By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.
‘Mom, a negro’ was the strange phrase Frantz Fanon heard once in Paris and it imprinted in him with painful, meticulous clarity the distance between a black man and the impervious white inhabitants of that city that had bled his kin dried, and kept sucking the life out of them, as if a different species.
These many years later we are still concerned with how we are seen. And now it is not the surprised gaze of a child in his first encounter with variation, diversity, what should be meaningless difference. Now it is the trained gaze of members of a system of power that has constructed that difference into value, into explication, into moral ground, into a pseudo-genetic coding that would separate us more than if we were two species.
Our image should concern us greatly. It is, actually, a life and death matter. Literally so. That image walks the street wearing a hoodie and is followed and shot down as a dog wouldn’t have been. That image walks into a store and is followed, and glanced over, and looked with suspicion. That image is shot down by the police, shot in the face when knocking on a door for help, just shot down. That image misbehaves, drinks, deals drugs, abuses welfare, robs, kills, riots, rapes, goes to prison. And then that images becomes a confirmation of itself. That image justifies a gun totting lobby that does not dare to name the color of its fears. That image, surprisingly, is saved from the death row by DNA tests.
It is never a person with a name who is shot. It is an image all too familiar. The familiar face of mischief and criminality. The familiar face of evil. The familiar face of all that should be shunned. It is blackness that is erased in a million ways.
That image that was constructed to justify our enslavement and continuous exploitation through the multiple metamorphosis slavery has taken is, surprisingly, bad for us. On March 6, 1857, then Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney issued an opinion that said it all, and, as historical coincidences would have it, it was in the Missouri’s Dred Scott’s case:
[African Americans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.
Each time that image confirms itself through the wrongful behavior of one of its exponents, we are saying we are what they say we are. And this makes it even more difficult that goodhearted whites and those in the power structures may find it in their hearts to come to our aid and decide that, perhaps, just perhaps, it is about time we address some of the root causes of the misery that Ferguson, Missouri shows, and that is just a snapshot of a reality well described in the article Ferguson, Watts and a Dream Deferred.
While the economic downturns of the last decade-and-a-half have taken their toll on the median income of all races and ethnic groups, blacks have been the hardest hit. By 2012, black median household income had fallen to 58.4 percent of white income, almost back to where it was in 1967 — 7.9 points below its level in 1999. (This Census Bureau chart shows the long-term income trends for major demographic groups in America.)
We have the burden of disproving something that was never true. Otherwise, we won’t get the help we need to try to improve ourselves. Nobody, of course, talks about receiving what we are owed for our centuries of forced labor.
That image is so bad that those of us who do not distance ourselves sufficiently from it suffer more prejudice in our daily lives, according to Cheryl Kaiser, a University of Washington assistant psychology professor, in a 2009 study about the subject.
Research has shown that the more minorities identify with their group, the more prejudice they report experiencing…Our studies provide an alternative explanation, by showing that whites react more negatively toward strongly identified minorities than weakly identified ones.
Of course, that image sometimes goes to war to defend a country that despises him; joins the police force; dies saving people from a burning building; writes great literature; becomes a marine biologist; deals in riveting music; dances in glory. But in those cases, at least in some of them, that image picks up a name here and there. One time that image became a President and all of the sudden we saw redemption, only to discover that improving that image was not in the cards. That when that image is bettered by the evidence huge backlash ensues.
And we always wonder, how come a wrongful deed by a black man taints a whole community and a white kid shooting up a school does not reflect badly on the white community? For that matter, why the fact that we are still reeling from the savage exploitation to which white people submitted us reflects badly on us; while their savagery is praised as the means for “building the greatest nation on earth?”
But our image should concern us. Oh, yes! It should. It is indeed a deadly affair. We still live in their society. As the article In Ferguson, Black Town, White Power so aptly put it, the racial power disparities in Ferguson are not just black and white but also green…Ironically, we are not the ones with the green, and the system as it is built will prevents us from changing that for a very long time.
With primarily white police forces that rely disproportionately on traffic citation revenue, blacks are pulled over, cited and arrested in numbers far exceeding their population share, according to a recent report from Missouri’s attorney general. In Ferguson last year, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests were of black people — despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22 percent versus 34 percent of whites). This worsens inequality, as struggling blacks do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites.
That image still serves to make money for the ones who sustain it. That image still produces. That image is us. It is conveniently us. And even when that image has its hands up, it still has no rights a white power structure should be bound to respect.
That image is the only us that system needs…and when we riot, oh, then, see? What did we tell you about them?
DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.