Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
This swarm of super-predators never materialized in the late 1990s. Violent crime had already begun its dramatic decline by the time I stared at Smurf demanding that Walkman in 1996. Homicides had dropped to their lowest levels since the Reagan era, when intense crack-market competition and unregulated gun trafficking spiked the rate.
But crime bills have never correlated to crime any more than fear has correlated to actual violence. We are not meant to fear suits with policies that kill. We are not meant to fear good White males with AR-15s. No, we are to fear the weary, unarmed Latinx body from Latin America. The Arab body kneeling to Allah is to be feared. The Black body from hell is to be feared. Adept politicians and crime entrepreneurs manufacture the fear and stand before voters to deliver them—messiahs who will liberate them from fear of these other bodies.
IGGA, YOU DIDN’T
hear me!” Smurf fumed. “I said run that fucking Walkman!”
In my mind I tried to devise a strategy for the poor kid, imagining myself in his place. I had a bit of a gift for staying calm and defusing potentially volatile situations, which served me well whether I was dealing with the violently finicky Smurfs of the world or capriciously violent police officers. I learned to disarm or avoid the Smurfs around town—kids bent on mayhem. But I also saw that strangers were doing the same calculations when they saw me coming—I’d see the fear in their eyes. They’d see me and decide they were looking at Smurf. We scared them just the same—all they saw were our dangerous Black bodies. Cops seemed especially fearful. Just as I learned to avoid the Smurfs of the world, I had to learn to keep racist police officers from getting nervous. Black people are apparently responsible for calming the fears of violent cops in the way women are supposedly responsible for calming the sexual desires of male rapists. If we don’t, then we are blamed for our own assaults, our own deaths.
But at that point, the kid across from me was out of options—there was probably no way to defuse the situation. “Run that fucking Walkman!” Smurf yelled, now turning heads at the front of the bus and most likely prompting the bus driver to call the ruckus in. The shocked teen started to stand up, saying nothing, just shaking his head. He probably intended to relocate to the front, near the relative safety of the bus driver. But as soon as he straightened his body, Smurf landed a side haymaker to the kid’s temple—his head bounced into the window and then onto the bus’s floor. Smurf snatched the tumbling Walkman, and then his boys got up to join in. The kid covered his face when the stomps from Timberland boots came pummeling down. It all happened right in front of me. I did nothing. I did nothing.
The bus stopped. The back door opened. Smurf and his boys leapt off and ran away, lighthearted, grinning. But I noticed that four-eyes from Smurf’s crew remained on the bus, lurking and looking, seemingly waiting for somebody to help this kid laid out in agony. I did nothing.
HE RESPONSIBILITY OF
keeping myself safe followed me like the stray dogs in my neighborhood, barking fear into my consciousness. I never wanted to arrive home to my parents with empty pockets and no shoes, with a leaking, beaten body like the Indian kid. Or worse, no arrival at all, only a letter from the police reporting my murder, or a phone call from the hospital. I convinced my parents (or so I thought) I was safe. But I did not convince myself. The acts of violence I saw from Smurf and others combined with the racist ideas all around me to convince me that more violence lurked than there actually was. I believed that violence didn’t define just Smurf but all the Black people around me, my school, my neighborhood. I believed it defined me—that I should fear all darkness, up to and including my own Black body.
Those of us Black writers who grew up in “inner city” Black neighborhoods too often recall the violence we experienced more than the nonviolence. We don’t write about all those days we were not faced with guns in our ribs. We don’t retell all those days we did not fight, the days we didn’t watch someone get beaten in front of us. We become exactly like the nightly local-news shows—if it bleeds, it leads—and our stories center on violent Black bodies instead of the overwhelming majority of nonviolent Black bodies.
In 1993, near the height of urban violent crime, for every thousand urban residents, seventy-four, or 7.4 percent, reported being victims of violent crime, a percentage that declined further thereafter.
In 2016, for every thousand urban residents, about thirty, or 3 percent, reported being victims of violent crimes. These numbers are not precise. Researchers estimate that
more than half of violent crimes from 2006 to 2010 went unreported to law enforcement. And even being around violent crime can create adverse effects. But the idea that directly experienced violence is endemic and everywhere, affecting everyone, or even most people—that Black neighborhoods, as a whole, are
more dangerous than “war zones,” to use President Trump’s term—is not reality.
It all makes sense that this is the story we so often tell—the fist-swinging and gunshots and early deaths cling to us like a second skin, while the hugs and dances and good times fall away. But the writer’s work reflects, and the reader consumes, those vivid, searing memories, not the everyday lived reality of the Black body.
As many moments as I had of anxiety and fear from other Black bodies, I probably lived many more moments in serenity and peace. As much as I feared that violence stalked me, my daily life was not organized around that fear. I played baseball for years with White kids on Long Island and always wondered why they never wanted to visit my neighborhood, my home. When I would ask, the looks of horror on their faces, and even more on their parents’ faces, startled and confused me. I knew there were dangers on my block; I also thought it was safe.
I did not connect the whole or even most of Southside Queens with violence, just as I did not connect all or even most of my Black neighbors with violence. Certain people like Smurf, certain blocks, and certain neighborhoods I knew to avoid. But not because they were Black—we were almost all Black. I knew in a vague way that Black neighborhoods with high-rise public housing like 40P (the South Jamaica Houses) or Baisley Park Houses were known to be more violent than neighborhoods like mine, Queens Village, with more single-family homes, but I never really thought about why. But I knew it wasn’t Blackness—Blackness was a constant.
A study that used
National Longitudinal Survey of Youth data from 1976 to 1989 found that young Black males engaged in more violent crime than young White males. But when the researchers compared only employed young males of both races, the differences in violent behavior vanished. Or, as the Urban Institute stated in a more recent report on long-term unemployment, “Communities with a higher share of long-term unemployed workers also tend to have higher rates of crime and violence.”
Another study found that
the 2.5 percent decrease in unemployment between 1992 and 1997 resulted in a decrease of 4.3 percent for robbery, 2.5 percent for auto theft, 5 percent for burglary, and 3.7 percent for larceny.
Sociologist Karen F. Parker strongly linked the growth of Black-owned businesses to a reduction in Black youth violence between 1990 and 2000. In recent years, the University of Chicago Crime Lab worked with the One Summer Chicago Plus jobs program and found a
43 percent reduction in violent-crime arrests for Black youths who worked eight-week-long part-time summer jobs, compared with a control group of teens who did not.
In other words, researchers have found a much stronger and clearer correlation between violent-crime levels and unemployment levels than between violent crime and race.
Black neighborhoods do not all have similar levels of violent crime. If the cause of the violent crime is the Black body, if Black people are violent demons, then the violent-crime levels would be relatively the same no matter where Black people live. But Black upper-income and middle-income neighborhoods tend to have less violent crime than Black low-income neighborhoods—as is the case in non-Black communities. But that does not mean low-income Black people are more violent than high-income Black people. That means low-income neighborhoods struggle with unemployment and poverty—and their typical byproduct, violent crime.
For decades, there have been three main strategies in reducing violent crime in Black neighborhoods. Segregationists who consider Black neighborhoods to be war zones have called for tough policing and the mass incarceration of super-predators. Assimilationists say these super-predators need tough laws and tough love from mentors and fathers to civilize them back to nonviolence. Antiracists say Black people, like all people, need more higher-paying jobs within their reach, especially Black youngsters, who have consistently had
the highest rates of unemployment of any demographic group, topping 50 percent in the mid-1990s.
There is no such thing as a dangerous racial group. But there are, of course, dangerous individuals like Smurf. There is the violence of racism—manifest in policy and policing—that fears the Black body. And there is the nonviolence of antiracism that does not fear the Black body, that fears, if anything, the violence of the racism that has been set on the Black body.
Perceptions of danger and actual threats met me each day at John Bowne, in various forms. There was the dangerous disinterest of some teachers. Or the school’s dangerous overcrowding: three thousand students packed into a school built for far fewer. The classes were so large—twice as large as in my private schools—that detached students like me were able to hold our own back-of-the-room classes before detached teachers. I do not remember a single teacher or class or lesson or assignment from ninth grade. I was checked out—following the lead of most of the teachers, administrators, and politicians who were ostensibly in charge of my education. I attended John Bowne like someone who clocked in to his job with no intention of working. I only worked hard on my first love.
One who is creating a cultural standard and imposing a cultural hierarchy among racial groups.
One who is rejecting cultural standards and equalizing cultural differences among racial groups.
Y DAD DRAGGED
me to see the 1994 documentary
a film about the perils of two young boys pursuing the exceedingly unlikely possibility of a lucrative NBA career. His intervention failed, like the dreams of the kids in the film. For me, basketball was life.
It was a cool early-winter day in 1996 and I sat warm in the locker room after practice, getting dressed and exchanging jokes with my new teammates on John Bowne’s junior-varsity basketball team. Suddenly, our White coach burst into the locker room like something was wrong. We muted the jokes as he looked hopelessly at our dark faces. He leaned against a locker as if a lecture was building up inside him.
“You all need to post two Cs and three Ds to remain on the team. Okay? Okay?” Everyone nodded or stared back, perhaps expecting more. But that was all he had to say. Our jokes resumed again.
I had neither loved nor hated middle school. But a few months in high school had changed me. I cannot pinpoint what triggered my hatred of school. My difficulty separating the harassing cop from the harassing teacher? A heightened sensitivity to the glares from teachers who saw my Black body not as a plant to be cultivated but as a weed to be plucked out of their school and thrown into their prison? Freshman year I posted what grades I needed to stay on the basketball team: two Cs and three Ds. Only basketball and parental shame stopped me from dropping out and staying home all day like some other teens.
When I climbed onto the crowded public buses after school, I felt like a runaway. Most days, Smurf was nowhere to be found. Stopping and going, the bus headed south, until the last stop—my cultural home away from home.
We called the central artery of Southside Queens the Ave, the place where Jamaica Avenue crosses 164th Street. On weekends, I’d walk out of my house, strut a block up 209th Street to Jamaica Avenue, and hail a dollar cab down those three dozen blocks to the Ave. One dollar, one ride, one random driver. Little did I know, similar privately run cheap cars or vans, stuffed with sweating and content and tired and recharged and traumatized Black bodies, were hurrying through neighborhoods all over the Black world. I have since traveled on these fast-moving cultural products in other parts of the world, from Ghana to Jamaica (the island nation, not the Ave). The ride always takes me back to Queens.
Nothing compared to arriving at the Ave. A couple dozen city blocks lined with stores, this enormous shopping district was crowded with wide-eyed teens. We never knew what we were going to see—what kicks (sneakers) were going to be on sale; what beef (conflict) was going to be cooking; what guads (boys) and shorties (girls) were going to be rocking (wearing). Excuse my Ebonics—
a term coined by psychologist Robert Williams in 1973 to replace racist terms like “Nonstandard Negro English.” I must use the language of the culture to express the culture.
Some Americans despised my Ebonics in 1996. In that year the Oakland school board recognized Black people like me as bilingual, and in an act of cultural antiracism recognized “
the legitimacy and richness” of Ebonics as a language. They resolved to use Ebonics with students “to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills.” The reaction was fierce.
Jesse Jackson at first called it “an unacceptable surrender, bordering on disgrace. It’s teaching down to our children.”
Was it? It helps to dig back into the origins of Ebonics. Enslaved Africans formulated new languages in nearly every European colony in the Americas, including African American Ebonics, Jamaican Patois, Haitian Creole, Brazilian Calunga, and Cubano. In every one of these countries, racist power—those in control of government, academia, education, and media—has demeaned these African languages as dialects, as “broken” or “improper” or “nonstandard” French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, or English. Assimilationists have always urged Africans in the Americas to forget the “broken” languages of our ancestors and master the apparently “fixed” languages of Europeans—to speak “properly.” But what was the difference between Ebonics and so-called “standard” English? Ebonics had grown from the roots of African languages and modern English just as
modern English had grown from Latin, Greek, and Germanic roots. Why is Ebonics broken English but English is not broken German? Why is Ebonics a dialect of English if English is not a dialect of Latin? The idea that Black languages outside Africa are broken is as culturally racist as the idea that languages inside Europe are fixed.
HEN THE REACTION
to the Nazi Holocaust marginalized biological racism, cultural racism stepped into its place. “
In practically all its divergences,” African American culture “is a distorted development, or a pathological condition, of the general American culture,” Gunnar Myrdal wrote in
An American Dilemma,
his 1944 landmark treatise on race relations, which has been called the “bible” of the civil-rights movement. Myrdal’s scripture standardized the general (White) American culture, then judged African American culture as distorted or pathological from that standard. Whoever makes the cultural standard makes the cultural hierarchy. The act of making a cultural standard and hierarchy is what creates cultural racism.
To be antiracist is to reject cultural standards and level cultural difference. Segregationists say racial groups cannot reach their superior cultural standard. Assimilationists say racial groups can, with effort and intention, reach their superior cultural standards. “It is to the advantage of American Negroes as individuals and as a group to become assimilated into American culture” and “to acquire the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans,” Myrdal suggested. Or,
as President Theodore Roosevelt said in 1905, the goal should be to assimilate “the backward race…so it may enter into the possession of true freedom, while the forward race is enabled to preserve unharmed the high civilization wrought out by its forefathers.”
Even Alexander Crummell, the stately Episcopalian priest who founded the first formal Black intellectual society in 1897, urged his fellow Black Americans to assimilate. He agreed
with those racist Americans who classed Africans as fundamentally imitative. “
This quality of imitation has been the grand preservative of the Negro in all the lands of his thraldom,” Crummell preached in 1877.
E CERTAINLY WEREN’T
imitating anything on the Ave—to the contrary. The wider culture was avidly imitating and appropriating from us; our music and fashion and language were transforming the so-called mainstream. We did not care if older or richer or Whiter Americans despised our nonstandard dress like our nonstandard Ebonics. We were fresh like they just took the plastic off us, as Jadakiss rapped. Fresh baggy jeans sagging down. Fresh button-down shirts or designer sweatshirts in the winter under our bubble coats. Fresh T’s or sports jerseys in the summer above our baggy jean shorts. Dangling chains shining like our smiles. Piercings and tattoos and bold colors told the mainstream world just how little we wanted to imitate them.
Freshness was about not just getting the hottest gear but devising fresh ways to wear it, in the best tradition of fashion: experimentation, elaboration, and impeccable precision. Timberland boots and Nike Air Force 1s were our cars of choice in New York City. It seems as if everyone—girl or boy—had wheat-colored Tims in their closets if they could afford or snatch them. Our black Air Force 1s had to be blacker than the prison populations. Our white Air Force 1s had to be whiter than the NYPD. Had to be as smooth as baby skin. No blemishes. No creases. We kept them black or white through regular touch-ups from paint sticks. We stuffed our shoes at night with paper or socks to ward off creasing in the front. Time to put on the shoes in the morning. Many of us knew the trick to keep the creases away all day. Put on a second sock halfway and fold the other half twice on top of my toes to fill the front of the sneaker. It hurt like those tight Guess jeans around the waists of shorties. But who cared about pain when fresh brought so much joy.
Jason Riley, a
Wall Street Journal
columnist, did not see us or our disciples in the twenty-first century as fresh cultural innovators. “Black culture today not only condones delinquency and thuggery but celebrates it to the point where black youths have adopted jail fashion in the form of baggy, low-slung pants and oversize T-shirts.” But there was a solution. “
If blacks can close the civilization gap, the race problem in this country is likely to become insignificant,” Dinesh D’Souza once reasoned. “Civilization” is often a polite euphemism for cultural racism.
they called civilization, represented most immediately by school. I loved what they considered dysfunctional—African American culture, which defined my life outside school. My first taste of culture was the Black church. Hearing strangers identify as sister and brother. Listening to sermonic conversations, all those calls from preachers, responses from congregants. Bodies swaying in choirs like branches on a tree, following the winds and twists of a soloist. The Holy Ghost mounting women for wild shouts and basketball sprints up and down aisles. Flying hats covering the new wigs of old ladies who were keeping it fresh for Jee-susss-sa. Funerals livelier than weddings. Watching Ma dust off her African garb and Dad his dashikis for Kwanzaa celebrations livelier than funerals.
I loved being in the midst of a culture created by my ancestors, who found ways to re-create the ideas and practices of their ancestors with what was available to them in the Americas, through what psychologist Linda James Myers calls the “
outward physical manifestations of culture.” These outward physical manifestations our ancestors encountered included Christianity, the English language, and popular European food, instruments, fashion, and customs. Culturally racist scholars have assumed that since African Americans exhibit outward physical manifestations of European culture, “
North American negroes…in culture and language” are “essentially European,” to quote anthropologist Franz Boas in 1911. “
It is very difficult to find in the South today anything that can be traced directly back to Africa,” attested sociologist Robert Park in 1919. “
Stripped of his cultural heritage,” the Negro’s reemergence “as a human being was facilitated by his assimilation” of “white civilization,” wrote sociologist E. Franklin Frazier in 1939. As such, “
the Negro is only an American, and nothing else,” argued sociologist Nathan Glazer in 1963. “He has no values and culture to guard and protect.” In the final analysis, “
we are not Africans,” Bill Cosby told the NAACP in 2004.
It is difficult to find the survival and revival of African cultural forms using our surface-sighted cultural eyes. Those surface-sighted eyes assess a cultural body by its skin. They do not look behind, inside, below. Those surface-sighted eyes have historically looked for traditional African religions, languages, foods, fashion, and customs to appear in the Americas just as they appear in Africa. When they did not find them, they assumed
African cultures had been overwhelmed by the “stronger” European cultures. Surface-sighted people have no sense of what psychologist Wade Nobles calls “
the deep structure of culture,” the philosophies and values that change outward physical forms. It is this “deep structure” that transforms European Christianity into a new African Christianity, with mounting spirits, calls and responses, and Holy Ghost worship; it changes English into Ebonics, European ingredients into soul food. The cultural African survived in the Americans, created a strong and complex culture with
Western “outward” forms “while retaining inner [African] values,” anthropologist Melville Herskovits avowed in 1941. The same cultural African breathed life into the African American culture that raised me.
just loved being surrounded by all those Black people—or was it all that culture?—moving fast and slow, or just standing still. The Ave had an organic choir, that interplay of blasting tunes from the store to the car trunk, to the teen walking by, practicing her rhymes, to the cipher of rappers on the corners. Gil would freestyle; I would listen and bob my head. The sound of hip-hop was all around us.
“Son, they shook / Cause ain’t no such things as halfway crooks / Scared to death, scared to look, they shook.” “Shook Ones” was the Queens anthem in the mid-nineties from the self-proclaimed “official Queensbridge murderers”—Mobb Deep. They promised to get their listeners “stuck off the realness,” and indeed I was. I despised the teen actors hiding their fear under a tough veneer. They seemed so real to racist cops and outsiders, who could not make distinctions among Black bodies, anyway. But we could tell. “He ain’t a crook son / he’s just a shook one.”