“Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?” Zora Neale Hurston defiantly crowed in 1928. She sounds almost denialist today, even though no one could even begin to call Hurston — who dedicated her life to chronicling black America in all of its richness and who wrote these words during a time when lynching was both tolerated and common — insufficiently black or co-opted by any establishment, white or otherwise.
Nowadays, some might wonder why more African Americans don’t process racism the way she did: In a recent Pew poll, 41 percent of white Americans thought race was discussed too much these days, vs. 22 percent of black Americans.
But when social media brings us video of the shooting deaths, by police, of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile within days of each other, the answer is staring us in the face. More than anything else, the reason black Americans say racism persists is this: the cops. (It’s a tough message to hear a week after five police officers were unconscionably killed in Dallas. Still, it’s true.)
Hurston’s approach isn’t easy to maintain when you, or someone you know, winds up getting shot over something as trivial as a traffic stop. For Americans who feel that black people are too focused on the role of racism in our society, cases such as these should serve as an explanation why.
These days, racism is frequently discussed with reference not only to police shootings, but assorted other issues such as “microaggressions,” “cultural appropriation” and “white privilege.” Whether the first black president should have done more for black people. Whether it’s okay for Blake Lively to compare her physique to black women’s. Somebody said the n-word; maybe they were even black. All of this may seem, when presented as a melange, unnecessarily complicated and perhaps a tad stagey. And that judgment has some merit.
To most black people, however, these issues are of decreasing importance the further you get from college campuses. I, too, used to be perplexed as to why so many black people, including those who grew up middle class and after the 1960s, as I did, felt racism to still be such a central facet of our lives. It started me on what became a second career writing about race, and a central tenet of what I’ve learned is that the core of what ails black people about racism, and what makes most black people think of racism as defining black existence in America, is a fear of being senselessly cut down by the police. (This is still true after the Dallas tragedy.)
The same Pew poll, for example, shows 84 percent of black Americans think the police treat black people unfairly vs. 50 percent of whites who think so; on no other issue were blacks so united. And you need only observe the march of history to see this simple reality.
What sparked the 1965 Watts riots in 1965 — and many of the long hot summers that followed around the country in the 1960s — was actions taken by police, not cultural appropriation. The Black Panthers rose in opposition to the way black communities were policed, not celebrities commenting on their own rear ends. The 1992 Los Angeles riots were an outgrowth of the beating of Rodney King by city police officers.
Black support for O.J. Simpson at the time of his trial was perplexing and even irritating to many whites. But in the recent and widely viewed documentary, “O.J.: Made in America,” we saw how decades of police abuse against African Americans — not yet recordable on mobile phones but held in collective memory by black Angelenos — was behind the stance of many in the black community, despite a raft of evidence arrayed against Simpson and his acknowledged lack of commitment to black issues.
The Black Lives Matter movement is about the cops. Last fall’s campus protests against campus racism were an attempt to extend Black Lives Matter’s complaint into a new realm, and it wasn’t an accident that these protests were founded upon the “safe space” metaphor, referring to more abstract forms of an abuse first contested in the more physical form of cops’ batons and guns.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” wasn’t sparked by an academic debate about the n-word. The book’s runaway success was propelled by the debate surrounding the death of Michael Brown. Jesse Williams’s recent BET Awards speech, principally about the Black Lives Matter movement, wouldn’t have gone viral if it had been about the important, but less urgent, issue of inner-city food deserts.
Life and our history are messy, and can distract some of us with details that detract from the larger message. In Ferguson, Mo., the evidence didn’t support the story that Brown was shot surrendering with his hands up. And yes, some victims of these shootings were hardly choirboys — right-wing websites already delight in tabulating Alton Sterling’s decidedly un-pretty rap sheet.
The point is that in these widely-publicized incidents, the case can almost never be made that these African American men deserved to be shot dead or that the cops who shot them had genuine cause to fear for their lives. And those who claim race has nothing to do with it bear the burden of presenting a robust list of white men who’ve been killed under similar circumstances year after year.
The point, clearly, isn’t to be anti-cop. That police were gunned down last week in the midst of a peaceful protest is sickening. Their lives mattered, too.
The point, rather, is that police violence is not just one of many issues in black America’s take on racism: It is the central one. If it were no longer a regular occurrence for black men to be killed for no reason, that would furnish the grounds for the “get over it” orientation that many wish black America would adopt. I highly suspect black America would foster the same, almost haughty, attitude toward racism that so many other groups do.
If there were no more episodes like those in which Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and so many others were senselessly killed, black America would start sounding more like Hurston again.