Over the past year, I have been grappling with the question: ‘is racism truly permanent?’ I have struggled with this question in the aftermath of several key racialized events that have occurred since this time last year. For the first time, I have personally felt unsafe and extremely vulnerable as a Black male in America. On the night of Saturday, July 13th, 2013, I stood in my living room, feeling completely helpless, and watched the television as the verdict in the George Zimmerman case was read. The court clerk read the verdict…not guilty, my heart dropped and almost instantly I began to cry. My tears possessed many emotions of sadness, anger, fear, sorrow, hopelessness, and worry. I could not begin to imagine how an adult man could stalk and gun down an innocent 17-year-old and not be found guilty. But then I remembered that the victim was not just any old 17-year-old, this teenager had two traits that automatically stripped him of the innocence that most 17-year-olds would be granted, because this kid was Black and male.
Hearing the words read by the court clerk were so unreal for me, mainly because I think they set off a reminder for me that racial justice was still a hope in the unseen. I immediately thought of the words that I had read by the brilliant legal scholar Derrick Bell, who stated, “Black people will never gain full equality in this country.” These words had stuck with me ever since I first read Bell’s thought provoking work, which has paved the way for what is known as Critical Race Theory (CRT). While the purpose of this piece is not to debate the judiciary system, nor is my intent here call into question the outcome of a decision made by six jurors to find Zimmerman not guilty; rather, my purpose here is to pose the question ‘is racism permanent?”
Fast forward seven months later on February 15th, 2014, another Florida jury rendered a verdict in the Michael Dunn case, where yet again a presumably innocent 17-year-old was fatally shot, and just as in the Zimmerman case, this teenager was also Black and male. While the jury was able to find Dunn guilty in attempted murder of the passengers in the vehicle that he shot at, they could not reach a guilty verdict in the charge of 1st degree murder of the teenager who was actually killed. Evoking the same feelings that I had watching the Zimmerman verdict, I found myself again questioning the permanence of racism in America.
The outcomes of these two trials were a reminder for me of how deeply rooted racism is in our society. Following the CRT lineage and foundation, I often look to law and public policy to illustrate the endemic nature of racism in American culture. As Bell and other CRT scholars have argued, the construction of race is inextricably linked to capital, property, and power. As such, the framers of this country intended for there to be a dominant race, and the framing documents of America were established to assure longevity of White supremacy. The very language used to establish the United States Constitution, the Amendments, and the Declaration of Independence are entrenched with contradictions that espouse freedom and opportunity for all, while also maintaining a system that protects Whiteness as property. These contradictions have worked there way into our laws, our public policies, and have completely infiltrated our economic system, all with the intent of sustaining racism.
Several other racialized matters have further illuminated the endemic nature of racism in our law and public policy. Over the past year, we have seen the U.S. Supreme Court strip the landmark Voting Rights Act of its power, a law established to end the disenfranchisement of Black and minority voters, particularly in the south. In the same week, the high court ruled that the controversial UT-Austin vs. Fisher case be reexamined using a more rigorous standard of judicial review (strict scrutiny) in deciding weather a students Equal Protection rights had been violated. Not even a year later, the court decided to uphold the State of Michigan’s ‘anti-affirmative action’ law. These select legal cases demonstrate the racist footprints that our judicial system has maintained over the years. Whether the constitutionality of the 14th Amendment is being argued, which was established primarily with minorities in mind, or if the ability of freedom from discrimination at the voting booth is being argued, racially minoritized people are constantly being reminded of their subordinate status in America. For these reasons, I have come to a conclusion on my question about the every lasting life of racism.
I unapologetically answer my own question with a resounding ‘yes’…racism is indeed permanent. In my anecdotes above, the one feeling that I did not have in either jury verdict was that of being surprised. I expected the judicial system to maintain its status quo as it has throughout history when Black and male bodies have come to it’s doors seeking justice. This is after all same legal system that acquitted two men accused in the brutal murder of Emmitt Till, another young black male. Why would I have expected anything different than what our past has taught us about race and the law? I guess part of me was hoping that our legal system would have rid itself of its past racist precedence, but then I remembered that no matter the decade or the racial politics of the time, because race is tied to capital, power, and property, racial justice is simply unattainable.
I leave you with this quote from Derrick Bell’s book, “And we are not saved”.
Both history and experience tell us that each new victory over injustice both removes a barrier to racial equality and reveals another obstacle that we must, in turn, grapple with and – eventually- overcome. For emancipation did not really free the slaves; and Lincoln’s order was but a prerequisite, the necessary first step in a process that will likely continue as long as there are among us human beings who, for whatever reason, choose to hold other human beings in their power. (p. 257)
Reginald Blockett is a doctoral student at Indiana University and a member of the Commission for Social Justice Educators Directorate Board as the Vice Chair for Scholarship. Feel free to follow Reginald on Twitter @regg313