Black “innocence” always has to be proven and depends on attaining a “respectability” defined by white mores and the white gaze.
He lay for hours, face down; blood trickled from his body into the street as an angry crowd gathered. In a cellphone video of the scene, a man yelled, “They could have just Tased him. That’s some bullshit.” Neighbors stared at his death, knowing, how easily it could have been their own while a cop laid a sheet over the young man.
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On August 9, about a month and a half ago, we heard news of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, shooting an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown. Instantly, we people of color saw in him our sons, our brothers, our friends, uncles and fathers. The bullets that killed Brown ricochet throughout Black America and it felt like our spirits were bleeding drops of gasoline on the smoldering coals inside. And when the rage erupted, we filled the cities yelling, “No Justice, No Peace!”
In Ferguson, stores burned as people ran in and out of clouds of tear gas. In the fire light, the nation and the world could see the black rage underneath the American Dream. But as the riots end and ashes are swept, a question remains. Why is our suffering so invisible, so unvalued that it takes a city in flames to see it?
The Price of Innocence
“You took my son away from me,” Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother yelled to a reporter, “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school? You know how many black men graduate? Not many.” Her voice broke as a relative held her. Nearly two weeks later, Rico, a friend of the murdered teen, said on Democracy Now!: “He was a good friend of mine. I mean . . . you know a lot of black people don’t graduate. And Mike wasn’t one of them. He was one of them guys who went to school.”
Innocence – it’s what repeats in the description of Brown’s murder. He didn’t deserve to be shot. He was a good kid. He was just walking home. He didn’t have a gun. He even put his hands up. He was going to college in the fall.
The victim’s innocence allows black pain to be visible and to show in contrast the guilt of a racist system. It’s why we marched with arms raised, shouting, “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” It’s why two years ago, we wore hoodies when Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida. It’s why we counted to 50, one for each bullet fired by police at Sean Bell in 2006. And it’s why we waved plungers at the NYPD in 1999 after officers used one to sodomize Abner Louima in a bath stall.
The innocence of a black victim of state violence is necessary because whites, consciously or unconsciously, presume us to be guilty or incompetent or not even human. When we drive or walk into a store, we are presumed to be dealers or thieves. When we apply for jobs, if our names sound “too black,” a white former convict will have a greater chance of being hired. When Obama ran for office, angry white voters wore T-shirts with monkeys on them that read, “Obama in 08.”
Racism makes the humanity of the other invisible. And for five centuries now, black pain has been invisible to the “white gaze,” an ideological vision driven into history by the Atlantic slave trade. Starting in the 16th century, Europeans became “white” to the degree they “blackened” Africans by making brown skin a symbol of the Curse of Ham or heathen savagery, animal lust or genetic inferiority. In the cargo holds of slave ships, they did not see captured victims, but living shadows in chains. The white gaze “blackened” people by making them already guilty; they were monkeys not men, so any violence done was justified. Slave traders and owners raped women and blamed them for being lascivious. They flayed the skin off slaves if they talked back. Or cut their tendons if they tried to escape. Millions of enslaved human beings died, and they did so invisibly.
Black people tried to end this violence by becoming visible through the politics of respectability. Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, defined it as, “the notion that the goal of racial equality can only be obtained if black people are able to successfully prove to whites that they are worthy of equal treatment . . . they must demonstrate their ability to live by and aspire to the same moral codes of the white middle class.” Michael Brown was going to college. Sean Bell was getting married. Trayvon Martin had Skittles and a fruit drink. Their murders are highlighted by their respectable lives in contrast to our presumed guilt.
Many of us try to be “innocent” to achieve respectability and fail, try again and fail again, but some of us sometimes eke out a win, get a BET Image Award or a middle-class job. But many of us don’t, and we blame ourselves. We look in the mirror and think we’re too dark, too ghetto, too poor, too not enough to be anyone worth a shit.
No one tells us that the price of innocence is alienation, or that the politics of respectability means internalizing the white gaze, creating what W.E.B. Du Bois called in his book The Souls of Black Folk, a Double Consciousness: “this sense of always looking at one’s sense through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in contempt and pity.” Worse, the white gaze enters a second phase in that it becomes not just how we see ourselves, but also others.
A whole vocabulary makes visible the second phase white gaze blaring from our eyes – hood-rat, nigga, nigger, jump off, monkey, tar baby, darkness and ratchet. Every day, we knife each other with curses and step on each other to get to that light emanating from the dollar sign floating above us. Hell, so much of hip-hop is exactly this. Challenging it is a small protest tradition from Dead Prez to Lupe Fiasco. Black gang violence – which Alexander says, is itself driven by poverty and mass incarceration – is also a sign of second phase Double Consciousness. It doesn’t help that white conservative pundits scream about “black-on-black” crime when most crime, “white” included, is intraracial. Yet anyone with ears can hear an element of internalized racism in gangs of color. What we can see is that Black America is under constant pressure, a whole spectrum of violence – from microaggressions of the “let me touch your hair” kind to predatory corporations selling us subprime loans to police harassment and murder – hits us and then we, too often turn around and hurt each other.
But then we see another murder, by police or by some G.I. Joe-wannabe vigilante who kills an unarmed, innocent black person, usually male, and suddenly the spell is snapped. No matter how hard one tries, the white gaze will only see a “blackened” body to suspect, to handcuff, to shoot or to jail.
In that gun flash, the centuries collapse into the present and show that no amount of class distance, no upward striving can free us from the danger we live in. The white gaze itself becomes visible as we hold up the innocent’s death like a mirror to reflect the evil back to its self. And so on the night of Michael Brown’s shooting, loud police cars pulled into his neighborhood. As cops got out, people yelled, “The Ku Klux Klan is here! Ku Klux Klan!”
Underneath every US city is this kerosene of rage. Soon another innocent black man or woman will be shot by a cop or vigilante, another “Michael Brown” will be a spark that ignites fear into the fires whipping out of broken store windows. In the flames, a terrible truth is visible; the value of our lives can only be seen when we create the light.