By Gabriel Matthews
As I made my way up West 8th Street at Waverly Place in Manhattan’s West Village, a woman stopped me to ask a question—one that I wasn’t prepared for. She smiled innocently as she asked whether I was “the perfect thief.” I was stunned… did she really just ask me whether I’m ‘the perfect thief?’ I wanted to be sure I heard her correctly. “Excuse me?”
She explained to me that she had jammed her AmEx card into the parking meter and couldn’t get it out. I contemplated whether to help her or not; an older white woman asking a young black man to fish something of financial value out of a parking meter seemed… risky. I peered inside and saw the card then unconsciously decided to help her. “Ah, you are the perfect thief!” she said happily as I handed her card back to her.
I struggled with a bewilderment that left me frozen.
I was offended, but anger could not surface within me. She seemed completely unaware of herself in relation to her joke and, more pointedly, in relation to me as a black man. Being angry or abrasive with her would’ve done nothing to enlighten her from ignorance; she had no idea how heavy a burden her joke is for a person like me living in America. Ignorance like this is but one of many astute explanations concerning why racism has evolved from blatant, outright hostility and become an enigmatically intrinsic part of our social structure.
In less than a full month, police across the US exercised excessive force against four unarmed black men.
Eric Garner, a father of six from Staten Island, NY, was choked to death after being accused of illegally selling loose cigarettes he did not have. He was murdered on July 17.
John Crawford III was gunned down by law enforcement after being seen handling a toy gun in the toy section of a Wal-Mart in southwestern Ohio.
18 year old Michael Brown was shot “at least six times,” by Officer Darren Wilson in an alleged scuffle, though an independent autopsy report shows “no evidence of a struggle” between Wilson and Brown.
Then came August 11, when Ezell Ford, a mentally disabled man in South Los Angeles, was shot in the back three times after police allege they had “investigative” reasons for stopping him. He later died at a hospital.
There’s a common thread deeply woven into each of their encounters with law enforcement. Garner was unarmed and had no cigarettes to sell. Crawford wasn’t in possession of an actual weapon and was therefore unarmed. Brown was unarmed and had his hands up to prove it. Ford was completely unarmed when police decided to make an “investigative stop.” Despite being unarmed, all of these men were perceived to be a threat to law enforcement for reasons that are still remain unclear.
Perhaps the perception of black Americans as threats themselves is why Ferguson, Missouri looks like the Middle East. Maybe Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown and Ezell Ford didn’t need to be armed to warrant state-sanctioned execution. Their blackness – our blackness – seems to be enough of a threat to warrant excessive force. My unknowing presence was enough for a random woman on the street to make light of thievery, using me as the subject of her joke. Surely, she could’ve thought up a different joke or another approach. Why did that one come so naturally, so quickly? Did my blackness have something to do with it? Did she not consider my blackness or was she unable to actually see the color of my skin?
The four men gunned down since mid-July are not the only unarmed black men who’ve been shot dead by policemen over the years. There were countless many who came before them. It is important that we recognize that their homicides were motivated by systemic, structural racism. It is equally important to recognize that the officers behind the trigger were pushed by systemic, structural racism.
Structural racism is not the same as what we bore witness to and experienced during the Jim Crow era. Rather, structural racism is the evolutionary cousin of Jim Crow. It shares the same paradigm but has adapted with the times so well that it’s become deeply entrenched in how policies are written, how laws are enforced, how different groups of people are treated and how we see one another in any given circumstance..
Our problem as a nation stems from our inability to endure conversations about race without squirming uncomfortably in our seats. We self-righteously tell ourselves that there is only one race – the human race—which ideologically trumps any variation of skin color. While that may be true to some degree and while we may personally adhere to such strong beliefs, our system, having been overtaken by structural racism following Jim Crow, doesn’t recognize that ideal.
We must be careful not to make this issue the black-and-white issue it was in the past if we are not to undermine the justice we rightfully deserve. For this to happen we need more open, honest dialogue about what happened to those countless men, why they died the way they did, and how justice will be delivered. Let us discuss how to transcend this systemic issue of racism so that we may finally live in a just society with and among one another.
Gabriel Matthews currently resides in Brooklyn, NY where he works as a freelance writer. Also known for his contributions in social justice settings, Gabriel has worked closely with organizations like Queers for Economic Justice and volunteered at D.R.E.A.M. Life, Inc, two non-profit start-ups. He holds a BA in Political Science from Brooklyn College and brings a dynamic perspective to social movements. Having at one time been homeless and a former youth growing up in the NYC foster care system, Gabriel has developed a unique interest and approach to helping under-served communities; namely, communities of color, LGBT at-risk youth, low-income families and families living in poverty. Gabriel can be reached via email at email@example.com