Dear Mom and Dad, I am in jail and let me tell you why.
You have always told me to stand up for what I believe in. I am certain that hearing these words repeatedly growing up has shaped me into the person I am today. However, as of late, standing up for what I believe in has made both of you uncomfortable and fearful for my safety. As a result, instead of “stand up for what you believe in”, I am more frequently told, “choose your battles” and “you can’t fight everything and everyone.” With that being said, I am keenly aware of the disappointment you both feel to be receiving a letter from your daughter as she sits in the Knox County Jail. Be that as it may, I am not disappointed in myself. I’ve been charged with destruction of property after removing the Confederate flag that was situated off the highway on I-40W. While I continue to see groups like the KKK, the alt-right, and neo-nazis rise, I continue to see Black bodies fall. Whether it be at the hands of White supremacists or even the state itself, we continue to see Black people targeted and victimized at disproportionate rates. For these reasons, I will not apologize for taking down a Confederate flag as it is a symbol for the hate and continued oppression of people of Color. Through this letter, I will outline the reasons I removed the flag and I hope you will begin to better understand why this is a battle I will always choose to take on.
1. Violence on Black bodies by White Supremacists
We were heartbroken as we watched the news on June 17, 2015. The news headlines read: “SHOOTER OPEN FIRES ON AME CHURCH.” Details came in slowly but once they came in, I wished I had never heard them. We learned his name was Dylan Roof. He walked into Charleston’s Emanuel AME church and killed 9 Black worshippers. Even more horrifying, he sat amongst them for almost an hour before he began to open fire. I began to feel sick; I felt lightheaded as I saw pictures of Dylan Roof proudly holding the Confederate flag and I wanted to vomit as I read his manifesto. In his manifesto he wrote, “I had no other choice.” How could he feel as though his only choice was to open fire on innocent people? He was able to open fire on innocent Black bodies because Dylan Roof views Black people as subhuman and innately inferior. He writes, “Negroes have lower IQs, lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels in generals (sic). These three things alone are a recipe for violent behavior. If a scientist publishes a paper on on the differences between the races in Western Europe or Americans, he can expect to lose his job.” However, Roof neglects to acknowledge that, for centuries, White scientists published papers and studies for centuries on the perceived innate differences amongst races that were used to justify the subjugation of Black people and to promote the continuation of White supremacy.
In the book The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Gould, Gould examines how science has historically been used to uphold White supremacy by analyzing studies that concluded that Blacks and Native Americans were innately inferior. According to Gould, one of the most influential studies of its time was Crania Americana of 1839 by Samuel George Morton. By measuring brain size, Morton “proved” that White people were more intelligent than Blacks and Native Americans. However, Morton already had a preconceived notion that Whites were superior prior to undertaking this study. Consequently, whether consciously or subconciously, Morton manipulates his study in various way in order to confirm his own beliefs. During testing, when results returned that were not in line with his beliefs, Morton made a habit of manipulating and retesting. Though his study was riddled with bias, Crania Americana of 1839 was very influential in convincing White slave owners that they were justified in abusing and subjugating Black people. Centuries later, we continue to see White supremacists (like Dylan Roof) espouse these debunked claims of innate racial difference as fact.
2. Coded politics and language
A fact: The Confederate flag was a symbol for the Confederate army; the army that fought against the Union soldiers to preserve slavery, states’ rights, and political liberty for White people during the Civil War. However, despite these origins, many White Americans disagree with this interpretation of the flags history and meaning. According to a recent study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 71% of White working class people say that the flag is a symbol for Southern pride. While I am aware that race is socio-historically rooted, White people who stand behind the “heritage not hate” mantra are choosing to ignore the pain that these symbols inflict on the Black community. While the Confederate flag represents the racist roots from which America has grown, we have seen White people use their power and platforms to shift the narrative away from racism and towards Southern history and culture.
Another fact: players in the NFL are taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and other social injustices that Black Americans face. However, meaningful conversation about racial injustice was derailed when White people shifted the attention from police violence towards having respect for our country and our veterans. Trump tweeted on Sep. 25th, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” In his 33 other tweets about the NFL in the month of September, Trump demanded that the NFL require their players to stand for the anthem and went as far as to call the Black athletes protesting, “sons of bitches.” However, one particular tweet of Trump’s gave me tremendous pauses. Trump tweeted, “NFL players who want the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, should not be allowed to disrespect our Great Flag!” It became clear to me that there was more to Trump’s #twitterstorm about the NFL than just his disapproval for the players kneeling during the anthem. It became clear to me that Trump feels as though he and other White owned establishments have the right to control Black bodies as if they own them. Sound similar to the slave days?
In the book Forty Million Dollar Slaves, William Rhoden outlines the similarities between modern day Black athletes to plantation slaves; a chilling comparison. Black slaves were forced to compete and fight against each other for slave owner’s entertainment as a method to quell slave revolts. While Black athletes are far from this reality, Rhoden argues that Black high school, college, and professional athletes are trapped in a form of slavery when players are recruited, owned, and then exploited by White-owned establishment. He details a “conveyor belt” that Black athletes find themselves on that begins during the recruiting process when players are seeking to play a sport collegiately. The belt then moves Black athletes out of Black America and into a White world where they become a product controlled by White agents, White lawyers, and White school presidents. The product, Black athletes, bring in millions of dollars for predominately White institutions so these institutions have incentives to pull out all the stops to place Black athletes onto their conveyor belt. NFL athletes today are still on this conveyor belt. It is clear that our President is using their #TakeAKnee protest to remind Black athletes that they do not have the right to protest (a fundamental right for Americans) as long as White people and White establishments own them.
3. Overrepresentation of Black bodies in arrest rates and in prison
I am heartbroken by the sheer amount of Brown bodies surrounding me in this jail. If I were unaware of the discrimination found at every level of the criminal justice system, I would be inclined to believe that Black people were committing more crime than any other race based on their representation in jails and prisons. However, as Black woman, I know just how easy it can be to get swept up in the system or to be subjected to police harassment or brutality.
I want to tell you both about my second to last negative encounter with the police. On August 6th 2017, I was pulled over for going 85 in a 65 heading from Atlanta to Knoxville. It was 3:30 AM and I was incredibly nervous because I was the only car on the road at the time. If something were to go wrong, no one else would be there to see it. I was having a hard time controlling my anxiety and out of habit, I began fidgeting with my hands under the steering wheel. My anxiety continued to grow when the officer, noticing my fidgeting, puts his hand around his gun and yelled at me to put my hands where he could see them. I told him ~through tears~ that I fidget when I’m nervous and that the police generally make me nervous. I know how quickly a traffic stop can go bad for people of Color and even if we make it through the stop, I’ve studied the patterns of discrimination found at almost every level of the criminal justice system.
In The Color of Crime by Katheryn Russell-Brown, Russell-Brown writes about discrimination and disparity within the criminal justice. She writes, “Blacks, who comprise of about 13 percent of the U.S population, are grossly over represented in arrest and in incarceration figures. Blacks account for almost 30 percent of all arrests and approximately one-half of the correctional population.” One reason this is alarming is because police officers are not going into affluent neighborhoods and arresting prominent Black men and women. No, they prey on those unable to afford adequate legal aid, those struggling with addiction, and those who are generally defenseless. Police over-surveil poor, Black neighborhoods and they disproportionately stop, question, and arrest Black men. Black men are stopped and questioned by police at rates that do not correlate with their involvement in crime thus leading me to conclude that there is racial prejudice at play. Black men are fearful that any of these stops could be the end of their life. Russell-Brown states, “The frequency of contact between Black men and the police has led a generation of Black men to teach their sons “The Lesson”: instructions on how to handle a police stop without getting hurt.” If I have a son, I will not want to have to conversation with him but recognize that it may be an essential conversation to keeping him alive. It makes me wonder, will I tell him to pick and choose his battles during this conversation just like you both say to me?
I am currently sitting in Knox County Jail feeling proud, vindicated, and ready to continue my fight for racial justice. I am unafraid to tackle the racist systems that are oppressing Black people in America. For me, the Confederate flag I tore down represents the ugliest parts of America that we, as a nation, are refusing to acknowledge and reconcile with. White supremacist groups are rising again. Coded politics and language are placing barriers between important dialogue on race and progress. Mass incarceration continues to destroy Black families and communities. I cannot sit around and do nothing. I know this terrifies you both. You want to keep safe by any means necessary. However, as an adult, I need you to recognize that it is my choice to fight the battles that I am choosing to take on. The choices you both made in your own lives were made to create better lives for your children and I want the same for mine. Their brown skin should not make them a threat, but rather a force that continues to push forward the progress that is essential for our continued survival in America.