Guilty of Being Black

My friend and noted author Okey Ndibe from Nigeria, told the story of being picked up by police in a small New England town after 13 days in the United States.  The officer said that he “fit the description”.  Ndibe knew that he was guilty as soon as he looked the police officer in the eye.

Police officers are trained to spot guilt, immediately.  Like dogs that chase the ones who are afraid (they say that dogs can smell fear), police are trained to spot behaviors that indicate guilt.  They are duty bound to follow up on those behavioral indicators.  Take running for instance.  When police arrive on the scene, the person who runs is assumed to be the guilty one.

With this in mind, I have led workshops to help Black people learn to stop looking guilty.  I want them to act with confidence and empowerment.  I want Black people to step outside the victim perspective, give up feeling guilty, and act like they belong and are entitled. This, I thought, was one road to success.

I was working once, with two Black male colleagues to arrange a room at a university where we were holding our annual conference.  An adjacent room held additional chairs we needed for our seminar room.  Soon after we opened the door to move the chairs, a police officer arrived.  I greeted the officer warmly, said how happy we were to see him, and thanked him for coming.  We need the other door opened so that we can complete our room set-up, I explained.  The officer responded that he came because when we opened the door to that room, a signal was sent to the police. He had come to investigate a potential robbery.  I asked him to help us move the chairs while we talked.  We had a limited amount of time to prepare before our group arrived. The officer explained that if we needed more chairs from that room, we needed to call the police to come and open the door rather than opening it on our own.  We agreed that we would be mindful of that in the future.  In the meantime, thanks so much for coming to our aid.

When my team and I debriefed that event later in the evening, my two Black male colleagues described the terror, panic, and sense of dread they felt when they saw the police officer approach.  They were flabbergasted when I greeted the officer so warmly, indicating that if they had been the one to respond, the outcome might have been very different.

This event helped frame my (mistaken) conclusion that if Black people appeared more confident, approached situations and people (white) with greater ease, and rid themselves of that “guilty response”, they would have greater success and fewer difficulties with white people, especially with the police.

As I listened to Ndibe tell the story of his encounter with the police, I thought about my efforts to help Black people look less guilty.  Ndibe knew that he was guilty.  When his gaze landed solidly in the eye of that police officer, he was overcome with guilt.  The look on his face betrayed that guilt. That police officer, trained and quick to spot signs of guilt, recognized the guilty look.  He was duty bound to call Ndibe out from among the crowd of people standing at the bus stop and interrogate him. There was no way for Ndibe to “not” look guilty.  His instructions prior to departure from Nigeria to come to the US had been thorough and emphatic:  “Never Look An American In The Eye” (title of his latest book).

I thought about my efforts to help Black people learn the behaviors that would lessen the look of guilt.  Listening to Ndibe, I realized that it is impossible for Black people in the US to not look guilty. In the US, to be Black is to be guilty.  That is written into the history of this country. It is inscribed in our present situation.  Training Black people to not look guilty is to train them to not look Black.  As the courtroom judge told my cousin who was picked up by police because he “fit the description”,  “they have proven that you are not the person in this photo taken at the scene of the crime, and they have proven that you were somewhere else when this crime occurred, but I know that you are guilty of something, so you are going to do some time”.

Perhaps the lesson is one that Black Lives Matter and the Movement For Black Lives has sought to teach:  Black people get to be proudly, unapologetically Black.  At the same time, we get to work with each other and with our allies (in the media, classrooms, courtrooms and elsewhere) to create a society where being Black is no longer seen as a symbol of guilt.





Noticing White Privilege: Making the Invisible More Visible

Examples of white privilege appear daily in all forms of media. It is useful to practice publicly naming and analyzing some of these manifestations of white privilege.

Here is one example on which to practice. The April 15, 2015 edition of USA Today carries two stories. One story (p.3A), describes the “notorious Chicago police commander who ran a torture ring against suspects for decades…As a result of the torture, the men confessed to crimes that resulted in some spending years in prison or on Illinois’ death row. In 2003, Gov. George Ryan pardoned four….death row victims…” According to the USA Today article, Police Commander Jon Burge served less than four years in prison, was then released to a halfway house, and released from the halfway house less than six months after that.

Jon Burge is white. He has continued to receive a pension from the state.

Contrast this story with a second story (p. 2A) describing the sentencing of “former Atlanta Public School educators convicted of conspiring to cheat on state standardized tests…” Despite the lawyer’s contentions that two of the educators were innocent, Judge Jerry Baxter of the Fulton County Superior Court said that each was being sentenced to 20 years in prison, to be incarcerated for a minimum of seven years, with the balance as probation. In addition, they must perform 2,000 hours of community service.

The Atlanta educators are Black. In addition to their mandatory seven year prison time, pus 2000 hours of community service, they must pay a $25,000 fine.

Burge “ran a torture ring against suspects for decades. Police officers under Chicago Commander Jon Burge used electrical shock, burning and mock executions to elicit confessions from suspects, mostly African Americans.” The Atlanta educators “conspired to cheat on state exams.”

The man who ran a torture ring for decades, and put possibly innocent people on death row, served less than four years in prison. The people who conspired to cheat on state exams, are mandated by the Fulton County judge to serve a minimum of seven years in prison. The convicted torturer receives a pension from the state. The test cheaters are required to pay $25,000 to the state.

I am guessing that few white people would read the story about Burges as an example of white privilege. Few would read the story about the Atlanta educators as a story about the absence of white privilege.  I am guessing that almost every Black person who reads the story about Burges would immediately conclude that if he had been Black, he would have received harsher treatment and stiffer penalties. His sentencing for torture certainly does not parallel the sentencing of the test cheaters. Many Black people would assume that only white privilege would render test cheating in the education department as warranting almost twice the prison time as running a torture ring in the police department.

Another way to practice noticing white privilege:  who would assume that a white educator would be sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiring to cheat on a test?

While it seems to make some white people uncomfortable to talk about white privilege, increased awareness and consciousness about white privilege has the potential to change the tone and tenor, and perhaps the content,  of some of our public dialogue.