‘It Feels Like Being on Death Row!’
To be Black and male in white America, with its white state violence, and its history of white supremacy, is like being on death row, which means that to be Black is like waiting to die, waiting for one’s own death, in virtue of being Black in white America, writes GEORGE YANCY.
After hearing about the two Sacramento police officers who tragically shot and killed 22-year-old unarmed Black male, Stephon Clark, because they thought that he had a gun, when, in fact, he had a cell phone, I was seized yet again by that profoundly uncomfortable feeling of trying to make sense of what it means to be a Black male in contemporary white America, an America that has always spelled out in unambiguous and brutal terms that Black bodies are disposable, especially when compared to white bodies, white life.
There was that profound sense of grieving yet again for a Black body killed by the state or proxies of the state. There was that sudden flood of outrage and deep melancholia as I was inundated with recent memories.
After hearing the 911 audio tape of the killing of unarmed 17-year-old Black male, Trayvon Martin, I wept.
After hearing the “I can’t breathe” cries of 42-year-old Black male Eric Garner, who eventually died of what the coroner described as a chokehold from a white police officer, my body felt constricted. His cries were existential entreaties that fell on opaque ears and hearts.
After the racial profiling of 28-year-old, Sandra Bland, and the subsequent treatment of her (having been thrown to the ground) by a white police officer as if she was a “criminal,” I felt as if I should have been there to show her the respect and love that she deserved.
I feel that familiar anger that arises from knowing that Black women and women of color are deemed deprived of the female ‘fragility’ of white women. I began to see past photos of lynched Black bodies as white men, women, and children looked with curious and excited white gazes. When I think about that mixed space of white terror and white desire, even a perverse sexual desire, there is that distinct feeling of disgust, physical and moral.
Stephon Clark’s case reminded me of the tragedy of 23-year-old Amadou Diallo, who was a Black man from Guinea, and how he was shot at 41 times and hit with no less than 19 bullets on February 4, 1999. Like Clark, Diallo was said to have a gun in his hand. As we know, a police officer yelled out, “Gun!” Yet, there was no gun; only a wallet. He had reached and grabbed his wallet.
The urgent existential question is this: What is it about a Black man or Black teenager holding an innocuous object such that, generally speaking, white police officers see weapons? Even toy guns become real guns in the hands of young Black boys. Ask 12-year-old Tamir Rice. He was shot in roughly two seconds after white police officers arrived on the scene. There was no hesitation; there was no second thought.
The white racist logic goes like this. He is Black and, therefore, guilty. To be Black in America, according to white racist logic, which is undergirded by white myth-making, is to be born guilty, violent, criminal, dangerous. According to such myth-making, Black bodies must be stopped dead before they contaminate the white body politic, before they unleash their ‘inherent violence.’
Truth be told, if you are Black, you might find yourself lost in a white neighborhood, searching for help and be shot dead because you were believed to be a ‘threat.’ Recall that it was 19-year-old Renisha McBride who, while seeking help after being in a car accident, was shot dead by white male, Theodore Wafer, as she was heard by him ‘banging’ on his front door.
Then again, Black bodies can literally find themselves on the ground with their hands raised, as in the case of 47-year-old Black male, Charles Kinsey, and still be shot. On July 18, 2016, Kinsey clearly stated to police officers that his client, who had wandered away from a mental health facility, had a toy truck and that they should not shoot. Kinsey was concerned that his client would appear, by the police officers, as if he had a weapon. Yet, a police officer on the scene fired three shots, one of which hit Kinsey in the leg.
When Kinsey asked why he was shot, the police officer replied, “I don’t know.” James Baldwin writes, “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should be innocent.” In short, there is no innocence here.
“I don’t know” explains the deep and indelible racist assumptions that many white Americans have of Black bodies, assumptions that are embedded in the form of embodied and psychic racist dispositions or habits that are etched into the white psyche, a psyche that interprets and “sees” guns where there are wallets or cell phones. This isn’t just a question about white police officers possessing false beliefs. Rather, within such contexts, it speaks powerfully to the ways in which many white police officers don’t see innocent Black bodies, unarmed Black bodies, or Black lives that matter.
It has to do with forms of embodied white racist rigidity that often operate beyond the radar of cognitive reflection, resulting in a reflexive “common sense” that leaves Black bodies dead. This is why wallets and cell phones in the hands of Black people become guns, toy guns become real guns, Black bodies on the ground with their hands raised become threatening bodies, and Black bodies in search of help become criminal bodies trying to break into a white man’s home, to steal from white spaces, and why two Black men (Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson) innocently sitting in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, PA were deemed “suspicious.”
Stephon Clark’s tragic death had just come two weeks after I shared with my university students that I try never to pull out my cell phone when just casually walking down the street. My white students look with credulity. I let them know that the history of white America’s fear of the Black body forces me to abandon ordinary activities like reaching for my wallet in the presence of white police officers, running down the street for a bus in the presence of white police officers, or holding my cell phone in the presence of white police officers.
In fact, I try not to do these things in the presence of white people, more generally, especially as they also see with distorted white gazes and where they can very easily function as proxies of the state and thereby enforce law and order. Perhaps, like George Zimmermann, they will police in advance my Black body as “suspicious.”
In fact, my fear is so great that neither white police officers nor white civilians need be immediately present. The historical madness of white gratuitous violence from white people experienced by Black people forces me, for my own survival, to monitor my own actions even in their absence, especially as they might appear suddenly. I don’t seem to get a break to be simply human or a person, to walk with effortless grace in white America. Again, my white students look with credulity, but they aren’t Black.
If I had the opportunity to speak with Stephon Clark before his death, I would have warned him of something that I would be at great pains to share. Theo Shaw, who in 2006 was a member of the “Jena Six,” in Jena, Louisiana, recently wrote to ask me a deeply moving and disturbing question: “Is to be Black and male in America like being on death row?” It was hard for me to answer the question, especially as Theo Shaw is now in law school and doing very well. Yet, I refused to lie as I would have refused to lie to Stephon Clark. Yes!
To be Black and male in white America, with its white state violence, and its history of white supremacy, is like being on death row, which means that to be Black is like waiting to die, waiting for one’s own death, in virtue of being Black in white America. After all, according to what we have witnessed, a white police officer will say that he/ she “feared for his/ her life” as you stand with your hands raised, or have a cell phone in your hands, or perhaps a wallet. Out of love, I would have said this to Clark. I would have reminded him that, for the most part, white America has never loved him, and that it was never meant for him to be human in white America.
As Toni Morrison tells readers in Beloved, I would have also said to Clark that he must love his body because the history of white America says that it is better that it swings from a tree, incarcerated or dead. Love in this case, Black love, is a radical act of existential and political resistance. Morrison writes, “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick ‘em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it.”
And I would have told him never to forget this. When we forget that Black bodies are deemed ontologically antithetical to white conceptions of “purity” and “safety,” it is then that our lives might be taken in less than a blink of an eye. As we are rarely ever granted innocence in white America, we are, in the main, a guilty people, Black, disposable, tragically stained from birth.
George Yancy is professor of philosophy at Emory University. He is the author, editor and co-editor of over 20 books. His newest authored book is entitled Backlash: What Happens When We Honestly Talk about Racism in America. He is also a regular contributor to The New York Times’ philosophy column, The Stone.