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We Need More Than Hope to Overcome White Supremacy

At worst, hope can be a balm that only hides deep lacerations. It's used to soothe the shock of inequality, instead of actually addressing the legacy of oppression.

by Brian Josephs
02 March 2016, 5:00am

Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, USN via Wiki Media Commons

Back in 2006, I was a 15-year-old whose after-school routine was set in stone. After the last bell rang, I'd hop on the MTA train. And by 4 PM, I'd have traded in my Sears Levi jeans for house sweats as my mother finished cooking a dinner of rice and boiled chicken. Oprah, network television's symbol of black excellence, always played in the background.

Winfrey's guise of racial transcendence fell apart for me that autumn, because Oprah's cheer was continuously followed up by the grim details of Sean Bell's murder on the evening news—how he couldn't make it to his wedding because the NYPD shot at his car 50 times. I saw more of myself in Sean Bell than in Oprah, and I suspect many other black teenagers did, too. Oprah was a brand, but we all personally knew a Sean Bell. If he could be touched and murdered so wantonly by police, then so could we.

This is not a new realization. Past generations are well aware of the brutality levied on black bodies. And I have no doubt that so many of the young people who were emboldened by the election of Barack Obama to the highest office of the land were also disaffected by the recent litany of high profile extrajudicial murders that victimized African-Americans without repercussion. What does Obama's hope mean when black teens are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white teens?

I assume I was like many other teenagers who realized the value of black life in America after Bell's death. They, too, felt their collective pride dented with unease when Barack Obama stepped out of his presidential limo during his first inauguration.Would they take him away from us, too?

Last week's episode of Black-ish articulated that learned anxiety in a short monologue delivered by Anthony Anderson, who plays Dre, the patriarch of the Johnson family. In the show, Dre's wife Rainbow, who's played by Tracee Ellis Ross, wants to instill hope inside their six-year-old twins that the institutional racism can overcome by individual persistence. But Dre has seen too much.

You remember that amazing feeling we had during the inauguration? I was sitting right next to you. We were so proud. And we saw him, get out of that limo, and walk alongside of it, and wave to that crowd. Tell me you weren't terrified when you saw that. Tell me you weren't worried that someone was gonna snatch that hope away from us like they always do. That is the real world, 'Bow.' And our children need to know that that's the world they live in.

Delivered with teary-eyed tremor, the words blur the line between Anderson and his character. They symbolize a shared but often unspoken fear; it's telling how many immediately reacted to that scene on Twitter.

That dread has been reinforced by decades of oppression and assassinations. Martin Luther King Jr. represented hope for a people who simply wanted equal citizenship—he was killed. El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) rose to become a champion of blackness—and he was also murdered while doing so. Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep for doing the same. Tupac Shakur is an inspiration for countless young people, but his mythical status is also tied to how his life ended at the age of 25. Physical manifestations of black hope are almost always snuffed out by violence, especially when they shine the brightest.

The Black-ish episode examined the complexities of The Talk, that conversation where you tell a black child that the system works to doom him/her, and how it's been that way for centuries. As I watched it, I wondered, How can you pass on some nebulous sentiment of hope while instilling the knowledge necessary for survival? Hope fundamentally asks a person to relinquish some of his or her autonomy to intangible universal forces. But doing so conflicts with the fact that neither chance, destiny, nor gods has burned African Americans as much as systemic, man-made constructs have.

At the worst, hope is a balm that only hides deep lacerations. It's used to soothe the shock of the Charleston church shootings, instead of addressing the legacy of white supremacy that's led to it. We're told to pray, but at what point is the power of prayer reduced to a platitude?

Then there are the facts. The Guardian found that, in 2015, police killed black people at over twice the rate of white people, and that non-white Americans make up the majority of unarmed slayings. A system that's allowed Tamir Rice's death to go unpunished is complicit.

African Americans experience unemployment at twice the rate of white Americans, according to NPR. The NAACP also notes that black people make up nearly 1 million of a US prison population of 2.3 million. That's more African Americans vulnerable to a job application process that discriminates against former felons and ultimately sends many of those same men back to prison.

So, The Talk for the black family is something of a paradox. Do you tell the next generation of men and women that the America they've inherited offers a bleak prognosis? Or does one offer hope—that frail, intangible thing more graspable for younger hands that could also put them in danger by not preparing them for what awaits?

Tracee Ellis Ross's Rainbow and Anthony Anderson's Dre debate the schism between hope and reality during a episode where Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between The World and Me is explicitly referenced. The book, filled with personal observations wrought with pain, features Coates speaking to his son through a letter, in which he rejects divine salvation to express corporeal fears birthed by the act of being black in America.

"You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable," Coates wrote. "None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle."

It's a dark book, but it's not nihilistic. Coates instills the fear not to tame his son but to empower him. Between The World and Me argues that to live is to draw strength from the "struggle"—that this world, built upon trauma, is all there is, and what's left is to find potential within it.

It's a balance: instilling both the knowledge of anti-black forces and how to subvert them.

"It's about navigating this terrain," says Robert Patterson, the director of Georgetown University's African American Studies Program. It's part of his job to inform the next generation of America's anti-black history. "He wants to equip his child, his son, with a sense of the possibility as well as the potential danger. You don't just give them what the possibilities are; you also have to be responsible with what the dangers are."

And hope isn't only defined by quixotic optimism. It's a generations-old engine. The non-violent arm of the Civil Rights Movement was propelled by the belief that a higher power was backing it. Obama's campaign was run on hope, a basic raison d'être. But on the other hand, there were important black leaders like el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X), who didn't rely solely on hope. Instead, his message was pragmatic. He may have hoped things would get better, but in the interim, he implored the people to defend themselves.

Considering that it was through the efforts of both non-violent leaders like Rosa Parks and self-defense advocates like the Black Panthers that we've gotten this far, maybe hope and realism don't have to be mutually exclusive. Alone they are both weak. But for the inheritors of a white-centric land, pairing the two things together can fortify the youth against a system that actively seeks to break blacks.

"Nihilism or Afro-pessimism doesn't necessarily get us anywhere," Patterson says. "If you don't have hope, what then do you have? Because if you don't have hope, why are you doing any of this?"

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