Oh Icarus, If Only We’d Read Your Story…



What an incredible week for this republic that I love so dearly. It is incredible that we are in such a thick and prolonged cultural war in this country, and that we’re still debating equality and liberty for groups of people under the law. While I’m elated about the destruction of DOMA, and cautiously optimistic about the punting of Prop 8, I must use my 100th post to discuss the Voting Rights Act and Affirmative Action cases.

This week has been a reminder to African Americans that we’ve indeed flown too close to the sun. If the sun is the White House, we’ve flown right into it. Ever since 2008, there have people in the country who have decided that there is no such thing as racism, that racism is dead and gone, and that we need to dismantle the infrastructure of equality. Those people have incredibly short memories, especially because those people have peers within their own generation who were born in segregated hospitals. My mother is in her mid-50s, her siblings are in their late 50s or early 60s, they were all born in segregated hospitals. Her older siblings attended segregated schools. “White’s Only” isn’t a sign in the Smithsonian for my mother, it’s a memory of childhood. Gen Xers and younger who have lived in an integrated society should still know better–we’ve watched as governments have slowly but surely dismantled the infrastructure of integrated schools and communities. “White flight” is alive and well in many metropolitan areas, and so, suburban schools and communities become more colorless.  We’re not quite in the free-fall that Icarus found himself in, but we certainly took a little slid back this week.

There are people in the country who believe that seeing Barack Obama as President of the United States is enough–the standard, the high point, the finish line. The fact that we have Black leadership and Black entrepreneurs and Black people of great influence in everything from sports to television and business, that for some reason this means that everything is fine. That we’ve hit “equality” and that the things that our government has done has proved to be enough.And yes, overtly racist laws and practices have disappeared (in many, but not all, not even most places), and for this, we are grateful. In this, the Supreme Court is correct: Our country has done away with the overt, obnoxious, and violent racism of old.

But that racism has now distilled into a more quiet and no less potent sort of racism. The kind of racism that is sometimes hard to describe and harder to legislate against. The kind of racism that still holds groups back and prevents another generation of young people to continue the ascent toward economic and social liberation and ascension. The kind of racism that allows employers to look at the resume with “Shaquita” on it and set it aside.  The kind of racism that makes a white pseudo-guardsman with a loaded gun feel ok about getting out of his car and become the judge, jury and executioner of a young Black man. The kind of racism that allows police officers in major jurisdictions like NYC to stop random young brown men on the street and frisk them without reasonable cause. The kind of racism that allows youtube to blow up with negative comments when an interracial family is featured in a commercial. The kind of racism that brings patrons to the restaurant of a celebrity chef who claims she only said nigger one-time, but we know she uses it often. The kind of racism that makes people say someone shouldn’t be fired for “just” saying the word nigger, and that it should really be ok because, of course, “Black people use that word all the time.” The kind of racism that allows the description of “young black male, 5’7, 150 pounds” still a “usual suspect” for many. The kind of racism that still allows for Black defendants in a court of law to be subject to steeper fines, longer sentences, and higher chances for capital punishment.

The kind of racism that makes a young woman sue her “dream school” because she just knows some undeserving Black person took her spot. The kind of racism that would allow such a hissyfit to become a legitimate legal case that would go all the way to the Supreme Court. The kind of racism that reeks of entitlement. Because entitlement and racism are still very much married, and that entitlement is the reason why the infrastructure of civil rights and equality still needs to exist.

We have to decide to, as a nation, have a conversation about race, class and gender that does away with the childish, superficial bullshit and gets down to the nitty gritty. Let’s talk about history with shaming, let’s talk about dignity without belittling, let’s talk about worth without grandstanding, let’s talk about equality and humanity for every single person without any pretense outside of “we’re Americans, we know that we should, we know that we can, let’s get it done.” Just as The Supremes in their majority opinion on DOMA expressed a dignity in equal protection of Marriage, we need to talk about the dignity as attached to race and class in this country.

And you know what? (and this is going to make my Black readers angry)–We, too, need to have a conversation about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going in a way that is palatable and productive. We know that there is systemic racism in this country, we know that it effects our communities more than most, we know that the past still very much touches our present and future on a daily basis, but we must now better present that reality. We have to go back to the Marshall methodology of bringing our pain and our problems to the national conversation again. Yeah, that’s hard as hell. No, I’ve got no strategy for doing that (well, that’s not true, but this isn’t the time or place). MLK is just as relevant as ever, but the imagery of the Marches of the 60’s is no longer compelling for the audiences that we are in need of reaching.

I’m grateful to every admissions officer at Hampton University, the University of Maryland- Baltimore County and the Harvard Graduate School of Education who chose to look at my resume, look at my transcripts, read my story and decided to give me a chance. Hampton, especially, didn’t have to take me–I had a shit high school GPA and a pretty mediocre SAT score. I worked hard at Hampton, busted out a great GPA and submitted my Hampton transcripts and my still shit high school transcripts to UMBC and someone saw something in me. I continued to work my butt off, busted a perfect writing score on the GRE (and pretty reasonable verbal and math scores) and someone at Harvard decided to give me a chance.

I didn’t “take someone’s spot” from HGSE. I didn’t take someone’s spot from UMBC, either. I deserved to attend those great schools. I worked for those two acceptance letters, through more than just the work that I turned in for grades in high school and undergrad. I earned it through my life experiences, through the apparatus of every day life, through getting up everyday, living my race, working hard and then being brave enough to want to do more and contribute more through challenging study and collaboration. Justice Thomas and opponents of affirmative action be damned: I have earned every opportunity I’ve ever received in this life. Some of them I’ve squandered, some of them I’ve thrived, all of them I’ve owned. There are so many other young people of color out there who deserve a shot to do the same as I have. I realize that it is impossible to elevate every person, I realize that not everyone is capable of grabbing at every opportunity out there, but people are no less worthy. We most give people the dignity of the recognition of their worth. We must give people the opportunity to grab for more. Some people will hold on, some people will fall short, some people will keep climbing, but each person should have the opportunity to grab.

And I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to vote. And I do, early and often. I even voted yesterday in that special election, where both candidates made my skin crawl. I vote because it is my obligation as a member of the republic. I vote because women as early as Abigail Adams and Sojourner Truth after her have fought to make sure I can. I vote because men fought and died to make sure that I can. I vote because if I stop, there are people who would try to take the power away from me.  We’ve forgotten how important our voice is, how powerful the free, un-coerced, non-violent action of voting is given to us by God, confirmed for us by the Constitution and can only be affirmed and legitimize through our continue reflective practice. I take the gutting of the VRA by the Supremes yesterday very personally. If there is a single person in this country who has the legal right to vote but cannot for reasons imposed by government, then all of our votes, every single one of them, are powerless. I look forward to joining the fight to restore the VRA to fullness, whatever that new definition of fullness may be.

I love this republic. In this time of big patriotic rah-rah-rahing about who we are and what we are to the world, we should spend some time getting real quiet and reflective. A democracy and society is judged by how it chooses to protect its most vulnerable citizens. People of color, be then African American or otherwise, are still a vulnerable group. Yes, progress has been made–wonderful progress, progress that means a lot–but that progress can easily slip away though the wanton dismantling of important civil rights infrastructure. Discussions and debates must be had. Reflective removal must occur. “Someday” isn’t here yet. It’s on the horizon, but it’s not here.

After we are done staring at our melted, ruined wings, we have to resolve to build with stronger, better materials. Because the sun is do bright and so beautiful, it’s just too hard to resist.

One Comment Add yours

  1. In my experience, anyone that tries to tell me racism is dead is usually a racist.

    Affirmative action is a fence straddler for me though.

    I’d hate to think that it it’ turned into some sort of shitty charity for non-whites. What an insult! Sadly, it seems in many institutions it is (not discounting the amazing opportunities it has provided in its lifetime). However, the prejudice at the collegiate level is less about the color of an applicant’s skin, and more about the color of money.

    Foreign students are bringing in huge dollars. Huge. Tell Shaniqua that Mike Kowalski’s not getting in either because he got scrapped in favor of out-of-state tuition bucks.

    Frankly, if anyone is getting a spot in college for anything other than merit, then the application and admissions processes are simply too flawed and corrupt. From affirmative-action quota-admissions to hook those fed-funding, diversity dollars to the legacy-admission problem in the Ivy League, none of it is fair; and it sends a horrible message to our students.

    Perhaps if colleges weren’t run like crappy corporate businesses we wouldn’t need any special considerations for anyone because we could all afford to go regardless of our income level or last name.

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