‘I Go to UVA,’ Martese Johnson’s Cry of Millennial Disbelief

Martese Johnson, 20, learned a lesson many before him have been taught: that African-American achievements and accomplishments are not a shield against a racist system.

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Martese Johnson being arrested by Alcoholic, Beverage and Control officers in Charlottesville, Va., on March 18, 2015

Bryan Beaubrun/Twitter

Earlier this week I participated in a PBS NewsHour Twitter chat on race and millennials. We discussed members of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter, a white fraternity founded in the antebellum South, being caught on video singing one of their traditional songs about hanging “niggers” from trees.

The chat was partially built on the findings of a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, which suggested that young adults under 30 are more progressive about race, and how those findings (failed to) align with the blatant bigotry displayed by SAE.

This discussion feels even more important, the insight shared even more urgent, in light of the recent video showing Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control officers arresting University of Virginia student Martese Johnson so violently that he required 10 stitches for cuts on his head.

His crime? Being African American and having the audacity to participate in St. Patrick’s Day festivities along with his white peers, many of whom can be seen making their escape, one even posing for the camera, as Johnson is handcuffed by a white officer and is getting his skull pounded into the ground by the other.

“I go to UVA! I go to UVA! How did this happen, you f--king racists? How does this happen?”

Unfortunately, the terrorism that the 20-year-old Johnson experienced is not unique. A historical tableau was once again captured by modern technology—a violent white man, drunk on his own power, leaning menacingly over his bloodied black victim. Johnson’s desperate cry of rage is punctuated by post-racial millennial disbelief, and his violent discovery that cosmetic tolerance is a form of tokenism. The presence of black bodies at an institution of higher learning, which operates within a system of white supremacy, does nothing to change the system itself.

That’s how that happens.

Despite the American pie shoveled down the throats of African Americans, its sweetness often disguising the poison, this country is not a black-and-white meritocracy. If we work hard, dress well and speak correctly by white American standards, we still will not be safe from being assaulted by thugs with badges; nor will our success be assured. No, for many in black America, the world is instead red and gray—our blood spilled on dirty pavements across this country and splashed in mainstream media as if our lives, our deaths and our pain were a National Geographic special.

Johnson’s accolades and achievements have been widely heralded in an attempt to fan the flames of outrage over the horrific abuse he suffered, as if we need to know he’s “good” in order to know he matters. Johnson was photographed holding a sign that read, “I am the only black student on the honor committee, but I’m not the only honorable black student at UVA.”

The image—simultaneously evoking respectability and solidarity—draws, perhaps inadvertently, a sharp line of demarcation between Johnson and Michael Brown, whom the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart ignorantly called a “flawed” symbol of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The illumination of Johnson’s exceptional blackness appears positioned to provide the movement with a “better” symbol, one that systemic racism can tolerate within its folds.

But we should know better now, shouldn’t we? We know that respectability and proximity to wealth and whiteness won’t save us. Malcolm X once asked: “What do you call an educated negro with a B.A. or an M.A., with a B.S. or a Ph.D.? You call him a nigger, because that is what the white man calls him, a nigger."

That applies to times such as these.

It applied to Vassar College professor and Mississippi writer Kiese Laymon and the many instances of racial bias he detailed in a brilliant and brave essay, “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK.”

It applied to the group of black Harvard and Yale alum who were mistaken for gangbangers and barred from their own party because they were attracting too many black people.

It applied to The Root’s co-founder, Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., when he was arrested in his own home on suspicion of breaking and entering.

The greatest trick white supremacy ever pulled was positioning racism as only a belief system and not a power structure. This racist system is designed to make you believe that if you just act right, you’ll reach the safety of rarefied air; then they remind you not to breathe.

Now is not the time to be more tolerant about race; rather, it’s time to be more intolerant about racism. That is something that Martese Johnson learned. And that is something that we must teach all of our children if they are to survive in a nation that never intended for them to dwell within and to own their humanity.

Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and senior writer for The Root. She was named to Ebony magazine’s 2015 “Power 100” list and awarded a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim Fellowship. Her provocative commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.

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