By Mark Anthony Neal | NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Following the election of the first Black President, I recall there was the sudden push—largely among young Black college educated types—for Black youth to wear the part of the constituency that had helped elect Barack Obama. The impulse didn’t strike me as odd—a desire for respectability that is as old as the plantations that raised us—but the investment in a pathology about Blackness did.
These were bright and ambitious young Black folk who believed that their intellect and talents were suspect if their pants sagged, they had gold in their mouth, or wore skirts didn’t cover enough thigh—as if such things have ever mattered to White peers, who regularly show up to classes at elite institutions wearing pajama bottoms, flip-flops and baseball caps.
The sentiments of these young folks seemed to align with those of Academy Award winning screen writer John Ridley (12 Years A Slave), who in a 2006 essay for Esquire Magazine, wrote “In the forty years since the Deal was brokered, since the Voting Rights Act was signed, there have been successes for blacks. But there are still too many blacks in prison, too many kids aggrandizing the thug life, and way too many African-Americans doing far too little with the opportunities others earned for them.”
Ridley’s piece was a reflection on Blacks who “rioted” in Cincinnati in 2001, in response to the shooting death of an unarmed teen, Timothy Thomas—the 15th Black man to die in police pursuit or custody in a six-year period. Their crime, in the eyes of Ridley, was not simply their rage—which he deemed illegitimate—but how their actions detracted from the important foreign policy work being done by Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, during a particular moment of international crisis. In Ridley’s word’s: “Niggers fucked it up.”
If there was a message delivered to the unwashed masses of Black folk in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama, it was “don’t fuck up.” And indeed beginning with his 11th-hour election season screed about sagging pants, the President has taken every opportunity to admonish Black folk about the value of education, wearing the right clothes and marrying your baby-making partner, in one case making the point about educational attainment, incredulously, to an audience of graduating Black students.
Six years into the Obama Presidency, we now realize that pulled-up, belted pants, neatly-pressed dress-suits and bow-ties are apparently a policy initiative intended to save Black men and boys. President Obama was seemingly shamed into the creation of My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), in the aftermath of the Trayvon Marin shooting and with the stark realization (via every index imaginable) that the lives of Black youth were not significantly better under his leadership, and perhaps worse.
With the tragedy of Trayvon Martin taking up narrative capital—as opposed to Renisha McBride, another unarmed teen who was murdered, and who apparently, could not have been the President’s daughter—My Brother’s Keeper helped the President respond to critics who believed that he was not doing enough for those who looked liked him, and those who voted for him with the hope that he would quell the “niggers”—or at least deport them (and others) in record numbers and hasten their incarcerations with the tacit approval, in his silence, of Stop-and-Frisk policies.
A year after the acquittal of Martin’s killer and only days after Renisha McBride’s shooter was found guilty of second-degree murder, 18-year-old Mike Brown—another unnamed teen in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson—was shot multiple times by a law enforcement officer. Brown’s killing occurs a month after video circulated of the NYPD’s execution of another unarmed Black male, Eric Garner, using an illegal choke-hold.
We should expect nothing more from the President than rhetorical bow-ties as if the lives of Brown, Garner or even Martin, would have been spared had they been wearing the right clothes. There will be no lecture forthcoming about the structural and psychic realities of White Supremacy on Black life.
To be sure the President is not to be blamed for the White Supremacy that continues to impact Black lives—indeed he has been subject to it. What becomes strikingly clear though, particularly with regards to national media coverage of these deaths, is that Black folk in this country are still not deserving of the basic courtesies afforded the loss of life—the loss of their humanity. The President’s silence on so many of these deaths sends the signal that these Black bodies are not deserving of respect, protection and legitimate grief—and for that, he should be ashamed.
Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University where is the Director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship. He is the author of several books including the recent Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow Neal on Twitter at @NewBlackMan