Season of Change?

September 24, 2020
After decades of eloquent rhetoric, stutter-step progress, and heartbreaking incidents that show how much remains unchanged, the oft-expressed hope is that this time, things might be different as the nation grapples with racial discrimination. Two Spiders offer their perspectives.
By Noah Walker, '19

Noah Walker, ’19, published the following essay June 1 on the website of Inciting Altruism, an organization that promotes public service, community ties, and the stories of people who exemplify them. Its title was “Black & Blue.”

Every day I am reminded of my Blackness. Some days this is positive, in being proud of who I am. Being creative, brilliant, dedicated, and resilient. Other days, like the past few, have been negative, making me feel like I’m seen as a useless, lazy, stupid thug. Being Black isn’t inherently exhausting. Fighting against the expectations and prejudices people have put on me on top of just trying to live my life is. Whether it’s the way I might be followed while shopping in CVS, the way I get nervous even seeing cop cars, or the way people see me and get scared to the point of jogging away or crossing to the other side of the street.

You might read this and start trying to rationalize it or think I’m exaggerating. A couple of years ago I probably would’ve agreed with you. But every Black person has a moment where, whether they like it or not, they realize they are Black. This can happen whenever and wherever. It could be when a young white child calls you “Chocolate” while you’re picking up your Chipotle. It could be when, even after paying for your food at 7-11, the cashier singles you out in your group of white friends and accuses you of stealing. But it is inevitable.

I want to show you two pictures (at right). The first one is me at 13 years old, walking around in D.C. at night with some friends. The second one is me at my college graduation from the University of Richmond last year. Now, I’m in grad school at Wake Forest University, a year into my journey to get a Ph.D. in pharmacology with the goal of one day being able to make drugs to cure diseases and help people in need.

Each time, I am reminded of how easily this could have been me.

These pictures don’t seem to match up, but there’s really only one difference between the Noah in these two moments. The difference was me fully understanding Blackness in America. The first picture was taken in 2011, almost exactly a year before my previously mentioned moment: the murder of Trayvon Martin. After seeing the subsequent acquittal of the cold-blooded killer of an innocent 17-year-old with some Skittles and an Arizona, I began thinking twice about how I represented myself online and everything else that I did. While that event let me know that there was a target on my back, I figured I’d be safe until I grew up a little more and became an adult. No one would be scared of a 13-year-old kid, right?

In 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was murdered by officers after police responded to a call about a Black man pulling a weapon from his hip and pointing it around. It was an airsoft gun. As a child, I had to come to terms with the fact that it didn’t matter who I was or what I was doing. It didn’t matter that I loved watching football with my dad or that I wanted to be a good role model for my little sister. They would only see the color of my skin. My father never let me play around fake guns or even act like I was shooting. It took the killing of a 12-year-old boy for me to see why.

The summer scenes from the city of Richmond that appear throughout this article were taken by photographer Brian Palmer, a visiting assistant professor in the journalism department. His images and writing regularly appear in national publications. See more of his work on Instagram @bxpnyc.

Fast-forward to 2020, and what has changed? Nothing. Even with laws mandating police to wear body cameras after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014, American culture and the media have found ways to come to the defense of killers. This is typically seen in the vilification of Black people, most recently seen in the case of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery, a young, unarmed Black man on a jog, was hunted by two white men with shotguns and then shot. The shooters claimed that they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest of a man who “was acting like he was armed.” How did the media respond? Pulling up footage of him shoplifting in 2017. Oh wonderful. Another criminal off the streets. He took something from a Walmart once, so it’s OK if he dies.

One of the hardest things about these cases is that each time, I am reminded of how easily this could have been me. Much like many Americans, I’ve been spending some of my free time buying things on Amazon. Last week, they delivered my package to the wrong house and my neighbors were kind enough to leave a note telling me to come pick it up. So there I was, taking a package from someone else’s porch and loading it into my car in the middle of the day as a young Black man in a white neighborhood. While I realize how that could’ve looked, just like that, I was almost a target. That could’ve been the end of my story.

But what about George Floyd? What criminal activity was he involved in to warrant his arrest? The police were called on Floyd for suspected forgery, paying with what a deli cashier thought was a fake $20. Officers claimed Floyd was resisting arrest so, while two of them cuffed him and held him down on the ground, a third placed his knee on the back of his neck and sat there for nine minutes with his hands in his pockets. During this nine-minute period, Floyd can be seen and heard on video saying things like, “I can’t breathe,” and, “Don’t kill me,” while crying out for his mother, until he ultimately becomes unresponsive.

As if this weren’t a big enough slap in the face, the autopsy attributed his death not to traumatic asphyxia or strangulation, but to “underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system.” And you can’t forget the recently released footage that not only shows that Floyd was complying with the officers, but that he was placed in a cop car and beaten while another officer acted as a lookout. All before being shoved on the ground where his life would end. I still cannot understand how, after seeing a video of a grown man kneeling on his neck for nine minutes, a claim is made that that action isn’t what killed Floyd, but whatever drugs he might’ve been on. Killing us and then calling us idiots.

Some Americans live lives blessed enough that they’ll never understand our struggle. They have never had and might never have any fear of the police. They won’t have a reason to. And because of this, they won’t try to understand us. They’ve never had a bad experience with the police so that means that they never happen. Unfortunately, that’s not my reality. How many more times will this happen? Putting aside America’s extensive history of abuse of Black people and other people of color, we’ve literally been seeing videos of Black people dying for no reason for the better part of a decade. I don’t understand how people can watch a man die and refuse to acknowledge the reality of this issue. So I want to tell you what I see when I see America.

When you see America, you might see a country that has always been great. The leaders of the free world. A place where people go to make their dreams come true. When I see America, I see a monument built off of the backs of Black, Asian, and Latinx people. I see a society thriving because of institutionalized racism, where people are fine with inequality if they benefit from it. Where saying “Well, my family didn’t own slaves,” is an excuse for benefiting from and not seeing an issue with a system that puts others down for your convenience. Where a group of armed white people can shout in the face of police officers over their right to go eat sandwiches and get haircuts, but Black people get shot at with rubber bullets for standing on their porch past curfew. Or arrested for eating a sandwich on a metro platform. Or threatened with a bow and arrow, a sword, or a knife by regular people while protesting. Or hit with riot shields and tear-gassed for sitting on the ground, protesting peacefully. Or get their car window smashed and tires slashed while getting tased and yanked from their cars while trying to go home. You get my point.

I don't understand how people can watch a man die and refuse to acknowledge the reality of this issue. So I want to tell you what I see when I see America.

There are only two sides here: racism and justice. In 1954 when the Supreme Court announced the end of segregation in their decision for Brown v. Board of Education, many staunch segregationists were infuriated. The response for some in Richmond was a plan known as Massive Resistance. Massive Resistance was started by U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd, who felt that the only way to keep Black students out of white schools was to threaten to shut down the schools entirely. While this idea was driven by these staunch segregationists, it was fueled by the people James Ryan, author of Five Miles Away: One World Apart, refers to as Metropolitan Whites, more commonly known as middle-class whites. They acted as bystanders in this movement in that they only supported Massive Resistance because they directly benefited from it.

A photo of the Robert E. Lee statue at night with a light projection that reads "No America without Black America," and "BLM."Right now, just like in the ’50s and ’60s, silence is complicity with the way that things are. By refusing to post something on your social media or neglecting to check up on your Black friends, you show that you’re fine if they’re next. Whether you’re a politician, rapper, athlete, actor, scientist, president of a university, or just a regular young adult like me, you have a responsibility to speak up. This is not a political issue. This is about human rights and the blatant disrespect and disregard for Black life. I’m sorry if using your platform on social media to advocate for basic human rights messes up your carefully crafted aesthetic. I can’t fathom how inconvenienced you must feel. By being silent, you’re siding with people who say things like “maybe we need more oppression,” claim that it isn’t your responsibility to advocate for human rights, or are more infuriated about the looting of a single location of a multibillion dollar business than about a man who died with his face being shoved in the asphalt.

At this point, if you aren’t with us, then you are against us. You can’t deny the blatant disrespect constantly shown toward us. In this new age, #BlackLivesMatter and other movements have been using their platform in an attempt to show the world what we go through. In bombarding your Facebook or Twitter or Instagram feeds, we, as your friends who just so happen to be Black, hope to give you who aren’t, a small taste of what it’s like. As difficult as it might be to hide from this online, imagine how it feels for us. We don’t get the opportunity to log off or turn away. We don’t get to choose. Neglecting to say or do anything about the injustices we have to face every day is an embarrassing act of cowardice.

Personally, I am nonviolent. Whether it be in the name of altruism, peace, or Christianity, people have different reasons for condemning violence and riots. But this isn’t just a riot. This is a rebellion. I’d like to give three short counter-arguments for these perspectives. For altruists, is condoning racism truly practicing selflessness? For those promoting peace, can peace really exist without justice? For my fellow Christians, is it Christ-like to turn your back on people in desperate need of help?

What will you be saying a year from now if these rebellions work and the police officers are arrested and held accountable for their crimes, both setting an example and starting America on a road to legitimate improvement? Worth it? But if these rebellions don’t achieve their purpose, what will you say then? Will it be, “Gosh they shouldn’t have looted. All of that violence for nothing,” or, “I will not let the cries of countless Americans continue to go unheard. I will take steps to hold our officers and elected officials accountable and actively work to make America a better place so no one else has to experience this pain”? Are you OK with living in a country where news reporters get arrested before men who are caught on camera murdering another person?

Did you notice a trend in all the names mentioned before? Yup. All African American men. Does this mean that this only affects Black men? Not even close. Breonna Taylor is just one of many. She was murdered when three policemen broke into her home, shooting her eight times. Or Atatiana Jefferson, killed by police in her own home after a nonemergency call alerted officers that her front door was left open. So where are we safe? Not the grocery store, not exercising, and not in our homes. The media primarily focuses on Black men. Why? Because women face the double discrimination of both being female and being Black. Twice the burden. And that isn’t anything compared to the struggles of the LGBTQ community. Sandra Bland’s story at least received some attention. In 2020 alone, at least four Black trans men and women have been murdered. This includes Tony McDade, an African American transgender man who was killed by police on May 27. Will you allow him to be forgotten as well? This is an epidemic that kills members of our community, as well as our hopes and dreams for a better future. We all need to be better at drawing attention to these cases.

Do something about it. If you say you’re an ally, then prove it. As much as liking or sharing this post does help, there is so much more you can do and should do. Talk to your friends who don’t understand what’s going on. Make donations. Find new ways to support. Say their names. Talk to your representatives. Vote. Protest. Something. We can’t change this country for the better if we don’t help one another. Keep your heads up, continue to raise hell, and keep pushing! I will be by your side; I hope you are by mine.

Noah Walker is a doctoral student studying integrative physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest University. At UR, he majored in leadership studies and biochemistry and molecular biology and was a student researcher in the computational chemistry lab and a four-year equipment manager with Spider football.