Explaining racism is hard. When you’re illustrating the complexities of racial prejudice in America, it is difficult to bridge the gap between understanding and skepticism in a populace pretending to listen with its arms folded, ready to dismiss any reasonable, salient point that demonstrates the existence of privilege and bigotry. Sometimes it’s not that people don’t believe racism exists; rather, it’s difficult to provide examples that are clear-cut and easy to understand.
But not today.
Last week, after President Don “Puffy” Comb-Over claimed on Twitter that his predecessor had wiretapped his phones, Republican lawmakers, having seen no evidence or proof, vowed to investigate. On Monday they began seeking proof of his charges. Even though Donald Trump offered no substance to his charges, they still promised to examine them, understanding that if they were true, it meant one of two things:
Either Barack Obama slithered into his Magical Negro Spider-Man suit, slithered out of the White House, slipped unnoticed into midtown Manhattan and scaled Trump Tower to personally plant listening devices, or the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court determined that there was sufficient evidence to listen in on Trump and issued a warrant to intelligence or law-enforcement agents. If the federal government was listening to Trump’s calls, one of those two things had to happen.
Yet the entire House of Representatives and the Senate, along with federal investigators, the Justice Department, the intelligence community and every other person in the executive branch of the U.S. government, sat on their hands and zipped their lips while Trump accused the former president of the United States of a felony. Lawmakers didn’t just look the other way; they promised to look into the claim—even though they knew it was a lie. By taking this stance, even though they are quite aware that it is impossible to prove a negative—that Obama didn’t tap Trump’s gold rotary desktop telephone—they all tacitly acknowledged that Obama might be a criminal.
But Obama is black, and black people are used to this.
Trump’s claims do not just exist in the over-the-shoulder reminiscences of yesteryear. They are the latest example, in a number of recent reminders, of how offhand, unsubstantiated accusations against black people in America are so easily accepted, resulting in character assassination and sometimes death.
Example: This weekend, two and-a-half years after Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, Mo., surveillance footage emerged that seemed to show Brown exchanging what appears to be marijuana with store clerks minutes before now-former Police Officer Darren Wilson killed him.
This is significant because the narrative of this case was always that Brown went to a corner store and stole a pack of cigarillos. Minutes later, according to the narrative, Wilson encountered Brown—a “hulk” of a man whose adrenaline was pumping after he supposedly committed a forceful, brazen robbery—who grabbed the officer’s gun.
It was easy for prosecutors, a grand jury, conservative voices and the media as a whole to rationalize Brown’s death given the “facts.” It was believable that a young man who would strong-arm cashiers and loot a business in broad daylight would also be reckless enough to grab a cop’s gun. A policeman should rightfully fear for his life in the presence of such a menace.
Except that none of it appears to be true. Even without sound, the new video shows what appears to be an illegal but reciprocal exchange. Brown lays a baggie on the counter, and the store clerks pick it up, examines it and holds up a pack of cigars in exchange. Brown never retrieves the bag but gives back the cigarillos. Investigators had this evidence but never presented it, now saying that it is “irrelevant to our investigation.” Even with this new footage, it is unlikely that anyone will ever pay for Brown’s death.
Example: Feb. 26 marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin, the fifth anniversary of when George Zimmerman shot an unarmed 17-year-old who had committed no crime. Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman because he told investigators that he shot Trayvon in self-defense after Trayvon fought with him and grabbed his gun. A jury acquitted Zimmerman, even though 911 operators asked him not to follow Trayvon; even after analysis found none of Zimmerman’s DNA under Trayvon’s fingernails following a supposed fight; and despite the fact that Zimmerman’s gun did not have Trayvon’s fingerprints on it.
But Zimmerman said that Trayvon was the aggressor, so he wasn’t arrested until 44 days after he shot the teenager. A jury found Zimmerman not guilty because his shooting of Trayvon in the chest was “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.” Zimmerman said it; therefore it was true. Trayvon is dead because of one person, but no one will ever pay for his death.
Example: Carolyn Bryant, the woman who accused 13-year-old Emmett Till of whistling at her, resulting in his gruesome 1955 death, recently admitted that she made the whole thing up. Bryant chose to wait 62 years after Emmett’s family laid him to rest, and a lifetime after her husband and his accomplice confessed to the murder in Look magazine for $3,000. She outwaited a 2004 Justice Department reinvestigation of the crime. No one ever paid for the murder of Emmett Till because of one person. Emmett is dead because of one person’s statement.
Media outlets, congress members and senators for weeks have discussed Trump’s bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is no longer speculation; it is fact. Trump’s campaign managers, now-former national security adviser, secretary of state and attorney general, as well as other members of his staff, all have verifiable ties to the Russian government, but to date, there hasn’t been a single real investigation. But as soon as the dimwitted despot tweeted that the black president had violated the rules, everyone was quick to say, “Let’s take a look at this.”
That’s the way this country has always worked. Demonizing black men is as American as “strange fruit”-flavored pie. It is easy to condemn the long history of lynchings while pardoning and turning a blind eye to the people who point the fingers that led to nooses around necks. The way Republican lawmakers grabbed their Sherlock Holmes hats after Trump offhandedly accused the only scandal-free president of our lifetime of a federal crime is indicative of the fact that only some people are innocent until proved guilty.
That’s why a man 50 pounds heavier and 11 years older than a teenager with a pocket full of candy could shoot the boy in the chest and claim that he did it in self-defense. It’s how the Ferguson police, prosecutors and news outlets convinced us that 6-foot-4 Mike Brown was terrorizing his neighborhood like a rabid dog, intimidating and grabbing the weapon of the mild-mannered, elfin, 6-foot-4 Darren Wilson. It’s why the world disregarded Carolyn Bryant’s bloodstained hands for a half a century while Emmett Till’s family still screams for justice.
This is what it means to be black in America.
Pure innocence is not enough to keep your head from being smashed with an anvil and your body wrapped in barbed wire. “Do not talk to strangers” is an inadequate safety message when a man can stalk your son and shoot him in the chest, and people will eagerly bid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the gun that did it. Even a heralded black man with a reputation so spotless that he somehow becomes the leader of the free world is still lesser than a white, imbecilic, dishonest dictator-in-training. Imagine how scary it must be to live in a world where you can be undone by any words uttered from a white mouth—even if they aren’t true.
Maybe we shouldn’t point out the effects of unfounded white accusations against black bodies. Instead, we will make a universal blanket proclamation that encompasses all of these incidents, hoping that our inclusive statement will cause some people to hear the words we have been too long shouting at our dear America:
All lies matter.