Photo: Wikimedia Commons
My friend and I were talking about video games and school in the lobby of our Webster Avenue apartment building in the Bronx. We were in the lobby because his mother never let in kids who were not her own; I did not take him upstairs because our apartment was a mess. So we stood there talking.
Two white police officers walked in and immediately confronted us. “What are you two doing here?” one asked, as if we were somehow misplaced in our own—even if uninspiring—building.
“We live here,” my friend said angrily. He took offense not to the question but to the tone with which it was asked.
“Get against the wall,” I remember the same officer saying. We did as commanded. They turned us around, with the sides of our faces pressed against the dirty wall, and searched us. My friend’s eyes met mine. I could see his anger intensify; his complexion—fairer than my own—gave it away. But his eyes told the real story. He was on the verge of tears. Something both horrible and shameful was happening and neither of us could make it be otherwise.
“Why are you searching us?” I asked.
“Because we can.”
The second officer offered more explanation: “We had complaints of some young boys selling drugs in the lobby.” My friend and I knew there had been dealers in the building and that they had been gone for weeks, a fact that we took for granted. We knew the police posed the real threat; the dealers had little interest in us. They were trying to make some cash because jobs were not available. The officers were looking for something else—something that only our humiliation, or worse, could satiate. After they searched us, they left as quickly as they had arrived, even though there was much more to the first floor of the building. The incident was over.
“This shit happens to me all the time,” my friend said. I pointed out to him that in a year we would finish high school, be off to college, and not have to deal with the harassment. He looked at me with a seriousness I had not seen before: “And any success we achieve there and beyond will simply be us getting lucky. We will always have to deal with harassment.”
If luck is the background condition for living in a democratic society, then dignity will always be in danger.
We stood there in awkward silence for a moment. So much was said. He and I shared that space and a society in which our experience was commonplace, but we were divided in how we understood what had just happened. He saw the harassment and victimization as our shared condition. I thought this was wrong—that it had to do with the identities of the police officers who humiliated black kids for their own perverse pleasure. The seriousness of the incident was not lost on me, but my friend and I disagreed on what it meant for the longer arc of the lives we each would lead. That was twenty years ago.
• • •
For more than a year, this country has witnessed an extraordinary display by young folks protesting our nation’s racial disregard toward and violence against black bodies. Police brutality is being captured with greater frequency on cameras, proving true what black folks have complained about for decades. Colleges and universities in particular find themselves called to account for a permissive culture of racial disregard. Young Americans, especially black youth, are taking to the streets from Ferguson to Chicago to New Haven. All of this should generate national feelings of shame and encouragement. We should feel ashamed that such protests are necessary. Their tragic appropriateness reflects a stain on our national character. The nation, for all of its transformations, remains deeply invested in a culture of inequity that normalizes a differential care and concern for black life. We should nonetheless be encouraged that young Americans reject this inequity and think themselves sufficiently empowered to change it. They are drawing on the rich tradition of protest that legitimizes democracy’s possible future, even as they contest its current expression.
Some worry about how the protests are taking shape. The chant of “Black Lives Matter” and the challenges posed to university administrators are often excessive, they argue. Perhaps that is necessary to match the excessive denials of disregard, they allow, but it is excess nonetheless. Some worry that amid police brutality and violations of proper regard on college campuses, we, as black folks, overstate our victimhood and thus create a troubling paradox. If we only think of our relative success as the product of luck, we diminish our equal standing.
Twenty years ago this paradox concerned me, too, when I did not have the language to describe it. To see myself as a victim seemed to render me powerless: I would not be in control of my life and would have neither freedom nor dignity.
Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy also had this in mind when, in a recent New York Times op-ed, he reflected on the defacement of pictures of African American professors (himself included) that hang in a Harvard corridor. The problem is twofold, he tells us: “One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved.”
I am now confident that I was mistaken in seeing things this way. Protestors on college and university campuses do not treat such incidents singularly but rather see them as bound up with a wider culture of disregard that unites their struggles with black and brown folks in the streets protesting police brutality. These cases, to be sure, are materially different, but all seem shot through with a shared sense of how black lives are so easily devalued, leaving them open to an uncertainty that is unevenly distributed throughout society. According to a Pew Study, between 2010 and 2013, white median wealth increased by 2.3 percent while median wealth for black households fell by 33.7 percent. The Urban Institute reports a fourteen-point gap between black and white families carrying college debt: 42 percent of African American families carry student loan debt, compared to 28 percent of white families. And according to ProPublica’s analysis of federal data, black males are at far greater risk than their white counterparts of being killed when they have contact with police. This, we must understand, speaks to and confirms blacks’ lower standing in our society. If we take this seriously, it is difficult to trivialize what is taking place on colleges and universities across the country or suggest that Harvard law students are overreacting.
But Kennedy’s reflections raise a more serious issue, the same one my friend sought to alert me to. Kennedy worries that exaggerating the scope of racism and one’s status as a victim minimizes one’s own strength—and indeed, dignity and freedom. The students, he maintains, undercut the ownership and control that they do have over their lives. Their cries of victimization, when connected to racial identity, are self-diminishing rather than empowering.
Kennedy, like others that share this view, is wrong to think about the matter in this way. Wittingly or not, this position commits one to the view that singular resolve and success can redeem a national vice and put dignity and freedom within reach for all African Americans.
This presses an urgent question: On what do our dignity and freedom depend? This is not a philosophical question but a practical one that goes to the heart of what it means to live in a democratic society. Are dignity and freedom merely the results of our own individual initiative and control? Or do they come to us through membership in a community that supports our striving? Our choices in life, even when made independently, depend on others for their realization. Some community of support is behind our successes, some external force endorses our bids, some teacher prizes our work. In each case, embracing our self-worth and exerting our freedom are only parts of the equation. They alone do not reduce our uncertainty in the world; our community must also affirm those things. If you happen to make it despite living in a community that refuses to affirm your dignity, you are simply lucky. But if luck is the background condition for living in a democratic society, then dignity will always be in danger.
Black students, we will be forced to say, are lucky if they are not demeaned by their fellow classmates. Black people are lucky if an encounter with a police officer goes well. They are lucky if they make it successfully through life. This constant presence of luck as an animating force in one’s life should trouble us; it is a violation of what living in a community with dignity demands. This is what my friend meant all those years ago, and this, I suggest, is what black activists today are trying to tell us.