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The Case of the Imperfect Negro

Comedian D. L. Hughley recently released an extraordinarily poignant (if not admittedly vulgar) book about the expectations that mainstream American society has imposed on African-Americans as the standard way to act if black folks want to get treated “fairly” in this country. The book, titled “How Not To Get Shot (and Other Advice From White People),” is a tongue-in-cheek expose on many of the spoken and unspoken expectations that many of us African-Americans have come to live with in America, even if many of us reject them in our own lives.

Growing up in California, Washington, and Louisiana, the most common Black-people-should-do-this tropes one might hear were that Black people needed to dress and speak a certain way. If a Black person would only pull up their pants and speak proper English, they’d never encounter racism or prejudice, went the logic. Obviously, that wasn’t true, but since the average person doesn’t want to acknowledge that they simply discriminate against someone because they have a different level of tan than they do, harping on things more discretionary is a good cover. Unfortunately, the reality they spoke was the reality lived for many African-Americans. Most of us of a certain age or older are familiar with the old adage that as a Black person in America, one must be twice as good to get just as far.

Apparently, that adage may have undersold how consequential being less-than-perfect would be for Black folks.

Today, Dallas authorities confirmed that they had recently executed a search warrant on the home of Botham Jean, the 26-year old local man from St. Lucia who was killed one week ago today on September 6th by an off-duty, uniformed police officer who claims to have mistakenly entered the wrong apartment and subsequently opened fire on Jean in his own home. While standard practice in a homicide case, the resulting headlines were just as predictable, considering past cases of Black people being killed under suspicious circumstances.

“Marijuana found in Botham Jean’s apartment after deadly shooting” read one headline, eerily reminiscent of the release of text messages, school records, and other additional information about 17 year old Trayvon Martin shortly after his 2013 shooting death in Florida but ahead of his killer, George Zimmerman’s trial later that summer.

Trayvon’s chronically misspelled, slang-filled messages — as well as pictures of a semi-automatic pistol, marijuana plants and Trayvon flipping his middle fingers — are all part of Zimmerman’s defense plan to put the Miami Gardens 17-year-old posthumously on trial.

I remember the Trayvon Martin case well. I had just graduated law school and was working the only job I could find in Baton Rouge at the time. I remember when the deluge of negative reports about Tryavon started appearing in the media, a clear legal attempt by Zimmerman’s defense team to blur the lines of plausibility for their client, but a PR campaign aided and abetted by a mainstream media playing into the implicit racial biases that have plagued American news outlets since the Republic’s inception. And while I cynically expected folks that I didn’t know or people I didn’t have particularly close relationships with to ultimately let those negative characterizations about the young man justify the stalking and killing of a 17 year old, I was most surprised to encounter it at work among my colleagues at the time.

I remember inadvertently walking into an ongoing discussion at work one day about the trial and the revelations that Trayvon Martin had been a bit of a troublemaker at school and quickly being called into it, with one of my female colleagues insisting that I give my opinion about it. There was only one other Black person in the room and she had been at the organization for awhile – so she wasn’t likely to say anything that would jeopardize that. The question was a leading one: “I mean, Quentin, even you have to admit that the photos tell a very different story, right? He wasn’t just some kid. He had issues.”

At that moment, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. There just wasn’t a good way to engage in that conversation as an African-American man who knows – God forbid – that should I go out in the same manner as young Trayvon one day, some of the revelations people will discover about my past will make the Trayvon Martin stuff look like he lived like a Buddhist monk. I’m just saying… I’m grown, he was 17. Life happens.

Nevertheless, I quickly realized there was no good answer I could give in the moment. My initial reaction was shock and anger, but Black men don’t have the luxury to be angry or expressive in the professional workplace. I’ve learned that lesson too, the hard way. More on that another day. So I bit my tongue; I shook my head and walked out the small office kitchen, with nothing positive to say and no appropriate way to speak my mind while on the clock in the presence of my seemingly tone-deaf co-workers.

A week later, I was informed by a supervisor that my “behavior” in that conversation – walking away without responding to the question – was irresponsible and harassing; that as the only African-American participating in the conversation, I had a unique responsibility in that situation to make others feel comfortable expressing their honest opinions. That I should have recognized the conversation as my co-workers being willing to be open and vulnerable with me – their African-American colleague – about issues regarding race and that my reaction would make those folks less likely to be open and honest going forward.

While the double standard regarding the expectations of how I handle offensive conversations around race upset me tremendously at the time, the bigger issue still remained that I was working with people who could justify the killing of an unarmed black man as long as they knew he wasn’t a perfect human being.

So I wonder… how many people saw Thursday’s report on the Jean search warrant and immediately turned off their sympathy for the young man because, well, he smoked weed, so of course he deserved to get killed? How many people have said, “Well there you go. Sure, the officer shouldn’t have been there, but look what he had in his house! He wasn’t this church-going good guy that never got into trouble. He smoked weed!”

And I wonder how many of those who let that preposterous rationale ease their minds themselves live up to the same standards that they hold the deceased to? And if not, if you being imperfect still isn’t a license to kill, why is that the standard for people of color? Why do people of color have to do more, live differently, and play by different rules just to get the decency of equal treatment?

That’s the bigger question. Why does the negro have to be perfect to be acceptable?

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