It is impossible for anyone other than poor minorities to know what it is like to live in poor minority neighborhoods. Those who understand this more than anyone else are poor black males, the ultimate scapegoat of American society.
Every fear and hatred is projected onto the black male. That is a burden nearly impossible to bear, without being broken by it. To have an entire society despise you, to have every police officer profile and target you, to have everyone expect the worst from you even when still just a child, that can lead to a despair and hopelessness that is unimaginable by most Americans. More importantly, it leads to shame, a sense of inferiority and failure.
The whole world is against the black male. Even their own communities turn against them. They are pariahs, just for being born poor black males.
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The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
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For Americans who are not caught up in this system of control, it can be difficult to imagine what life would be like if discrimination against you were perfectly legal— if you were not allowed to participate in the political system and if you were not even eligible for food stamps or welfare and could be denied housing assistance . Yet as bad as these forms of discrimination are, many ex-offenders will tell you that the formal mechanisms of exclusion are not the worst of it. The shame and stigma that follows you for the rest of your life— that is the worst. It is not just the job denial but the look that flashes across the face of a potential employer when he notices that “the box” has been checked— the way he suddenly refuses to look you in the eye. It is not merely the denial of the housing application but the shame of being a grown man who has to beg his grandmother for a place to sleep at night. It is not simply the denial of the right to vote but the shame one feels when a co-worker innocently asks, “Who you gonna vote for on Tuesday?”
One need not be formally convicted in a court of law to be subject to this shame and stigma. As long as you “look like” or “seem like” a criminal, you are treated with the same suspicion and contempt, not just by police, security guards, or hall monitors at your school, but also by the woman who crosses the street to avoid you and by the store employees who follow you through the aisles, eager to catch you in the act of being the “criminalblackman”— the archetypal figure who justifies the New Jim Crow. 64
Practically from cradle to grave, black males in urban ghettos are treated like current or future criminals. One may learn to cope with the stigma of criminality, but like the stigma of race, the prison label is not something that a black man in the ghetto can ever fully escape. For those newly released from prison, the pain is particularly acute. As Dorsey Nunn , an ex-offender and cofounder of All of Us or None, once put it, “The biggest hurdle you gotta get over when you walk out those prison gates is shame— that shame , that stigma, that label, that thing you wear around your neck saying ‘I’m a criminal.’ It’s like a yoke around your neck, and it’ll drag you down, even kill you if you let it.” Many ex-offenders experience an existential angst associated with their permanent social exclusion. Henry, a young African American convicted of a felony , explains, “[ It’s like] you broke the law, you bad. You broke the law, bang— you’re not part of us anymore .” 65 That sentiment is shared by a woman, currently incarcerated, who described the experience this way:
When I leave here it will be very difficult for me in the sense that I’m a felon. That I will always be a felon . . . for me to leave here, it will affect my job, it will affect my education . . . custody [of my children], it can affect child support, it can affect everywhere— family, friends, housing…. People that are convicted of drug crimes can’t even get housing anymore. . . . Yes, I did my prison time. How long are you going to punish me as a result of it? And not only on paper, I’m only on paper for ten months when I leave here, that’s all the parole I have. But, that parole isn’t going to be anything. It’s the housing, it’s the credit reestablishing . . . . I mean even to go into the school, to work with my child’s class— and I’m not a sex offender— but all I need is one parent who says, “Isn’t she a felon? I don’t want her with my child.” 66
The permanence of one’s social exile is often the hardest to swallow. For many it seems inconceivable that, for a minor offense, you can be subjected to discrimination, scorn, and exclusion for the rest of your life. Human Rights Watch, in its report documenting the experiences of America’s undercaste , tells the story of a fifty-seven-year-old African American woman, denied rental housing by a federally funded landlord due to a minor conviction she did not even know was on her record. After being refused reconsideration, she asked her caseworker in pained exasperation , “Am I going to be a criminal for the rest of my life?” 67
When someone is convicted of a crime today, their “debt to society” is never paid. The “cruel hand” that Frederick Douglass spoke of more than 150 years ago has appeared once again. In this new system of control, like the last, many black men “hold up [their] heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt.” Willie Johnson, a forty -three-year-old African American man recently released from prison in Ohio, explained it this way:
My felony conviction has been like a mental punishment, because of all the obstacles. . . . Every time I go to put in a [job] application— I have had three companies hire me and tell me to come to work the next day. But then the day before they will call and tell me don’t come in— because you have a felony. And that is what is devastating because you think you are about to go to work and they call you and say because of your felony we can’t hire [you]. I have run into this at least a dozen times. Two times I got very depressed and sad because I couldn’t take care of myself as a man . It was like I wanted to give up —because in society nobody wants to give us a helping hand . Right now I am considered homeless. I have never been homeless until I left the penitentiary , and now I know what it feels to be homeless. If it was not for my family I would be in the streets sleeping in the cold. . . . We [black men] have three strikes against us: 1) because we are black, and 2) because we are a black male, and the final strike is a felony. These are the greatest three strikes that a black man has against him in this country. I have friends who don’t have a felony— and have a hard time getting a job. But if a black man can’t find a job to take care of himself— he is ashamed that he can’t take care of his children. 68
Not surprisingly, for many black men, the hurt and depression gives way to anger. A black minister in Waterloo, Mississippi, explained his outrage at the fate that has befallen African Americans in the post— civil rights era. “It’s a hustle,” he said angrily. “‘ Felony’ is the new N-word. They don’t have to call you a nigger anymore. They just say you’re a felon. In every ghetto you see alarming numbers of young men with felony convictions. Once you have that felony stamp, your hope for employment, for any kind of integration into society, it begins to fade out. Today’s lynching is a felony charge. Today’s lynching is incarceration. Today’s lynch mobs are professionals. They have a badge; they have a law degree . A felony is a modern way of saying, ‘I’m going to hang you up and burn you.’ Once you get that F, you’re on fire.” 69
Remarkably, it is not uncommon today to hear media pundits, politicians , social critics, and celebrities— most notably Bill Cosby— complain that the biggest problem black men have today is that they “have no shame.” Many worry that prison time has become a badge of honor in some communities—“ a rite of passage” is the term most often used in the press. Others claim that inner-city residents no longer share the same value system as mainstream society, and therefore are not stigmatized by criminality. Yet as Donald Braman, author of Doing Time on the Outside, states, “One can only assume that most participants in these discussions have had little direct contact with the families and communities they are discussing.” 70
Over a four-year period, Braman conducted a major ethnographic study of families affected by mass incarceration in Washington, D.C., a city where three out of every four young black men can expect to spend some time behind bars. 71 He found that, contrary to popular belief, the young men labeled criminals and their families are profoundly hurt and stigmatized by their status: “They are not shameless; they feel the stigma that accompanies not only incarceration but all the other stereotypes that accompany it—fatherlessness, poverty , and often, despite every intent to make it otherwise, diminished love.” The results of Braman’s study have been largely corroborated by similar studies elsewhere in the United States. 72
These studies indicate that the biggest problem the black community may face today is not “shamelessness” but rather the severe isolation, distrust , and alienation created by mass incarceration. During Jim Crow, blacks were severely stigmatized and segregated on the basis of race, but in their own communities they could find support, solidarity, acceptance— love. Today, when those labeled criminals return to their communities, they are often met with scorn and contempt, not just by employers, welfare workers, and housing officials, but also by their own neighbors, teachers , and even members of their own families. This is so, even when they have been imprisoned for minor offenses, such as possession and sale of a small amount of drugs. Young black males in their teens are often told “you’ll amount to nothing ” or “you’ll find yourself back in jail, just like your father ”— a not-so-subtle suggestion that a shameful defect lies deep within them, an inherited trait perhaps— part of their genetic makeup. “You are a criminal, nothing but a criminal. You are a no good criminal.” 73
The anger and frustration directed at young black men returning home from prison is understandable, given that they are returning to communities that are hurt by joblessness and crime. These communities desperately need their young men to be holding down jobs and supporting their families, rather than wasting away in prison cells. While there is widespread recognition that the War on Drugs is racist and that politicians have refused to invest in jobs or schools in their communities, parents of offenders and ex-offenders still feel intense shame— shame that their children have turned to crime despite the lack of obvious alternatives. One mother of an incarcerated teen, Constance, described her angst this way : “Regardless of what you feel like you’ve done for your kid, it still comes back on you, and you feel like, ‘Well, maybe I did something wrong. Maybe I messed up. You know, maybe if I had a did it this way , then it wouldn’t a happened that way.’” After her son’s arrest, she could not bring herself to tell friends and relatives and kept the family’s suffering private. Constance is not alone.
2 thoughts on “The Unbearable Shame of Being Black”
“Today, when those labeled criminals return to their communities, they are often met with scorn and contempt, not just by employers, welfare workers, and housing officials, but also by their own neighbors, teachers , and even members of their own families.”
It appears progress is being made. Blacks are now treating each like whites treat each other. About the same week that Michael Brown was killed, a young white male was gunned down in a convenience store because someone called the police saying there’s a guy in the store and he has a gun. The police arrived and after short engagement, they killed him, too. He had some outstanding warrants that were for nonviolent offenses, but that’s all it takes for the white community to just shrug and go about their way.
The insidiousness belief in “individual ruggedness” is anti-family and anti-communty. This country will never admit the influence that slavery has visited upon current generations, for to do so would mean admitting that fallacy of “rugged individualism.
We live in a violent society in general. Police brutality is greater than even racism. It also includes classism.
Like most blacks who are targeted by police, most whites who have bad experiences with police tend to be poor and disadvantaged. There are plenty of poor, violent white communities in this country, especially in the South where also are found punitive and aggressive police practices.
I’ve firmly come to the conclusion that race is a proxy for class. We scapegoat the black male, but in doing so we are using him as a symbol of problems that extend beyond any single demographic.
Individual ruggedness is the rhetoric behind which hides privilege, both race privilege and class privilege. Those who have the support of all of society like to judge those who have all of society against them. It is easier that way.
The cruel injustice is too great for the privileged to admit exists and so they use any rationalization to soothe their guilty consciences. To acknowledge America’s dark history and continuing legacy would be soul-crushing. Hiding from the truth is a survival mechanism.