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The Audacity of Reality
The night of November 4, I sat in front of my television completely dumbfounded. My mother sat next to me praying quietly, big tears streaming down her cheeks. My generally apathetic brother was sending excited text messages. People around the globe were literally dancing in the streets.
While the whole world was in a simultaneous state of reaction, I just sat there. All the mixed emotions that had built up over the course of the campaign had wound themselves into an impossible knot. I expected to feel the excitement, relief and hope that were there but there was also a heavy dose of disbelief.
As Barack Obama moved from the kid with the sweet story -- but no chance -- to the savvy leader of the Democratic Party, I asked myself the same question that others had throughout the campaign: "Is America really ready for a Black president?"
Racism's Not Dead
I was in the "maybe … maybe not" group. Although I was not alone, my uncertainty and wariness caught a lot of people off guard. I'm a 22-year-old living in the heart of American liberalism. I have never been called the N-word.
I was raised in the quiet suburban neighborhood by upper-middle class parents. My group of friends looks like a miniature United Nations. On the surface, my socioeconomic stats point to someone who should be the poster child for sugary sweet idealism, part of a new generation of Americans shielded from the ugliness of racism. I'm not.
The progress the country has shown is immense and is something everyone should take pride in. I'll never experience the things my mother, who grew up in Jim Crow Alabama, and father, who barely avoided being maced during a peaceful protest, have gone through. That type of blatant racism has largely been shamed out of our culture.
Mostly, I've experienced much smaller blows to the ego: Professors that accuse me of plagiarism because "people" like me "don’t naturally use that type of vocabulary." Dumb arguments with misinformed classmates whose knowledge of African American culture is limited to BET. And if I have one more Black friend tell me to stay out of the sun before I get too dark -- as if skin tone and attractiveness are somehow contingent on one another -- I will scream.
Generally speaking, this is what the average African American deals with. Cuts, often at the hands of people who don't view themselves as prejudiced, that sting and scar, but are small enough that they get dismissed or overlooked. Although less deep than forty years ago, these cuts are no less important. They not only have an impact on one's psyche, they hint at a crucial issue. Just because the overt discrimination is no longer acceptable, it doesn't mean prejudices aren't lingering below the surface.
An Ugly Reality
As if in defiance to the Obama euphoria, this ugly truth stepped out from the shadows on New Year's Day. January 1, an Oakland transit cop murdered Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old Black man. Videos shot by witnesses at the subway station show Grant was lying face down, the knee of another officer was pressed into his head and neck, his hands were held behind his back.
With one pull of the trigger, the bigotry and misconceptions that took root centuries ago exploded onto the modern streets of the Bay Area.
As details of the incident began to come to light, my curiosity concerning Johannes Mehserle, the officer who killed Grant, was equal to my outrage and sadness. What sort of person shoots a weaponless human being in the back? The chances of him being some undercover neo-Nazi were slim to none, so the reasoning behind his actions had to be more complicated than clear-cut Klansmen ideology.
One look at his biography and I had a better understanding of the New Year's tragedy. Mehserle, 27, grew up in Napa, Calif., a city that puts the great "Melting Pot" image of the U.S. to shame. How do I know? I went to school there in the 11th grade -- the same school from which Mehserle graduated.
In high school, I had been looking forward to the highly touted New Technology High since middle school. Until recently, it was only for Juniors and Seniors, so I basically spent the ninth and tenth grades counting the days until I got to my dream school. It met my high expectations academically, but socially it became unbearable.
Napa’s population is 85% White, 1% Black. My classmates were never overtly rude, but their limited interaction with African Americans became a problem. Stereotypes of stupidity, delinquency, inferiority, and exoticism were flung at me in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In the end, the burden of having to not only deal with such judgments, but trying to disprove them became too much. I decided to test out of school early to ensure my parents wouldn't force me to spend another year there.
Mehserle is a little older than I am, but Napa was not much different when he was living there. It's terrifying that someone with his restricted upbringing would be given authority in an environment as contrasting as Oakland. The 22-week police academy he attended in Napa may have taught him how to approach a suspect and use his weapons, but they did not cover the negative assumptions that may have built up. Assumptions like "young Black men are dangerous" or "young Black men carry guns."
I'm not giving Mehserle a pass. As far as I am concerned, he didn’t just shoot Oscar Grant, his gun didn’t accidently go off -- he murdered him. But I think we are doing a disservice to ourselves if we dismiss the killing as just another sign that police are corrupt. Like the events in Jena and New Orlean’s Algiers Point, Mehserle’s actions are a sign of the dangerous stagnation that exists beneath the sheen of "diversity," "unity," and all the other buzzwords that have become so popular.
Working Toward Change
As I watched President-elect Obama's pitch-perfect acceptance speech, it hit me that this was the country I had read about in history textbooks. The ideals and resilience that I had dismissed as propaganda actually existed. It had been hidden under layers of trashy TV and rampant materialism, but it was there.
The key now is to not let victory lull us into complacency. Or a state of passivity. We can't trick ourselves into thinking discrimination has suddenly been erased or that economy will suddenly fix itself. Despite what certain Republicans believe, Barack Obama isn't magic.
When we wake up on January 21, homicide will still be the leading cause of death for African Americans under the age of 24. Gays will still be denied basic civil rights. People will continue to lose their jobs and their homes. Nothing will have miraculously changed. It won't be the end of anything. If anything, it's on us to make it a beginning.
Anika Brown, 22, is a Fashion Merchandise major in San Francisco. Her interests include turning a critical eye to pop culture and looking at the deeper effects things like music, fashion and the media have on our lives. When not writing or doing homework, Anika designs T-shirts for her website Ananse.