Many people watching the recent protests surrounding the Michael Brown case are quick to dismiss them as ridiculous. They are doing so by finding fault in Michael Brown himself. They are showing how the evidence supports the man who killed him–I am not erroneous here since there is zero doubt that he killed him. However, this desire to use the case to dismiss the protests is faulty reasoning at its best. People are not upset simply because the justice system failed to try a man they thought was guilty. They are upset because America has failed them in the past, is currently failing them, and will continue to fail them.
The American dream is preached from the pulpits to everyone, even those living outside of the United States. The rich and powerful messiahs tell us that, as long as we work hard and do the right things, we too can get a piece of the pie in capitalist heaven. The disciples, the teachers in our schools, preach about the manifest destiny, how the Pilgrims overcame hardship, the Gold Rush, and countless other celebrated Americans who are worshiped for their fortitude. The commercials tell us what we deserve from our hard work. This doctrine is consumed by the masses and regurgitated. We spread rags-to-riches stories on social media like wild fire. We say, look, there’s hope; we can do it too.
But what happens when you do everything right for nothing. What if you do everything you’re supposed to, and you still don’t get into ” American heaven”. What happens if you never get to taste the pie—-no, what if you never even get to smell the pie.
The narrative is pervasive, but is it true?
My dad is a retired Marine. He dedicated 21 years of service to our country. He fought in the first Gulf War. He is partially disabled due to the beating his body took. As a family, we moved every few years, and after being stationed to San Diego, my parents made the decision to stay there after he retired. They made the decision to move to Santee, in East County San Diego. At the time, the city had only 1% African-Americans and people warned our family to avoid it; they suggested other neighborhoods. However, being a middle-class family, my parents were more concerned with us being in a low-crime area, with decent schools, just like any middle-class family wants. My parents had worked hard and they were going to be able to finally buy a home and settle–the epitome of the American dream–and they wanted this home to be in an ideal place.
They thought it wouldn’t be that bad. They had taught their children how to “act right”, “talk right”, “dress right”. We were raised with a healthy sense of multiculturalism. On the one hand, we had all sat down as a family and watched the entire “Roots” series when I was in 3rd grade. We discussed every element of the film series and how slavery impacted African-Americans even in the 20th century. My mom taught us to embrace our natural hair and I wasn’t allowed to alter my hair until the end of 8th grade (do you know what it was like to walk around with ponytails in middle school!). On the other hand, my sisters had a New Kids on the Block themed birthday party, my brother begged my mom to learn how to make latkes for two years straight, we sang along to plenty of country music songs, I’m pretty sure I thought the certain Spanish words were English (chancla, chonies, mocos, etc), we were afraid of the Chupacabra, we made dishes such as yaki soba, fried rice, and lumpia regularly, and at any point in our development our friendship groups looked like a meeting of the United Nations. When it came to navigating a community that was mostly White such as Santee, we were not worried about not fitting in. We had just moved from Japan after all, where being American makes you the minority. However, all of this savvy multiculturalism did very little in terms of navigating this new city. None of it mattered. We were still Black.
Our first year living in Santee was pure hell. We were renting a home at the time and it was vandalized on a pretty regular basis. Our house was egged and toilet papered. People would write things on the garage. They didn’t write “Welcome to the Neighborhood!” (which admittedly would have still been kind of rude). No, they wrote things like “GO HOME NIGGERS!“. Of course, the irony of this being that they wrote this on our home. As my sisters and I walked to school, people would often yell things out of their windows as they drove by. They would yell things such as “SINCE WHEN DID NIGGERS MOVE TO SANTEE!”. We were not fighters. Sorry, let me phrase that correctly–we were not thugs. We kept walking to school as if it didn’t happen. What else could we have done? Throwing a rock would have meant criminal charges for one of us; people can legally yell whatever they want. However, it wasn’t as if school was a safe place. Let me go back a bit and tell you about my first experiences at Santana High School.
As I said, we had just moved from Okinawa, Japan. I had decided, with my parents blessing, that I didn’t need to start the 6th grade before we moved to Japan. My parents knew me and were fine with that decision (yes, my parents win the authoritative parenting award every single time). Upon arriving to Japan, in October, nobody complained and my scholastic abilities were intact. I tell you this because when we arrived in Santee, I was enrolling in 9th grade at Santana High School and we (myself and my sisters who are a year older-twins) would be starting two days later than the rest of the students there. Not two months, two days. The school administration was upset, angry, appalled that parents would let their children suffer this way. My parents explained that we had been in another country a few weeks ago, but that fell upon deaf ears. Then the guidance counselor decided to put me in Algebra. I told him that I had taken Algebra in the 8th grade. Instead of congratulating me, seeing as it’s a 9th grade course, he didn’t believe me. His response: “We have a great math program here. Whatever school you just came from, it is going to be much more challenging here”. Of course, he said this without knowing that the school I had just come from was in Japan. He had no idea that they taught math completely differently in the Department of Defense schools there and it was not easy. He assumed that I had come from an under-funded, over-crowded school in the inner city. He told me that the only way I could avoid taking Algebra again would be to take an exam right then. I gave up. As a young student, who has excelled in math for my entire academic career, gave up in the face of this. Even in my 14 years, I knew that I wouldn’t have done well on that exam, having had a summer off and moved across the world, and I refused to allow him to see me fail. Of course, I went on to do so well in this class that the teacher didn’t even make me take the final exam–and this was high school.
I went that entire first year of high school without saying a word in any of my classes. I had always been pretty quiet, but the environment at school drew me in even further. Students would spit toward us as we walked around campus. If the teacher announced that I had gotten the highest grade, my “peers” would profess aloud “how did she get the highest grade?” without any retribution. On the first day of my typing class, the instructor began class by berating me in front of everyone. She was upset that I had already missed SO much of the material–it was the third day of instruction. She came to hover over me:
Her: “Put your fingers on home row”
I did it, much to her surprise of course.
Her: “Now type this A-S-D-F. Now, J-K-L-semi colon”
I did it.
Her: “How do you know this?”
Me: “I’ve already taken a typing class”
She walked away.
Not only had I already taken a typing class, but we used computers in the schools I had gone to. This was a type writer. Again, had she asked instead of assumed…
In 2000, my parents bought a home in Santee, where my family still lives. This home is worth nearly half a million dollars; I add this to remind the reader that we are not uneducated, poor, Blacks. Some of our new neighbors welcomed us to the block with friendly waves and introductions. Others welcomed us with spray painted racist sentiments. Sadly, it had become so common-place to us that we hardly batted an eye. We were not ignoring it all together; we just learned to choose our battles. I was one of the founders of a group at my school that aimed to bring awareness to the state of the city. I was going around speaking at city hall meetings, planning marches, and having table talks with skinheads and members of White Power groups. We spoke as a family about what was happening. Sometimes we laughed at how ridiculous it was (like the time an older White woman told her friend that “the little Negro boy got the last one” in reference to my 10-year-old brother). Sometimes we cried in frustration. All the while we were learning an invaluable lesson. We were learning that racism in American is a real thing and not just something you learn about.
Now you’re probably thinking, yeah, but nothing happened with the police. You were not gunned down in this racist city. Clearly, you all were not those kinds of Black and thus, gunned down in the streets after committing a crime. This is also faulty reasoning.
We had just finished Thanksgiving dinner and my brother, his friend, and my friend decided to walk to the park and throw a basketball around. Everyone was a Black male except for me. The park closed at dusk, like most parks, so we were on our way out of the park when a female police officer walked past us on her way to clear the park. We smiled, said good evening, she replied “have a good night”, and we started on our way home. In the midst of our conversation, we hear “DIDN’T YOU HEAR ME SAY FREEZE!!”. We all turned to look and a male officer had his hand on his weapon, ready to pull. We stopped walking and my friend replies “No!”, which should have been clear since we did not freeze. The officer begins to tell us how, had we taken one more step, he would have pulled his weapon on us. We looked at one another for an answer as to what was going on; the officer helped us. His partner had told him about people pissing in the park and he, in all of his infinite wisdom, had corralled them–he told us this with his hand still on his weapon; just in case these wild pissers ran away and needed to be fired upon. My friend got angry and started to yell at the officer and the officer yells back–hand on weapon. Now, being that I am the only girl in this group, I thought it was best that I do the talking. I told my friend to “SHUT UP!” with my hand carefully placed on his arm to let him know that I was on his side. I tell the officer that we were not pissing in the park (I have no idea how I would have been having a piss-fest with these guys, but okay). He didn’t believe me.
Him: “What are you even doing in Santee?”
Me: “We live here”
Him: “Right. Where?”
Me: “I can see my front door from here”
Him: “What’s your address?”
Him: “Do any of you have records?”
Him: “I bet if I run your names, I’m going to find something!”
Me: Go ahead
Him: “I can pull school records also”
This went on for some time before we were allowed to go. Why did he let us walk away? The female officer came walking up and told him that we were not the ones pissing in the park. In fact, it had been a group of 4 White guys. My brother’s friend was shaking uncontrollably through this entire ordeal and he was sobbing when we walked away. He lived in the inner-city; the fear of this officer harming him was very real. And the reality is, we could have been injured by that officer. We could have been cuffed and sat on the curb. He could have decided to make an example out of us. We could have been taken in. I believe the only reason these things did not happen was because I did all of the talking and this is the rare instance where being born without a penis can be beneficial in our society. It’s not as easy to tell people that an 18-year-old girl physically overpowered them.
I remind you again: It’s not about Michael Brown. People are not upset because a random officer killed a random 18-year-old. No, this rage is much bigger than that.
I am 30 years old and I have had my PhD for over a year now. I graduated from High School with a 3.7 GPA. I received over 5K in scholarships and got the highest possible award my school gives out. I went on to earn my BA Magna Cum Laude from CSU Dominguez Hills four years later and then I went directly to a doctoral program at 22 years old. Upon completion of my PhD, I was offered a position as a professor–something few doctorate students can accomplish immediately upon graduation. Essentially, I am an American woman who has accomplished the epitome of success in our country. There is a Dr in front of my name on my mail. I don’t have a job; I have a career. Students come in to my office and say “I’m trying to be like you”; I guess this means I am a role model now. I have done what I was supposed to do. However, all of this goes unrecognized by the majority of people. I am still Black after all.
I have a chronic health condition, an autoimmune disorder, and when attempting to navigate the health care system as a young, Black women, my PhD is worthless. My ability to think analytically, something one needs to earn a PhD, is not even considered as a potential asset to my health care. They try to explain how the health care system works. They try to explain my medications to me–medicine I have been taking for 7 years now. I feel helpless and worthless every single time I see a doctor.
When I walk into stores, they still follow me. When I get pulled over by police, I am still asked whose car I am driving (it’s a Jeep). When I go out to eat, I still receive subpar service.
Furthermore, even with all of this education and a career, I am not embarrassed to say that I am no better off than my parents, who did not graduate from college. I am not able to travel when I want, not even when my mom was hospitalized with liver failure. I am not spending the holidays–none of them–with family; I can’t afford it. If the American Dream is real, I did everything I could possibly do to achieve it and I have not reached it. If the American Dream means that we work hard so that we are able to be better off than our parents, I have not reached it and at 30 years old with a PhD, I wonder if I ever will. Is it something I personally did? No, it is something America did.
America has fed everyone this idea of the Dream and when we are not able to reach it, despite our earnest attempts, we are told it is our fault. We are told we are doing something wrong. If only you did this…if only you did that… It’s depressing. It’s distressing. It’s downright angering. You’re treading water, but you hold out hope that the system just might help you if you start to drown. Maybe I’ll have a chance. Then something like what is happening in Ferguson happens and it’s a swift slap to the face. It says: “Wake up dummy! The American Dream was never meant for you!”.
People are angry, people are taking to the streets, people are demanding equality. They aren’t necessarily angry about this particular Michael Brown, they are angry about every Michael Brown out there. They are angry about the Muslim family who is doing everything right and is not allowed to buy a home in a certain neighborhood. They are angry about the Chicano who is mowing his own lawn and, thinking he is hired help, is approached by a neighbor to do their lawn also. They are angry about the Indian woman who, although educated at NYU, has to work at the worst hospital in the county because of her “weird” accent. They are angry about the people with Southern accents who are regarded as incompetent. They are angry about the biases, whether explicit or implicate, that prevents them from living–not lavishly–comfortably. They are angry because you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t even have boots on.
It doesn’t matter if you think Michael Brown was a thug, a thief, an aggressor; that’s hardly the issue: it’s not about Michael Brown. The issue is so much bigger than that. This is what happens when people are fed up with empty promises. It’s what happens when people are fed up with being disrespected despite their societal contributions. This is what happens when people are no longer willing to accept it.