Imagine its May 2nd, 1967 and 30 armed members of the Black Panther party are demonstrating at the California capital building regarding oppressive government tactics that devalued and endangered Black lives. In response, the Panthers were accused of being “invaders” and arrested on felony charges of conspiracy to disrupt a legislative session (although they were within their legal right to bear arms on capital grounds). Additionally, sweeping legislation was passed with conservative sponsorship and the support of the NRA to restrict the right of California residents to openly carry arms. Fast forward 53 years and another group of armed individuals are demonstrating at capital buildings throughout the country against “oppressive” government tactics related to the pandemic. Instead of being subjected to arrest, branded as conspirators, and serving as a catalyst for restrictive gun rights legislation, these individuals are being regarded as hero’s, advocates for justice, and generally “good people.” The primary difference between these two groups is that one is Black and fought for Black self-determination while one is White and fights for the privileges required to maintain a system of White supremacy.
Marable (2001) noted, that the essential tragedy of being Black and male is our inability as men and as people of African descent to define ourselves (p.17)” For generations, Black males have attempted to engage in a self-determined identity reclamation process to redefine the expression, performance, and expectations related to Black masculinity. At the center of this reclamation process has been an ongoing struggle for Black liberation. However, the Black male’s quest for liberation has been diagnosed as a mental illness (e.g., drapetomania), seen as ground for incarceration, and as a justification for the mutilation and murder of the Black body. Whereas White males are celebrated for their “quests” for justice, Black males are vilified and ultimately labeled as dumb, deviant, and dangerous individual’s. The costs for this demarcation are incredibly high, contributing to social and economic oppression, a restricted and negative perception of the Black male experience, and pain, suffering, and death of the Black male body.
There are a number of reasons why a Black males struggle for self-determination (which at this point has turned into a fight for a safe existence) contributes to a perception of him as dangerous and criminal while White males are seen as moral and are afforded societal validity in their claims for “justice.” Tying the Black male’s struggle for self-determination and liberation to criminality and deviancy allows society to control the Black male narrative. This gives society the ability to simultaneously oppress Black male’s (e.g., mass incarceration, disenfranchisement) while vilifying them when they protest these conditions (e.g., kneeling during national anthem). Here, society can maintain the “moral high ground” while discounting the lived experience of Black male’s and criticizing their methods for giving voice to their struggle.
Additionally, vilifying the Black male’s struggle for self-determination contributes to the maintenance of a social hierarchy that centers White supremacy while pathologizing Black culture and the expression of a self-determined Black masculinity. Within this context, a Black male or an organization that centers the Black experience can be devalued and described using coded language such as “unpatriotic” or “unAmerican” while White individuals engaging in the same behavior are labeled as “patriots” and “heros.” The underlying theme is that when one refuses to engage in or seeks to dismantle systems of White supremacy this is labeled as criminal or dangerous. In the recent past, efforts to dismantle systems of White supremacy were tied to protest and organizational activism. However, in today’s climate, the very act of existence for Black male’s is seen as a threat to systems of White supremacy and has contributed to the vilification, mutilation, and death of the Black male body and experience.