He stepped on stage followed by a dull silence. It felt like something phenomenal was going to happen; something extraordinary was going to pop out of the ground and shake the earth. But only words came out of his mouth; words that seemed politely appropriate for an occasion of remembrance instead of a powerful declaration of justice for the future.
Why did I think something groundbreaking (literally) was going to happen?
The first black President spoke at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last week. But what should have felt like a milestone in history felt like a forced, rehearsed proclamation to an eager crowd of twenty-thousand attendants who awaited the resurrection of a man that spoke out of rage and hope, witnessing injustices with his own eyes instead of distantly viewing these injustices from behind a closely guarded pedestal. And while the President’s words brought tears to my eyes, those tears were artifacts of relief that a public figure finally had spoken about what some of their constituents experience on a daily basis. He chipped off a bit the nation’s heavy monument of racial injustice. But before the words of Barack, past presidents presented stale promises and empty empathy, which added more weight to the growing sculpture of discrimination, under representation, and structural barriers that people of color face.
While your words were touching, Obama, it is not valid to say we can hear freedom ring when my black brothers are locked up one out of every three times on average; when my field-worker relatives can’t access healthcare because they can’t find employment — despite their hours of trying — because they don’t meet your mountains of requirements for a document that declares, “You are worthy of Americanism.” Well “Americanism” does not meet my requirement of humanism when the little black and brown boys you talk so much about cannot trust the judicial system, their own education system, or their neighbors who clutch their bags in fear of being robbed of the possessions that define their morality. When prisoners are ignored when they go on strike and feel the utter pain of hunger just to be heard, is this justice? How can companies like Hollister and Abercrombie and Fitch get away with firing their Muslim female employees for wearing a hijab to work? When white faces dominate all of our businesses, sciences, academics and tech companies, black and brown faces get further shoved below the earth towards feelings of inferiority, even if their 12 hour days of back-breaking work could only be handled by the strongest and most driven hearts and hands.
Obama, to say that we have successfully reached the point that we “judge one another by the content of our character” is to ignore the ways colonialism and white supremacy have defined the way we define an ‘acceptable character.’ Do black and brown boys who roam the streets fall under this assumed ideology of “character?” No, their roaming is caused by the structural barriers created by racism that gives boys more hope in the streets than in their classrooms.
When I was in my second year at Cal, my professor of an introductory anthropology class assigned an ethnographic project as our final. The prompt was simple: “Observe something you think is interesting and interview people about it.” I decided to walk down to Fourth Street down by the Berkeley Marina and talk to the day laborers who wait in gray parking lots for work across from the affluent shops. In my continuous visits with the day laborers, they shared countless stories of prejudice in Berkeley, a community we think is immune to racial discrimination. One man narrated an incident where he was doing yard work for an apartment building around San Pablo Ave when, all of a sudden, he was drenched by a bucket of water. He looked up to see where the mysterious water bomb came from to find a woman wailing at him, “Go back to your country!” They also detailed their struggle with the surrounding businesses who have fought with the men to stop them from “loitering” on their street because it “veers customers away.” While I sat with the men as they waited for work in their paint-stained clothing, I watched as passer-bys with their newly-acquired shopping bags avoided eye contact or close proximity from the men, as if the day-laborers had the plague. Can we really say that these actions are judgment of the day-laborers “character?”
Yes, you were right, Obama, to quote Frederick Douglass’s famous words that “freedom is not given, it must be won, through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.” But when underrepresented communities have to fight for freedom during a time when society thinks that battle was won, black and brown faces have to scream louder than ever before to be heard above the voices that say it just a way to gain extra privilege. While we have shed the chains that bind us to slavery and segregation, let us not forget that we no longer need chains to be slaves.
Amaris Montes is a McNair scholar.