‘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.

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.