Reality Check: Being black in a white-controlled world
by Drew G.I. Hart
After my junior year of college, 10 friends and I planned a trip to drive across the country. We attended a Christian college in Pennsylvania, and one of our friends lived in the state of Washington. He lived out in a rural part of the state, and someone had the idea of dropping him off at home and exploring the country by car along the way.
So 11 of us piled into two cars in central Pennsylvania and first headed toward Chicago. We drove leisurely, taking almost a week to get to Washington. We saw Mount Rushmore. We made a stop at Yellowstone, which is apparently a dream destination for many young white adults (who knew?). We stayed at some homes of people we knew along the way, and we camped at campgrounds a few times as well. One night we were behind schedule, so the five of us in my car decided that we’d just sleep in the car rather than set up the tent in the dark. That wasn’t necessarily the best night’s sleep.
I felt a bit out of place while stopping in some all-white small towns across the country while we traveled. I was pretty certain there weren’t any other black people around for hundreds of miles. But thankfully we had no problems or incidents on the way, and we finally arrived at our friend’s house in Washington.
Watching the change of landscapes across the country was unforgettable. But my friend’s house was also amazing. The hills were beautiful, appearing for miles like ocean waves. We really were in the middle of nowhere. You couldn’t even see a neighbor’s house.
It felt like I had truly jumped into an alternate world. We played basketball, football, and Frisbee—because many young white Christians love them some disc! I played piano for the group, and we sang together. We discussed our faith and our deep questions. We were all totally disconnected from our regular, day-to-day concerns.
Then I got a phone call from my mom.
Black in a white-controlled world
I have a brother who is one year older than me. For much of my young life we shared a bedroom. We often played and fought together. Others have frequently told me that we look alike. I personally don’t see it, though we certainly have similar complexions and builds. We often played basketball together and had a lot of the same interests and experiences growing up. No matter how much we got under each other’s skin, as young black men and as brothers, my life was deeply bound up and connected with his.
So there I was, frolicking in the advantages of college life with 10 white friends in the middle of nowhere, without a care in the world, when my mom called to tell me about an urgent situation that had developed.
Late one night, my brother was hanging out with friends. They were just minding their business and having a good time. A police car drove by while my brother and his friends were outside enjoying each other’s company.
The cop car drove by again.
Once more the car drove by, but this time the police officers stopped and got out. They immediately arrested my brother for “fitting the description” of someone who had recently committed a crime.
I am still troubled by the lack of description that my brother apparently fit. The only description they had of the guy they were looking for was “black male with a black T-shirt and blue jeans.” My brother and his friends were not even at the scene of the crime, nor were they doing anything suspicious at all. But that description was evidently enough for these police officers to arrest and take him to the station.
Blackness is a visible marker that justifies suspicion, brutality, and confinement
by white society.
I later found out that the police also initially claimed that my brother had a bloodstain on his shirt. However, when the lab results came back, they learned that it was just a ketchup stain.
My brother was eventually put into a lineup before the victim in the case. Of course he was not chosen, and finally he was released.
But not before he had spent four months locked up in the county correctional facility.
His crime? Being a young black man in a white-controlled society.
Trouble we’ve seen
Things could have ended up much worse for my brother. I can’t exactly call him “lucky,” but when black males encounter the police and the judicial system in the United States, things often go very, very badly, whether or not those arrested are guilty. I had always known that being black left one vulnerable in this country, and I certainly had heard about many other black folks dealing with similar or worse situations.
But when my brother, whom many people have said I resemble, was arrested purely based on the description “black male with a black T-shirt and blue jeans,” I began to realize how easily something like that could happen to me. Though far worse things happen routinely for black people when going through the judicial process, this event awakened me to the way our nation collectively and quietly accommodates the terrorizing of black people’s everyday lives.
It’s not always evident how divided our country is. We are inundated by singing and dancing celebrities, intrigued by suspenseful Thursday nights of scandals and murders, and allegiant to the multibillion-dollar corporations that feed us our sports. With these weapons of mass distraction being deployed, many people ignore the ongoing suffering and the deep racial division that are pervasive and have never gone away. But right below the surface, for 400 years, deep disagreements about race in America have been boiling.
This excerpt from Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew G. I. Hart (pages 13-16) appears by kind permission of the publisher. You can read more about Dr. Hart and explore more of his writing at his website, his column at Christian Century, on Facebook and on Twitter: @DruHart.
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