A personal Op-Ed by Marc Rainey Jr.
Racism. White Supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan. White Nationalists. Policy brutality. Black Lives Matter. These are all words we wake up every day and see and hear via television and/or social media. Why though? Wasn’t racism resolved and put away forever in the 1960’s with the Civil Rights Act? To a lot of people that would seem like a rhetorical question full of sarcasm. Unfortunately, this question was legitimately asked by my peers in school. I don’t mean just innocent elementary and middle school-aged kids. It was asked by people in high school who were expected to go out and change the world in a positive way within a year or two.
I would always ask myself the simple question, “How?” It was unbelievable to hear people ask such a question and believe that it was true. As a black man, I was definitely aware of racism most of my life. I expected my white counterparts not to be as knowledgeable on the subject as the black students had to be. Especially since we were aware there are endless facts left out of high school curriculums surrounding the topic.
Around this time, circa 2007 or so, was when I had my true rude awakening on just how far the gap was between me and my white friends in understanding race in America. If I had to break it down, it felt as if multiple doors in my brain opened up and everything I thought I understood I began to question. It was overwhelming to say the least.
When I was in 9th grade a white football teammate asked if he could call me “nigs” as a nickname. Another friend of mine around the same time asked me in front of his white friends,
“Yo Marc, you’re my nigga right?”
This was totally out of his character and I was confused. Why he would ask such a thing? I thought these instances were some of the worst things imaginable, but once I started to understand the effects of institutional racism, those instances of being referred to as a racial slur paled in comparison (though every part of me wanted to knock both of those guys out).
It was scary to know that I would be graduating with people who were so ignorant. The only thing I kept thinking was that they were going to intentionally or unintentionally carry on the legacy of white supremacy in their prospective careers. The fact they believed most or all racism died and the nation came together after the assassination of Dr. King led me to believe there had to be a much longer list of things they were ignorant about. It was scary to imagine what other ignorant thoughts they could be having.
As I all of these uncontrollable thoughts and connections ran through my head, I reminded myself that I could be wrong. That I could be making too many assumptions.
“Try to brush it off and continue giving the benefit of the doubt,” I would tell myself.
“You’re most likely over thinking this. These are people you have known your whole life.”
Fast forward to 2008.
As the entire world knows, America made history in 2008 by electing its first African American president. Something I never thought I would have seen in my lifetime, even though I was only 16 at the time. My high school (if you haven’t already assumed) was mostly white and mostly politically conservative. I couldn’t name one liberal in that school if I tried.
During most of my time in that area, George W. Bush was president so most people were content and there weren’t too many conversations about politics. I remember the school being ecstatic in 2004 when Bush won his second term, but other than that it was never a daily conversation.
When it was looking likely Obama had a great chance of winning the presidency in November of 2008, everybody around me seemed to become a politician. Kids who had never said anything about politics were suddenly extremely vocal and passionate after Obama won. Obviously as an African American student living in a country where black people were only meant to be slaves, I was beyond ecstatic but petrified of going to school the next day. There was a sad, disappointed mood throughout the entire school and some people were even to the point of crying. Everybody looked like they had died inside. I knew enough at the time to understand that this was most likely a double whammy for them. Not only did a Democrat win, but a black Democrat won.
As arguments and conversations took place, a recurring theme I kept hearing from the white students was, “I’m not mad because he’s black. I just don’t like his politics and he’s going to ruin this country.”
How could they know this about him right off the bat? What about his policies did you know at 16 years old was that bad? What true negative narrative could you draw from everything that he was talking about? Why do they keep having to reassure it’s not a race thing? Still in this moment I was giving them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they really aren’t racist and genuinely hate his politics. It’s possible since this is a far right politically dominant area.
I tried to stick with this thought until a white student in one of my classes (who forgot I was the only black person in class and right behind him) suggested out loud they we find Obama and lynch him. The same people that insisted racism was a thing of the past were the same people that suggested we perform an old racist ritual on our newly-elected President. At the time, I was shocked. He turned around and apologized though I knew it was an apology full of shit. He meant exactly what he said.
That was in 2008, but within the last year or two, I’ve seen this individual finish the police academy and prepare to hit the streets.
It truly scares me that this person can walk around with that mindset and be afforded a gun and the power to decide someone’s fate. Even scarier is the fact that he has a system that will back him and ensure he’s safe. This same person has the level of prejudice to openly consider lynching a black man who has done nothing to him. On top of that someone in the school started a “We hate Obama” Facebook page, and a good amount of students joined. The usual shit was on the page: He’s from Kenya and not a US citizen. We hope he gets assassinated. He had to cheat to win.
People I believed were truly my friends started to feel like enemies. To have that level of opposition to the country’s first black president made me believe the whole school was against me and other African American students. They only believed in limited success for us and it was all deeper than politics.
Black Lives Matter. These three words alone send chills up the spines of many. To African Americans, we understand the implications of this. It is nothing more than a reference to the never ending struggle to gain equality in America. A modern day civil rights movement to bring attention to issues that our parents, grandparents, great grandparents and beyond have also had to fight against. Yet, so many people make up their own versions of what the slogan means to them despite multiple people on multiple platforms explaining its meaning.
The saying “history repeats itself” is more relevant in my life than it has ever been. In conversations about race that I observe, a recurring theme with a lot of white people today is that if they were alive in the 1960’s they surely would have been on the right side of history and marched with Dr. King and others to help fight for the rights of African Americans. For some reason, they feel that marching then was totally necessary but pointless today. They feel that Dr. King wouldn’t approve of Black Lives Matter if he were alive, and back then they were fighting for real issues; issues they believe were resolved during his time.
Civil rights organizations are even being compared to the KKK as a hateful group with ideologies of racial hatred. That in itself could be another article of its own, so I won’t get into that. What people don’t realize about making that comparison is that there were also white people during the Civil Rights Movement who made these comparisons. Civil Rights protests were regularly deemed violent, unnecessary, hateful towards white people and every other similar remark you hear today with Black Lives Matter. People can find small details where the two movements differ, but the underlying theme has remained the same: complete liberation of America’s black citizens in every facet of life.
Despite mountains of evidence that there is still racism etched into every fabric of this society, white America still holds on to the idea that everybody is equal and black people are simply delusional. If we get shot by police, more than likely we brought it upon ourselves. If we didn’t get that job we were qualified for, we simply weren’t what the company was looking for. If the mostly white jury says we are guilty then we must have done the crime. These mindsets lead me to believe none of these people who claim they’d march with Dr. King would be on that side of history. History is literally repeating itself right before our eyes and they have a chance to be on the right side.
Attempting to understand all of this in 2017 is absolute madness. I feel like a fool for ever thinking this country was just about over its racism. Hell, I even believed it for a second after Obama got elected. Growing up in a sea of whiteness, I believed a lot of things that weren’t true. A part of me wants to feel bad for the people I grew up around because there’s no way they could know better. It’s not like they go home and read about the black history they didn’t learn in school.
Another part of me doesn’t feel bad because they have access to the same resources I do. The Internet is at everyone’s fingertips. Most of them just don’t have a genuine interest in understanding the complexity of these issues and understanding the history behind it because it hasn’t been their experience. It’s all reduced down to black people complaining because, to them, everybody is equal and it’s all about individual effort. Racism to them is simply being called some kind of slur or thinking you’re better because of your race. Institutional racism is the layer that goes over their heads.
Black people by default have a better understanding on these institutional injustices because it is the everyday life we live. Our counterparts are afforded the privilege of not having to face these issues in everyday life, so why would they read about it in a book? Tell them there’s racism in getting a loan for a car or a house and they will tell you you’re lying. Tell them there’s racism in sports and they’ll tell you there’s no way because all the athletes are rich (because being rich means you’ve escaped racism). Tell them whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates but blacks serve most of the jail time for it, and they’ll attempt tell you why blacks are the primary drug users.
We can’t even get the majority of white America to agree there’s racism in policing and that should be one of the more obvious ones you don’t have to go to a book for. Cliché, but we still have a LONG way to go. I want to be optimistic about this country and where it’s headed because there’s been some progress, but the more I read and the more dots I connect, I can’t help but think America is the same old America it has always been, just rebranded.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
- James A. Baldwin