Defiance: Black America’s False Dignity

“…too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through division. So I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love.” Invisible Man

I have read numerous articles, posts and op-eds about police brutality and discrimination against blacks. I do not intend to excuse white officers’ lack of professionalism or the fact that police brutality—true heinous, unprovoked, unlawful, un-everything brutality—takes place. This article is not for my views against brutality or mistreatment, it’s for the reformed look we need to have for our communities. It’s been quite the burden on my mind and heart lately to say something about this, so I’m going to spill out everything as succinctly as I can.

Privilege in this nation, which comes in many forms, almost always falls certainly on one group of people: whites. I say this not to be agreeable but because it’s true. Here is a prime example: In the video below, two men go out to exercise their right to open carry, by toting an AR-15 down the street. Their social experiment is to see if the authorities treat blacks and whites differently (as if we don’t already know the answer). The white male is stopped by an officer and questioned about why he is carrying the large weapon. He calmly explains he is exercising his right and doesn’t have to show ID. The officer remains professional and carries out a civil discussion. The black male carrying his weapon is greeted by an officer who stops his vehicle and promptly jumps out, gun drawn, demanding that he get on the ground. The man does as told, complying and following instructions and is greeted by more police cars and officers gathered around, guns drawn, eventually confiscating his legally possessed weapon. That is the privilege of white America and the disadvantage of being an American who’s black. Obviously the second amendment, was not written with us in mind. This is a violation of rights on a fully compliant citizen.

I am as black as the next black person, whether I’m protesting for Trayvon Martin, working hard to show I am qualified, embracing my natural hair or doing something more “stereotypically Black” like trying to rap a song with friends. If you know me well you will know that I am not divorced from my people. I have been dismissed by white people at golf courses, pushed aside at grocery stores, referred to as cleaning help, and intentionally bumped into and grunted at by a white man on my college campus. I know what it’s like to be the only black person in a room, to wonder or have people question if you belonged somewhere or were just part of a quota. I’ve been in discussions where race became a subject and words came out struggling and uncertain in an effort to not offend me. So trust me, I am not naive or dismissive of the presence of discrimination, hatred, or supremacy.

I think the court system failed people like Trayvon Martin. I think the police profiled and disregarded the life of John Crawford III. I think police have made fatal errors in cases like Eric Gardner. I think they overreacted at the Texas pool party incident. My first year of undergrad we talked about minorities having little options to work in theater and music in the early 1900s, that even now our economic condition was very broken. While discussing how this could have been solved one of my classmates said she didn’t understand what the problem was, as slavery was “so long ago” and we had “like 200 years to catch up.” Though I was one of only two minorities in the class there were audible murmurs of disapproval as her statement sunk in and everyone wondered how our professor (a black woman) and me would respond. While we were all just 18 year olds dealing with these kind of discussions among strangers for the first time I knew she most likely had a lot of ignorance on race that was not necessarily her fault, but I also became starkly aware of how some of my white counterparts viewed the black condition—that they had no idea that the end of slavery in no way ended the oppression of the black race. Yet this is the world we live in and we have to balance living behind the veil while maintaining our identity and confidence.

Virtually 100% of blog posts, articles, and posts by black individuals on the web and my own dear friends are quick to silence the slightest notion that the victims in these cases may have responded incorrectly to the police. A good number of modern-day Blacks feel you don’t have to listen to the authorities if you feel violated, mistreated, or disrespected. During an encounter with an enforcer of the law, you do not have to comply, you do not have to be silent, in fact you should not, and there should be no repercussions for it. If you have an attitude with the police I am not saying “welp, you’re gonna get killed. Shoulda shut up.” None of these victims “deserved” to die. But let’s set the record straight. There are guidelines and rules to govern a citizen’s behavior just as there are for police. There are also rights you are entitled to while talking to the police.

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For example, you have the right to not respond to an officer, to not consent for them to search your vehicle and to not follow any command they give you that’s not a lawful order (i.e., “put your hands on your ears and spin for me”). You also have expectations when dealing with the police, that include keeping answers brief, not admitting to wrongdoing, showing ID if you are a driver,and yes, being cooperative. An officer can legally ask you to exit your vehicle at any time during a traffic stop. If you refuse, they can remove you. If you do not allow them to remove you, you are, in just about every state, resisting an officer, which is to: physically struggle to free oneself from being restrained, to hit, or to run. These are things everyone should know and abide by, not just Black people. These guidelines are there for your protection—not just from police brutality but to prevent extraneous ticketing, getting caught for other behavior and to have a firm case to fight a citation or unlawful interaction in court. White people are also arrested for being uncooperative and they are killed by police more than blacks, although black males are still more likely to be killed when adjusted for population.

What makes us exempt from complying with an officer’s lawful order? We think we are victim-blaming, kicking a man while he’s down, to demand responsibility, higher standards, a different kind of behavior from an oppressed group of people simply because they are oppressed. We think that to do anything that closely resembles what the majority is doing is stripping ourselves of our identity, surrendering to the oppressor, forfeiting our minds. People like me, who believe that a person should behave in a civil manner with the police, are actively practicing respectability politics, which is when minority groups show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference. Whether you label it or not, this philosophy is one that blacks should stop shunning. What difference in social values do we feel the majority is failing to accept? That we want to talk back to people we disagree with? That we want to be defiant because we don’t like the way someone is speaking to us? There must be an improvement of self and not solely a focus on systemic injustice.

If you were to meet five new white people who all called you the n-word and most white people on TV were portrayed with Confederate flags and the like I’m sure you wouldn’t have a positive view of the next white person you saw/met and rightfully so. However, what if someone told you that they’re acting in this way because of the faulty structure of our society that gives them privilege, keeps them segregated and glorifies their behavior, thus not teaching them to be sensitive or accepting of other cultures? I bet you would say that’s baloney. I bet you would say despite those things they still have the individual ability to determine what’s right and wrong for themselves. How different is the appearance of our behavior to white people?

Yes, black people have many behaviors that are a direct or indirect result of discrimination and socio-economic factors. But that doesn’t exonerate us from any responsibility for our own behavior, and to ridicule the idea that we should try to be better people is to keep our situation stagnant. You may not think that respectability politics is a good philosophy, but one thing I am sure of is that we are quick to call out external groups for oppressing us and very slow to acknowledge ways that we can improve. We want white society to fix every problem and racial disparity that exists as if our hands had no part in the making of the debacles of our race, or as if any responsibility we do have is directly attributable to “white privilege.” That kind of mindset in any community is detrimental. Without internalizing anything we never learn lessons. Just because our collective group has a deeply rooted history of disenfranchisement doesn’t give us license to act however we want in any situation and void us of acknowledging shortcomings.

It hurts to turn on the news and your brother and sister has been killed, to feel like you’re being extinguished and unwanted. I know that the system is not always one to foster the futures of black youth—I have seen multiple sides of my families come from equally poor environments with dramatically different results, often much worse in the urban areas than the country ones. But we are biased. We may not be the victim’s family but we are their people. We have a history that is not very bright so the lens through which we see any fallen black person in this country is prefaced by racism. Well, I stand corrected. Any fallen black person at the hands of a white person. What if a black officer asks you to do the same? Would you be equally mad? Why are we not enraged when we kill each other at block parties and cookouts and senseless drive-bys that take the lives of children sitting in their parents’ arms? Did their lives not matter? Or is it only the lives that white people take that are worth fighting for? Who marched for those people, whose killers almost never are found? You can play your card of the black victim oppressed by the white powers that be, but we victimize ourselves just as much as they mistreat us. We are not helping each other by giving false representations of our rights during interactions with the police. We are creating unnecessary antagonism.

When you operate within the law it exposes the faults of others. If you do not, it’s easy for others to point the finger at you and quickly murks any opportunity to objectively judge the other person’s actions. We do not help to reverse a marred image by being aggressively defiant. That’s what made the Civil Rights Movement powerful—civil disobedience made racism and unjust laws so apparent there was nothing the world could do but admit that Jim Crow was inhumane. To see someone sitting at a restaurant counter and not fighting back when officers treated them unjustly was to see hatred at work against a blameless individual. Civil disobedience showed that we didn’t have to stoop to the level of ignorance and racism that tried to oppress us. It showed that we could be the better person, that although we were faced with pure evil we could uphold our dignity. By now you think I am an uncle Tom, victim-blaming, looking down on the poor black folks who need only to pick themselves up by their bootstraps to get ahead, but bear with me a moment longer.

I watched this video the other day and something stuck out that troubled me and I think sums up the problem with the fight against police brutality. At the 7:50 mark Marc Hill says “blacks have the right to assert their dignity in public.” Assert meaning to forcibly state or make others acknowledge. When he said this I immediately thought of a scene from the 2006 film Glory Road. Just after the team loses their first game following a string of violent racial threats one of the players says “they’re trying to take our dignity away from us.” Their coach replies “Your dignity’s inside you. Nobody can take something away from you you don’t give them.”

If your dignity—your sense of pride and self-worth is indeed internal, why do we need to assert it? How would one actually carry oneself who possesses those qualities? Would such a quality need, even demand the affirmation of its existence by someone else? If someone is not humane enough to see your own dignity, why force them to? What part of your sense of worth is relinquished by following a lawful order? And what makes another person’s authority a threat to that dignity or a lack of acknowledgement of that dignity?

If our mind can only be set at ease when a white person isn’t allowed to tell us to do something we don’t like then perhaps we should rethink our so-called dignity. One who is confident in who they are will not need to force their worth or rights on another. Obeying a law will not cause them to feel violated. And if they are being violated—as many black people have been at the hands of the law—they will fight those violations in an intelligent, civil manner as our predecessors did.

But we don’t want to be law abiding do we? We don’t want to live by any rules other than the street ones. God forbid we live by any law, rule or guideline enforced by a white person—might as well be nodding our head and saying “yes ma’am I’ll be a good slave and go pick up your dishes.” I’m truly sorry so many think being cordial to an officer is kowtowing. No one wants to be another person’s puppet and we shouldn’t have to do whatever they want for any reason just because they’re wearing a badge. However, if you claim to know all your rights then I feel you would know your right to let the officer be unprofessional and unlawful and report him or her afterward to be handled appropriately. That’s what a civil rights activist would have done.

So no, I will not be raising my sons and daughters to “assert their dignity” to officers or any person black or white for that matter. I hope I’m a good enough mother to teach them to have an undeniable dignity about themselves that is not rooted on the actions of others but in their trust in God, and I hope they are faithful enough to hold to that. And I mostly hope they don’t go out into the world and become swayed by their belligerent brothers and sisters who tell them that obeying a public officer is relinquishing your self-worth. I was almost coaxed into believing that initially—by my peers and my professors—that to be black in America was indeed to be in rage at all times, and on the surface it seemed like a reasonable argument. Today, if I as a black woman don’t feel vulnerable in public spaces that does not mean I am unaware of who I am or the challenges that I face. I am well aware of what it means to be black in the country. I was not raised in a whitewashed school system that kept me from understanding the deep agony of my racial family tree. I am simply tired of us telling our black brothers and sisters to raise hell whenever you disagree with something and that no, you do not have to be a law-abiding citizen because doing so means you have submitted your will to a white master.

In the end, the story of the Black American will be one of the saddest. Sad for the hundred years of slavery we had to endure. Sad for the hundred years of sharecropping and false freedom that followed. Sad for our denied rights that led to the civil rights movement. Sad for the subtle and blatant racism and supremacy that still exists 50 years later. Sad for our perpetual senseless killing of one another through gang and inner city violence. Sad for the black church’s race to prosperity at the expense of giving our communities spiritual hope. And sad because of the psychological effects of that trauma that keep us in a spinning cycle of despondency, fear, and combat. A white man killed MLK. That’s racism. Black men killed Malcolm X. That’s self-destruction. It works both ways and the cycles continue.

I’m calling on all of us to stop giving our brothers and sisters biased information. I’m calling on us to develop a self-respect that is not swayed by the ignorance or perceived discrimination of a Caucasian. Before you craft your response to this or continue the angry banter against civil disobedience and compliance I challenge you: do we treat ourselves with more respect than white cultures treat us?

“Politeness [is] a sign of dignity, not subservience.” Teddy Roosevelt