One evening years ago, when I was a new assistant professor, I was leaving a Lakeview gym when I was stopped by the police and forced to lie spread eagle against a car because I “fit the description” of a robbery suspect.
With my heart racing, I mustered some inner calm and asked, “Why am I being detained?”
“You know why the f— we stopped you!” was the answer.
The suspect’s description blared from the police radio: “A 6-foot, two-inch black male wearing blue jeans, white T-shirt, and white sneakers.” I was wearing tan pants, an orange polo shirt, and black shoes and am 5’8” on a good day.
After 15 minutes, they abruptly told me I was free to go. No explanation or apology.
When I asked one of the officers his name, he barked to his colleague “Run his f—ing license! I hope your mama and grandma never needs any help!”
Even in my distracted state, I thought that this was an odd response to my request.
They “ran” my license through their database looking for something — anything. It came back clear, not surprisingly. Still then, with no apology and angry glares, the officers returned to their car and sped off.
I was left to ponder again a world in which my black skin rendered me automatically suspect and unworthy of being treated with basic regard. The officers were out in the world “helping” mothers and grandmothers. My 15 minutes of heightened blood pressure, racing heart rate and fear was just collateral damage.
The experience was quite troubling, but not new. Throughout my life I have experienced the regular questioning of my presence in places where I belong, including every college campus that I have been a part of as a student, professor, and associate chancellor.
For sure, confrontations with police raise the potential stakes, but they are all too connected to the daily experience of navigating white suspicion.
The recent racist incident in New York’s Central Park, involving a black birder, along with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minnesota, reminded me of James Weldon Johnson’s words, written more than a century ago in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man:
“It’s no disgrace to be black, but it’s often very inconvenient.”
One of the central, inconvenient truths about the daily lives of black Americans is that we must juggle deep pride in racial identity with an ongoing struggle for human dignity in a society that devalues blackness.
In The Condemnation of Blackness, Harvard historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad chronicles the historic unfolding of black devaluation, illustrating how blackness became linked to “criminality” in U.S. culture and grew into a powerful trope.
It’s a trope we struggle with today. It provided a white woman, Amy Cooper, with the gumption to call the police on that black birder although she was the one breaking the law. It empowered a father and son, Gregory and Travis Michael, to stalk and kill Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man out jogging.
It fueled Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s relentless pressing of his knee into George Floyd’s neck until Floyd, in the words of responding EMTs, was an “unresponsive…pulseless male.” Likely, it enabled three other officers who stood by to respond with willful indifference to Floyd’s murder.
The devaluing of black people’s lives and the criminalization of blackness create a variety of racist speed bumps that we must navigate daily. Colloquially, these are referred to as “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” “studying while black,” “jogging while black,” and such.
In a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, three quarters of black people said they’d experienced discrimination. More than 60 percent reported “people acting as if they were suspicious of them” and more than 40 percent said they’ve “feared for their personal safety” or “been unfairly stopped by the police.”
Black people have been living and naming their “inconvenient truth” for hundreds of years. What seems to have recently become an inconvenient truth for the larger public has been the steady flow of irrefutable visual evidence of violent disregard for black life.
There is an old African proverb that I often cite: “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”
In the cases of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Christian Cooper, the hunters tried to tell their tales, as with the early police reports claiming Floyd died due to a medical issue.
Inconveniently for them and others who devalue and take black lives, the “lions” now have cameras.
It’s tempting to call this progress. Viral clips may have forced a wider public to reckon with what blacks have experienced for centuries, but the deeper solution requires more people to confront and challenge the widespread devaluing of black lives.
Imagine how differently things might have unfolded if any of the other three Minneapolis police officers had intervened when George Floyd gasped “I can’t breathe.”
Tyrone Forman is a professor of African American studies and sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a nationally recognized expert on intergroup prejudice and discrimination, comparative race and ethnic relations, and survey research methods.
Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.