I was a grad student at the UCLA film school, getting my MFA in screenwriting, when a consumer-trends company asked me to work for them. Why did they want me? Well, they advised major corporations on how to best situate their products for the African-American consumer market, and in order to do that effectively, the company needed people who understood African-American values and behavior and could turn those factors into macro trends. In essence, my job was to predict the things black people did today to hint at future behavior and, from that info, identify the strategies companies should use to reach black people.
Now, I’m not going to go into what I told various clients, but if you’re black and you enjoy your daily cup of java from a restaurant with Golden Arches because it seems to speak to you, let me just say: You’re welcome.
Although I don’t work for this company anymore, the powers of observation that I learned can’t be turned off. My brain is constantly observing the world from the perspective of African Americans, and each qualitative data point gets stored, ready to be grouped together as a macro trend or discarded as irrelevant. At some point, the observations begin to light up, a bit like how John Forbes Nash Jr.’s chalkboard lit up in A Beautiful Mind as his equations began to make sense.
Don’t believe me?
Three years ago, I observed that African-American college students at predominantly white colleges and universities were increasingly unhappy, and campus racism was running rampant. It was little bits of info here and there, a conversation there and here. Those observations were the catalyst for my new book on campus racism, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses. And guess what? Over 100 campuses subsequently erupted in protests over campus racism as university officials and educational reporters watched, slack-jawed, trying to make sense of it all.
It wasn’t a coincidence.
I may not be Negrodamus, but Negrodamus is definitely my play cousin. It’s qualitative analysis over an Excel sheet full of data points. An educated gut that your mama told you to follow, writ large on a diverse demographic of 40 million black people. In other words, I know black people.
So, as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile became members of the black Twitter hashtag list that no one wants to belong to, my Spidey sense perked up. Something had changed in the African-American zeitgeist. It went beyond the usual anger to a whole new place.
If the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, it was clear that we as black people are firmly at acceptance-level TNT. Not acceptance as in capitulation to white supremacy, but acceptance of the idea that African America has spent precious brainpower explaining, cajoling, protesting, pleading and, yes, begging for white America to recognize our humanity—and, ya know, that we just might have to stop doing that.
White America ain’t listening and, more importantly, doesn’t care about the pain of black people. In essence, as TLC once told us, it might be time for us to stop chasing waterfalls.
The way I read it, African Americans around this country recognized that we’re in an abusive-marriage dynamic with white America, a marriage in which killing the Tamir Rices, the Mike Browns, the Sandra Blands, the John Crawfords, the Eric Garners and the countless others is part of the American equation. Until proved otherwise, such as through a drastic increase in the percentage of police convictions for the deaths of black people, black people are slowly coming to the realization that the current system of justice is working as it is supposed to for white America. And that’s why we get pushback when we say, “Black lives matter.” White America says “All lives matter” as a way to tell us, “Nah, kid. They don’t, and they never will.”
And while having a black president in the White House may provide us psychological comfort, one of the earliest exhibitions of white supremacist power in the form of policing came when President Barack Obama had to host a fraudulent and humiliating “Beer Summit” between African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the white cop who arrested him for breaking into his own home. Once that precedent die was cast, African America was always going to have to be subject to the idea that because police have a tough job, dead Negroes will be a justifiable exchange for letting white police officers go home safely to their families. Just the price of doing business in America.
And as though America needed to bookend that summit with something even more disingenuous, ABC and ESPN decided to host a “town hall meeting on race” with Obama. This two-hour embarrassment to serious discourse was like watching prancing horses dance onstage, with the systemic racism inherent in American policing the verboten subject.
All through the show, the president bent over backward to keep positing this notion that the police have a tough job and that black and brown communities need to understand that. He pleaded for members of Black Lives Matter to express their sorrow when the police are hurt or killed in the line of duty, but never asked the police to do the same when they kill black and brown bodies.
You see, African Americans watch black people get shot and killed on camera on the regular, and we’re supposed to suspend our intelligence and believe that it was just a bunch of “bad apple” cops who were making all the “good cops” look bad. Bad cops who’d go on paid administrative leave after killing black people. Bad cops who’d have the full support of their police unions. Bad cops who’d have the so-called good cops walk out in offense when athletes wore a T-shirt affirming the lives of dead black people. Black folks were just supposed to take it.
Nah, son. It’s a sham. And black folks know it’s a sham.
African Americans are tired of explaining. We’re tired of explaining an easy concept like #BlackLivesMatter and then having white people go, “But … but … what about Chicago and black-on-black crime?” It’s an insult to our intelligence to explain the nexus between lack of educational opportunities, economic deprivation, housing discrimination, and the flooding of drugs and guns into our communities to people who don’t give a damn about any of that.
The fact is that most of white America has a mental block that it can’t get past when it comes to recognizing the humanity of black people. They’ll proclaim to the high heavens that they’re not racist and that they love everyone (including all the purple people!), but when it comes to systemic racism and fixing the institutions that disproportionately affect black people, they’ll turn around and say, “But why would you want to focus on that?”
Maybe it stems from the fact that we came to this continent as chattel slavery, human pack animals that were supposed to work until we died, and find freedom in heaven—a segregated heaven, I presume—just like the cemeteries. Centuries of looking at black skin as being worth three-fifths of a white human being’s has had a psychological impact not just on the black people who are unfairly burdened with that sophistry, but also on the white Americans who grow up thinking that their lack of melanin gives them a two-fifths superior advantage that any Negro can achieve, if only he or she works a little harder.
Black folks see through this—have always seen through this—and that’s why we fight against it. Oh, sure, we have the occasional black country music singer who knows that if you wanna boost those sales numbers, all you have to do is create a benign-looking video in which you give black people instructions on how not to get killed by white police officers. His hustle, which is as old as minstrels, plays into the white supremacy notion that if blacks simply played within the box, they’d be fine. It plays well for the country music audience he’s trying to reach, so expect to see him gracing the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, at the expense of the humanity of black people. It’s a trade-off some are more than willing to make. But for others? Acquiescing to white supremacy ain’t in the cards.
Black folks are talking about leaving America. That it’s time for a divorce, an annulment, something that would allow us to escape from an America that’s quite literally trying to kill us. Some writers have humorously declared that black people should hold a referendum like the United Kingdom’s Brexit, and have a #Blaxit from America, taking Beyoncé and our potato salad with us. Others, like Melissa Harris-Perry, write poetically about their own private Walden, a mental space that they and other African Americans struggle to visit—a place of peace and tranquillity, where we can pursue our own happiness.
Traditionally, African Americans look backward, to a time when strife pulled us together, for inspiration. The Red Summer of 1919, when thousands of African Americans were slaughtered throughout the country, helped beget the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance. The strife of the civil rights movement gave rise to “Black is beautiful,” and a rejection of European values. So what will it be this time?
My powers of prognostication have limitations, but I already see an increased emphasis on supporting long-standing African-American institutions. I predict that you’ll see money being deposited in black banks, more students applying to HBCUs, a reverse gentrification of traditional black neighborhoods and an increased emphasis on patronizing black businesses. But in reality, African America’s future is probably being crafted right now by the dreams of a 14-year-old black girl in Chicago—a teen who is going to spark a revolution within African America that will define us in exciting and new ways.
That gives me hope.
But for now, I predict that African Americans are in a state of transition. We’re now in a space where we’re about to put up mental and physical walls between white America and us. It’s a rational reaction to an America that says you don’t matter.
If you know the secret password, the head nod, the correct seasoning on the food, you’re all good. If not, oh well. Don’t try to “Rachel Dolezal” us; that’s not gonna work this time. For African Americans, the straps of the mask are going on extra tight, but with a message that tells white America, “Go back to the world you built for yourselves and leave us alone. And if you miss us, talk to your friends who don’t believe in our existence, and talk about how you feel that loss. How you miss our genius in your lives. Because we African Americans are fed up. We’ve been told so often that we don’t matter, so excuse us if we believe you.” Watch as African Americans increasingly turn to one another and say, “Not only do you matter, but I love you.”
And that’s the ultimate repudiation of white supremacy.
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.