Walking While Black: Light a Candle or Curse the Darkness?

Sunday Afternoon
Oakland Hills
Northern California

I just returned from walking along Skyline Boulevard in Oakland, California. The sun was warm. The view of the Bay was stunning. The homes are remote. As I walked, I thought about the two Black people who were shot while in similar circumstances. I wondered if someone would see a large Black person walking near their home and get frightened and shoot me. The likelihood of this occurring was minimal, but I would imagine that Jonathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride never thought that they would be shot. Now we have learned that three young Black teenagers in Rochester were arrested while standing waiting for a bus. Shameful!!

I have many interesting conversations with white, Black, Latino, and Asian American friends. I wish I had Native American friends. That is my loss. Our conversations have been about many different topics but race is often on our minds and hearts.

My friend Jim Hormel relayed to me the fact that he felt the government shutdown had a racial subtext. I agree. The Right-wing noise machine has effectively equated government aid with Black and Brown people. When furloughed government employees were interviewed, you often saw Black and Brown faces. Those of you who know me well know that I was (am) a military brat and grew up primarily in Europe and southern Illinois. I remain friendly with the “kids” I went to junior high and high school with in Mascoutah, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis, Missouri. We were the first Black folks to live in the town in 1966 when my dad was sent to Vietnam and we were not allowed to stay on the base. My parents felt that I would get a better education in Illinois so we did not return to my mom’s home town of San Antonio, Texas, but I digress.

I have had endless debates with my high school buddies about politics. I have been told that when one of my buddies thinks of welfare, he thinks of Black recipients. The actual fact that most people who receive welfare benefits are white does not faze him or change his mind. This misconception writ large leads the Congress to make drastic cuts in the food stamp program. If Members of Congrees feel that lazy Black and Brown people are ordering lobster and steak with their food stamps, those Members will not care that cuts in the program will force many white people (including their constituents) to have less to eat.

Ambassador Hormel also feels that the government shutdown was also supported by politicians who are angry that there is a Black man (and as John Hope Franklin so astutely noted, a Black family) in the White House. Jim said “What better way to subvert this Black man that by shutting down the government?” I remember feeling sickened when protesters waved a Confederate flag outside the White House on the same weekend that one of their leaders asked the President to come out of with his hands up!!! The racist images of President and Mrs. Obama that are routinely displayed at these rallies just reinforce the view the Jim and I feel about the racist underpinnings of some of the protest. There are many people upset with the President who are not motivated by notions of white supremacy, but we would be fooling ourselves if we believe that we have all overcome.

I was down at Stanford Law School two weeks talking about implicit bias and the law. It was clear to me that the students there do not talk across the widening racial chasm about race. One student told me that it was logical to fear Black men walking towards you on the street because Jesse Jackson felt the same way. It was clear to me from his tone that he was really saying that negative stereotypes about Black and Brown men are justified. (This same student also stood during the entire hour and fifteen minutes of my presentation; I am not sure if he had a bad back or if he wanted to assert dominance. Ah well.)

San Jose State University students gather around the 1968 Olympic statue that celebrates Black Power to protest the reported hate crime against a Black freshman by his dormitory roommates. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

I recently had lunch with Professor Maria Luisa Alaniz from San Jose State who told me a chilling tale about overt and explicit racism at her school. Three unenlightened and dare I say racist freshmen had a fourth roommate who is Black. These heathens (a friend of mine reminded me that my mom and other Black folks used to refer to miscreants as “heathens”) put a bicycle chain around the Black student’s neck, wrote the word “nigger” on a dry erase board in their suite of rooms, called him “3/5s” (consult the U.S. Constitution if that reference is obscure) and later turned to calling him “fraction.” This went on for quite some time. The young Black man did not report these incidents because he thought his torturers would eventually stop. Shades of Jonathan Martin and the Miami Dolphins. This San Jose State incident happened within the last school year.

I could go on and on, but I will not. The reason I am writing this is because we want to join with you supporters of the Equal Justice Society in crafting responses to the persistence of racism and intolerance. In the coming weeks, we will share with you the various things we have done in this regard since our founding in 2000, as well as what we plan to do moving forward. The only way things will improve is through our constant vigilance. We will light candles!!!!

In the past few weeks, we have determined that what we do is to:


We are not alone in this quest. We hope you will continue working with us towards this admirable goal. Our spiritual and legal ancestors are Charles Hamilton Houston, architect of the legal strategy that resulted in overturning Plessy v. Ferguson and his colleagues, Constance Baker Motley, Thurgood Marshall, Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, and other brave warriors. In the book Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights, Genna Rae McNeil makes this statement that reflects the EJS approach to race and law: “Houston engaged in planned litigation campaigns with what Brazilian social theorist Paulo Freire has described as ‘critical consciousness.’ This critical consciousness incorporated both understanding and rejecting of the oppressor’s ideology and explanations, rejecting the oppressor’s models and behavioral traits, identifying the system (or aspects of the system) that was the cause of the oppressive conditions, and approaching transformation of the system (or aspects of the system) as a collective endeavor…” We will talk more about this in upcoming posts.

A belated HAPPY THANKSGIVING. I hope your day was filled with good friends, good food, and good vibes.


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