Waiting to Exhale and Experiencing Reflux in American Race Relations

by Eboni Zamani-Gallaher / Dec 22, 2014

On November 24th, a St. Louis County grand jury brought no criminal charges against officer Darren Wilson, a white policeman who shot an unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown multiple times resulting in his death. As I watched the news coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri grand jury announcement unfolding, I felt disbelief for what appeared to be immunity for prejudicial policing. Some may balk that justice prevailed; however, those embittered by the result in Ferguson have tired of excessive force being commonplace.

December 3rd, I viewed coverage of protests in dismay of another failure to indict in the case of Eric Garner, a black man killed by a white officer. The fatal exchange, all captured on video tape, shows Garner saying, “I can’t breathe” multiple times. The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. As I watched MSNBC, my two 10 year-old daughters ready for bed, came to say goodnight. One looked at the screen inquiring, “Mom, why are you watching that show again? You watched it last week. Why are you watching a re-run?” My heart sank. Really, a re-run? While this was not a television series, the scene was a familiar repeat on prime time TV. I attempted to explain what was occurring. My other child asked, “Aren’t the police suppose to protect us?” and with panic asked, “Is Daddy going to be safe?” Geez! How do I inform them without setting off an alarm that the black boys/men in our family will not meet harm’s way just for walking and driving while black?

Walking the Line
I feel particularly paradoxical as a black female that grew up as a cop’s kid. On one hand, my father is a retired police officer that was awarded a life-saving commendation from the Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. On the other hand, I know that every police officer will not be a dignified upholder of the law but may demonstrate dereliction of duty. I have seen my father racially profiled when in plain clothes. Why would he have to be in uniform with badge and gun in tow for some of his colleagues to see he was not a threat – to see his full humanity? There is irony in the pride and pain I feel toward members of the fraternal order of police. The circumstances contributing to the recent death of Eric Garner indicates a need to deescalate the divisions. The contemporary divisions between communities of color and the police are but a “re-run” or repeat if you revisit American history.

Race has been inextricably intertwined with social control in the U.S. Therefore, it is nothing new to find historical and current cases of no culpability for misconduct. Fifteen years ago, the Clinton Administration called for $40 million dollars to be spent on ethics and integrity education, $2 million to recruit more minority police officers, and $5 million for citizen police academies to curb racial profiling and police brutality. On Monday, December 1, 2014, President Obama asserted the Eric Garner case is “an American problem” announcing plans to roll out a $253 million dollar plan to address police brutality with $75 million toward police worn video cameras. With Garner’s death filmed, the Obama administration’s plans offer little consolation. It is criminal not applying accountability to those dishonoring the badge bringing peril, not protection, to the people.

The reactions I have had to the recent events depict the cumulative effects of what William Smith refers to as RBF – Racial Battle Fatigue. Smith coined the term in describing emotional, psychological, physiological, and behavioral symptoms that manifest as people of color deal with the toll of daily racial macro- and microaggressions (Smith, 2010). The mainstay of marginalization is not manufactured making mending what is broken far reaching. Scholar Joe Feagin contends that this country was founded on extensive white-on-black oppression and has never recovered. The symbiotic relationship between policing and racism has contributed to militarism and increased brutality of the disenfranchised.

We Aren’t There Yet
A post-racial society is still merely rhetoric not reality. Across the spectrum of difference, dominance functions by remaining unexamined. It is only when it hits close to home for us that the particular group membership in question is more salient. It is then that unevenness registers; that we all have racialized realities, gendered experiences, social class matters, who you love can come at a cost, and so forth.

As we clamor for new codes for cops, there should also be new rules for engagement on college campuses. One thing we can do as scholar-practitioners is to encourage students to know their rights, have a sense of agency and voice, as well as stay encouraged. Many times, the positive changes that occur in society are due in part to youth activism. The democratic distresses of the 1960s challenging social inequality that brought about campus movements are still relevant in today’s society.

As a scholar-practitioner with a social justice imperative and as a person of color, it is hard not to feel that there is a devaluing of our lives. I have ordered and worn a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt numerous times the past few weeks. The shirt is symoblic and gives me affirmation but only fleeting relief. It is unnerving that in the 21st century we are still plagued with the charge to move black lives from the margins to mattering. I guess I want a utopia where we get real about the scar of race and have systemic and sustainable change. Is trying to be the change you want to see in the world an exercise in futility? Well, I cannot go there. I would rather be in a fool’s paradise where the newsreel is full of stories with a different ending than pipelines to prison instead of postsecondary for brown and black men, to each person seeing one another, moving beyond the “me” but considering the “we.”

Eboni Zamani-Gallaher is a professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership in the College of Education at Illinois and Co-Principal Investigator on the Illinois Community College Board grant at OCCRL. Her research centers on access and collegiate experiences of marginalized students at two- and four-year institutions of higher education.