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By David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Monday, December 3, 2012.

Sadly, as I look back at a piece I wrote about Trayvon Martin, I find myself wondering, if I could simply replace Trayvon with Jordan, Martin with Davis. I don’t say this to mean their lives were interchangeable nor do I want to erase their individuality or uniqueness. Yet, American racism brings them together; the daily realities of violence, stereotypes, demonization and differential values ascribed to different brings them together; they are brought by together by what Imani Perry identifies the “conflict between American ideals and our social reality.”

I grew up in segregated Los Angeles. While often celebrated for its diversity, Los Angeles is an immensely segregated community. Divided by freeways, inequalities, and policing, the Los Angeles I remember was defined by its segregation. For middle-class white kids such as myself I was in constant ignorance about the persistence of inequality and differential opportunities. I never thought a second about leaving my house to buy a bag of Skittles; I never contemplated how others – teachers, employers, and even the police – might interpret my saggin’ pants or my hoodie; I did not even give a second thought when I showed up to play basketball at my local park with my hair in braids. The ignorance about privilege and the power of whiteness defined my youth. Yet, the privileges of whiteness were not simply in my head but conferred each and every day. I was able to move throughout the city without fear from driving while white, and without fear of being suspicious, because in America “the assumption is that the natural state of black men is armed and dangerous.”

It took my leaving Los Angeles, and ironically going to the Pacific Northwest, to truly understand the nature of American racism. Not a week passed during the 20 weeks I attended the University of Oregon where the walls of “color-blindness” and “we are all treated equally” did not crumble before my privileged feet. Walks to the store, to dinner, or to class with several African American friends often resulted in company; followed by the police, stared at by others, and under varied levels surveillance, my presumed to be innocent strolls to buy a pack of candy were met with suspicion – of them rather than me. It was a lesson in the ways that blackness equals suspicion and unwantedness whereas whiteness protected me from such prejudgments. Racism wasn’t just the daily violence of dreams deferred but the presumed innocence and invisibility of whiteness. It was in the parties never broken up; it was the loud music blasting from cars and frat houses that were not even heard.

Looking back, these experiences taught me lessons beyond racial profiling and the commonality of WWB (walking while black), but the inherent contradiction in an integrated post civil rights America. Several of my friends at University of Oregon at the time were student-athletes (the fact that a disproportionate number of African Americans on campus were student-athletes is a telling reminder of the persistence of segregation); on campus, these young men and women regularly experienced praise and adoration while on the court. Celebrated as heroes, cheered as superstars, and anointed as celebrities, these “athletes” were desired, wanted, and cherished while performing on the court. Yet, while walking the streets, while eating at restaurants, while in class, and while attending various parties, the desirability was replaced by suspicion, contempt, and surveillance.

The murder of Jordan Davis (main picture) is emblematic of the manner in which all African Americans, superstar athlete or not, celebrity or not, president or not, are seen as criminal. Seen as suspicious and undesirable, the increased visibility of prominent African Americans has not changed these dangerous stereotypes. It also reflects the contradictory place of blackness.

His murder amid the assumed celebration of a post-racial America; his murder as yet another killing that happens every 36 hours, is a stark reminder that black president or not, black superstars or not, America continues to be unsafe for African Americans. As Melissa Harris Perry noted, it was yet another reminder,that this is no country for young black men.”

In America, even while black athletes, entertainers, and even the President of the United States can be found on posters throughout America, blackness remains undesired and suspect. Even as millions of fans announce their love for Kobe and LeBron, even as tens of millions voted for Barack Obama, even as a growing black middle-class has made inroads throughout society, the likes of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, and countless others remind us about the dangers of living while black in America even in 2012. Essex Hemphill, in his brilliant poem “American Hero” describes a world where black men can simultaneously be celebrated for dunking a basketball during a globally televised basketball game while just miles away a young black male is dying at the hands of George Zimmerman and the violence of American racism:

Squinting, I aim at the hole
fifty feet away. I let the tension go.
Shoot for the net. Choke it.
I never hear the ball
slap the backboard. I slam it
through the net. The crowd goes wild
for our win. I scored
thirty-two points this game
and they love me for it.
Everyone hollering
is a friend tonight.
But there are towns,
certain neighborhoods
where I’d be hard pressed
to hear them cheer
if I move on the block.

Jordan Davis will never be able to hear our cheers, or our tears; he will never be able to turn his music loud again, he will never be able to feel the music. Yet, amid the collective silence of the nation and the demands for justice (and change so that we must demand to make sure there are not anymore Trayvons and Jordans), lets turn the music up for him; lets join together to “turn up the music for Jordan Davis.” I can hear it now, a nation demand justice and change, accountability and transformation, with Marvin Gaye blasting the background:

Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today – Ya

I wish Jordan could hear the music; I wish we could all hear the message.


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of the just released After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press) as well as several other works. Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan, layupline, Feminist Wire, and Urban Cusp. He is frequent contributor to Ebony, Slam, and Racialicious as well as a past contributor to Loop21, The Nation and The Starting Five. He blogs @No Tsuris.

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