Reflecting on Sandra Bland’s arrest and eventual death while incarcerated in a Texas county jail with its own legacy of White supremacy is an important reminder that historical patterns continue to inform 21st century racial disparities. What was her “crime”? Apparently not giving a White police officer the deference required by White custom for Black people since the colonial era and the founding of the United States.
Like the Black youth Emmett Till who in 1955 was visiting relatives in Mississippi and was mutilated and murdered for reportedly flirting with a White woman, Sandra Bland was also from Chicago and refused to follow the deferential custom imposed by Whites on Blacks.
Like other African Americans who have been despised by Whites and arrested for nearly any concocted reason, Sandra Bland – an educated women on her way to a new job at a local university from which she herself had graduated – was simply asserting her knowledge of her civil rights when she was pulled over for a lane violation while she smoked a cigarette.
Although no arrest had been made, the existence of the cigarette so inflamed the White policeman that he threatened Bland while pointing his Taser at her: “I will light you up!”
This scene reminded me of Douglas Blackmon’s description in Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II of a 1908 world that could result in the arrest of a Black man – or something worse:
“So the term for those African American men deemed specifically worthless for their defiant attitudes was ‘cigarette dudes.’ These men were cocky in comparison to their peers; they had learned reading and writing, and sometimes worked and sometimes slouched on street corners. Sometimes cigarettes sat akilter on their lips… Instead of threadbare overalls, the uniform of all blacks and poor country whites for as long as anyone could remember, these men might wear trousers and jackets, even neckties… On their faces an air of defiant confidence, visages of the men they knew they should been allowed to be…
“According to almost every white, these cigarette dudes were the source of every trouble in the South… To be rid of them forever, by whatever means could accomplish that goal, was something nearly every white man in the South…had openly called for and worked toward…””
Contrary to assertions of a post-racial America, overcoming 400 years of racial oppression will take the continuation and expansion of the social justice movement Black Lives Matter.