On the Cusp of an 'African American Spring'

05/01/2015 02:04 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016
Andrew Burton via Getty Images

Aghast at the sight of the Baltimore riot, I struggled for days to find meaning in what appeared senseless. I searched history for answers, discovering that what's happening through the protests and riots of African Americans throughout the country is similar to the "Arab Spring" that occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. Are we on the cusp of an "African American Spring" akin the Arab Spring? Perhaps.

The Arab Spring was an "awakening" of long-held yearnings for equality led mainly by young, disenfranchised citizens. It began as popular uprisings in the form of local protests, riots, social media campaigns and, eventually, military strikes against oppressive rule that spread transnationally. While the uprisings had precipitating factors, such as we have here with the police killings of unarmed black men and boys, they were linchpins rather than causes of the Arab Spring. The cause was freedom from oppression. America viewed the Arab Spring as the people legitimately raising their voices in pursuit of democratic ideals such as freedom.

Like the Arab Spring, people in Sanford, Ferguson and Baltimore did not riot for the black men killed. They were waging a legitimate insurrection against racial oppression affecting their own lives--poverty, lack of opportunity and mistreatment by law enforcement--that may be the cusp of an "African American Spring." But we have a difficult time accepting these "raised voices" because we are conditioned to dismiss black rage.

Media and public officials have arrived at the lowest common denominator of reason in assessing the riots as wonton acts of lawlessness and the rioters as criminals and thugs. Newscasters, politicians and community leaders, perhaps rightly, decried the riots. As in the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, African American ministers circled the wagons of respectability politics in their appeals for calm. But few people acknowledged the riots as a legitimate form of protest that has long been part of the fabric of America and that we support in other countries. This hypocrisy is not lost on the youth of our nation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that riots are the language of the unheard. A truer statement has never been uttered. But for language to have meaning, we must learn it and learn from it. President Obama, a former community organizer, did the nation a disservice by not recognizing the legitimate cry for freedom against oppression that has been the cause of the uprisings associated with the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.

Corporate America also has failed in the national conversation on African American suffering. There is a double standard. As a gay African American, I was proud that companies like Angie's List, Eli Lilly, Marriott and the NCAA spoke out vigorously against Indiana's LGBT bias law. Yet they and most other companies have been silent on the issue of black men dying indiscriminately at the hands of police, black people being incarcarated in disproportion to their numbers, and black households on an economic razor-edge. CVS-Caremark Corporation, a health care company whose store was a flashpoint for the Baltimore riot, has said nothing to heal the community or speak to the institutionalized racism at the heart of the riot.

Some African Americans have argued with me that comparing the riots to the Arab Spring gives too much credence to the miscreant behavior of some black youths. But that's the problem. Inured to black suffering, we all have a double standard for African Americans. We met those who inspired the riots that gave rise to the Arab Spring as initiators and heroes of democracy, but the African American rioters as threats to society. Black folks were as mad as white folks, making clear that a quest for liberation has meaning to Americans when it occurs someplace other than here. We refuse to see ourselves.

While there are similarities between the Arab Spring and what may become an African American Spring, there are substantial differences. The African American Spring likely will be episodic, precipitated by each new police-related death of an unarmed African American. Events will be localized and initiated by African Americans but quickly become national and joined by all people. The timeline for finality will be fluid. Companies will be targets of opportunity.

Riots will ensue as long as institutionalized racism leads to more deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of police and lack of opportunity for the disenfranchised. African American rage will become American rage. There's no getting around it. Until we address institutionalized racism as our most critical national security threat, we will continue to see the righteous indignation of riots in the streets of America.