That was my response on November 18th, little less than a week before the announcement that a grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of 18-year old, unarmed Michael Brown.
For the third time (I originally wrote second-updated given the failure to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner after putting him into a choke hold that resulted in his death) in little over a year, I have been in Latin America when I heard the news concerning the value of the life of a young, American black male. The first such instance was the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin while interning with congresswoman and activist Alexandra Ocles in Ecuador.
On the night of the Ferguson grand jury announcement, I was actually attending a talked by Luciano of Terra dos Homens about the alarming rate at which young black Brazilian men die in this self-proclaimed racial democracy. Attendees discussed the Brazilian government's favela pacification process, the lack of educational opportunities, low self-esteemed due to discrimination, and a number of other factors—which very much parallel the experiences of blacks in the US—that contribute to this structural extermination of young black, mostly male, life.
The third time was last night, December 3rd, when video evidence of him desperately asserting that he could not breathe proved of little importance in securing justice for Mr. Garner.
With all this in mind, I ask myself again, "What does black consciousness mean to you?"
Black consciousness is knowledge of the fact that black lives matter in society. But they do not matter in the way the twitter hashtag wants them to; nor do they matter in the way we value the lives of our brothers, sons, husbands, partners, and friends. Instead, history has shown us time and time again, that Black lives have immense value, it is just that that value is to be plundered and extracted, from their very veins if necessary. Black lives matter, perversely, for the sake of others’ pockets and sense of security.
Black consciousness, as Du Bois noted over a century ago, remains a double consciousness. It is a striving “to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
And it is within this striving that the value of black men and women is extracted and exploited.
Black consciousness is a wariness of the media, but an understanding of its usefulness. The 24-hour news media knows its supposedly post-racial audience too well. It seeks to capitalize on the fears of white Americans and the desperate need of black Americans to show that issues that impact their lives are national issues, like the militarization of local police departments [pdf] and the call for police body cameras. However, these more structural policy discussions are often overshadowed by 24/7 sensationalism and punditry that pit the idea of black victims against the idea of black criminals. Ratings surged during both George Zimmerman’s trail in the death of 17 year old Trayvon Martin and following the Grand Jury’s decision to not indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.
Black consciousness is the pursuit of education, despite schools often serving to exacerbate rather than alleviate inequality. The school-to-prison pipeline introduces young black children to the ways in which individuals and institutions meant to serve them choose to fear and ultimately abandon them instead. Segregation in public school has risen in the last two decades. Young black American are more likely to have higher student loan debt than their white counterparts, and are more likely to borrow to attend for-profit colleges with questionable accreditation.
Black consciousness is wanting to own a home, despite markets that undervalue your property and neighbors who are suspicious of your presence. Research suggests that neighborhoods that reach a certain percentage of black residences have lower property values. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, lenders pushed blacks toward subprime loans, even when they had similar incomes as whites.
Black consciousness is the desire to serve a country that repeatedly fails to honor that service. The United States’ military follies of the last decade have largely fallen on the lives blacks and other minorities. The US Army is 21.5% black, while all the armed forces are 17.5% black, despite blacks representing only 13.2% of the general population. Black veterans are also more likely to be homeless.
Black consciousness is an awareness that laws are ultimately created by humans, and are thus capable of implicit bias, or even direct discrimination. The so-called colorblind difference between prison sentences for the possession of cocaine and crack highlighted this in a criminal justice system riddled with racial disparities [pdf], in a country that never truly abolished slavery for its prison population—which just so happens to be the largest in the world. Current voter ID laws introduced by Republican lead state governments often knowingly seek to disenfranchise disproportionate numbers of black voters.
Black consciousness is the knowledge that this is not simply a US phenomenon. “Concerning violence” used the words of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, as narrated by Ms. Lauren Hill, to underscore how racism was as fundamental an exploitative and extractive tool as oil drills and mining machinery in Europe's colonization of Africa. The diasporic dimensions of this violence was again highlighted during Luciano's talk on the night of the grand jury's decision. Education was of particular importance to the discussion, since many of the attendees were either teachers or social workers. In Duque de Caixias, where Terra dos Homens' Programa de Raizes Locais is located, students only attend school for half of the day, leaving more time for them to engage in or fall victim to violent criminal activity. In recent years, Brazil has actually experienced a spike in youth violence. Andre Marints of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro believes this is a result of, and not in spite of, Brazil's recent economic growth. Youth crime is also associated with police violence. According to a report from the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, Brazilian police kill 2000 people a year, 70% of whom are black and more than half of whom are between the ages of 15 and 29. Some have sought to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 rather than address the structural causes of poverty and crime.
Black consciousness is diasporic, it is legally minded, it is patriotic, it is in pursuit of the America dream, it is committed to education, it is culturally engaged. It rejoices and mourns, it laughs and cries, it rages against and strives for, it creates and destroys, it dances and stumbles. It is reactionary and revolutionary, it is humble and boastful, it is conciliatory and vengeful, it is grateful and cynical, it is angry and joyful, it is cruel and tender, it is tired and ready. Black consciousness is knowing that people have problems instead of insisting that people are problems. Black consciousness is valuing dignity and humanity for all, in all its flawed perfection, even when the world deems you crazy, even criminal, for doing so.