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Your College Degree Won't Protect You From Institutional Racism

03/20/2015 02:18 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015
Twitter/The Huffington Post

Last year, Lawrence Otis Graham wrote a Washington Post article in which he explained that he sent his three African American children to elite private schools and encouraged them to adopt "preppy clothes, perfect diction and that air of quiet graciousness" in the hope of protecting them from the racism and stereotyping that Graham and his wife experienced as young adults. However, as Graham later wrote in his article, the meticulous cultural grooming that his children endured ultimately became meaningless after two white men chose to call Graham's fifteen-year-old son the "n-word."

This week, after the story of the African American University of Virginia student Martese Johnson being bloodied by the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control outside Trinity Irish Pub became national news, Graham's article and his children's experiences are more relevant than ever. Johnson is a junior at the University of Virginia double majoring in Italian and Media Studies and the sole African American member of the university's Honor Committee. He is also the Vice Polemarch of the Eta Sigma Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. Much like Graham and his family, Johnson has done everything "right" to position himself as a respected member of society -- he is college-educated, articulate, ambitious, and does not have a criminal record. Yet, all of Johnson's accomplishments were not adequate enough to save him from the humiliation of being pushed to the ground and sustaining significant head and bodily injuries at the hands of the police.

Johnson's story -- that of a young African American being accused of a minor crime and becoming the victim of excessive force from the police -- is neither new nor uncommon. In a two-year time span that has seen the deaths of Tamir Rice, Anthony Hill, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Eric Garner and others, the possibility of young African Americans being severely injured or killed without legal justification has become all too prevalent in American society. However, unlike Rice, Hill, Stanley-Jones, and Garner, Johnson had the opportunity to receive a college education. Thus, in a culture that insists that individuals with a college education become better, less violent citizens and that education has the power to function as a social, economic, and racial equalizer (though studies have proven this to be untrue), Johnson's educational success should theoretically protect him from the negative racial stereotypes of violence and inherent criminality that plague other African Americans who did not have the chance to attend college.

However, these theories do not take into account the structural nature of institutional racism, as well as the sensory ways individuals have been socialized to detect race that superimpose themselves over other, less visceral ways of constructing identity such as education, diction, and manner of dress. In a 2008 interview with the University of North Carolina Press, Mark M. Smith, the author of How Race is Made, stated that "forms of sensory stereotyping [such as smell, taste, and touch] had the effect of animalizing and debasing blackness in the white mind." Smith's book details how sensory stereotyping became more prominent during the 1850s in the antebellum South as a way of determining who did and did not "belong" to the ruling class in response to an increasingly large mixed-race population that existed as a result of miscegenation. These sensory stereotypes continued into the twentieth century as white opponents of public school integration sanctioned by the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education complained of the dangers of "black germs" and "black smell" on white schoolchildren. Racist sensory stereotypes can be seen again in the twenty-first century, particularly in the alleged case of Revlon CEO Lorenzo Delpani, who was said to have claimed he could "smell" African Americans when they walked into a room.

Sensory stereotypes can be constructed on an individual basis and require no scientific, intellectual, or anthropological justification or proof to be perceived as fact within bigoted groups. Consequently, they have the ability to override traditional non-race-based markers of social success or advancement that are obtained by African Americans. Particularly in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown and the media characterization of Brown as a thug, drug user, and criminal, conversations regarding the use of respectability politics to prevent the frequency of instances of police brutality against African Americans have become increasingly popular.

Respectability politics pushes the belief that if African American men and women simply make the conscious decision to speak and dress "better" and pursue specialized or postgraduate degrees, institutional racism and hate crimes against African Americans and other people of color will eventually end because the historical sensory stereotypes attached to blackness will suddenly no longer exist. Respectability politics is the idea that people of color must somehow prove their humanity and value as individuals in order to no longer become the victims of hate, violence, and discrimination. Yet, in a video taken of Johnson's arrest, he can be seen repeatedly telling the police officers that he is a student at the University of Virginia, and their response was to push him more forcefully into the pavement.

The solution to instances of police brutality and other racially-motivated crimes against African Americans is not to blame the victims of these situations for speaking African American Vernacular English or for not having access to higher education. The experiences of Martese Johnson and Lawrence Otis Graham prove that adhering to the code of respectability politics does not guarantee protection from the sensory and institutional aspects of racism. Rather, it would be more relevant to examine the larger social and historical causes of racism and how they manifest themselves in our everyday lives.