It is not just about black males.
There was bikini-clad teenager Dajerria Becton who was wrestled to the ground and kneed in the back by a police officer. Before her there was eight-month pregnant Charlena Michelle Cooks who a police officer allegedly threw stomach first to the ground. There was Renisha McBride shot in the face and killed, no questions asked, when she knocked on a door asking for help after a car accident. And we must not forget Marissa Alexander who was initially given a 20-year prison sentence after being denied a stand-your-ground defense for firing a warning shot into the air during an incident of domestic violence with her estranged husband. Most recently, there is Sandra Bland, thrown to the ground and kneed in the back because police perceived her as "combative" during a traffic stop.
While the details of each of these cases are different, all of these women were seen as guilty of something: being threatening angry black females. Even the first lady is not exempt from this characterization. Who could forget the July 28, 2008 New Yorker cover of Michele Obama and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama with Ms. Obama sporting an afro, dressed in military fatigues, toting a machine gun flung across her back held up by a holster filled with ammunition? Satire aside, the cartoonish image certainly played into the stereotype of the mean, angry black woman.
The caricature of black women as angry is the female version of the criminally dangerous black man. Both stereotypes portray black people as hostile and as a threat to wider society. Both suggest people who need to be controlled. Both images have been subtly insinuated into the American psyche, so that to see a black body is to assume it is guilty of something. Indeed, numerous studies have revealed almost "automatic, unconscious" responses to black bodies, male or female, as if these bodies are threatening or criminal in and of themselves.
The notion of the criminal, threatening black body is not new. It is endemic to the American identity. From its earliest beginnings American identity was crafted in opposition to that which was non-white. When the Pilgrims and Puritans fled from England claiming to be a "chosen people," they carried with them the seeds of a deadly racialized culture -- for, the key to choosiness was being Anglo-Saxon, and hence, white. As Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison has pointed out, "Deep within the word 'America' is its association with race."
There is no getting around it. Yhe myth of Anglo-Saxon/white superiority has shaped and continues to shape America's sense of self. It is that which fostered slavery and the notion of the black body as chattel. Though sometimes unspoken, (and many times not) this myth continues to dictate who is and who is not entitled to the rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in American society.
Most insidiously, this myth determines who and who is not given the benefit of the human doubt. And so, we continue to see stories where the black female body, whether bikini clad, pregnant, asking for help or a victim of domestic abuse, is considered guilty of something -- being angry, out of control and "combative." Unfortunately, the myth of racialized guilt has far too often led to an incomprehensible death.
How do we get beyond the violently racialized society that is America? What are we to do about the deadly racialized myths that are tightly stitched into the fabric of American identity?
In his eulogy to Reverend Clementa Pinckney, President Obama said, "For too long, we've been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present."
He is right. The legacy of slavery looms large in this country, not only as it regards racialized systems and structures that create disparities of opportunity for blacks in America, but also through the myths that continue to endanger black lives.
We must break the deadly silence in this country about the matter of race. The stereotypes and myths that sustain notions of white supremacy must be called out. Just because certain words are banned from civilized public discourse does not mean they don't still function in the consciousness of people. Thus, a passive code of silence is not enough. As we dismantle racialized systems and structures we must also confront the myths and ideology that sustain them if ever we are to achieve a society where all people are truly treated as equal and sacred human beings.
We do not live in a post-racial society. And, we will never will until this country makes it a national priority to confront the racialized myths upon which this country was built. Our educational and religious institutions must lead the way in facing the complex history of racism in America and the way in which it continues to be a deadly plague upon black bodies.
While we do not yet know exactly what happened to Sandra Bland that led to her senseless death in a jail cell, her story sounds all too familiar. What happened to Dajerria, Charlena, Renisha, Marissa and perhaps now Sandra, along with many others whose names have not entered into the national conversation, was not about events that unfolded on any particular day. It is about a myth that proclaims black women angry, combative and guilty of something. Poet and scholar Audre Lorde once said, "Our silence will not protect us."
It has not.