Yesterday on twitter, I got into a debate with some friends regarding the Trayvon Martin verdict. My central argument was that there was nothing racist about the verdict. It got into a long-winded back and forth (in which I was mostly left standing alone, holding an unpopular baby of an argument) and in the end, I doubt I managed to convince a single person of my point(s).
But the beauty of the internet is that someone smarter than you are or at the very least, better at writing, will always come to your rescue by articulately making the point you were trying to make without success. Today, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the writer for the Atlantic, came to my rescue as it were with an article which I considered to be wall to wall epic.
I will stop here and wait for you to finish reading it. I agree with almost everything in it (more on what I disagree with below).
Why was I absolutely 100% certain that the jurors in the case weren’t racist? The simple answer is that they did not need to be. Once you strip away the emotion and look at the painful facts of the tragic case, you will find that justice was absolutely served as it was designed to be. Every one of the jurors will sleep soundly at night knowing they did the job that was handed to them to the best of their ability.
But this isn’t a blog post about the finer points of the case; there’s more than enough material on the internet to cover that by people who are better able to comment on it. I want to talk about something else that applies to the black experience in a country or society where you are in the minority. Living While Black, in short. One day, I hope to be able to mentor young black immigrant kids in this country. I’m alarmed at how frequently a Nigerian sounding name turns up these days in the news when a teenager is stabbed or has stabbed someone in London.
But so as to not lead any child astray for the simple offence of listening to me, I will test my ideas on you. Feel free to insult me in the comments, I wont censor. Here goes….
1. Be Careful Because You Are Easy – As a black man in a country with a majority white population (the UK is only something like 3% black), you are incredibly easy to annoy. You carry around in you, plenty of history which will make you bristle very quickly often times at what is existential injustice. And yet this is not an excuse because you only have one life to live. There is unfortunately no ‘dark black’ race so it means that everyone from the whitest of the white skinned people to those with dark brown skin may feel confident enough to have a go at you on account of your skin colour. In other words, there is no one behind you in the colour pecking order so it might seem sometimes that everyone is having a go at you.
But if you know this before hand, shouldn’t you at least try to do something about it?
2. Be Careful of Policy – This is hard for me to say in English so I will do it in pidgin – E get some kind policy wey go catch you wey you go begin think say, dem do meeting for government, mention your name say na you dem wan catch, come write am for law.
It’s better to use an example. Around 2006, the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) came into widespread use by the UK police. Basically ANPR scans the number plates of cars on the road as the police are driving and checks them against the database, live. So if there is no insurance registered against your vehicle, the ANPR would scan and after a few, make some noise in the police car (in some police cars, it makes a loud Yabba Dabba Doo!) and the cops will then pull you over and ask for your papers.
But before this ANPR came into widespread use, the police used the simple method of stop and search. In short there was no way of them knowing who had insurance and who didn’t, other than by guesswork or profiling. Or sometimes, someone will get stopped for something completely different like running a traffic light and then they’d find that he had no insurance etc.
Further, the way insurance works is that risk is pooled. So if an area has a high number of uninsured drivers who then get into accidents and run away or simply refuse to pay up, the insurance company would of course bear the cost but then pass it on to everybody in that area as an extra cost on their premiums. In essence, if you were a law-abiding citizen of any colour and you paid your insurance as you should, it was in your best interest for police to stop and catch as many uninsured drivers as possible before they did any damage.
Alas, this policy, for various reasons ranging from the cultural to the economic, ended up catching a disproportionate number of blacks and ethnic minorities. Was such a policy racist? You be the judge. But it is hard to explain this to a lot of black people who have been stopped repeatedly for no reason and never found guilty of anything. Thankfully, ANPR has greatly reduced the need for stop and search as it is now mainly for crime in hotspot areas.
I have only ever been stopped by the police once in nearly a decade here and I was guilty of the offence – the railway crossing barrier was closing and the light was flashing amber with the bell going, I sped up and darted under it (as I had done many times before) only to see the police on the other side of the crossing. I did not even wait for the officer to say anything before I admitted my guilt with a big smile and explained that I had no idea what came over me. He gave me a caution which meant that if I was stopped for an offence again anytime in the next 1 year or so, the caution will then be brought up and used against me i.e. repeat offender.
I try my best to avoid driving at night or in hotspot areas. Or to get in a car with say 4 or 5 black boys blaring loud music (can you be certain what your co-passengers are carrying). I know my fuse can be short so it is in my own interest to avoid a situation where I feel unnecessarily harassed by the police or any kind of law enforcement.
Is this fair? Should a lifestyle be criminalized even when a crime is not being committed? Probably not. But can you begin to imagine the damage that one arrest can do to you as a young man by robbing you of your future? I cannot begin to tell you the damage that a criminal record can do not just to you but your wider family. The best equivalent example from America is their marijuana laws. This blog post is not competent to write on this, but suffice to say, lives have been ruined and continue to be ruined by policies which criminalize the carrying of a tiny amount of cannabis.
You must be gravely careful of policies that are not particularly racist but look very racist in their application. This is because, where society, for one reason or the other, has decided to draw a line, happens to catch you on the wrong side of that line.
What to do? This is probably the hardest one to call. But perhaps, knowing where the line is drawn is the first step to staying away from it.
3. Be Careful With Black ‘Helpers’ – There are 2 kinds of helpers you need to be wary of. First ones are the black ones i.e. the ones that look just like you. Broadly, these are successful black people who ‘feel your pain’. Somehow, inspite of everything, they have managed to do well for themselves. But because you are kinda angry, in solidarity, they join you in your anger. I call this ‘red meating’. Remember point 1 above? It doesn’t take much to get you angry to be honest so if a black brother is always going on about the injustice in the system and how racist the country and society is, run away as fast as your legs can carry you.
Is the country racist? Maybe, maybe not. Is there injustice against you everywhere? Ask the person telling you how they beat it. You don’t have that much time really and one ought to, as much as possible, die empty….to live life to the fullest possible and as good as anyone else of any colour. Nothing matters more than this. Because no one even guarantees that we will be here tomorrow.
But there’s a whole industry of black helpers out there who, for better or for worse, perhaps unwittingly make it harder for young black men to live a life that’s as good as anyone else’s because they rub you up in a way that does nothing other than make you angrier.
And do you really need to be angrier?
4. Be Careful With White ‘Helpers’ – White helpers make you angry too but in different ways. They justify your anger with a smile. They make you think it’s ok to be angry because they feel your pain too. They are on your side.
Observe the knucklehead that is Michael Moore as an example below.
Which right thinking human being, right after the Trayvon verdict, will see such a tweet and story and not get angry? It really is outrageous and Mr Moore is angry at the injustice of it all.
But what if I were to change the headline of the story to ‘Fla. mom gets 20 years for attempted murder?’. It looks and sounds a bit different doesn’t it? What if I also told you that the shooting incident happened at her husband’s house and after a fight, she went into her car, got a gun, and fired at the guy at his head height and only missing him by a few inches? What if I told you that in 2009 she took out a restraining order against the guy but then later went to amend the order so she could move back in with him and marry him, subsequently having a baby with him? What if I told you that she was once charged with assaulting him after he refused to sign some child support papers? What if I told you that the guy also once tried to drown her in a bath after a fight? What if I told you that her family testified in court that she was a pretty good gun user who used to regularly go and practice at a shooting range? What if I told you that her defence that the shot was a warning shot was based on the trajectory of the bullet which she tried to prove entered the wall at an ‘upward’ angle, presumably proving that she fired upwards as a ‘warning’? What if I told you that after she fired, the guy took his two sons, ran away from the house and called the police? What if I told you that she initially agreed with the guy’s statement to the police entirely before she then changed her mind?
What if I told you that the minimum for the offence of attempted murder was 20 years according to Florida state law?
What if you read that tweet and you got angry and did something stupid? Michael Moore has nearly 1.6m followers on twitter and you can see the tweet has been retweeted over 5,000 times. Having considered all of the above, what exactly has this case got to do with Trayvon other than the fact that black people happen to be involved in both? Given the evidence in this particular case, was it unreasonable for the jury to have found her guilty of the crime of attempted murder?
Yet this story has been relentlessly played in the media as evidence of injustice against black people. You know, to make you angry.
5. Be Careful With Low Expectations – It was only last year I became a Wire-head. Amazing TV show that was acclaimed for its accurate portrayal of the reality in America’s inner cities. Remember the part in Season 4 Episode 1 where Bubbles took Sherrod to school and Ms Donnelly explained to him how ‘social promotion’ works? Basically, a kid who had been out of school for 3 years was put in a class with his age mates not people on his educational level. What this means effectively is that a) You can’t ever repeat a class no matter how badly you do and b) You can leave school anytime and come back and just carry on like you never left. Even Bubbles, a junkie, knew this was a ridiculous policy. But the schools were doing this because it was less work for the teachers and it made their stats look good.
This is a variant of point 2 above – deadly policies that aren’t really aimed at you but because of where you stand or start from in society, the workings of the policy are such that they hit you disproportionately. I wish I had something better to say other than, RUN THE HELL AWAY from such places. One of my most depressing moments in this country was a couple of years ago when I was helping a friend campaign for office. I did some leafleting in one particularly bleak ‘sink estate’ and I was overcome with despair.
Don’t be afraid to pack your bags. And leave. A lot of people are probably waiting for you to make the first move to give them the courage to do the same.
Here’s another example of low expectations I saw this evening – an article arguing that there’s no such thing as black on black crime. Nice isn’t it? Simply make the problem go away by changing the definition of the problem. Be careful with the low expectations that tries to normalize a situation that clearly isn’t to your benefit.
6. Be Careful With Fatalism – Here’s where I disagree with Ta-Nehisi’s post I mentioned earlier. History is not destiny. Perhaps this is the conservative in me talking. Indulge me. Like I said earlier, many laws that disproportionately hit black people don’t even have to be racist in their intention. But because of the economic and social position that a lot of blacks occupy in Western societies, they end up on the wrong side of the law anyway. In Ta-Nehisi’s post, he ended it by listing all manner of injustices that have been done to black people in America’s history. But we must pause for a minute. Is there any minority community anywhere in the world that can’t reel off a list of suffering at the hands of the majority group? In listing all those things, you get the sense that there’s been a lot of wrong that needs to be put right. But what is a young black man to do in the mean time?
Or are these crimes so bad that they can never be put right? In short, more reasons to be angry.
There is a bigger problem that this then leads to – people who feel that they have been wronged in this way (often not them personally but their parents and ancestors) are utterly unable to have any kind of faith in authority and any symbols of the state. To them, it simply represents oppression, whether there is actually any oppression going on.
One of the saddest things about the Martin case for me was that a young black boy was being followed at night by a crazy fruitcake white guy and he didn’t call the police. I can’t pass judgement on Martin’s state of mind at the time but I do know that whether here in the UK or the US, it is perhaps not instinctive for black kids to call the police when they sense danger. But he called his friend, a girl. It is unclear what he wanted her to do for him at that point but at least she gave him good advice – run away from the loony. I wonder how the case would have turned out if Martin had called the police and said ‘a crazy looking white guy is following me’. Or maybe there wont even have been a case at all given that the police arrived 1 minute after he was shot.
You have to have some faith in authority and the symbols of the state. Yes it’s true, one time when someone you know called the police, they didn’t come or they didn’t take you serious. But this is then no excuse for fatalism to say because they didn’t answer A, it is a given that they wont answer B too. These simple arguments can be so difficult to break out of once they take hold. If it was a white person would the result have been the same? It is because it is a black person that the cookie crumbled the way it did.
So what are you going to do? Bleach your skin? I have heard a lot of people talk about ‘white people’ in such a way as to suggest that a) they are homogenous and b) they have super powers. This is amusing and baffling at the same time. Sometimes, as hard as it may seem to believe, you just have to accept that there are no group of white people anywhere gathered solely for the purpose of finding new and fresh ways to hold you down.
Here’s a simple test I recommend and use myself; when a white person does something and you are tempted to call them racist, try one of these words first – Stupid, Idiot, Foolish, Nonsense. If those words fit the description of what they did, it’s a strong hint that maybe its not necessary to conclude they are racist. Heck, if you are Yoruba like I am, try one of these words too – Oloriburuku, Oniranu, Omo ale, Akotileta, Alainikanse T’on Da Ipari Osu – Again, if you try one of those words and it works, then maybe that’s just what it was.
Ok so you noticed I mentioned anger a lot of times in this post? I did it deliberately. Anger has cost me a job in this country before because I got angry and forced my boss to make a decision – me or some other guy. My boss, who really liked me, decided to stick with the other guy because he had invested so much in bringing him to the company. I don’t care what anyone says about the stereotype of the ‘angry black man’, when I look back on that episode I am ashamed at how irresponsible I was. I have a family to look after and I practically threw away a job because I allowed one guy to wind me up (he was the most annoying human being anywhere in the solar system by the way. Still, this was no excuse). I let myself and my family down in the part where I had full control over – myself. But thank God for the opportunity to make amends and do differently.
In all of this, it is important to understand that there’s a whole industry out there of people who have built their careers out of profiting from grievance; the taking offence industry is a multi billion dollar one. If anything were to happen to you, these people will use your name, in a fact free manner, to advance their own agenda. Today they are declaring themselves to be Trayvon.
Your mission in life, should you choose to accept it, is to ensure by all means that you don’t become the next name they use to fight this battle that never ends.