As yet another act of senseless violence in Chicago makes national headlines, my mind drifts back to a CNN segment from 2015. It had been just days since Dylann Roof gunned down black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina. Most newscasters on location focused almost exclusively on black grief, protest, and forgiveness amid a historically fraught act of racial terrorism against black churches.
But one lone woman, dismissed as a “heckler” after interrupting one of Don Lemon’s segments (and calling him an Uncle Tom), gave voice to another emotion we’re often too afraid to reckon with: black anger.
“We’re angry, Don! Speak about the anger. Talk about the anger,” she said, adding, “Black folks, get off your knees and stop praying.” It was an admonishment, and a word of warning, that a docile and passive approach to justice might not pay off. Although members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church’s congregation have expressly forgiven Roof, he remains unrepentant for his white-supremacy-fueled murder spree. And the words of that “heckler” have become an unwitting harbinger for what we’re witnessing now.
In recent years, black anger has risen to a fever pitch in Chicago and in other cities across the country—both because of the systemic racism and police brutality being challenged by the Black Lives Matter movement and the bigotry emboldened by the election of Donald Trump. That bigotry has been unleashed in the more than 1,100 reported hate-fueled incidents since Election Day, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. That now includes the reported slashing of a black transgender man on a New York City subway, allegedly perpetrated by a white woman who didn’t want to sit next to a black person. And in Brooklyn during Hanukkah, two menorahs were transformed into swastikas.
But now we must also reckon with the brutal torture and kidnapping of a young white man who reportedly has a developmental disability—an incident that took place on Chicago’s west side and was broadcast on Facebook Live for the world to see. According to initial reports, the four black youths in the video struck the victim while saying he “represents Trump.” “Fuck Donald Trump!” they shouted, “Fuck white people!”
The suspects were arrested and charged with a hate crime, among other things. And as police superintendent Eddie Johnson said Thursday, what they did was reprehensible.
Roughly seven weeks before the attack on Facebook, the day after the presidential election, a white Trump supporter was allegedly attacked by a group of young black people in Broadview, a village west of the city. As the Tribune reports, a small crowd that witnessed the beating—which stemmed from a traffic incident—yelled, “Don’t vote Trump!” as they egged on the attack. The alleged perpetrators have already been charged with the crime.
All race-based violence, whether it’s the Facebook Live attack or the shooting in Charleston, should be condemned. But we must talk about the roots of black anger and why these events are not the same, even though both were horrific.
Here’s the biggest difference: Black people are subjected to state violence and white people usually are not. Racial terror has been a through line for black communities from slavery to the present day. The Facebook Live attackers, while horribly misguided, were arguably responding to centuries of institutional violence against black people. Dylann Roof, on the other hand, was acting out a white supremacist fantasy, based on the myth of black aggression and white victimhood. (“You’re raping our women,” he said, as he wrought his fury.)
Such extreme expressions of black anger are relatively rare, because even peaceful protests are met with extreme blowback, brutality, and condemnation—such as when demonstrators in Ferguson were tear-gassed by a militarized police force, or when the Trump camp characterized protests at his Chicago campaign stop as a “riot,” or when activists were cursed out by Michigan Avenue shoppers on Black Friday.
And when black people do display anger, it sends the white establishment into a panic. After Freddie Gray was killed by police officers in Baltimore, some began rioting, venting their anger at decades of structural racism that surfaced in that one moment. The police came out, as they do, in full force, to protect property and infrastructure. The rioters, and even the protesters, were characterized as “thugs” and “criminals” in the press. Amid the widespread condemnation, there was little to no empathy for the city’s predominantly black residents.
In all of these cases, it’s as if society is saying, “No matter how you express your concerns, we’re not going to listen to you. We’re going to police you—and your anger.”
That rush to police—and to overlook—the root of these problems, informs the “law and order” solution Trump has advanced in reference to Chicago’s gun violence problems. Mike Pence even denied the existence of systemic racism during a vice-presidential debate. It was part of Trump-Pence’s election-winning recipe, one that threw black people under the bus while pretending to address their concerns. And sadly, some black people who’ve internalized or become numb to racism fall for the okeydoke—opting out of protest or vocal resistance for the sake of survival.
This is a stark contrast to how the government and wider society typically responds when white people protest or commit acts of violence. Whether black people riot or protest peacefully after a police officer isn’t indicted for brutality, police clamp down quickly in ways they often don’t when—for example—predominantly white sports fans riot after big games, or when bands of white millennials occupied Wall Street.
Similarly the attackers in the Facebook Live case were swiftly arrested and charged. A who’s who of elected officials from Mayor Emanuel to President Obama have condemned the video forcefully. The public has rallied around the victim’s family, including his grandmother, who was visibly shaken while speaking to NBC 5. “I have no idea what kind of impact it’s going to have on his future,” she said. A #BLMKidnapping hashtag surfaced after the video made the rounds, even though the Black Lives Matter movement had absolutely nothing to do with the tragic incident.
Contrast that response to the recent case of Antwon McDaniel, a developmentally disabled black teenager who was raped with a coat hanger by three of his white football teammates in 2015. As was reported in December, at least one of the perpetrators won’t face any jail time, just community service and probation—a relative slap on the wrist.
I hurt for McDaniel, just as I hurt for the Facebook victim. Both incidents, at their core, are inhumane and unthinkable violations of some of the most vulnerable people among us.
Yet it’s clear from these two incidents that justice and empathy come quickly and swiftly for white people in this country in a way that it doesn’t for black ones. And white anger and racial resentment—which has been fueled by Trump’s White House bid—has been allowed to run rampant without sanction, while black anger is as taboo as it’s ever been.
As Solange belts out in a recently released track aimed at black people, “You have the right to be mad,” but don’t carry it alone. She’s right—black people have every right to be mad and express their anger. The problem is that, when it’s done peacefully, too many white people remain unsentimental. They don’t listen. They change the channel. They’d rather continue life as usual, comfortably numb to the reality that black lives still, largely, don’t matter to the justice system, or to government officials who direct resources away from black communities, or to the overtly racist vigilantes who continue harming us.
It’s only when that anger turns to violence that white people start paying attention. And then, their retribution is swift.
It will take time for much of the country to begin to truly understand black anger. The Facebook Live torture suspects are not simply the products of “bad home training,” as Don Lemon said recently on CNN. In a city with more than a dozen shuttered mental health clinics, and in a country with a federal government threatening to cut off health care for more than 20 million Americans by repealing Obamacare, there aren’t many avenues for the disenfranchised to process their anger and mental anguish.
But as that CNN “heckler” warned a few years ago, we must talk about the anger—black anger. And to talk about it, we have to stop fearing it, well before it bears the ugly fruit of violence.