The scene is all-too-familiar; I am united with friends around some game or movie or conversation of ultimately trivial import when a lull creeps in. The energy drops, and everybody leans back, silent and contemplative. After a moment, somebody – invariably white – pinches a joint between two fingers and raises his arms in a suggestive shrug. “Anybody want to join me?” They gesture around the table to each person in turn.
I have mastered the art of the polite rejection; too firm and I appear to cast judgement, too casual and I invite continued attempts to convince. I raise the first two fingers on my hand maybe 30 degrees and tilt my head down and away, as if gently dismissing an unneeded waiter, or warding off a mild-mannered vampire: “We’re all good at this table. No blood sucking for us tonight, but thank you for checking in.”
My friends mill about for a moment, donning jackets and shoes before stepping out in the cold, and I am left alone. As an always-fatigued introvert, I have grown to value these periods of solitude, moments of silence in which I can recharge. But this time, somebody remains, skin tone similar to my own – if perhaps a bit darker – but facial structure marking him as the Central or Southern American I am often confused for.
I gesture a thumb at him and raise an eyebrow – inquisitive but not interrogating – “you don’t smoke?”
He shrugs casually. “Not really, you?”
“Dude, that much pot in the hands of eight people? That’s possession with intent to deal right there and you know who’s getting jail time for that.”
He rears back with laughter and nearly falls off the arm of the couch. The joke wasn’t all-too-funny, but it was all-too-true, and in a way that our friends probably wouldn’t fully understand. A torrent of stories pours out from us as we try to one-up each other.
I’ve been verbally assaulted for the crime of holding my (white) girlfriend’s hand.
He’s been tear gassed at an immigration rally.
I’ve been pepper sprayed at a Ferguson protest.
He was pulled over in his graduation cap driving his mother’s car.
I was pulled over driving the car of my dead best friend back from college to her parents.
He pauses a moment and tips his glass to me, a moment of seriousness emerging from behind his eyes: “A toast to her, man.” Then the laughter is back as he puts his hand on his forehead, “but that story is fucking hilarious.”
We have the privilege of finding our brushes with jail or worse funny, by virtue of having survived them. But we’re both laughing because we know the alternative is to give up, curl up in a ball on the floor and cry. I tell him about being questioned by a security guard while I locked my bike up, and he loses it, managing to eke out the words “of course” between laughs.
This reaction could not be more different from that of most of my friends, who want to know “Seriously?” or “What happened?” or “What the fuck?” Even Jon Stewart, master of understanding pain through comedy, has only one reaction to Ferguson: “How could this happen in *my* America?”
The answer is simple: if you are white, America is *your* country. It may not be the perfect country, but it was at least founded with the assumption that you were a person and not three-fifths of one. Surprise at racism is a rather privileged form of naivete. A reaction of surprise only tells me that the speaker is out of touch with the realities of America, or at least black America. Jon Stewart takes a step further, from surprise into anger, and while I appreciate it, only my friend’s laughter-shrouded words ring true in my ears: “of course.”
I’ve struggled with the right words to explain this: that racism is not made up of flagrant violations of humanity but constant harassment, a reminder of second-class citizenship. Nothing could hammer this home more than the reports by the Department of Justice and ArchCity Defenders. Normally, data fails to make the same impact on people that anecdotes would. However, in this case, data provides sobering reality, not abstraction.
Ferguson disposed of 24,532 warrants in 2013 alone. The population of Ferguson is 21,111. Ferguson is literally a city with more yearly warrants issued than people. Around 75% of the population of Ferguson received at least one warrant in 2013, and these warrants fell disproportionately on the black population. For example, blacks were twice as likely to be stopped and searched while driving. Despite 50% more searches of whites than blacks turning up contraband, stopped blacks were twice as likely to be arrested as stopped whites.
This leaves the second conclusion of the DoJ report: that the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” narrative of Michael Brown’s shooting was – at least partially – false. He was not charging Darren Wilson, but neither was he shot in the back (although he may have been shot *at* while fleeing). One piece of racism now looks less slightly clear cut, but a whole system of racism has been revealed.
We are left with one simple explanations that reconcile these pieces of data. Black Americans are so irrevocably oppressed in Ferguson – so consistently treated unfairly by the police – that the idea that an 18-year-old boy would be shot while trying to surrender was not only unsurprising, but expected.
Many white Americans were baffled that black men – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford – could be shot and killed in circumstances which did not seem to warrant a violent response from police. Some of them voiced this through outrage at the idea that this could happen, while others voiced this through rage and disbelief that it could be even suggested that an officer would do so.
Black Americans across the nation felt no such surprise. That we were so quick to believe that Michael Brown was shot while unarmed and surrendering is a heavy indicator of the bigotry that we face on a daily basis and the fear that we hold for renegade lynchers. For black Americans, the outrage behind #BlackLivesMatter is born not out of surprise, but out of a refusal to give up, curl up in a ball on the floor, and cry.