The Myth of the 'Good Negro'

11/08/2015 08:15 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2016
A young woman yells, 'black lives matter,' with other protesters at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse on Friday, August 21, 2
A young woman yells, 'black lives matter,' with other protesters at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse on Friday, August 21, 2015 protesting when after four days of deliberations, a mistrial was declared when the jury was unable to resolve a deadlock in the case of Randall 'Wes' Kerrick in Charlotte, N.C. Kerrick, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer accused of killing an unarmed man, Jonathan Ferrell, in a struggle two years ago. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS via Getty Images)

I have always been what is considered to be a "good black person." I have a diverse set of friends, a home, a nice car and three graduate degrees. I've traveled the world, from France to India, New Zealand and beyond. I am happily married to a white man who loves and respects me, and his family loves me and has supported our relationship from the beginning. Many have said to me that I am a credit to my race.

Professionally, I am a well-respected tax lawyer and a leader in my community. In fact, I have been supported and mentored by many people who do not look like me. The people who know me will tell you that I am not angry or a race-baiter. I have been an incredibly lucky person who grew up in poverty and even experienced homelessness, but with hard work, the social safety net and mentoring, was able to build a good life. I am living the American "Post Racial" Dream.

The problem is this narrative doesn't tell the full story of my life. It doesn't tell you that for too many people in my community, I am the exception and not the rule. Black Americans are some of the most talented and ambitious people that I have ever met, but for many, their spirits have been crushed by a lack of opportunity.

I would like to tell you that my race doesn't matter and that America has moved past the bad, old days of racism. That if you work hard, you can achieve anything in America no matter your color or the zip code you are born in. That all of the videos of young people being abused and assaulted that we see on our evening news on a weekly basis is due only to their bad behavior, lack of good parenting or some type of pathology related to growing up in poverty.

But if I told you those things it would only serve as a lie to make both you and I feel better. It would allow this country to deny the legacy of racism and its negative impact to this day on the lives of people of color. It would allow us the fantasy that people get what they deserve and that the people that have power have earned it because they make better decisions and are better people. It would only serve to reinforce the myth that the reason black people are poor is because of the lack of good morals, which is a problem only their community needs to fix.

The reason that I wish I could believe this as a "good black," is it would mean that the success that I have achieved is due to my smarts and hard work alone. It would allow me to continue to wake up every day and say that I am in charge of my own destiny and that race doesn't matter. It would enable me to continue to deny that people who look like me in this country are suffering and not thriving.

I realize that I have failed in my role as a black person. That as a "good black," when I don't speak up about race issues, I allow my white friends and family to believe that this movement of #blacklivesmatter or speaking about white privilege is not valid or justified, to deny that discrimination happens to all black people no matter your socio economic status or education level, to deny that I think about how I dress or act when I go shopping, that my heart rate increases when the police drive up behind me in my Mercedes, and that if something were to happen to me, that I pray that all the people I know would not believe that I did something wrong. That because I am constantly around people who don't look like me, I am forced to justify that I deserve to be in the room, at that meeting or in that job.

Even when you're a so-called "good black," you still have to prepare yourself for all of the indignities of daily life as a black person in America. All the times when you will be asked to show I.D. when your white friends, that are standing right next to you, don't meed to. It's knowing that I will always be pulled out of line at the airport to be randomly screened. Is it really random when it happens every time? Being a "good black" still means that people who don't know you will assume you are poor and uneducated and look at you with eye-widening shock when you tell them you are a lawyer or other educated professional. You can recognize the tension when you walk into a room, until people realize they can relax around you because you're not one of those "bad black" types.

All those things that we as "good blacks" let roll off our backs because we want to keep what we have is a mistake because it enables white people to have the impression that this is a poverty thing when it's a race thing. This is the quandary for the black middle class person.

We feel like we have done all of the things that we are supposed to do to be successful, accepted and respected. We are liked by the people who know us. We are thought of as good people and great neighbors -- but what about the person who doesn't know us? The person we have not been able to show that we are "just like them."

The problem with racism or prejudice is not how you judge the diverse people you know, but how you react to the ones you don't. When I looked at Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland, I could put myself in their shoes. Conversely, when I started having conversations with some of my white friends, all they could see was the justifiable fear that dealing with "these people" caused. They make excuses for George Zimmerman stalking and eventually killing Trayvon Martin, or the excessive force of a grown man slamming a teenage girl to the ground and dragging her out of the room because they don't view black children the same way they do their own teenage child. I was struck by the fact that we saw things so differently. It forced me to accept that they just didn't understand. It's apparent that many secretly thought that their child would never be in that situation. Even with all of my success, that is not something that I could be confident about. Not for myself or the black children I know.

This is where black anger is coming from. There is an unspoken code for many middle class or affluent African-Americans that we don't speak about race with people outside of our race because it always tends to end badly for both sides. Actually it only ends badly for us, because we are seen as angry and hostile -- with comparisons to Al Sharpton -- and it could hurt our careers. Besides, when I look at my life, what do I have to complain about? Most people would be happy to be in my shoes whether they be black, white or other. But in these instances we are angry because it feels like our children aren't safe regardless of our circumstances.

We have done the right things and been the "good blacks" and our children still aren't safe. Too many people in this country still buy into the narrative that black children are more likely to end up in jail or dead than in college, even though their parents are part of the middle class. We live in safer neighborhoods than many of our brothers or sisters, our kids may go to private or catholic schools, attend summer sleep away camp and take trips abroad so they can be well-rounded. Regardless of any of this, they will still be seen as black first.

We did our part, and we were supposed to get an equal chance. We did the hard work so we could raise our children in a safe surrounding. For generations, blacks of all income levels have told their sons about how to behave with the police, but now it feels like any stranger could kill them and not face the expected legal consequences. Even in death our children's character will be assassinated and the perpetrator will walk free.

We want fairness not justice. If you have fairness in the process then you won't need justice. When millions of African-Americans are telling you about their personal experiences and the fears for their children, this is something that can't be so easily dismissed. I don't want to believe that the life I live and the circumstances of cases like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland could be true at the same time but they are. We may have many opportunities, but if we or our children aren't safe, than it doesn't feel like success and being a "good black" just isn't good enough.