Presumed Guilty The Ease of Criminalizing African Americans
It’s been my greatest fear as a black man living in America – that of fitting the profile, looking like someone else; someone who may have committed a crime and followed by being railroaded through the criminal justice system, convicted of an offense that I did not commit. If that sounds a bit irrational, then perhaps talk to the tens of thousands of black men who, over the years, have fallen victim to this absurd actuality in a country that feigns to view us all as innocent until proven guilty.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, in 2016 more than 150 men, who were wrongly convicted, were released after spending an average of 15 years in prison. Even though the system was to blame for this egregious error, these black men will forever be stigmatized as a convicted felon. Their ability to take advantage of the rights and privileges guaranteed to each citizen in this nation is effectively rendered null.
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees every person, even immigrants, equal protection under the law. However, it is Article 11 of the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights that establishes that “everyone charged withany offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and that no one will be held guilty of any offense on account of any act or omission which does not constitute an offense under national or international law.”
Although it seems prettystraight forward that the burden of proof must rest with the one bringing the charge, it leaves many of us wondering why this simple statement appears to evade people of color; particularly African Americans. Essentially, it occurs when some random white person for whatever reason, feels threatened. However, it does very little to defuse the lies and suspicions prompted by a thoughtless, mean-spirited assertion of guilt.
These petty, unfounded apprehensions can and indeed have proven deadly for black people over the course of our history in the US. It continues to inform our presuppositions that simply being black is enough to be questioned, and in some cases detained by law enforcement.
We are well acquainted with the infamous case of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago elementary school student, who while visiting a relative in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, encountered 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, a white woman accused the teenager of whistling at her in a grocery store and the rest is history. He was brutally beaten, murdered and discarded to the bottom of the Tallahatchie River with a75 pound iron device tied to his body. The white men who killed the child were acquitted and the woman would later admit that she lied. It didn’t matter whether he did it or not—he was presumed guilty.
Many of us are also familiar with the case of the so-called Black Wall Street of the early 21st century; nearly 100 years ago. It was Memorial Day weekend in 1921 in theall black community of Greenwood, Oklahoma when a young African American male shoe shine boy allegedly brushed up against a 17-year-old white female elevator operator –she screamed and it was automatically assumed that he had assaulted her in some way. A mob of white men quickly gathered with blood in their eyes but not before a group of black WWI veterans confronted them to avoid a lynching and insisting that the boy be given a proper hearing because he had the right to the presumption of innocence. A shot was fired and a riot broke out. It ended with more than a dozen white men and two black men dead.
Greenwood was, at that time, the wealthiest black community in America. It is paradoxical that in a Jim Crow reality, African American communities flourished. The black citizens owned a bank, movie theatre, grocery stores, hotels, lawyers’ offices, doctor’s clinics, pharmacies, auto shops, furriers, restaurants and every manner ofenterprise created to largely serve African Americans. Over the next days it would all be burned to the ground leaving nearly 200 hundred businesses destroyed, 39 black people dead, more than 800 admitted to hospitals and an estimated 10,000 black residents homeless—all because a black child was presumed guilty with zero evidence to substantiate his guilt.
Yet, the Till case and the plight of Black Wall Street, are not the only exemplifications of the type of mania that surrounds the mere presence of black folks to this very day. The horror visited upon unwitting, innocent African Americans resulting from the cruel misrepresentations by some arbitrary white person is not a matter of either historical or contemporary lore but a deep seeded belief that black people are inherently guilty of something.
Even the president of the U.S a dignified, honorable, globally respected African American figure could not escape the twisted delusions of those who opposed him. In fact, it was the current occupant of the White House that disseminated the false notion that Barack Obama was somehow an illegal alien—that he was not born an American citizen. However, any elementary school civics student can tell you that a child born to an American citizen, regardless of where they are born, is an American citizen. But millions of white Americans bought it. It harkens backs to the days when freed slaves were expected to present proof of their freedom. In other words, the message to President Obama was, “show me your papers, boy!”
He was forced to endure being called a liar in the well of the US Capitol during a worldwide State of the Union Address. Heretofore, it was unimaginable for anyone to assault the president in such a manner. But in the minds of many, a black president is clearly not due the same respect as a result of being presumed guilty. Juxtaposed against the consistent, blatant, habitual stream of untruths stemming frommouth of our current president, it extends conjecture of the presumption of guilt to the realm of the ridiculous.
Indeed, it is difficult to think of a single scandal surrounding the Obama Administration over the course of its eight years. Apparently, irony and hypocrisy fails to register that a dishonest, thoroughly corrupt, disrespectful, cruel, treasonous, racist, sexist, misogynistic, ignorant, demagogic, con artist of a white man asserting that a law-abiding, trustworthy black man is anything but honorable is totally overlooked; and many in America’s white population accept his mendacity as truth. This is at the root of why it is so easy to indict black Americans with little more than a sheer contention of wrongdoing.
And the lies didn’t stop there.
Since then, Mr. Trump has alleged that President Obama gave away Ukraine and Crimea to Russia; that he bugged Trump Tower and placed FBI agents in the Trump campaign. He has asserted that Obama instituted the policy of removing children from their families at our southern border with Mexico. He circulated the lie that during an Obama speech in Chicago, two people in the crowd were shot and killed. He claimed that his inaugural crowd was larger even though aerial photographic evidence clearly confirmed the opposite. Trump also declared that very few people were eve covered under Obama-Care—in fact, 22 million Americans were covered under the Affordable Care Act. What is so remarkable is that millions actually swallow these blatant, outlandish lies because it is easy to believe the worst about African Americans; even the most honorable among us.
More recently, two black men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson were arrested for trespassing at a Philadelphia Starbucks because they asked to use the restroom while awaiting a meeting. This is a stark illustration that we are presumed guilty on sight. What crime did they commit? They were guilty of not making a purchase. They were placed in handcuffs, humiliated and carted off like common criminals.
When Lolade Siyonbola, a black graduate student at Yale University, had the nerve to fall asleep while writing a paper in a common area on campus, a white woman called the police. Miss Siyonbola was reportedly questioned for more than 15 minutes before producing her student identification and using a key to open her dorm room door to prove that she was a student at the Ivy League school.
These incidents occur every day in the lives of black people in this country in the ordinary course of simply existing. This treatment has also, of course, hit close to home. I, like the vast majority of us, have not been able to escape this “guilty syndrome.”
While meeting a student at the Aurora, CO library for a tutoring session, I noticed a white woman in one of the study rooms packing up appearing to be prepping to leave. I quietly peeked in and asked if she was packing up. To my surprise, she rudely quipped, “I’ll be here for a while.” Five minutes later a security guard appeared informing me that the woman alleged that I had threatened her. I don’t mind admitting that I was infuriated to have beenlied on. The worst part is that the coward left the premises before she could be confronted with her barefaced, deliberate fabrication. I felt disgraced at being force to explain myself in the face of her deceit.
What is so acute is that these falsehoods have very real consequences for black people. We’ve tolerated violence, incarcerationand even death as a result. The larger question is why are well trained law enforcement officers still so gullible and susceptible to these ridiculous and apparently racist accusations? And why are there no penalties for those bringing such hateful, bigoted indictments of innocent people?
It is exhausting to live as a suspect—having to continually prove your blamelessness. It turns out that my long-held fears are the same trepidations held by most people who look like me. Racial bias has not been an aberration but a dangerous reality. Perhaps the worst part is that the detestable, repulsive and irresponsible rhetoric emanating from the White House promises more of the same moving forward.