What It's Really Like to Live a Day in the Life of a Black Man in America
The shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has reawakened us to a decades-long history of racial profiling and police brutality. It's also emboldened a new generation of black people who demand justice and accountability from those entrusted to protect their constitutional rights but who often fail miserably.
Amid all the outrage, public demonstrations and trending hashtags such as #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, more and more people are beginning to learn about the daily struggles black men encounter within a society that routinely sends the message that their lives are not valued.
Unfortunately, most people have never imagined what life is like for a black man. While only black men can truly know that experience, it shouldn't stop others from working to understand it. What follows is a snapshot of how systems of prejudice influence the thoughts, words and actions of African-American men each day.
8 a.m. — "Does this outfit make me look 'too black' for my workplace?"
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Like so many men, the day begins with a look in the mirror and the typical grooming routine — a shower and a shave. But black men often contend with Eurocentric beauty standards that frown upon nappy and curly "ethnic" hair. It's one way going to work forces them to erase signs of their racial identity for the sake of blending in with their mostly white colleagues and superiors.
Most black men can't wear braids, a shaped Afro, twists, dreadlocks or other natural hairstyles without somehow being sanctioned for breaking the rules — or being subject to harassment by law enforcement. It's no wonder low haircuts have become the go-to look. Those require a visit to the barber shop almost every week, though, or risking waking up one morning with a haircut that not even a hard brush could salvage.
The situation shifts considerably when the job doesn't require a standard uniform or business attire. More questions arise: Does this outfit make me look "too black" for my workplace? Will I be dressed similarly to my peers, even if their clothing styles don't match my cultural expressions? How much should I adapt to fit in with everyone else today?
11 a.m. — "You talk like you're white."
From "water cooler" chats to project meetings, many black men have gotten into the habit of changing their natural expressions or tones of voice because it's been perceived as "angry" or "threatening"by mainstream society.
Some white people find it mesmerizing that black men can speak in coherent sentences. The resulting "compliments" — "You speak so well" or "You talk like you're white" — insult the intelligence of black men and presume a great deal about their education and childhood.
1 p.m. — Discrimination during the job hunt
As Mic's Chris Walker reported earlier this summer, blacks have been disproportionately hit by increasing unemployment during financial crises. Walker notes that the national unemployment rate during the Great Recession peaked at 10%, but for black people in America, an alarming 16.9% found themselves without jobs in March 2010. Many are still trying to re-enter the labor force. This is assuming they haven't given up in a nation where black unemployment figures are consistently double the rate of whites.
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Black men face employment hurdles before even reaching the interview process. One must wonder whether or not his "ghetto-sounding" name will land his resume in the trash. Another may have a non-violent felony on his record, such as cocaine or marijuana possession, that's otherwise inconsequential to performing a job, but which limits his possibilities due to drug enforcement policies and a prison-industrial complex that disproportionately target blacks.
5:30 p.m. — Taking back one's sense of masculinity
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Working out is as much as about health and fitness as it is about maintaining an image of strength, an outward projection of the masculinity and values of manhood that mean everything for many black men. That's especially true within a racist and patriarchal society that attempts to strip them of that sense of pride.
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As feminist scholar bell hooks writes in Reconstructing Black Masculinity, "Being a boy meant learning to be tough, to mask one's feelings, to stand one's ground and fight." For generations, black men have had to contend with being called "boy" by white cops and white bosses. This tension has also played out in sports, such as the violent race riots that broke out in 1910 after "the Battle of the Century," when boxer Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world after a Round 15 knockout of white titleholder Jim Jeffries.
The recent comings out of Michael Sam in the NFL, Darren Young in the WWE and Jason Collins in the NBA have been largely celebrated because they're helping to redefine the racial and gender implications of what it means to be a sportsman, especially within the black community.
7 p.m. — "Can I help you find something?"
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It's yet another instance of guilty until proven innocent. Store clerks may pretend to be at your service, constantly asking whether you're finding everything OK while you browse the store. However, while good customer service is always appreciated, often these questions function as a way for store personnel to keep an eye on black men as they shop, under the assumption that they'll shoplift.
Once black men reach the register, they face further discrimination as store clerks run multiple forms of ID to ensure a black man's credit card isn't a stolen one. They may also question whether the customer is able to afford an otherwise expensive item.
8:30 p.m. — "What are you doing out here tonight?"
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As daylight fades, so does the average black man's chance to be treated as just another face in the crowd. At this point in the evening, black men become targets of increased surveillance, especially if they're not dressed in "standard work attire." (If driving home, black men have to deal with surveillance of a different sort, often accompanied by lights and sirens, a casual stroll up to the car window and questions like "What are you doing out here tonight?")
Then there are the glares and suspicious glances, the clutching of belongings and the locking of car doors. In some cases, black men engage in code switching in order to disarm white passersby, as highlighted in Claude Steele's book Whistling Vivaldi. Steele describes a black man who whistled classical music so that he wouldn't be perceived as a threat in his own neighborhood.
Sometimes it goes beyond being seen as a threat. Just as with the "driving while black" phenomenon, black men can and do face consequences simply for commuting — for example being subjected to a stop-and-frisk, invasive questions from neighbors or paying the ultimate price, as highlighted by MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry:
9 p.m. — "I'm home."
While raising kids, many black parents are so concerned about their children's' safety that a mandatory curfew has been ingrained in the culture for generations — once the streetlights come on, it's time to come inside for the night. There's almost no exception to that rule, since so many black parents worry about their kids getting shot or facing harassment from cops.
That concern doesn't magically go away once black boys ease into adulthood. Sometimes a parent still calls to make sure their grown-up child made it home OK, or a spouse will be more vigilant because they know all too well the dangers he'll encounter on the way home just because he's a black man in America.
Michael Brown's father yells as his son's casket lowers. Image Credit: AP / New York Times
Getting home is an accomplishment in itself for many black men. When they don't — as was the case for Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown and many other nameless, faceless black young people — it's often because they did battle with ignorance that day, and ignorance won.