Asking for help while black: How it became a capital offense

In society that sees black people as always seeking handouts, Renisha McBride's murder exposed our biggest problem

By Brittney Cooper

Published November 12, 2013 12:43PM (EST)

A mourner holds an obituary showing a picture of 19-year-old shooting victim Renisha McBride during her funeral service in Detroit, Michigan November 8, 2013.         (Reuters/Joshua Lott)
A mourner holds an obituary showing a picture of 19-year-old shooting victim Renisha McBride during her funeral service in Detroit, Michigan November 8, 2013. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

The murder of Renisha McBride suggests that asking for help while black is a capital offense. It has long been a crime. The right has done a wonderful job of making people believe that our biggest societal problem is black people who ask for help too damn much. We are, they argue, an undeserving, overeager lot with our hands always stretched out waiting on the next dispensation of TANF (welfare) and SNAP (food stamps). Never mind that white recipients of these programs far outnumber black and brown recipients.

We are talking about the lie of perception. We are talking about a system of white supremacy that makes white perception everyone’s reality. This, I argue, is black people’s biggest problem.

Still. Up until now, asking for help while black was a nuisance, a practice worthy of heavy social regulation despite calls to deregulate everything else, a problem to be solved through the criminalization of black and brown people to be sure. But it wasn’t a capital crime.

Even in the midst of such social calumny, many of us, no matter our race, have still chosen to believe that basic human decency is alive in America, that this land of our birth is what Benedict Anderson has famously referred to as an imagined community, “because regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”

When 19-year-old Renisha stepped onto the porch of an unknown man seeking help after a car accident, undoubtedly scared and shaken, her entreaties for help were met with a bullet to the face. That kind of show of power is all about verticality and domination not horizontalism and camaraderie.

How have we arrived at a moment when there are white folks with such callous disregard for black life? So much so that they’ll shoot a black girl in the face. I am clear that a tenet of white supremacy is the active and wholesale disregard for black life. So don’t read my question as a kind of naiveté born of a belief in the myth of post-racialism.

I’m saying that a world in which a black girl gets killed while asking for assistance feels disorienting to me. When Jonathan Ferrell was shot and killed in North Carolina two months ago in an eerily similar situation in which he asked for help after a terrible car wreck and police mistook him for an intruder and murdered him, I understood that as a problem of racist police brutality in relation specifically to black men.

But as I watch black folks stumble and fumble in our response to Renisha’s killing, it is clear that we have come to believe that black girls get a pass on racial violence. It isn’t black girls whom parents worry about having the talk with about ending up in the wrong neighborhood or being harassed by law enforcement.

And it bears noting that the cop who murdered Jonathan Ferrell has been arrested and charged.

The man who killed Jordan Davis for playing his rap music too loud with his friends has been arrested and charged.

We marched so that George Zimmerman would be arrested and charged.

These stories devastate us. But they provide a clear course of action. We know what the narrative is, so we know not only where to direct our outrage, but also where to adjust our behavior.

Don’t wear hoodies, don’t get caught in certain neighborhoods after dark, don’t antagonize police with lots of questions when you are pulled over. These are the talks that parents and communities have with black boys.

I’m a black girl, though. So I never got that talk.

We get talks about keeping our legs closed, not getting pregnant, getting our education. We get talks about “killing ‘em with kindness,” being ladylike, and raising our children well.

Black communities have long intuitively known that black women and men experience racism differently. Unfortunately, we bought into the lie that only our black boys are in danger of becoming victims of racism.

Though Sojourner Truth and Anna Julia Cooper and so many others fought hard to be recognized as women and as ladies, we have somehow come to believe that black women’s femininity exempts them from what Kiese Laymon has called “the worst of white folks.”

Renisha McBride knows differently.

White supremacy is no country for black people. Gender be damned. And it remains abundantly clear that black life is still considered a reasonable price to pay for the protection of white property and white life. White supremacy works to reassert and maintain dominance by striking fear in the hearts of black and brown people, by restricting our free movement through the world, by reminding us at every turn, that we might end up the indiscriminate victims of white rage. We are made to believe that white rage is ephemeral, though, such that we look up in its aftermath, devastated by its inhabitation, but remain unable to track, trail or trap it. With a kind of profound certitude, though, we can generally trust its trail of black destruction. This is why I resist the lie of progress. Because I know that white supremacy is the changing same, defecating the same ole shit, just a different day.

Lest I speak about white supremacy as though it were God (or come to mistake God for a white supremacist), let me say simply that white people must stop their shoulder shrugging and head scratching and deal with the truth of their deep-seated racial resentment.

How many “accidental” black deaths will it take for us to recognize that this new epidemic of black life-taking is a direct function of the new racial nadir in which we find ourselves? What will it take for us to recognize -- to paraphrase Lil Wayne -- that white supremacy “is a bitch and death is her sister”? There was a scared, black teenage girl who needed help and got a bullet instead. The searing truth of white killing rage should move us all to act.

But since it has yet again become clear that black people are deemed unworthy to be helped, I am left to wonder how in the world we will be able to help ourselves?

Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

MORE FROM Brittney CooperFOLLOW professorcrunk

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

African Americans Editor's Picks Food Stamps Murder Racism Renisha Mcbride Snap Tanf Welfare White People