The price of blackness in America
The following post originally appears on Gawker. It was written by Lanre Akinsiku.
By: Lanre Akinsiku
In undergrad, I drove a ’92 Ford Taurus that just hulked, tank-like, up and down the streets of Berkeley. The thing was conspicuous, an ocean liner. I was pulled over all the time, once or twice a week at one point. Often I’d see a squad car following me and just pull to the curb to get it over with. An officer would walk up to the car, one hand on that little button that secures the strap over his gun. He’d ask for my license and registration. Some inner voice would remind me that this was the time to point out I’d done nothing wrong; I’d ask for a badge number, I’d take a stand. But black boys are supposed to know better.
So what I would do was: I would slip my college ID over my driver’s license. The officer’s eyes would light up. Not your college ID, he would say, amused. Then he would go back to his car and dally a little, pretending to check on things, before handing my license back with some mock-heroic advice about staying out of trouble. The story ends right there. I remember feeling vague anger afterwards, although I was probably feeling something a lot closer to despair.
Every time I used the college ID trick, it bred in me a kind of survivor’s guilt, a guilt about a life that feels as if it’s being protected weakly, through cowardice. Because what I was really doing was saying, Yes, some of us deserve to be shot in the street, but this ID proves that I‘m not one of them. I used the little plastic card to secure my status as One Of The Good Ones, and I always drove away ashamed, always. At best, I was reducing my humanity—my right to not get shot by a police officer—to a giveaway received during freshman orientation. At worst, I was just delaying what is now starting to feel inevitable.
Mentally-speaking, what happens when you hear about another unarmed black teen killed by police/police-like officers? For me, it goes something like this: First, anger, a kind of 360-degree, completely unfocused, completely diffuse anger; but since anger is a fairly cheap emotion it fades, and sadness settles in; and then I get that familiar helpless feeling you get when you realize what you’re doing is utterly rote, almost Pavlovian, but you don’t know how else to deal. To put it another way: For reasons I’m still trying to parse out, I’ve realized that simply mourning the deaths of other young black men isn’t good enough any more.
I don’t mean for this to sound melodramatic, because my emotions don’t really matter; or, they matter less than a murdered black boy whose body was left in the street. But what I’m trying to describe here is something real, a sinking-in-quicksand feeling familiar to anyone who is tired of the terror—which is the only really truly appropriate term—police officers exact on young black men. When an unarmed black boy is killed by a police officer, again, and some loud-talking reporter is interviewing the boy’s mother, again, and you can see his mother’s shoulders slumped until they can’t slump any more, and she’s been crying so much she’s gotten to the point of simply not bothering to wipe the tears away, and you watch her as she tries to look into every camera and speak into every microphone, and watch her as she suddenly gets the spectacle of all of this, and starts listing all of the good things her boy ever was, so that everyone can remember him the way she’s remembering him right then, in that moment—when will we decide this is not okay?
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