Yes, Anger Does Influence My Work for Racial Justice, and No, We Won’t Calm Down
I was recently invited to be a panelist to discuss racial profiling, social justice, and the role of higher education institutions when racial injustice tragedies occur across the nation.
Although I thought I was prepared for it, I couldn’t control my reaction to what happened next. Getting straight to the point, the moderator opened the event with a “roll call”.
Oscar Grant….Trayvon Martin…Michael Brown…Eric Garner…Tamir Rice…Sandra Bland…Kimani Grey…Miriam Karey…Sharonda Singleton…Elisha Walker…Sean Bell…and on, and on, and on.
As I sat in silence, I could feel my heart beating faster with each name that was called. My hands started shaking, and I could feel my inhale and exhale become shorter and shorter to the point where I literally began to think to myself: “I Can’t Breathe”.
The first question came next, and we were asked what our personal reactions were to their deaths and others, and how it has impacted our roles as faculty and staff members. My reaction was one of anger.
In an interview in 1961, James Baldwin said
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time.”
As a Black man in America, I honestly share that I am in a state of rage almost all of the time.
Baldwin went on to say
“The rage is due not only to what happens to Negroes in America, but to the “criminal indifference”….and ignorance of most white people in this country.”
Criminal indifference and ignorance. I see it in the unprecedented levels of disrespect and racism that President Obama and his family have had to endure throughout their tenure in The White House. I see it in all of the non-indictments after acts of police brutality and racial profiling which communicate very clearly a message that Black life does not matter and can be taken by the state with impunity.
Daily I grapple with how it feels to be a problem; how it feels to be not an at-will employee, but with feeling as if Black life is at-will; taken at the will of the state in a moment’s notice.
I see it in the ways white suspects and killers are humanized and portrayed better than black victims of police brutality in the media. I see it in the double standards of how police have addressed crowds of unarmed black protesters vs the ways they have approached crowds of white sports fans who have decided to riot regardless of if their team won, or lost the game.
I see it in the ways law enforcement authorities have responded to large groups of unarmed black protesters vs the slow response to the act of domestic terrorism in which an armed Ammon Bundy and his fellow armed domestic terrorist group members occupied government property.
I see it in the ways Black people were portrayed during Hurricane Katrina, and the slow government response then.
Even today, I see it in the slow response to the environmental racism that is impacting the people of the city of Flint, Michigan.
I also see the criminal indifference and ignorance in the tiresome but persistent narrative that we are in a post-racial society, and in the ways that whiteness uses difference to justify privilege, while at the same time denying that any differences exist as a justification as well.
In his quote, Baldwin describes the burden of consciousness, as it does feel like a burden to so many Black people to be so wide awake to the injustice that affects our very lives, and be surrounded by all of the indifference, the ignorance, and the ability to invalidate our experiences that white supremacy conveniently and intentionally provides to white people by design.
This criminal indifference and ignorance that Baldwin talked about does not just come from folks who exhibit overt, easy to spot forms of bigotry and racism. “Well-meaning”, “forward-thinking”, “progressive”, “liberal” white people are also responsible for and complicit with their own share of criminal indifference and ignorance to the plight of Black people because of structural racism.
It’s the dangerous kind of ignorance that Dr. King talked about when he said
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
and y’all know who you are.
Yes, Anger Does Influence My Work for Racial Justice
Just in case anyone out there doesn’t quite know this, my anger, and the anger of other people who are Black is a completely appropriate response to what has happened, and what is currently happening to Black people in America and around the globe.
Controlling the Rage
In that same interview, James Baldwin also said
“So the first problem is controlling that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”
A large portion of my personal journey is dedicated to controlling my rage so that it doesn’t destroy me, and I am very fortunate to be able to say that I can point to specific people across my life; some who have in the past, and some who presently continue to help me to be able to control that rage.
Choosing Social Work, service and education as my vocations are also exercises in controlling my rage in productive ways, so that it will not destroy me.
In terms of the impact this response has on my role as a servant, a Social Worker, and social justice educator; I try to facilitate a process with my students who are Black, and my other students of color that provides opportunities through which they can find ways to control their rage, so that it does not destroy them.
For my students who are White, I facilitate a process that creates opportunities through which they can come to an awareness of their own criminal indifference and ignorance of the ways they contribute to, and are complicit with white supremacy and structural racism.
The Role of Higher Education
In considering how the academy could continue to foster student development in the areas surrounding social justice, some further thoughts for growth can be found in principles of cultural humility, which call for:
A commitment to life-long learning and critical self-reflection
Recognizing and challenging power imbalances for the purpose of establishing respectful relationships
These commitments should be held from the President to the Provost, to the Dean; by all faculty, staff and students as well.
Students are sometimes more eager to go about the work than the executive level leadership, so the commitment really needs to start with the leaders, and continue throughout.
Everyone needs to be committed to doing the personal work, and programs, initiatives, and positions that advance equity and inclusion should be established, maintained, and visibly and financially supported to avoid making decisions that might look good on paper, but lack the substance and influence required to really enact positive social change on campuses.
Although in different ways, we should all be uncomfortable with the way things are, and should feel maladjusted in the ways Dr. King spoke about. There are things we shouldn’t get used to, and we should be mad about it.
There Are Differences
Still, there are real differences between Black folks taking action to control our rage so that it does not consume us, and the constant pressure placed upon us to modify our tone and water down our truth telling in a way that is dependent on deference to whiteness and white people; recreating master-slave dynamics. Rejecting the recreation of those dynamics is an act of resistance.
Yes, anger does influence my work for racial justice, and no, we won’t calm down.
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW