I grew up in segregated Los Angeles. While often celebrated for its diversity, L.A. is community. Divided by freeways, inequalities, and policing, the Los Angeles I remember was defined by its segregation. For middle-class white kids such as myself I was in constant ignorance about the persistence of inequality and my own White privilege. I never thought a second about leaving my house to buy a bag of Skittles; I never contemplated how others – teachers, employers, and even the police – might interpret my saggin’ pants or my hoodie; I did not even give a second thought when I showed up to play basketball at my local park with my hair in braids. The ignorance of privilege and the power of Whiteness defined my youth. Yet, the privileges of Whiteness gifted me each and every day. I was able to move throughout the city without fear from driving while White, and without fear of being suspicious, because in America “the assumption is that the natural state of Black men is armed and dangerous.”
It took leaving Los Angeles for the Pacific Northwest to truly understand the nature of American racism. In the 20 weeks that I attended the University of Oregon, notions of colorblindedness and equality shattered before my eyes. Walks to the store, to dinner, or to class with African American friends often found us followed by the police, stared at by others. It was a lesson in the ways that Blackness equals suspicion whereas Whiteness protected me from prejudgments. Racism wasn’t just the daily assault on my Black friends, but the unearned privileges I was granted each day.
Looking back, these experiences taught me not just about racial profiling and “Walking While Black”, but the many contradictions that exist in an integrated country that never came to terms with its racism. Several of my friends on campus at the time were student-athletes (another issue, of course: the disproportionate number of Black students in the athletics program versus the few who were present at the school otherwise); these young men and women regularly experienced praise and adoration while on the court. Celebrated as heroes, cheered as superstars, and anointed as celebrities, they were desired, wanted, and cherished… as commodities. Yet, while walking the streets, while eating at restaurants, while in class, and while attending various parties, the desirability was replaced by suspicion, contempt, and surveillance.
The murder of Trayvon Martin speaks to this country’s fear of Black people, particularly males. It also reflects the country’s contradictory concept of Blackness. The fact that Trayvon ventured out during the halftime of the NBA All-Star game (taking place in Orlando as well) only to lose his life at the hands of George Zimmerman highlights the valuing of Blackness inside the arena and the devaluing of Black life elsewhere. As fans cheered Kobe, CP3, and King James, Trayvon lied in a pool of blood. Having seen pictures of Trayvon in his football uniform and read about his love of sports, his murder taking place during this grand celebration of Black athleticism speaks volumes. Like DJ Henry and Robert Tolan, both of whom were shot (Henry died) by the police, Marcus Dixon, Mychel Bell, and Genarlow Wilson, all of whom despite athletic prowess endured the grips of a Jim Crow justice system, the status as athlete, star or otherwise, did not protect Trayvon Martin.
Even as millions of fans announce their love for Kobe and LeBron, even as tens of millions voted for Barack Obama, even as a growing Black middle-class has made inroads throughout society, the likes of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, and countless others remind us about the dangers of living while Black in America even in 2012. Essex Hemphill, in his brilliant poem “American Hero” describes a world where Black men can simultaneously be celebrated for dunking a basketball during a globally televised game while just miles a way a young Black male is dying at the hands of American racism:
Squinting, I aim at the hole fifty feet away. I let the tension go. Shoot for the net. Choke it. I never hear the ball slap the backboard. I slam it through the net. The crowd goes wild for our win. I scored thirty-two points this game and they love me for it. Everyone hollering is a friend tonight. But there are towns, certain neighborhoods where I’d be hard pressed to hear them cheer if I move on the block.