My Black skin is a target in American society for many reasons. In recent news, Black skin has become a target of police violence. Well, it seems like recent news at least. It has been all over national news networks and social media. It has sparked activism across the country in urban centers and college campuses. However, noting this as recent news ignores the long history of policing Black bodies in our country.

Back during slavery, there were patrols that rode around the South whose purpose was to keep tabs on slaves who may have wandered away from their plantation. They were also tasked with capturing and punishing fugitive slaves. As slavery ended, social control was still needed for Black people. The 13th amendment abolished slavery, except if it was punishment for a crime. This helped create a new form of slavery through the criminal justice system. We see the creation of the Black Codes, a system of laws meant to regulate newly freed Blacks socially, politically and economically. Through vagrancy and peonage laws, Black people were required to carry licensing that informed people whether or not they were employed. If they couldn’t prove they were working, they were jailed. Additionally, Blacks were often given harsh sentences for petty crimes, like stealing food and lumber. Out of the Black Codes rose Jim Crow, a series of institutionalized laws that further excluded Black lives from mainstream American life. On the surface, Blacks were looked at as separate but equal, but the law only served to stratify resources further.

Fast forward to the Civil Rights Movement, and we see a glimmer of hope. The Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act have been passed. More successful Black people are in corporations thanks to the increased presence of historically Black colleges and universities. Jim Crow is no longer acceptable and progress is on the horizon. At least, that’s what appears to be happening. However, this thing called mass incarceration pops up masked as a war on drugs. They are telling us that drugs are bad and evil and harmful for our kids. Anybody can get on board with that, right? On the surface, one could say yes. However, this was not what is happening. Black and brown youth are disproportionately locked away for drug offenses, while their usage and selling rates are very similar to their white counterparts. How could this be? Well, Black skin is a bull’s-eye. It is constantly under surveillance. If you step out of line, there will be consequences. Sometimes, it’s your life. This mass imprisonment has an effect on how police officers view me. I am a Master’s of Social Work student with no criminal record, yet my mother has called me, worrying about my safety. Clearly, it’s not because of my life choices; I’m being personally responsible so “conservatives” will like me. It is because of my Black skin and its criminalization. I’m constantly thinking about how I come across to others so I appear safe to them so I won’t be in danger.

What needs to change? I hear talk from Black people needing to work on ourselves. We need to make progress. I am all for self-empowerment. Chris Rock has an interesting perspective on this notion that I agree with. It’s white people who need to progress their thoughts. It is not like there have not been upstanding Black individuals in America. We’ve been here. There are plenty on our campus. It’s up to white people to own their actions. That means owning what has happened in the past even if it was not “you.” Are you silent? Why are you silent? Are you vocal? Why are you vocal? I ask that you all look at yourselves and how you contribute to this. Black people already know about our community. Stop trying to tell us about the experience. We’re Black. We know.

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