The Common Good
September-October 1999

Simply Because We Are Black

by Alice J. Burnette Davis | September-October 1999

The message of the Illinois shooting: Race matters.

Over the July 4 weekend, Benjamin Smith went on a violent, vicious killing rampage that targeted minorities. He drove around Illinois and Indiana, killing a black man and an Asian American and wounding eight others, including several Jews. As I talk to other African Americans about this tragedy, we verbalize some basic, deeply felt understandings that are a part of our reality simply because we are black and in America. These basic truths are understood as a result of our more than 400 years of being black in America. No other group in America shares the legacy of racial hatred that is so deeply felt in our souls.

One truth that African Americans understand is that color is always there. And it is always a factor, particularly when we interact with unfamiliar people. But even with persons we know well, race is always a factor. Consciously or not, we evaluate others’ racial views by their actions toward us. Did that sales clerk really overlook me? Was that negative remark by my new boss based on her bias? Can this person deal with the fact that I’m his supervisor? Events like Benjamin Smith’s racist rampage and the growth of the racist World Church of the Creator let us know that what is often seen as our paranoia or "oversensitivity" is in reality a natural and necessary defense mechanism.

A second truth that grounds African Americans is that we are strangers in our own land. We are born here, yet we are the "other." We are the "minority," and the "majority" rules. We must continually highlight ourselves and celebrate our worthiness because our value as a people is constantly challenged by our position on the margin of this society. Some of us deny America as our cultural heritage and adopt African culture and styles. Others try very hard to "melt" into the all-American lifestyle. Either reaction has as its roots a continual sense of discomfort—a feeling of not quite being at home in our homeland. Dare we move into a small town in North Dakota? Can we really be accepted as leaders of major corporations based on merit alone? How long will it be before the thought of a black president is not a novel idea?

THIS FEELING OF being the "other" is not so much fear of the other race, like a white person may feel walking through a black neighborhood. It is more a constant, discomforting knowledge that maybe we should feel fear. We can never really know what to expect. Coach Ricky Byrdsong was shot in his own neighborhood, where he should have been able to feel safe. We are always aware that the hateful racist act may come from anyone at any time and in any place, just because we are black.

A third truth is that because color is always a factor, and because our "otherness" is always felt, we are brought together in ways that others will not understand. Our color and our otherness serve to unite us at a very basic level across economic, religious, and social differences. There is a connection between a black high-powered attorney and the black woman who cleans his office that they both understand on some level, whether they are open about it or not. Those of us who are Christians feel this connection as a part of our Christian walk. We understand that Christ is on our side, the side of the marginalized, and he gives us strength to stand up for justice and righteousness for our people and for others who are in the margins as well.

When vicious acts like Benjamin Smith’s bring racism into the public arena for discussion, African Americans are reminded that we are neither paranoid nor oversensitive about our place in this country. Our antennae must be up for racism, whether it is the subtle racism in the workplace that is so hard to define or the blatant, violent, and evil act that kills us simply because we are black.

ALICE J. BURNETTE DAVIS is national organizer for Call to Renewal and a member of the ministerial staff at Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

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