’s limiting, but hey, we’ll eventually be able to stop worrying. After all, things are improving.
The problem is, they’re not.
The past few months — the past few days — have taught us that. The years 2015 and 2016 have been a grim parade of black people killed by those who are supposed to protect and serve. This year alone, at least 115 black men have been shot and killed by police. In the past two days, there were two. Alton Sterling, shot by the Baton Rouge police while selling CDs outside a store. Philando Castile, shot by police in Falcon Heights, Minn., after being pulled over for a broken taillight — while his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter watched.
Last night I dreamed about my brother’s death because, in a situation that has become outrageously common, I stumbled across the latest video of someone who looked not unlike him bleeding out while a police officer pointed a gun.
Yet the past months have made it clear that not enough of America cares. The fight for justice, for basic safety, seems to be fought almost single-handedly by people of color. Why is that the case? Shouldn’t a crisis like this appeal to the humanity of us all? Shouldn’t it extend across color lines?
Americans everywhere rally en masse for crises in Europe, and in Orlando, as they should. Facebook statuses change, businesses drape themselves in flags. But the response to the claim that black lives matter is: “Stop being so divisive. All lives matter. You’re the ones bringing racism back.”
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee floats false statistics that attempt to justify police brutality, but when the black community complains, the retort is something along the lines of, “Well, it was an accident. And he’s not really racist, he’s just not politically correct.” Despite bold claims and press statements to the contrary, it’s not clear that the Democratic candidates care much more.
And when black writers or speakers dare to suggest that their community has long been ill-treated, that the effects persist into the present day, and that perhaps our white neighbors and friends are even slightly privileged by not having to worry constantly about their impending deaths, the reply is, “Well, we’ve tried. There’s a black president, after all. It’s your turn to do better — haven’t you seen the statistics for black-on-black crime?”
I don’t attend a lot of protests. No one would describe me as a radical. I’m an opinion writer and editor, but I tend to avoid discussions about race.
But last night I dreamed about my brother’s death. Because I know that for all of his achievements — two Ivy League degrees and not even a hint of a criminal record — at night he’s just another black man driving, and he could be killed like one, too.