Fear: How Open Carry Can Lead to an Open Season on Black Males

Fear is a powerful emotion that is governing profiling, policing and politics.  This fear has fueled some legislators to pass open carry laws that allow individuals to carry firearms in hallowed places such as faith and educational institutions. Second amendment proponents proclaims loudly that individuals have the right to protect themselves. However, these same individuals are eerily quiet when black male citizens are gunned down by individuals who are supposedly trained to “protect and serve”. What can Black males do to be protect themselves when the agents of public safety represent credible threats to their ability to remain among the living?

The events over the past 48 hours have ripped off the scab covering the deep wound resulting from the tumultous relationshp between marginalized males and the police. Too many funerals have been and continue to be planned for African American males whose last moments on this earth were spent absorbing bullets from gun barrels pointed at them by police officers supposedly engaged in routine traffic stops and street interactions.  Police shootings often associated with Chicago and Baltimore are now springing up in cities like Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. When does it end? How will it end? As someone born during the late 1960s, I never was able to grasp the fear of law enforcement expressed by older family members coming of age in the South during the Jim Crow era. I now get it. As I reflect on the events surrounding Eric Garner, LaQuan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling and Phlando Castile, I recall the haunting   lyrics of the Billie Holiday classic “Strange Fruit” that bear witness and protest the lynching of Black Males. The lyrics of today are captured video footage bearing witness to horrors of policing by fear.

President Obama reponds to the deaths of Mr. Sterling and Castile by challenging us to “do better”. In my mind, doing better requires us to do the hard work of holding public servants at all levels accountable. Protests are important and necessary; however, demonstrations must not be limited to crowds and megaphones. They need to evolve and involve coalition-building and community organizing. Indivduals of conscience and goodwill need to come together to demonstrate that we are a nation in which we are our brothers and sisters keepers. When this occurs, we will have a collective strength and power to face our fears, and do what is necessary to ensure that all lives matter.

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Faith in Our Fathers

Father’s Day is a day when Americans take time to honor and recognize their fathers and the contributions they have made. However, popular discourse suggests that recognition should be reserved for father-types such as Howard Cunningham on “Happy Days” or Heathcliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” because they represent “responsible fatherhood.” According to a number of social commentators, religious leaders, and politicians, a responsible father is one who is gainfully employed and lives in the same household with his children. This narrow notion of socially acceptable fatherhood subtly suggests that male parents who do not live with their children or who are unemployed or underemployed do not measure up. Further, the stigma often attached to non-traditional fatherhood is often extended to families. Non-resident fathers are deemed responsible for “broken families” that are often linked to troubling outcomes such leaving high school before graduation, violence, and teenage pregnancy. It should be noted that many of the social ills linked to non-resident fatherhood are prevalent in minority communities; therefore, the image of “absentee fathers” often has a brown hue.

The outline of the image of black and brown absentee fathers is often credited to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, noted scholar, diplomat, and politician, who published The Negro Family: The Case for National Action in 1965. In this book, Dr. Moynihan asserted that the expansion of welfare safety nets was linked to the rise of out-of-wedlock births and the disintegration of the African American family structure. The subtle message here was that a welfare check was a substitute for Black fathers. The commodification of Black male bodies is not new in a land built on the backs of slaves. It is also not new in a culture where the measure of a man is determined by his paystub, bonus, or bank account balance. However, limiting the significance of a father to his financial net worth denies other priceless dimensions of fatherhood that are not associated with income or wealth. Untold are the stories of countless fathers who care for young children while they are seeking work, or disabled. There are considerable numbers of black men who parent children without a direct biological relationship. These “nontraditional” fathers are rendered invisible in popular culture because Americans seemed to be much more interested in emphasizing the negative rather than accentuating the positive dimension of black fatherhood. The tragedy is that we miss opportunities to learn important lessons that could help more black men with children recognize that their value as parents extends beyond the contents of their wallets.

Raising the next generation is one of the most important responsibilities of a society; however, disputes over the constitution of family may have diverted our attention from 21st century threats to child health, development, and well-being. Technology has allowed individuals to be increasingly connected and isolated simultaneously. Virtual worlds can trap developing minds into echo chambers void of debate, critical thought, and civility. Young people need guidance to navigate an increasingly complex world and fathers can help children to make sense of the mounds of available and accessible information about themselves and the world around them. Social scientists suggest that emphasis on competition, convenience, and connectivity may be overwhelming youth today as it has been predicted that millennials and future generations will be likely to have lower levels of prosperity and poorer health prospects than baby-boomers and gen-Xers. Fathers can play a key role in reversing these trends; however their parental reservoirs have been damned by normative roles of silent sponsorship.

Fathers need support (just like mothers do) to learn how to be parents in order for them to provide and/or share developmentally appropriate experiences, and insight. Male parents can support, nurture, and counsel their children, regardless of their financial status or address. Motivated fathers can be great parental partners and have the capacity to carry the bulk of the parenting burden if necessary. Four out of every ten babies are born to unmarried parents so it is critically important encourage males who have children to grow as parents. We need less condemnation and more creativity, caring and compassion for males who have children. The future of our communities rests on our ability to help males who procreate become productive and positive parents who are available to invest in the lives of their children.

Answering the Bell

A few weeks ago, Mr. Wesley Bell was declared the winner of a local city council election. In most cases, local elections do not warrant national press; however, this city was ground zero for protest against police brutality for the past year. Ferguson, Missouri has been scrutinized and criticized for it lack of diversity in position of power and thinly veiled oppressive practices that filled municipal coffers with revenues raised by exploitive police practices. Mr. Bell has worked to be part of the solution as he was a calming force in the streets and decided to lead by example. In short, he answered the bell by serving the community and then running to lead it through public service. The leadership in Ferguson has a different hue and there is a ray of hope for a new day. Michael Brown did not die in vain. The events surrounding the tragic and premature end to his life rang a bell much like Dap Dunlap in School Daze telling America in general and Black America in particular to wake up.

Since then we have witnessed a number of tragic deaths of black males. The age of the victims ranged from early adolescents (Tamir Rice) to middle age (Wesley Scott); however the offender was the same, a police officer. The offenses bringing police officers to the scene were minor but the consequences were heartbreakingly monumental as gunshots from those who pledged to protect and serve the public ended lives of those were not threats to themselves or others. The victims of these police shootings were imperfect as we all are; however, death was not an appropriate response to a traffic stop or a tense interaction. We have yet to learn the lessons from Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and Charleston because Baltimore is now on fire. Bells are ringing loudly for those of sound minds and sincere sensibilities to step forward to be our brothers and sisters keepers. It is an assumption of social scientists that human beings are social beings; therefore, we need others to help us grow, learn, and love so that a society of imperfect people can strive towards a more perfect union that is indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

John Donne penned a meditation that was reshaped into a poem that is hauntingly appropriate for this day and age.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

The Cost of Free Speech

The whole world has been contemplating the horrific murders in Paris and some commentators have been discussing the idea of free speech. Much of the discussion in my estimation has focused on the political and legal aspects of this ideal. However, it might also be wise to consider the social dimensions “free speech.” The basic premise is that individuals have a legally protected right to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences through words. The implicit assumption is that words can stir debate and dialogue that can move communities and nations forward. This is a noble idea; however, the right to free speech also allows for the expression of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, and other forms hatred that can denigrate a people and damage relations between individuals, communities, religions, and nations. The freedom to express ideas is precious; however, it is not free. Free speech is quite expensive.

Over the past weekend, we have celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His speeches and papers are a treasure trove of inspirational and aspiration words and ideas that continue to fuel individuals to press for freedom and justice for all people in the United States and beyond. Selma, the motion picture, has raised the profile of Dr. King’s words this year. There is an opportunity to consider the price that he and countless others paid to speak truth to power. The cost was quite high as tears, blood, and lives were lost as an oppressed people stood together to make their case for full citizenship. In this case, free speech was priceless.

It should be noted that words and images have power, and they are not weighted equally. The grand juries in the Michael Brown and Eric Gardner cases demonstrate how the unequal weighting of words can lead to unjust decisions that prevent the responsible parties from facing a jury of their peers in a public setting. The Tamir Rice incident highlights how words from a news organization can obscure the tragedy that a single child with a toy gun was killed by armed men who took oaths to protect and serve the public. News organizations have the right to print information even it is not pertinent. However we must remember that free speech does not absolve news organizations from their responsibility to their consumers and their respective communities.

Free speech is a constitutional right that protects the expression of the thoughts above. I am protected from legal prosecution but I do have a social responsibility to govern my words. As a descendant of grown men and women who were called “boy” and “gal” all of their lives, I am well aware of the how words can deny humanity and destroy dreams. It is time that we think before we speak. Perhaps we should consider the following quote from a sermon preached this Sunday by my pastor, Reverend Reginald Buckley. He said, “just because you have the right to say it, does not mean that it is right to say.”

The Paradox and Challenge of Our Time

Every generation in the United States has moments when the state of race relations becomes painfully obvious to everyone. In the middle 20th century, it was Emmitt Till. In the late 20th century, it was Amadou Diallo. Last year it was Trayvon Martin. This year, it has been Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. The tragedies associated with the demise of Mr. Brown, Mr. Garner, and Master Rice are exacerbated by the fact that they were killed by individuals who took oaths to protect and serve the public. In two cases, grand juries made decisions that harkened back to the Jim Crow era when Caucasian males could kill their African American counterparts without worry of arrest much less prosecution or conviction. The hopes of a post-racial society that were ushered in with the election of the nation’s first African American president have been brutally dashed as the events over the past few weeks force us to inhale the vile stench of racial injustice and inequality that has been festering throughout the history of this country.

Prophetic visionaries throughout our existence as a nation have challenged citizens to clean and dress deep wounds caused by practices such as slavery or policies based on a “separate but equal” doctrine. Unfortunately, we have responded to these calls for action with benign neglect. As a result, our collective capacity for greatness has eroded because some of our best and brightest lights have been extinguished by social policies and practices that prosecute too much and provide too little care.

In times like these, it is tempting to give in to the cynicism, apathy and nihilism that appear to be ever-present. However, times of great challenge are also times of great opportunity. The events in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland have motivated individuals from all walks of life to protest, march, and chant, “Black lives Matter”. The sparks of activism and advocacy have flared up and only time will tell if these sparks will coalesce into a multicultural movement for justice. It is my hope that posts on this forum will contribute to this movement is some small way through ideas that illuminate, encourage, and challenge us to see the humanity in mankind with greater clarity and to seek solutions to our social ills with fervor.

It is important to understand that social transformation does not come without sacrifice. Some people will have to give up time. Others will have to sacrifice money. Still others will have to give up a way of life that may have existed for generations. This is the price of social change. African Americans who preceded us have paid the price for racial minorities and women to have the lives we have today. The torch has been passed to us and we have a great opportunity to challenge this country to live up to its creed and create space for all children regardless of social background and/or social standing to grow up to be whole, healthy, and productive citizens. The question is, are we willing to do the work?

Can You See Him?

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” — Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

The powerful statement opening Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man summarizes the challenges of being an African American male in America. I was born sixteen years after this classic was first published and I continue to witness and experience the pain and confusion that comes with being feared and disdained in public places and insulted by insensitive comments and jokes in private ones. The backs of African American males, upon which much of the early American economy rested, have little value in the 21st century. As a result, the only areas with open access for Black men are the gridiron, the basketball court, the recording studio, and the correctional facility. African American males as a group is quite diverse and has contributed greatly to all areas of American life including education, science, the military, business, and politics. Yet, those who do not have a criminal record or aspirations to entertain through art or sport often experience palpable cognitive dissonance from others when we sit at leadership tables or receive recognition for professional excellence or acumen. The collections of thoughts and ideas here represent are part of an effort to change the context of interaction for African American males and even other disadvantaged groups of males.

The purpose of these brief entries is to discuss the full humanity of African American males. We have been and continue to be valuable members of our families, communities, and our society; yet we remain invisible. I say no more. We are husbands, fathers, we are sons, we are friends, we are leaders, and we are citizens. Like everyone else, we require direction when we are lost; forgiveness when we earnestly seek repentance; and celebrations when we achieve. We can be tremendous assets to humanity when our strengths are leveraged and our deficits are comprehensively and compassionately addressed. Lifting African American males lifts our society and it all begins when we see them for who they are and who they can be.