Mother’s Day was bittersweet for me. I was haunted by the image of an unarmed Black man wearing a white T-shirt and khaki shorts, jogging down the road toward two armed white men, one with a shotgun and the other with a .357 Magnum.
Eight years before, I was similarly traumatized by the death of an unarmed Black teenager wearing a hooded sweatshirt with candy, soda and a cellphone in hand. As a mother of a young Black man, my heart ached for Trayvon Martin’s parents — and I, like many Black Americans, grieved alongside them.
Like many other mothers of Black children, I celebrated this Mother’s Day with my son, while grieving the untimely death of Wanda Cooper Jones’ son, Ahmaud Arbery. Losing a child is never an easy thing, regardless of how it happens. But the thought that your child could be hunted and executed just for being Black in America compounds the pain for anyone who has lost a child, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, father, mother, grandmother, grandfather or a significant other to racism.
Being Black in America continues to mean having to deal with the impact of historical trauma and racial stress on a daily basis. COVID-19 has been disproportionally deadly for Black people in America due to historic health and economic disparities and racial inequities and, in the midst of this pandemic, our community cannot simply relax and take care of our health.
The impact of Ahmaud Arbery’s execution is collectively traumatizing for Black people across the country. Studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between racial hate crimes and mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety. What is most sinister about the frequent killing of Black people in America by primarily white police officers — or quasi police officers, ex-police officers or ordinary white citizens — is the message of hate and violence that it communicates to both the victim, their family and the larger Black community.
Why do these shootings keep happening? The answer is complex, but the legacy of slavery, oppression and structural racism, guided by racist laws beginning with the original Nationality Act of 1790 that designated American citizenship to whites only, followed by Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, redlining, the original Federal Housing Act, Arizona’s SB 1070, stop-and-frisk policies and broken-window policing, to name a few — have emboldened many white people to continue the monitoring and control of Black bodies and spaces.
Also, the internalization of racism for white people, which translates into internalized superiority, makes many white people believe that when they interact with Black people, they are right and Black people are wrong. This leads to discriminatory practices today and the understanding among the Black community that any activity we engage in is subject to unwarranted risk — activities such as driving while Black, shopping while Black, banking while Black, barbecuing while Black, parking while Black and, now, jogging while Black. This history has defined the phenotypes of Black people as an inherent threat to white people, even when we’re unarmed.
On the other hand, white bodies can arm themselves with rocket launchers as they visit a sandwich shop or wear automatic weapons in public spaces as they protest nationwide shelter-in-place orders with no consequences.
Even in the midst of a pandemic — a time when we should be looking out for our neighbors and coming together in unity — racism still runs rampant. Racial profiling for Black people is prevalent in good and bad times. While Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population, The Washington Post database of deadly force by police officers shows they are disproportionally killed by police. In 2015, 26% of those killed by police were Black; in 2016, 24%; and between 2017 and 2019, 23% were killed respectively. Racial judgments of the Black phenotype have been linked to disparities in education, health care, housing, employment and police brutality or extrajudicial killings.
We are constantly reminded of the precariousness of our lives. One day, there will be a vaccine for this pandemic; we can be sure of it. But when will there be one for racism?