So at the beginning of this week I came across the blog that listed my hometown of Orange, NJ as the worst of the worst cities in NJ. Naturally I was infuriated because not only was I tired of hearing the same tired stereotypes that stigmatize my community making it seem like a black hole of criminality, poverty, and forgotten dreams but these stereotypes are these stereotypes are attached to me by outsiders. Take for instance when I meet someone and say that I’m from Orange they either have one of two reactions:
Person: You’re from Orange?
Person: Isn’t it dangerous there? *insert story of crime they heard from news or distant person*
Person: Where’d you say you were from?
Me: Orange, NJ
Person: Oh wow I’d never guess… you’re so articulate
In both examples the hypothetical person I am talking to has preconceived notions about my town and the people that live there. These notions of my town like many with large black (or Latino) populations are racialized which stems from processes of redlining that have been going on for ages. As anyone who studied history or urban studies knows redlining basically sectioned off areas based on race. This is deeply connected to the rhetoric of separate but equal used to justify legal segregation. Black areas received less services and were allowed to deteriorate into slum like conditions while white areas were protected and cared for. Furthermore, black areas face(d) aggressive policing from racist police officers creating a lack of trust in law enforcement and thus starting that cycle of people vs the police that still exists. Even though de jure segregation has ended [sic] de facto segregation is still in place. The Northeast is very segregated. There are towns that are nearly completely white and towns that are compromised of mainly minorities. Black areas still suffer from institutional issues as they did back in the day and that is why the shootings of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the brutalization of Freddie Gray in Baltimore were able to happen.
White America still lives in its protected enclave where in a general sense they are safe. Crime is relegated to the areas with black people by local news stations which wield a lot of power over how people in their protective enclaves conceptualize criminality and race. I noticed this as well as a teenage after my gradual awakening. I used to ask my parents “why do they only show bad things on the news” but then the questions got deeper, “why do they only show people who look like me doing bad things on the news?” If we think about it, it is “a shock” when someone is shot in a suburban area but if the perpetrator happens to be black or Latino, the racist comments start flying (my blog received some outlandish comments from this post). If the criminal is white we either get the narrative that “he was a troubled individual and had a hard life. I hope he gets a therapist” or “he was such a good kid, I am distraught by what happened” (I intentionally made the criminal and man in my analogy because when a white woman commits a crime in a white area there are a whole different set of rules that I don’t understand but if you are interested ask a black feminist). Yet we never see the number of criminal activities that occur in the white suburbs (or rural areas for that matter) of America (after black people started calling out white people in general for using “thug” in place of “nigger” some white online commentors have taken the liberty to use it when a white person does a crime but only to try and show that they aren’t racist ). People link drugs with urban environments but drugs are sold in white areas too who would have thought! Moreover, where do all the bankers (the majority of whom are white men) who robbed people of their pensions live? Not your lowly urban ghetto! They either go for the protective enclave of the white suburbs or in the cordoned off prime real estate areas in cities like New York. You know with views of the river or Central Park or even some historic neighborhoods that once housed mainly African Americans but where rents have skyrocketed because people love the cultural and historic meaning of such a place (wonder where that is?). These bankers are also criminals but are never referred to as such on a constant loop in local media, our government actually forwent prosecuting many after the bubble burst in 2008.
I say all of this to say we as black people cannot wait on society to care about our communities and cities. Though many deny systemic racism and white privilege, they are real. As a black millennial, I remember growing up and being excited to go to college and hopefully eventually move away from my hometown of Orange because I had internalized all the stereotypes that existed about where I lived and I didn’t want them to be a part of my identity. In others words, I was looking forward to “getting out of the hood.” If you’re black and have any inkling of success away from the stereotypical blackness that America has given us, you are conditioned to want to leave and pursue the American Dream [sic]. After all I didn’t want to be seen as a ghetto criminal who had no future that hated school. I didn’t want to worry about the impending doom of black criminals that were out there to terrorize me according to the news I watched at night. All those notions are false and have been used to brainwash black success stories for generations (ahem Ben Carson). When I learned more about the history of my town and met many of the successful black people that lived there I realized I didn’t have to leave. How else would change come? There would be no white knight coming to snap his fingers and fix the ills that white supremacy had so masterfully crafted into policies and laws. Conservatives always rant about black on black crime and the breakdown of the black family with absent black fathers (which isn’t true), but they ignore that the criminalization of blackness (Read Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness) and the racialization of spaces.
So I write to my fellow Black Millennials because it is up to us to create change. Remember that guy or girl who you used to pass off as “not amounting to anything” back in high school before you became conscious, he/she is inextricably tied to you. Yes, the same “ghetto, hoodrat, thug” that you hate to see at the movie theater or at the mall because they are so_insert stereotype_ is how white America views you. We do not have a choice of which parts of blackness we can accept and reject; however, accepting blackness does not mean we condone when someone breaks basic moral laws. No amount of success can wash your blackness away. You are black even till after you die. But see whereas society has long tried to tell us this is a curse, it is actually a blessing to be your beautiful melanated self. You have fought tooth and nail to be able to sit where you are whether that be on a college campus in a suburban town where you are one of a handful of black faces, the law office where you are busy working longer hours than your white peers because you have to be “twice as good for half as much”, the new trendy yogurt place that was once a black owned barbershop rewarding yourself after all those years of your parents pinching pennies, or gallivanting abroad in a country a younger version of yourself would never had dreamed of where you are sampling new cuisines and uploading the pictures for your friends back in the hood to see how far you have come. You are a success and you deserve to be congratulated for it but we as black people don’t have the luxury of success for success sake.
DuBois’s concept of the talented tenth can be applied to how we can give back to our communities, (I said give back not dictate like elitists). During segregation you had black doctors, lawyers, and teachers, living next to seamstresses, maids, and janitors. The black community was tight because they had to be. As the policies of segregation and over policing sought to break the black body with the inhumane treatment, black people of all different classes were able to share a unified goal to fight against white supremacy in all its forms. Everyone knew each other and the community could mobilize to fight against the inequalities that they faced. Now when segregation ended the world was our oyster and we fled from the areas that had long been neglected and underfunded for the pristine lawns of the suburbs (until white flight happened there as well). Though we entered these protected white enclaves our bodies were still criminalized and our children still harassed by police for nothing while white children were left alone.
What I am about to suggest will go against all that America has taught you about the American Dream and blackness, I want you to go back to the black community you left and fight for it (you can also adopt a new home where black youth need to see examples of black success such as yourself). Yes you might have to sacrifice a Starbucks or that yogurt place but your success a black person is never just yours. Our black communities suffer from a constant brain drain and this breeds a sense of hopelessness to many who may not have the best life within these communities. If society has beat you down and told you that you aren’t worth the dirt on the ground and no one is there to tell you that you are powerful or that through your veins runs the blood of kings and queens, survivors and inventors, warriors and lovers, you will internalize a lot of the hatred. Black on black crime is often raised to refute claims about police brutality but asking “what about black on black crime?” is the wrong question instead we should be asking “how can I inspire my fellow black sister/brother to realize that they can make a positive difference? How can I teach them that they have other options and that I am in their corner fighting for them if they are willing to lean into the uncertainty? How can I show them that I love their blackness and that they should too because if white supremacy can make you hate yourself it has won?”
We black millennials are able to inspire not only the youth but the older generation. Many of our seniors have become disillusioned and don’t know what to do allowing corrupt politicians to run rampant and retreating quietly to their homes and pray that nothing happens to them if they come home late. We have the energy and the zeal to make a change. Can you imagine what it would look like if we as black millennials took back our communities? I mean like forming powerful voting blocs that would determine our local elections, attending city meetings and holding elected officials, police officers, and developers accountable, volunteering in schools and in the community to show black kids that even though you visited South Africa and can explain chaos theory you still like Jersey Club as much as they do, showing an at-risk kid that they too have a endless supply of opportunities. America is at a tipping point and we have the ability to take ownership of our blackness and fight for our people to see that they too can taste the fruits that white supremacy has denied us. If each of us changed one or two lives we would have so many more ready to take on white supremacy and dismantle the stereotypes it has told society about us. If you want to go to the suburbs and enjoy your success by all means go ahead I won’t stop you but there are somethings bigger than ourselves that only we as black people can address. Individually we may be able to irritate white supremacy with our Facebook and Twitter rants but as a unified community with diverse skills and dreams I believe we can destroy it.
Reader on Being Invested in our Black Communities
“Black Millennials: We Need Your Presence, Not Just Your Success,” Rashawn Davis, The Huffington Post
“Making it Out,” Mia Glenn, fyooZHen Magazine
I saw this video by Carla Moore out of Jamaica and she does a great job of unpacking blackness and how we as black people can’t just fight for the respectable blackness but we have to fight for everyone. She also discusses Black Lives Matter more broadly and internationally.
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