When I heard the news about Freddie Gray, the first thought that came to mind was, “Damn. It’s happening again.” A feeling of complete powerlessness consumed me, my limbs felt numb and tears welled up in my eyes. These feelings didn’t flood over me simply because Freddie Gray was killed.
It was because it could have been me.
The terrifying lesson I have learned from the cases of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown and now Freddie Gray is that due to my race, class and gender I am disposable in the United States. I walk through life carrying that truth, and it structures my reality. It dictates my everyday interactions with other people. I feel it on elevators, where I give white people extra space because I fear they think I will rob them. It’s how if I see a group of white women walking down the street at night, I cross to the other side. It’s in my instinct when hearing police sirens: run! I get dressed in the morning and consider whether my attire makes me more or less threatening.
Fear is in everything I do. It’s in the way I take the bass out of my voice or change my speech pattern when talking with white folks. How I go grocery shopping and keep my wallet in my hand or refrain from putting my hands in my pocket out of fear I will be viewed as a thief. I find myself over-tipping at restaurants to prove I’m worthy to eat at those establishments.
Black men have been dehumanized to the point that regardless of the facts, murdering us is justified and reinforced by the institutions that govern our society. Time and time again we protest and demand justice, but we meet blind eyes and deaf ears. Murderers go free, mothers cry and black men get buried.
In processing my emotions around the murder of black men, I have evolved from wanting justice to wanting solutions. Justice would call for the arrest of the officers involved in the murder of Freddie Gray; solutions would call for reforming the institutions that endorse the officers’ actions. What happened in Baltimore didn’t happen in a vacuum. It dates back to slavery itself. After the Civil War, the southern Black Codes denied black people many basic rights, such as voting, pursuing employment and serving on a jury. Jim Crow laws followed and persisted well into the 20th century. These institutional practices turned the police against black people and reinforced a system of white supremacy. All this historic dehumanization is the foundation for the unrest in Baltimore and across the country.
Black men have been dehumanized to the point that regardless of the facts, murdering us is justified and reinforced by the institutions that govern our society.
So this is about more than indictments and convictions of officers. The institutions that govern our country must change, as currently they don’t reflect the cultural diversity of the people they represent. The institutions protect and serve a dominant white culture. They subjugate other cultures, forcing their members into the dominant culture or—if they cannot assimilate due to race, class, gender or sexuality—to the margins of society. There, existence is dependent on accepting second-class citizenship.
If nothing changes, then people like Freddie Gray and countless others will continue to die at the hands of their own country. I will remain aware that my identity, as a black, male American of limited finances, continues to be a dangerous one. I will live to the best of my ability yet I will know that the color of my skin can be the cause of my demise regardless of my success in life.