James Brennan: Illuminate the darkness

By James Brennan, Columnist
Published March 16, 2015

Trayvon Martin was killed during my first semester in college. I remember sitting in my civil rights history class, where our professor asked if any of us had heard the name. I knew the loose facts of the story, but it was still a little while before George Zimmerman became an anathema and hoodies a symbol of solidarity.

Three years later, I ran into that same professor at a small gathering of students and faculty. I hadn’t seen him in some time, but the event was tragically fitting. Along with others, he had helped organize a space for us to watch the announcement from Ferguson about Darren Wilson’s indictment.

After we listened to the decision, everyone sat quietly to observe a moment of silence for Michael Brown. The only sounds came from a woman in the front of the room, who was crying. As four and a half minutes passed, a professor asked if anyone had thoughts or reactions to share. Between tears, the crying woman asked, “When are our lives gonna matter?”

During my time in college, it has often been hard to believe life is genuinely improving for Black Americans. Between the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, there have been countless Black people killed by police and vigilantes: Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and more. The milestone of the nation’s first Black president has, in some ways, been overshadowed, and not just by the frequent destruction of innocent Black life. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted, state-level bans on affirmative action have been upheld and it is likely that the Fair Housing Act is on the chopping block next.

And this is just the past three years.

It is very easy to look at American history — especially as it is presented in schools — and see a clear progression toward racial equality. The end of slavery was followed by the end of segregation, which led to expanded voting rights, which was followed by the nation’s first Black president, etc., etc. The improved state of Black Americans from chattel slavery to explicit protection in the Constitution is undeniable, but a deeper understanding of the history and structural flaws of education, criminal justice, voting and other institutions muddy the waters.

Neighborhoods and schools across the country are overwhelmingly segregated by race, with “Black” schools finding synonymy with “poor” or “violent” schools. Prisons, from local holding cells to federal penitentiaries to death row, are disproportionately filled with Black and brown bodies. Inequity in the education and criminal justice systems is nothing new when it comes to race in America, but these discrepancies are not necessarily stagnant. It could be argued that, if current trends continue, the average Black child born today will face worse discrimination than his or her parents.

Perhaps this gloomy outlook is a bit cynical, even fatalistic. But as a realist, I don’t find it unreasonable to fear that our generation may hit a brick wall when it comes to racial progress. I don’t say this to be a provocateur or a contrarian, but to reflect the urgency of crisis and the necessity for action.

At the very least, we must accept that a perpetually unequal society is possible; in December 2013, however, the Black Student Union decided it would not be inevitable.

During a time when college students are criticized for “slacktivism” and general political apathy, the BSU has been able to convert national media attention into concrete progress. A new multicultural center is on its way, and the University has been pushed harder for increased diversity than it has in years. Though many of the experiences discussed through #BBUM reflected a campus unwelcoming to Black students, perhaps most importantly — though less concrete — there has been a noticeable change on campus when it comes to discussions of race.

Similarly, the killing of Michael Brown and attacks on protesters in Ferguson should not purely be seen for their horrors. The day after prosecutors chose not to indict Darren Wilson, hundreds of students and community members gathered on the Diag for a vigil. After a few short speeches, local activists moved the gathering into a planned march. Leaving the Diag, more than 1,000 people filled Ann Arbor’s streets, bringing downtown traffic to a halt. Massive anti-racism demonstrations like these have broken out across the country, and parallels with tipping points during the 1950s and 1960s are hard to ignore.

During college, there has been no issue that I have studied or written about more than racism. It’s a poetic note that my undergraduate years began with the senseless murder of a Black 16-year-old and will conclude with the nation declaring “Black Lives Matter.” However, no matter the neat symmetry of my experiences, this isn’t poetry. This is the future of civil rights and civil liberties; this is the destiny of an entire people, both as a collective and as millions of individuals. This is a turning point.

In explaining why he came that day to a community dialogue on Ferguson, a Black graduate student fought back tears as he told us:

“This is my life on the line.”

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.