Following the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial has been fascinating. Everyone from Charles Barkley to President Obama have chimed in. And while some comments about the issues and matter in its periphery can be considered more warranted than others, every opinion is a necessary pitch added to the cacophony of comments driving the discourse. Each level of inquiry, every perceptive comment and every ignorant comment is exactly what the issue is about. At the base of all these discussions lay assumptions regarding the nature of black men and our place in the political and cultural flesh of the nation. An experience I recently had encompasses the issue perfectly.
In my hometown of Philadelphia, I frequently wander the city in my spare time looking for inspiration and comfortable places to write. My instincts take me to a familiar building—Houston Hall at the University of Penn. I find that the building’s antiquity, hardwood floors, and comfortable seating (and air condition) adequately suits my musing.
I set out my lunch at the table, take out my water and my laptop and cool down for a moment. I also have to go to the bathroom. Since I have just set out my workplace, I do not feel like packing everything up and going to the bathroom so I risk it. The room is full of white and Asian students. I leave my property unattended, go the bathroom and return with my things untouched.
Later on the afternoon, I have to return to the bathroom. A young black man, dressed in kakhi-colored cargo shorts and a fitted white v-neck tee-shirt has entered the room since my last venture to the bathroom. There’s nothing inherently harmful about him. He was slouching in his chair, clearly exasperated from the heat. It appeared he came in the room just for rest as he has no bags with him.
The only noticeable change to the room was this gentleman’s presence. And while I still went to the bathroom while leaving my items unattended, I felt a greater dissonance doing so than I did just two hours earlier.
I couldn’t prevent it. I profiled him. Today.
And as if to add insult to injury, he went to the bathroom and he politely asked me if I could watch his things as he went.
Even after everything I have known, seen, and read as an African American man who has dressed similarly to him, likely from the same city and after all that has transpired over the last three weeks—hell, over the duration of my life—I could not prevent my subconscious and conscience from making this good brother out to so much more than he was not.
I could not tell you what anyone else in the room wore. I can confidently say I can describe this man fairly well.
My name is Derrick. And I think I may be racist.
Yes. Black people can be racist against black people. And not all of them have to be Uncle-Toms and Sambo figures. They can be as conscious as Malcolm X, and as much of an activist and nationalist as Marcus Garvey and still hold a deep, psychological wound that causes him to put his fellow man through the same predispositions he himself experiences.
And this would be a courageous admission if I felt I was alone. However, I am not the first young black man making racial assumptions about the same racial demographic he belongs to. But that’s exactly the point. The criminalization of black men in our society is so pervasive that it affects us in a variety of ways. It affects how our nation views us, how our cities, states and municipalities view us, how our communities view us. And most of all, they shape how we view ourselves.
These are the impacts of negative images of African American men and unjust judicial processes that becoming circular in its attempted justification. I have never been victim to any assault, theft, or any bodily harm at all at the hands of black men. In order to treat my brother fairly required I take control of my own bias. But it takes all of us to admit the prejudice exists first. Then we must take control.
This case provides us all with an impetus to reflect which of us would have been suspect of an unfamiliar young black boy walking into a neighborhood where our most cherished things belonged. The saddening reality is that the same prejudice that creates suspicion (that most willingly ignore) is the same prejudice that motivated the actions of Zimmerman. It is the same prejudice that motivates the actions of police officers, security guards and other areas of enforcement.
The difference between us and them (which is HUGE)? Our lack of policing authority AND weapons preclude we exercise more-thoughtful reactions to our preconceptions.
There is something at the core of the American judicial and cultural fabric that creates the stigma. And the same processes we must go through as individuals to rid ourselves of that core must be the same process the nation undergoes collectively.