As I was leaving campus late one night, a student graciously informed me that my right brake light was out. The next afternoon, as I drove to get the light fixed, I held my breath the entire way. What would otherwise be a routine inconvenience on a busy day, just one of those many errand you do during any given week, became a source of fear and anxiety for me as a black woman. I wasn't worried about the time it would take; or how much it would cost; or if they would find something else wrong with the car; or if I had enough time to get it done and make it back for my 4pm meeting. Instead, I was worried that if pulled over by a police officer because of a faulty brake light (a very routine reason for a traffic stop), it might actually lead to my death. This is not hyperbole. I drove with real fear and trepidation that I would get pulled over, within ten miles of my own home, and might end up in jail…or worse. And this is what it means to be black in this country: events that are typical encounters for some, are potentially death-dealing situations for others.
The story of Sandra Bland terrorizes me because I know that her story could also be my story. She was 28 years old. She had just accepted a job at her alma mater. She was stopped for a routine traffic violation, arrested by the police, and subsequently jailed. And three days later, she was found dead in her cell. Authorities have ruled her death suicide. The stark facts of this case leave us with more questions than answers. Would a young woman take her life after landing a job at her alma mater? What injuries did she suffer as a result of the brutal arrest, which was caught on tape? Did something horrendous happen to her in that jail cell? Did someone kill her or do something so horrendous to her that it made her take her own life? What happened to Sandra Bland? Some of us find it difficult to believe the official report of her arrest and “suicide” because of the many cases where official accounts have been proven false.
Perhaps the question of what happened to Sandra Bland may eventually be answered, but the answers cannot quell the fear and terror that these cases inflict on black people. I know, without a doubt, that my education, my degrees, my credentials, and my “good citizenship” will not save me from forces that want to criminalize and dehumanize me. Nor will my gender protect me. Racial terror is a reality for black people, from every walk of life. The very real and present danger of knowing that you can obey all the laws, do all the right things, conform to every standard, and still find your life hanging in the balance is an awful way to live. Living under racial terror suggests:
If I assert my rights as a citizen, I am "combative." If I wait until I reach a well-lit area to pull over, I am "fleeing." If I protect my head and neck from being bashed against the concrete, I am "resisting." If I dare to express my pain and trauma, I am "angry." If I commit a crime at any level, I should accept that I may be summarily found guilty and executed without trial. And if I am killed, I should accept that my death is my fault, despite someone else pulling the trigger.
And so, I found myself driving to get my car serviced, with shaky hands, thinking about Sandra Bland and her last days on this earth. I found myself reflecting on the racial terror that her death and the deaths of so many others evoke. I found myself crying about the trauma of racial terror that haunts life in America. And all I could think about is how this is no country for black women...