“A riot is the language of the unheard.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’m agitated tonight, as many of you are across the country. I have stacks of papers to attend to and lesson plans to write, but my mind is with the thousands of people across the nation who are in the streets tonight, in protest, in search of answers, solutions, and justice.
I am a Latina. I identify as a woman of color. This is the personal lens through which I view the issues facing my community and nation. I was born in Southern California and raised by Chicano parents who are socially conscious & activists at heart. I was weaned on stories of a time when my grandfather and his friend were chased down and threatened by two drunken white sailors during the Zoot Suit riots of 1943 simply because they were Latino. They barely escaped with their lives. I was told of how my grandmother walked along the Main Street of her little town, past signs in store front windows that read “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.” I heard tales of my father’s frustration in the early 80’s, when he was passed up for a promotion into a management position, later to find out that someone on the hiring panel assumed he had cheated on his exam because, “How could a Latino score that high?” Perhaps they overlooked that fact that he held a perfectly legit Ph.D.
I still remember the night my mother came home from my back-to-school night and recounted the audible gasps in the room when the new 2nd grade teacher was introduced. Some of parents got up out of their seats in apparent disgust. She was a first year teacher. She was black. The year was 1987.
Somewhere between my upbringing, college courses, and real-life experiences, I was discouraged from using broad frameworks of understanding when contemplating societal issues and their many intricacies. And because of that, the newsfeed in recent weeks has been so incredibly unbearable. As we’ve watched events of Ferguson unfold, John Crawford killed in a Wal-Mart,12-year-old Tamir Rice gunned down in a play yard, and Eric Garner’s justice denied, we’ve simultaneously been flooded with soundbites/images/memes/explanations that seek to oversimplify the profound complexity of the issues at hand.
In the past few days there’s been a running dialogue in my mind, as I answer the statements of those who believe that the recent events are nothing more than a handful of isolated incidents followed by overblown reactions of rowdy citizens. Some are insistent that we are living in a post-racial time. That the race problem is all a figment of some hyper-active collective imagination. So tell me, how does one even begin responding to ignorance?
Racism is real. And if discussing it makes you uncomfortable, imagine how it feels for those on the receiving end. The ones whose daily interactions are shaped by it. The ones whose lives are impacted by it in the most insidious of ways. Racism is real. It is not some imagined problem manifested in the minds of those who can’t let go of the past. It was not erased when segregation was outlawed. It was not magically eradicated the day we inaugurated a black president.
No…racism is alive and well. It is the ugly legacy left behind by forefathers who believed that the worth of a person of color was somehow less than theirs. It was this belief that allowed them to justify the enslavement, lynchings, prejudice, hatred, and fear of entire groups of people. It has been passed down through generations, and penetrates our institutions and communities in red states and in blue. It becomes glaringly apparent during times such as these, as evidenced by internet trolls and cable news hosts taking liberties to spew vile over-generalizations and stereotypes in their efforts to justify the deaths of fellow citizens. It is the responsibility of all of us to call it out if we can, and fight back against it whenever possible.
In the two decades since the passage of momentous civil rights legislation some things have changed. Some have not. While it’s true that the personal racial attitudes many Americans have improved for the better, the ideas and prejudices from before still persist in the hearts of many. And while legal segregation ended, coupled with the expansion of social interchange and voting rights, the systematic and pervasive character of racism in the United States persists. Law-makers, judges, authorities, gatekeepers and landowners are disproportionally white, and if you think that doesn’t have an effect on the way things are run, the opportunities given, the advancements denied…think again.
Racism goes hand-in-hand with domination, and provides the social and philosophical justification for debasing and degrading people on the basis of color. It is sustained by both personal attitudes and structural forces. It is both brutally overt and invisibly institutional.
Every now and then, I like to think I have the luxury of being able to push thoughts of race to the back of my mind for a day or two at a time. I live in a city that, in 2002, was determined by TIME magazine to be the most integrated, diverse region in the nation. Sometimes I think the residents here get spoiled into thinking that our reality is the norm. It’s not as if we don’t have our share of issues here, it’s just a little easier to overlook sometimes. But it doesn’t take long before I am reminded of the ways in which race touches our lives on a daily.
A few weeks before the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, My two eldest boys and I traveled up toward the California/Oregon border for a weekend trip. We stayed at a hotel that provides a complimentary breakfast for its guests. In the morning, we joined several dozen other families–all of whom were white–in the dining area and began to eat. Within minutes a restaurant staffer approached our table and asked if we were paid guests at the hotel. People stared. Without a word, I left the room and made my way to the front desk, got a copy of our room statement, and brought it back as “proof.” She turned around without so much as an explanation. We were the only ones singled out that morning. Other than being irritated and a bit embarrassed, no real harm was done to us. A small price to pay for traveling to a small town, right? For being brown?
For others, the stakes are much higher:
The price Tamir Rice’s mother paid certainly was. She lost her son.
John Crawford’s young children lost their father.
Eric Garner’s widow lost a husband.
Michael Brown lost his life.
Racism is real. This is how is manifests in our world. This is the price that is paid.
This is how we respond.
Not one more. We can’t breathe.