By Dante King
As we continue to witness the gruesome effects and impacts of COVID-19 and intentional racial harm that is the direct result of decades and centuries of disenfranchisement, based on racism, I am overwhelmed with a range of emotions and type of grief that I have never experienced before; not because the murders of Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, only. It goes much deeper and further than this. It goes beyond the time and/or space allotted in this message and in my lifetime. Yet, I would be remiss if I did not utilize my privilege as a current leader of this agency, a black person, descendants of black slaves and the grandchild, nephew and son of people humiliated throughout the era of Jim Crow in this country. In fact, my mother Debra King Cooper was part of the first class that integrated Robert Louis Stevenson elementary school in the Sunset District, in 1962. And so, I have both a personal and professional duty and responsibility to highlight the obvious.
Because this country was founded on principles of white supremacy culture and anti-blackness and continues to function in the same manner with slow, incremental, unimpactful change, there is tremendous hurt, anger and rage happening right now within our culture. One does not have to be black to recognize the horrors and the terrors that black people have been and remain victim to. One only needs to have eyes, a heart and the ability to feel.
As we move through the pandemic of COVID-19, we also must also recognize and give voice to the pandemic of White Supremacy and anti-blackness, which are as alive today, as they were when the the first slaves arrived here in 1619, or when Constitution of the United States was adopted in 1789.
There is tremendous anger, rage, fear and terror that we/African Americans experience, feel and attempt to cope through daily. We feel it the moment we exit the doors of our homes and in every such other place; whether it is dropping our children off at school, going to work — the doctor’s office, the grocery store, restaurants, retail stores, even coming back to and returning to our homes (i.e. Skip Gates, DeArreion Toles). White Supremacy (different from white extremism, and this distinction must be made) and anti-black culture pervade our entire society and nation; and is deeply rooted in the socialization of all racial and ethnic groups who are born into, immigrate and participate in this culture.
As I sit here at 2 a.m., penning this email while working, I am sickened with grief, pain, sadness and anger. And yes, I am angry. Most black people who realize the racial genocide and perpetual degradation occurring in this country are angry. And we are angry for a legitimate reason. Imagine living in a body where your value, worth and/or whether you live, or die is predicated upon one predominant visible factor that you cannot hide (and I must add that I would never want to). Imagine how you would feel knowing everyone around you views that trait as deficient, substandard, dangerous, hostile, defensive and/or any other negative, demeaning association that come to mind. Imagine every day having to try and push up against the ideas in people carry in their minds based upon media, education, books, magazines, historical omissions, controlled narratives, stereotypes and stigmas learned throughout their lifetimes – so that you can be seen as less-threatening, non-threatening or “the good black” – “not like the other ones” – “articulate”………and the list goes one. Imagine having to defend the ways in which you show-up in the world, everything from your worldview, the emotions you feel, actions that do not conform or fit into the social expectations or lens of dominant culture and others who support and align with dominant culture. Imagine any one of these reasons being the reason why someone decides to kill you one day and living in a society that has been socialized not to care, engage with it, or even worse legitimize the reasons behind why it happened (i.e. “they had to be doing something”). Imagine waking up to the reality that this could be you, your mother, brother, sister, father, aunts, uncles or anyone else in your family? Imagine these reasons defining where you get to live; how well you will do in school; whether or not you get through school; whether or not you are detained, receive a ticket and/or remain in or out of jail; whether or not you get to keep your job; whether or not you get a promotion; whether or not you get written-up, terminated or suspended; whether or not you receive adequate health care, or have access to medical attention at all…….and every other experience or event in your life.
How would you feel?
We are going to have to come to grips that black people are not criminals and are not the guilty party in this country or context we are in. The criminals are the people who built a country (our economy and all its institutions) out of the wombs of black women and loins of black men predominantly; to build white power and privilege, white comfort and all the other comforts white people experience today. And the moment our African American ancestors began to “rebel” against forced labor, rape and castration –laws were created by white men to define the criminality of the black body to further establish, legitimize and memorialize our captivity and legitimization of the way in which we would be defined in our cultural context forever; a group designated at the bottom of this culture in every way.
Examples of this are highlighted in laws established in Virginia (1660, 1662, 1672, 1680, 1682) – and every such other colony that transitioned into statehood at the end of the 18th century; mapping over into the founding of this country and the perpetuation of a culture and white institutions that continued to produce laws to ensure culture evolved, materialized and legitimized in this manner.
And the culture that evolved as a result of intentional power and privilege at the expense of black and brown bodies is present in our sociocultural and socioeconomic realities today. White identity was formed with the intention to create a political, economic and social ruling class based upon skin privilege. The cultural socialization of deficiency, presumption of guilt rests upon the black body; while the presumption of innocence and exceptionalism rests within the identities of white people and people with white privilege (i.e. those designated by white people as model minorities). As I have shared in many classes and talks given (and I stand firm on this point), black people did not create nor have ever controlled any U.S. institutions – nor have we ever held the political or social capital to influence the type of meaningful and overhaul of change that would change the despair and desperate position we occupy in this country; and therefore are not responsible for any of the past, present or future realities to come.
The legacies of white privilege and power, anti-blackness and anti-nonwhite sentiment remain with us today. They remain with us in every city, county and state in this country where black and brown people exist. The pervasiveness and rampant abuse is with us here in progressive San Francisco and in every department, including ours.
I do not write this as an emotional, irrational, emotional rant. I write this as a recognition and acknowledgement of the pain that I know most of our workforce is suffering through right now – especially black people and people of color who have an experience closely aligned with those of black people. The unrelenting pain is due to both direct and indirect trauma experienced by us daily. I write this because as I watch riots breaking out in major cities across this country, I am seeing the build-up of the pain, trauma, anger, rage which is the result of the oppression of this generation, their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond. And, like the slaves who resisted, escaped, fought back in every one of the slave rebellions (thousands) documented between 1663 and 1865, and the lynchings, murders and rapes that prevailed throughout Jim Crow (reinforced through attorneys, judges and police forces who protected white perpetrators) there is one attribute that remained the same: the only choice has been fighting back, which is a legacy that we as black people specifically have inherited.
I write this as I think about my grandmother who cleaned houses of white people for her entire adult life right here in San Francisco; the humiliation of my grandfather who attempted to purchase a house here in SF’s Western Addition and the person who attempted to sell it to him for three-times what it was worth – having to go through one of his white friends who was able to take the cash my grandfather gave him to purchase the home at market value. I write this because I know that experiences like this are shared across the families of other African American families that are descendants of slaves and/or black people who lived through Jim Crow. I write this because of the observable pain, anger, rage and fear that is coming full circle from a deep place, deep within the journey of oppression faced by black people. I write this because the eruption of these dynamics is present within our community right here in San Francisco. Most of all, I write this as a call to action for everyone to see themselves in this reality; to examine the ways in which you either push/fight against, perpetuate or comply with the oppression of black and brown people in any form; cater to white privilege, white norms and/or white comfort at the expense of yourself and others; intentionally or unintentionally causing racial harm. And I write this so that we can begin having real, authentic and transformative interactions to interrogate and change how we operate with each other here at our agency and serve the diverse communities around us.
If you have not thought deeply about this, then this is your opportunity to begin. If you need resources, books, documentaries, podcasts or anything that will aid you in getting started; or even someone to have a conversation with, please reach out to me directly.
I close this message by saying that tangible, meaningful change is overdue. It is overdue in our institutions, in our culture and in society overall. Black and brown people should not have to bite our tongues, suppress our emotions and/or keep quiet to keep white people or any such other group comfortable. We deserved to be realized, respected and valued just as much as any other group and mistreatment, degradation and/or gradual/slow progress (at the expense of the lives of black and brown people) is no longer acceptable. The time for this change is now.
I personally will not work another day reinforcing my own subjugation or the subjugation of any such other black or brown person.
I call on white, non-white and other black and brown allies, those who say that they care – to stand with me as leaders and advocates within this agency to move now and become active in promoting and transforming meaningful racial change. I call on you to use your personal, political and professional agency, power and privilege to make racial justice happen; to make it a reality!
Lastly, I am exhausted. I cannot help thinking about the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Charleena Lyles, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Kalief Browder, Sean Reed, Akai Gurley, Laquan MacDonald, Philando Castile, Rodney King, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Michael Noel, Kevin Matthews, Bettie Jones, Keith Childress, Leroy Browning, Roy Nelson, Jordan Davis, Jordan Edwards….. and countless other black people who have lost their lives unjustly (including millions of black people “free” and/or “enslaved” black people) at the hands of people who interpreted them as animalistic, vile, less than human, etc. It has become strikingly clear to me both academically and through personal and professional lived experience that freedom in this country exists only for those without black skin.
Food for thought: How are we as black people expected to recover from this trauma, ever? How are we supposed to know, exist and live in a constant state of fear, sadness, deprivation, anger (and the range of emotions caused by persistent anti-black racism) and yet be expected to be mentally, emotionally, intellectually and physically available and astute as others who do not have to deal with the weight and magnitude of this reality? How is this fair, equitable or even rational?
It is not.
I am not sure how many others of you cried within the last week, but I cried on and off all weekend until yesterday and continue to be overcome with grief and hurt for the black and brown community and a culture and society that has been bankrupt of morality since its founding. As James Baldwin once said, “I am terrified at the immoral apathy, death of heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long, they really don’t think I am human. I base this on their conduct, not what they say, and this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters.” He also stated, “To be Negro and relatively conscious in this country is to be in a rage almost all of the time.” This should resonate with any informed person who knows and understands the magnitude, ramifications, and weight of history. This is the absolute truth for black people in this county; admittedly or not; conscious or not. And we don’t say it because of the history of harm associated with speaking-up or out. The fear of being problematic, playing the race card, losing our jobs, exclusion, isolation, silent mistreatment and every such other ramification that follows normal, common, justified reactions to perpetual degradation and disenfranchisement.
This may be one of the last email messages you receive from me, as I know there are some who will deem me sharing this message as inappropriate — and it is totally fine; as that too is a reaction to this symbolic break with status-quo conformity rooted in white norms; and some within our agency will undoubtedly call me out, discuss how inappropriate this is, and so on. And yet, it really does not matter because it does not come close to the danger, sadness, helplessness, and hopelessness that I (and many of you who have reached out to me this week) feel.
I hope that this touches at least one person and causes the beginning of self-examination, as well as radical, non-traditional action of people coming together to organize for meaningful, tangible and immediate change!
Dante King is an anti-racism, social justice, equity and implicit bias specialist, facilitator and policy advisor. This piece was originally sent as an email to colleagues.