The Criminality of Blackness
There is a moment in John Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden, when readers witness the transformation of a stereotype into a human being.
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Set in Salinas Valley, Calif., around the turn of the 20th century, Samuel Hamilton picks up Lee, his friend's Chinese servant. Lee wears a queue and speaks Pidgin English. Moments after meeting him, Hamilton learns that Lee was born in the U.S. and asks why he still can’t speak English.
Lee’s face and eyes soften and he speaks perfect English, explaining that he speaks Pidgin for the whites in town to understand him. Lee says, “You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”
Did you catch that? Lee plays the role of the foreigner in order to be seen and understood.
The Georgia Senate recently passed a sweeping bill that would allow guns to be carried virtually everywhere. Plus, the bill expanded the state’s Stand Your Ground law to allow convicted felons carrying an illegal weapon to claim self-defense. In light of the respective not-guilty verdict and mistrial in the George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn cases, a similar phenomenon has been revealed — a seeing without seeing.
Take the Dunn case, for example. After an exchange in which Dunn asked a group of teens to turn down their music at a gas station, Dunn claimed he was threatened with a shotgun and shot into the group’s car. Police did not find a shotgun. In an exclusive interview with ABC, Juror #4 explained the jury’s mistrial. Even though Dunn shot 10 rounds into the car, killing 17-year-old, unarmed Jordan Davis, the jury couldn’t reach a conviction on the first-degree murder charge because three jurors thought Dunn was justified in his action.
Since 2005, Florida’s standard self-defense plea, known as “Stand Your Ground,” has declared that people in public spaces have no duty-to-retreat, if they have reasonable fear for their lives or well-being.
Did you catch that? Three jurors thought Dunn had reason to fear for his life.
The core problem is not the law, but its application in our racialized world. The Dunn mistrial and Zimmerman verdict are manifestations of a core spiritual lie that keeps us from seeing what is because we only see what we expect — the criminality of blackness.
How did this lie infiltrate our society? 256 years of race-based slavery. That’s how.
For nearly 15 generations, innocent black men, women, and children were treated as criminals — shackled, strip-searched, and confined in limited spaces, every move controlled by overseers.
Jim Crow launched another 90 years of terror against blackness. The slightest infraction warranted the ultimate punishment — death. Men, women, and children — 3,445 of them — were lynched between 1882 and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The “War on Drugs” in the 80s turned previously non-criminal offenses into felonies. Racial bias skewed arrest and sentencing rates for the same offenses. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and use drugs at the same rates as other races, but represent 45 percent of those imprisoned for drug violations. One in 3 black men will be incarcerated in the course of his life, while only 1 in 17 white men will see the inside of a prison or jail.
More recently, 150 years after King Cotton’s insatiable appetite for black bodies to feed America’s textile industry, for-profit prisons now require 90-100 percent occupancy rates from contracting states. Imprisoned black bodies once again fuel local and state economies dependent on high incarceration rates for job and industry stability.
This is our history and our present. It is not logical or conscious, but it is evidence of the lie at work among us.
When I heard about the Dunn mistrial, I had just completed a speaking tour of Historic Black Colleges and Universities. On the ReConnect2014 Tour, an initiative of The Voices Project, I met black men like Skipper and Jonathan from Chicago; Joshua from Baltimore; David, Matt, and Mike from Virginia; Rudy from Texas; Leroy from Philadelphia, and Moses from Uganda.
Hard-shelled, sometimes silent men boarded that bus. Over the course of days, their faces and eyes softened, laughter filled the air, and tears flowed for the young black men they met at each stop.
When I heard about the mistrial, my heart sank for these beautiful men. When I read the news that Georgia had passed its expansion of Stand Your Ground, I could see clearly: These strong, playful, intelligent, and hilarious men would have to go back out into the world and play the roles they had adopted … to be seen, but not seen… to be safe in a world that fears them.
Lisa Sharon Harper is senior director of mobilizing for Sojourners and the author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican…or Democrat .
Photo: Dabarti CGI/Shutterstock.com