In the wake of the grand jury ruling in the state of Missouri v. Darren Wilson – and, to me, it is a wake in which I mourn the loss of another young, Black man at the hands of the police – I find myself thinking a lot about my students, Black, White, and Brown.
I am a White woman who teaches African American Studies. I have been a student of this discipline for over thirteen years. Teaching others about African American history and culture is a privilege. I believe my students should not only learn about what it means to be Black in America, regardless if they are Black or not, but also that they should put this knowledge into action to effect change because change is still needed.
I, like many of my colleagues who study race, was not surprised by the grand jury’s decision. Saddened, of course. Angered, most definitely, but surprised, no. The historical record shows that a Black person’s life – and a Black man’s life, especially – does not hold the same value as a White’s in this society, especially a White man’s. Ida B. Well’s scholarship on lynching supports this record for the turn of the twentieth century. Michelle Alexander’s work, The New Jim Crow (2010), is a heartbreaking reminder of the constant surveillance Black men face at the turn of the twenty-first.
What did surprise me in talking about the case was how angry some White Americans were about “the playing of the race card.” The belief that Wilson had wrongly been singled out and victimized by the Black community (despite the presence of non-Black protestors) who was playing up its race to unrightfully garner national attention.
I have a diverse group of friends and a diverse group of White friends at that, many of whom were outraged by the verdict. I am as proud of my German-Catholic heritage as I am my B.A. and M.A. in Black Studies. Still, it surprises me that in 2014 we, as White Americans, continue to dispute that race matters, that racism exists, and that it impacts the very fabric of our nation: the making and enforcing of laws.
White Americans are not wrong in questioning rioting as the most appropriate action. Black Americans are too. (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) is about this very question.) But in invoking “the playing of the race card” Whites prevent nuanced conversation on how Blackness and Whiteness were created to uphold systems of power. “Playing the race card” presumes a Black person is playing up his or her race to gain an inexplicable advantage. This phrase obscures European Americans’ actions in the dealing of this hand.
Blackness, like Whiteness, was constructed to determine a group’s access to power. In the United States this category was put into law in the 1890s to ensure the subjugation of the slave population. Through the law, Black people were positioned as permanent slaves, differentiating them from indentured servants. Their race ensured subsequent generations would remain property; stereotypes surrounding their Blackness allowed White slave owners to treat them as animals. It was, in fact, early Americans of European descent and then White Americans (as Europeans became White) who played the race card, stacking the deck to ensure White power and privilege through the Slave Codes, then a set of laws known as Jim Crow, and, in contemporary society, through unjust laws that inform the filling of prisons. The disproportionate arrest and incarceration of people of color is a result of the problematic link between Black masculinity and criminality fostered by historical racial archetypes. The archetype of the Black Brute (the inexplicably aggressive, hyper sexualized, physically domineering Black male) makes the positioning of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown as criminals (not just young men participating in criminal activity) to be common sense.
As a White person in America I have the privilege to never have to talk about what it means to be White in America. I cannot remember a time that my White friends or family have sat around and talked about how our Whiteness impacts us emotionally, physically, socially, or economically (unless I as a race scholar have brought it up). I never have to think about my race card at all – played or not – because I live in a society where Blackness (and Brownness) is racialized. Whiteness is normal.
It is in this lived reality that my heart breaks most of all for the family of Michael Brown and for White Americans enraged for Officer Wilson. In their rage, White Americans turn Officer Wilson and by extension themselves into victims, exonerating both from guilt. The White race card is played in the presumption that Officer Wilson should be innocent before proven guilty while accepting the Black “perpetrator” as guilty before proven innocent – a stereotype that Wilson plays up in his description of Brown as “demonic” and thus beyond redemption. With Brown, like Martin, sadly we will never know his account or, if in fact a troublemaker, he would have rehabilitated himself.
What we do know is that another young, Black man is dead in a system where Black men are harassed and die disproportionately at the hands of the law. We, as White Americans, do not have to apologize for our past (although we must participate in righting historical inaccuracies). That is the misconception of White guilt. Effecting change requires, instead, that we question our privilege, come to terms with how we benefit from it, and seek to make the system more just for all involved. To do so, we have to see race, others’ and our own. Not as a card to be played but a lived reality that still has devastating consequences for many Americans. It is only in trying to understand White privilege that we can begin to see Black pain. It is only in trying to understand Black pain and fears and how they may manifest as aggression that we – unlike Officer Wilson – can help save Michael Brown.