Thursday, August 21, 2014

Question: Going Back to the U.S. After Ferguson?

Plenty has been happening while I've been on vacation in Spain

I'm a political and news junkie, and most weeknights you would find me on my bed, reading and watching the news. I'm almost always listening to political commentary whenever I get the chance. Even while vacationing in Spain, I'm still finding out what's going on via my cell phone and trusty tablet PC.

For the last week or so, I've heard the news about yet another black man killed by a police officer inappropriately. Since I've been paying attention, I realize that this is something that happens all the time. I see that black Americans are stopped by police, harassed, arrested for malicious reasons and often killed when they really shouldn't have been.  

However, this particular case has been all over the news, it looks like the people of Ferguson are rallying against it, and the happenings have been posted all over my Facebook feed. Political pundits on all sides are commenting on this story.

In light of all the coverage, I ran into a question posted in a Facebook group. Does the current state of affairs concerning police brutality against black people in the United States affect my decision on whether to go back?

I thought this was a good question to ask myself, especially as an expat that has been living in South Korea for almost four years now. I first moved abroad over four years ago, and I recently have thought about moving back.  

Before I answer the question, I think it's important for me to give my opinion on the matter. Since it's rather complex, I'll try to keep it as short as possible without rambling.

Basically, I think the United States of America harbors numerous social problems that disproportionately affect African Americans in particular. These include things like housing, education, employment opportunity, the prison industrial complex, systematic racism and most importantly, the lack of accumulation of wealth.

In other words, America has whole communities of black people who live their lives day-to-day and have little hope of improving their situation, because they see it as out of reach. And this feeling doesn't come out of nowhere; statistically this is true.

 I also believe that people, as a whole, make rational decisions.

When it comes to cases such as the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, I see how these unfair structures held in place by American society affect black individuals in ways that are simply brutal, often denying black men in particular the right to even exist in what's supposed to be their own country. It's bad enough that people are poor, uneducated and lack decent economic opportunities-- it seems as if it's becoming more blatant that they can simply be killed on a whim as well. This is the part that alarms me the most. Can't people at least get a chance to live out their lives? Isn't it supposed to be America, the land of freedom?
Listening to other people's thoughts also lets me into the current environment in the country. Some of that commentary has been clueless, apathetic and just plain outrageous.

For example, when the police chief made his statement, he cleverly included that Michael Brown had been a suspect in a strong-arm (or unarmed) robbery - even though the police officer that stopped and killed him did not know this information. Some people subsequently have taken this information and really ran with it. But why? He had it coming? The punishment for stealing low-value items is a public execution without due process? Would they be making these same arguments about a white person stealing from a convenience store? The Huffington Post made a good compilation that shows media bias against black victims of crime, and this also helps me dive into what people are thinking.  

There's also the war on drugs and the prison industrial complex. We've been filling up these prisons with so many black men for non-violent offenses. For profit prisons create a demand for prisoners. If they systematically filled them up with white people on trumped up charges, the system wouldn't have lasted for nearly as long. Black people in communities without economic power make easy targets for this profit-driven machine.  Even worse, the population at large doesn't want to do anything to fix this problem. A disturbing study came out suggesting the white people support harsher measures against criminals if they see that they're mainly affecting black people. That is sickening.

As a black person, I've seen what it's like to make contact with the legal system. I've also been in countless situations where I have been quickly suspected of wrongdoing by white people. When I was 10 years old, I remember feeling baffled after I was accused of stealing beepers/pagers from our karate studio. The dojo had been the scene of several thefts lately. The white woman who reported me for stealing them was sure of it. I couldn't figure out why she singled me out over of all the other (white) kids that were there. A karate instructor who had known me for a long time had to testify for my character. He was sure that I hadn't done such a thing.

My dad became angry at me when he found out. It's not because he thought I was a thief, but rather because in his mind, I hadn't presented myself well enough in order to escape the accusation. He didn't say any of that, however. He shook his head and remained tight-lipped. You see, my parents where trying to shield me from racism and its effects when they raised me. They wanted me to grow up feeling like I was really apart of that majority white community.

Today, I look back and ask myself a few questions. What if I were older when that happened? What if I didn't have anyone to speak on my behalf because I didn't know anyone well enough? It would have been my word against that white woman's, and it's scary to think about. It seems ridiculously easy to get sucked into the system, even for something you didn't do at all. Remember that demand for prisoners I've already mentioned? That's a reality for black Americans.

I'm in my late twenties, and one of my priorities is to have a family one day. I have a vested interest in how exactly black people are treated in the place I live. That's why I pay close attention.

So, has this situation affected my decision to move back? Somewhat. In the back of my mind, I feel as if it's physically safer to stay out. I probably won't be shot or arrested for no reason by police in Korea. I'm able to travel and shop freely. Walking around in Korea feels like a weight has been lifted in a way I can't really describe. I may complain about some things, but life is comfortable here, even psychologically, compared to live in the United States. Despite the nonsense I've uncovered, I feel like the systematic racism in employment opportunity isn't nearly as intense and entrenched as it is in the United States. Fun fact: having a white-sounding name in America is worth about 8 years of work experience. Eight years! Before you think that it's not my problem, keep in mind that if a company decides that they're not hiring black people, they're not going to hire me either. America has more sophisticated ways of keeping you out of places they don't think you belong.

I know it won't do anything in the long run, but it's comforting to know that the rest of the world is watching. The United States is good at pointing fingers at others. A few months ago, I explained some of the ways black people are treated in my country to a Korean friend. He was shocked. I think this sort of thing needs to get out there for people to see. Even aside from the atrocities America commits overseas, it has plenty of human rights violations right at home. Is it really a safe place to live?

Now, it's not that I won't go back ever. I see it as something that's up in the air, and I will go where life takes me. Situations like these just make me more reluctant to return. What I do know is that I'll be staying right where I am at the moment. 

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