The suspicious death of Sandra Bland has been sitting with me for several days as the uncomfortable truth of just how fragile Black life is creeps into my soul. Lately, I find myself thinking that from cradle to death there are precious few, if any, spaces where Black people are seen simply as humans. Fellow travelers on this dusty rock we all inhabit. Instead, Black people are seen through suspicious eyes, so much so that a lane change without using a signal ends up with a young woman’s life cut short.
The accessibility of technology now means we have the ability to consume a steady diet of Black pain and horror. We now know that Black children at play are killed by cops. Black kids at sleep are killed by cops. Black women who assert their constitutionally protected rights, if not killed by cops, end up dead in jail cells they ought not to have been in in the first place. Black women trying to secure employment as best they can are charged with abandonment for behavior that earns a white women a new career as an “expert.” Black kids targeted for teenage behavior by cops end up having their homes at risk.
It’s not just a corrupt criminal justice system that unfairly targets Black people; it is a society built on demonizing Black people. It is a system that doesn’t understand the psychic damage that was bestowed upon us all by people who are long dead. It is a system that doesn’t understand the interconnectedness of all life: That when we create a system that bestows second class status at birth, that marker follows you through out life.
It is a system where a man broke the law by selling loose cigarettes and ended up dead yet few people ever thought to publicly ponder why was the man selling loose cigarettes in the first place. No one buys a pack of cigarettes to sell individual cigarettes unless they need money. Period.
Sandra Bland was in that jail cell three days after being arrested because she hadn’t posted bail which was set at $5,000, or 10% for bond coming to $500. Despite being a college graduate with a promising future, she sat in a jail cell for lack of ability to come up with $500 immediately. Had she been able to post bond immediately after being arrested, she would have been released. No overnight in the cell much less three nights in the cell. The racial pay gap is very real and has real consequences.
White people get arrested for minor and not so minor crimes too but unless they are the poorest of the poor, the odds are high they have access to the resources to come up with $500 to avoid a night in jail. If they enough resources, odds are high they can fight the charge by hiring an attorney and not worry about a criminal record that can impact them later down the road.
Ours is not a fair or equal society; in fact, the inequity is apparent at every level. So, while many of us are just now focusing on the glaring inequity of the criminal justice system and the police, we need to widen our lens to see the whole picture. We need to become whole-systems thinkers, we need to ask the hard questions and be willing to feel that lump in our throats when we see the horror of just how insidious racism is.
Sandra Bland made several videos and in one of them she mentioned being depressed and maybe even having a touch of PTSD. That statement was loaded, especially now that the authorities state that she took her own life. I am not interested in trying to prove what happened because that isn’t my job, though I believe it is possible that she may have taken her own life. Hopeless moments make the impossible possible. Yet Sandra spoke a truth that I think few Black people will publicly give voice too. There is a trauma to the current state of Blackness, to know that at any moment you are or your loved ones can be harmed by the very people your taxes pay for. That there is a point where this life on this rock in this Black skin feels heavy and that heaviness threatens to overwhelm you. To know that no matter where you go, the world will see you as suspect. That weight is heavy and it takes its toll.
Videos capture our endings but rarely our humanity. As I find myself struggling with wondering about the purpose of this space and at times whether I should retire it, I am reminded of the shortage of spaces that showcase Black humanity and in that moment I resolve to write one more post. I am also thankful that Sandra Bland also showed her own humanity so that we will know that she more than just another Black body in an orange jump suit. We are a people under siege, and as comedian Margaret Cho tweeted: “We are witnessing the genocide of African-Americans by police–if you do nothing to stop it, you have blood on your hands #BlackLivesMatter” I would add that while the police are at the front lines of this increasingly visible war on Black Americans, don’t become complacent and assume they are the only ones we need to be concerned with. To dismantle structural racism means looking at all the structures and how they impact each other.
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