Breathing While Black: A Danger to Some While Humorous to Others


By Priscilla Dames 
      Miami-Dade County Black Affairs Advisory Board


On August 28 it will be exactly fifty years since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his landmark speech to 250,000 civil rights supporters of every tint and hue. The words he spoke tugged at the heart and ruffled the conscience of millions who heard him over the airwaves. He poignantly demanded that this country honor its promise of “the riches of freedom and the security of justice” for all. Who could argue with such a request, whether from the perspective of American values, faith-based morality, or simple human decency? Who indeed? We were a nation divided, not only by race, but also by sensibility. There were millions who listened to King’s words with outrage for the usual trio of reasons: ignorance, guilt and fear. We have inherited the results of those reasons –the disenfranchisement of the Black male as we continue to lose our children, our families, our communities and our society at large. And like it or not, we are all in it together.

King foresaw that 1963 was not an end but a beginning. The message he delivered was elegantly simple, but he knew that change would be neither quick nor easy. Justice has many levels. A country has its laws. A country has its agencies, administrations and departments. A country has its courts. And then, a country has the minds and the hearts and the spirit of its people. Today, as I sit at my desk with the Miami sunshine streaming in, I have to reflect on the progress of the journey that was defined that day in 1963, in view of the events that unfold at my doorstep.

Trayvon Martin was an unarmed Black youth walking in Sanford, Florida the night he was shot to death by a man who considered him a threat. There are questions regarding the behavior of the local police that night. There are questions regarding the killer’s intentions and motivations. Nevertheless, as reported in the Newark Advocate by DeWayne Wickham on June 19, attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the Martin family, has stated, “We don’t care what the racial makeup of the jury is . . . we just want a jury that can put aside its biases, consider the evidence and deliver a fair verdict.”  If the trial is “fair and transparent,” Crump explains, the Martins will accept the verdict, regardless of what it is. This family’s dignified response to the cruelest of griefs reflects the scope of King’s righteous demands.

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The Martins are asking for nothing more than the “security of justice.” But, as Crump adds, “Who knows what is in (a juror’s) heart?” There’s the rub. Until the DNA of each American hungers more for justice than it does for justifications, a multitude of large and small incidents will continue to chafe, and chafe badly.


The “Politically Correct” Right-Wing

For example, let’s take a look at the history of voting.   The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870, prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." On the surface, well and good. But passage of the Amendment didn’t come close to guaranteeing voting rights. Ninety-five years later it was necessary to pass the Voting Rights Act. Signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, the Act outlawed discriminatory practices such as poll taxes and literacy tests aimed at limiting the Black vote—practices which had been prevalent in southern states all along. What’s more, harassment, intimidation and physical violence during the registration process had made sure of a pitifully small Black voting population in the South. It took nearly a century, but the 1965 Act seemed to take care of the voting situation.

We have come far, to be sure. On the surface, the laws and the statutes and the rules treat everyone equally. Overt racism is no longer officially condoned most of the time. It is interesting that 30 years ago people with a conservative frame of mind used the term “politically correct” with derision. These same people have become quite adept at attributing a politically correct motivation to what we know is the old mentality in disguise. In addition, we now need to look for the unspoken subtext that lurks behind every piece of writing. And it is still a human being who carries out the law. It is much harder to prove that a subtext is unjust or that someone’s thoughts are unjust. So, the battle continues on a more subtlety uneven playing field. Fast forward to an alarming development in the struggle to simply exercise the right to vote, which occurred just weeks ago when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Act. This section designates which parts of the country must pre-clear changes to their voting laws with the federal government or in federal court, giving minority voters the mechanism by which to stop voting suppression before it occurs.


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Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in favor of the decision, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions . . . things have changed dramatically” since 1965, and the Act is based on “obsolete statistics” that “violate the Constitution.” So let’s get this straight. Overt argument: Things are going well, minority voting is way up, and therefore we should eliminate the very law that ensured these positive developments because obviously we no longer need it. The logic seems flawed, but okay. Notice the politically correct nod to the evils of racial discrimination in voting. And notice that good ‘ole standard, the nod to unconstitutionality. Covert argument: Minority voting is way up and we need to do something about it. How can we gut the Voting Rights Act and get away with it? Closer to home, let us not forget the 2012 presidential election, when changes to Florida’s voting rules were seemingly designed to limit black and student votes. It was said that proponents of these changes were really attempting to minimize voter fraud! Ignorance and guilt and fear take a long time to die.

The Evolution of De-humanizing Propaganda

Speaking of presidential elections, what, for God’s sake, can we deduce is in the heart of those who circulate an email or create a web site depicting President Obama and the first lady as apes for the entire world to see? Caricaturing one’s enemies as less than human is an old propaganda trick. Soldiers routinely describe the opposing force in non-human terms in order to make the killing more bearable. Nazi propaganda posters depicted the Jews as rats or unseemly pocket-pickers in order to revive old hatreds and galvanize the German population against them. But the president of the United States? On the one hand, this smacks of a 4th grader’s childish prank whose only cleverness is a facility with Photoshop. Can’t you just see them smirking behind their laptops? It makes you want to grab them by the ear and wash their eyes out with soap. Any act that forces someone up on stage in order to shine a derogatory light on them encourages all who are willing to watch to chime in with the derisive laughter. These pathetic bullies are saying to their equally pathetic buddies, “Take all of your insecurities and aim them at that guy up there on the stage. You’ll feel better.” Anyone who understands this will do his or her best to shrug it off. But why is it so difficult to let it go?


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Because on the other hand, these portrayals are a reminder that most black Americans arrived here involuntarily. Black male slaves, in particular, were regarded as subhuman workhorses. Yes, it made the trading in human flesh and the raping and the lynching more bearable. So, what these Photoshop bullies are also saying is, “Remember how powerless you once were. This is how we saw you then, and this is how we still see you. This is how we justify excluding you from the ‘all’ to which liberty and justice is promised.” It is never comfortable to be singled out for ridicule and it is damned maddening to be the object of injustice. But this particular example of presidential ridicule demeans and disrespects every true American, while it takes meaningful dialogue two steps back. No, it actually stifles dialogue because it leaves us speechless. Perhaps that is its deepest purpose.


What Every White American Needs to Understand -- and it’s No Joke

Presidential politics aside, it is clear that there still exists a pervasive disrespect for the black men – and that’s being polite. As Black males drop out of school in record numbers, we’re building prisons to give them somewhere to drop into; the pipeline from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse is a busy one. Some members of the Black community are receiving awards, while Johnny still can’t read and Tameka still can’t add, and the prisons are still filling up with young Black men. As Joshua DuBois writes in an article titled The Fight for Black Men in June of this year, “There are more African-Americans on probation, parole, or in prison today than were slaves in 1850.”  Unless we go deeper and try to understand what’s behind this crisis, we are spinning our wheels. According to DuBois there is plenty of blame to go around: parenting, policy, culture, history. The thing is, when one group is clearly and conspicuously left behind, it is an indication of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. How did this happen and what can be done about it?

DuBois conducted extensive interviews with experts on the subject and all agree on several things. As we’ve already pointed out, the history of African-American men in this country is one of systematic dehumanization. Marriage was forbidden; literacy was forbidden, economic independence was obviously not happening. Any vestige of masculine pride was tortured out of them. Slavery, however, was only Chapter One.


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As Douglas Blackmon writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name, “Jim Crow laws, sharecropping and a form of forced labor kept many Black men in bondage well into the middle of the 20th century. The men were arrested for petty or trumped up crimes and if they couldn’t pay the required fine, they were imprisoned and forced to work for free.”  A revision of the federal criminal code in 1948 did away with involuntary labor. This was followed by key civil rights legislation including Brown v. Board of Education which overturned the separate but equal doctrine, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed discrimination, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We thought we had taken care of the problem, and by the early 1970s social legislation was directed toward women and children. But Black men were on their own.  We had already shredded the fabric by which fathers taught their sons about familial and financial responsibility. These things are in fact handed down from one generation to another. There are no short cuts.

Michelle Alexander, an attorney for the ACLU, illuminates one of the key reasons why the problem worsened and persists in her book The New Jim Crow. Simply put, the increase of spending to fight the war on drugs starting in the 1980s is responsible for creating a “permanent under-caste” of Black men. This is not the result of a rise in the number of hardened black criminals roaming the streets. Crime rates fluctuate, but the incarceration of Black men continues to soar. DuBois writes, “. . . in the 1990s, when the war on drugs was at its peak, almost 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for possession of marijuana.” Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, further points out in an interview that these men are imprisoned for crimes that would have resulted in no jail time twenty years ago.

The result is “Black men who cannot access housing, who are screened out of employment, and who in many states are denied the right to vote. Facing severely limited options and few opportunities for rehabilitation, millions of these men re-offend, creating more victims in our communities and landing themselves back in jail.” They remain isolated not only from White America, but from middle-class Black America. So, there you have it. Do you detect a pattern?


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In Our Own Backyard

Against this backdrop of broken values and broken lives stands a segment of American society blaming the victim. As we’ve already stated, many mainstream racists have been forced underground. So we have to keep looking for subtexts and searching for the subtle discrimination in legislation, in court decisions, in police actions, and sometimes in the behavior of our neighbors. A glance at current events reveals a number of disturbing incidents that have occurred in our own backyard, incidents which highlight the state of things in the state of Florida.

Miami Beach has become the destination for 300,000 black youth during the Memorial Day holiday in recent years. For this year’s Urban Weekend, the local government had the police check every car coming onto the beach until it was nearly impossible to get there without waiting for hours. Although I do not support Luther Campbell’s sensational writings and racial rantings, he does make poignant arguments regarding this weekend. Campbell writes in the Miami New Times on June 6, “With the help of police, the city installed numerous cameras, 62 light towers, three watchtowers, and barricades along the sidewalks of Washington and Collins avenues. Roughly 400 officers from multiple agencies were deployed to keep the crowds in check. I was there myself and saw three young black men riding scooters pulled over for no reason.” The question that comes to mind is, why aren’t the same precautions taken for other weekends that draw huge crowds to the beach? I certainly don’t want criminals pouring in to that city, or any other, but there must be ways and means that aren’t so obviously discriminatory and that are much more effective. As Campbell points out in his article, the taxpayers paid quite a lot to racially profile visitors to the beach. Why aren’t these visitors’ dollars coveted?

Kyle Munzenrider reports in the Miami New Times on May 29 that during Urban Weekend a 14-year-old black youth holding a puppy was put in a chokehold by a Miami-Dade cop for allegedly giving him “dehumanizing stares”. Tremaine McMillian was approached by police for rough-housing with another teen in the sand and told to stop. When questioned about the whereabouts of his mother, McMillian tried to walk away. The police officer then attempted to restrain McMillian who was now carrying a six-week old puppy. At this point McMillian allegedly made the stares and clenched his fists. The puppy was taken out of his arms, and the youth was forced to the ground and put in a chokehold. (The last part was captured on video).


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The question that comes to mind is, what has happened to training the police to contain what might be called bad manners and a lousy attitude, rather than igniting it into a full-fledged brouhaha, which by the way may have quite a deleterious effect on this boy for years to come?  Yes, there have been some positive strides as the police work with our boards, the Goodwill Ambassadors and the God Squad—but  is it enough?

And then there was the incident where two brothers—Antoine and Anthony Walker--who rushed to the side of their sibling’s body, recently shot dead, naturally crossing police tape in the process. As they were walking away, one was punched in the face by a Detective Fernando Bosch. Both were arrested and jailed for “interfering with police business”. (This has also been captured on video). The questions that come to mind are, “Where is the compassion  where is simple human empathy and understanding; would the police react this way to a resident of Star Island or a visitor arriving by yacht?”  Just recently, the Department of Justice issued a report on police involved shootings in Miami-Dade County—seven of which resulted in fatal injuries to Black men.  The report crystalized what Black residents have known for decades—that they are treated differently and in most cases, more inhumanely than anyone else. In regards to the release of the investigation findings on the police shooting Black males- as I appreciate its purpose and the sincerity of Chief Osora, I take the stance that once again here is a study of information that cannot be shocking to the populace.  The question remains, now, “What is going to be done about the shootings, the incarceration, the miseducation, the economic disparities; the rampant disrespect of our Black men and disregard to Blacks from Miami-Dade County to the White House?” What?


We Are All Responsible

We have been asking the same questions for fifty years and longer. As a Black woman, as a Black mother and as a Black organizer in the community, I am just plain tired of it. I attended a Trayon Martin Foundation program a few weeks ago where Attorney Benjamin Crump recounted the events of the night when Trayvon was killed. It was heart-breaking to watch the faces of his parents. They know that the defendant’s attorney will pick apart their son’s character and that they will have to bear it. The system continues to hammer at our lives and we have to throw up our hands and ask one more question – when will it end?


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As the Rev. King so eloquently said, “Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” What does that mean for us today? It remains our job to dig in our heels and never give up, to continue the dialogue, and to speak out when necessary in order to educate the public. But there is more. Our own representatives must do better. We do not need more studies to tell us what we already know, that there are economic disparities in Miami-Dade County, especially when studies can be manipulated to provide a desired outcome. That’s one of the jokes. We’ve known what the best practices are for a long time. What needs to be done or how it can be done is not a secret. But all too often the willingness is not there. We do not need another forum so that we can talk about the issues. We have been talking for fifty years and longer and we are all tired of it. On a state and federal level grand things are happening. Ben Jealous is working with the governors of many states to shrink the penal system and due to budget constraints has had success even among southern Republican states. Representatives are reading Alexander’s book and taking heed. John Hope Bryant is having success teaching men about business and finances through his HOPE Financial Dignity Centers. A plethora of organizations and programs and leaders are empowering low income Black men.

It is imperative that local and county and state governments set aside funds to bring these programs here. Neighborhood and county administrators and representatives must join with local community organizers such as Wayne Rawlings (Miami-Dade Anti-Gang Strategy) to bring services, and therefore hope, into the poorest neighborhoods and the struggling neighborhoods, so that the people there can know once and for all that they are not forgotten. They must take notice and they must take action. And still there is more.

It is not just about the police and politicians and bigots. It is about us all.  It is the responsibility of every adult, every parent to become a strong, healthy, positive role-model for our children. Yes, it starts at home with the mothers and the fathers. Whether White, Asian, Hispanic or Black, we must teach our children to not use violence, as violence breeds more violence. Don’t abuse prescription drugs, as you are teaching escapism. Don’t purchase the video games and the music that desensitive our youth to hatred and casual violence. Don’t turn your backs when children clearly need help. Participate in grass roots programs that actively reach out to those in need. Cling to your faith and your community and your spouse, because every child needs a solid foundation. In our minds and our hearts and in our collective spirit we know what must be done. Acknowledge. Inspire. Respect. Embrace. Heal. “And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.”


America on Trial The Slaying of Trayvon Martin (The Hutchinson Report E-books)


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