On June 5th, a group of high school seniors, myself included, organized a protest on what would have been the last day of high school. Inviting Orange County Human Relations to teach de-escalation techniques, contacting the police to ensure our safety amidst gun threats, and encouraging Black students to speak about their experiences, we took initiative to provide a safe and productive environment for students to voice their opinions, and we did so peacefully.
Nevertheless, in the days following our demonstration, we were met with hate speech and threats of violence from adults on Facebook. Reading through these comments, I found that most distaste and discomfort stemmed from a source of common misunderstanding surrounding the intent of these protests. What many people do not seem to understand about the Black Lives Matter movement is the fact that overt racism is not necessarily the main issue we are fighting. Rather, we are bringing attention to the underlying currents of historical inequality and implicit bias that have resulted in Black oppression at the hands of the criminal justice system.
Growing up, I always learned that everyone was treated equally — that the words inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty were absolute and true, that some evil occurred in the past but had since been remedied, that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. solved racism once and for all. I had never heard the terms implicit bias or prison industrial complex. I had never questioned any of the drug laws. I had never understood why some people continued to bring up the issue of race. I knew there were some racist people, of course, but I never stopped to think about whether or not acts of racism had become normalized in my hometown, in my state, or in my country. However, I am now taking it upon myself to learn, and I will no longer allow myself to be complacent when it comes to instances of injustice, whether it be tacit or overt.
As President Obama made evident at the 2015 NAACP Conference, “The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.” With 2.3 million imprisoned individuals, the United States has the largest incarceration rate world-wide. According to recent data and estimates, 1 in 3 black males will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes. Consequently, even though Black people account for only 13% of the adult population, they make up 34% of the imprisoned population. While this data has been used to feed into the false narrative of Black criminality, it is more so indicative of unjust disparities in U.S. laws and fundamental flaws in the criminal justice system that have fostered the trend of mass incarceration.
For instance, someone in possession of one gram of crack is sentenced to the same amount of prison time as someone in possession of 18 grams of cocaine, even though the two substances are pharmacologically the same. What is the difference between the two? Crack is more likely to be found in poorer, urban communities, while cocaine is more likely to be found in suburban neighborhoods (this disparity arises from differences in price level, production method, distribution, et cetera). Not only does this law disproportionately affect those of lower socioeconomic standing, but statistics indicate that it unequally justifies the incarceration of Black individuals.
Unjust drug laws are not just limited to crack and cocaine, however. Speaking about the War on Drugs, one of President Nixon’s aides, John Ehrlichman, remarked,“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.” Such intent serves as an explanation for why Black people continue to be arrested 3.73 times more often than white people for cannabis, even though both demographics have been found to use the drug at similar rates. As a result, Black people account for approximately 40% of drug related arrests. When these facts are viewed alongside instances of police brutality and the privatization of the prison system (thanks to organizations such as ALEC), they point to subterranean patterns of racism that have been justified by “law and order” rhetoric, as well as utilized for “black criminality” mythology.
No, these statistics do not suggest that all enforcers of the law consciously believe that Black people are inferior to other human beings. However, ignoring these facts results in complicity, and complicity results in a continuation of inequality and injustice. This is what protestors mean by systemic racism, and this is what often goes misunderstood.
I could sit here and explain every statistic I’ve seen, every article I’ve read, and every documentary I’ve watched, but I will never be able to speak from first hand experience or understand what it is like to be victimized by an institution that is supposed to protect me. As Kara Tran-Wright, former president of the Black Student Union at Huntington Beach High School, puts it, “I do not think it is necessary for me to dwell on my experiences to get you to understand what is the ‘Black experience,’ The fact is, if you’re not Black, you will never understand the ‘Black experience.’ As much as you might try, it simply cannot be done.” While I may never be able to fully understand what it is like to be Black in America, I can listen to the voices of the Black community, and I can ally with the movement in whatever way I can.
In short, it is not necessarily the problem of plain, undisguised racism that we are trying to combat (even though that is a large part of the issue as well). Rather, we are fighting the racism that many of us are not even aware of — the racism that has become part of our daily lives without us even noticing it. No one is blaming you for being white, or any race that is not Black for that matter. They are simply asking that you attempt to understand what Black Americans are fighting for, and they are asking that you support them in their struggle for equal treatment under the criminal justice system.
Black lives matter, but as both statistics and experiences have demonstrated, Black lives have not been treated like they matter. In turn, it is fundamental for the Huntington Beach community to listen to the voices of protestors; it is fundamental for Black voices to be amplified through social media and demonstrations; and it is fundamental for students to feel that they can voice their opinions without fear of violence or repercussions. Only then can we begin to have meaningful discussions on the basis of factual evidence and catalyze the change that is necessary in order to make the idea of “liberty and justice for all” a reality. In the words of Kara Tran-Wright, “An injustice is an insult. An insult to you, an insult to the foundations of the U.S., and an insult to the principles of the modern world. As we stand, we make a statement . . . We will not welcome a world that will not welcome [us].”
Lauren Harvey is a recent graduate from Huntington Beach High School, and she will be attending UC Berkeley as an English major in the fall.
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