From Kenneth V. Hardy, Ph.D., Clinical and Organizational Consultant for the Eikenberg Institute for Relationships in New York

May 29, 2020

From Kenneth V. Hardy, Ph.D., Clinical and Organizational Consultant for the Eikenberg Institute for Relationships in New York

Here is a passage from an article I wrote in 2014 following the death of Freddie Gray. You can replace his name with another and what is stated still rings true today.

Last April, like millions of other people, I sat transfixed in front of my TV, watching cars being torched and turned over, buildings being set ablaze, and crowds of young people throwing rocks at police. This was all happening in Baltimore, in the wake of the death of a young black man named Freddie Grey under suspicious circumstances after he’d been arrested for allegedly possessing an illegal switchblade. Intellectually, I understood the absurdity of a crowd of mostly black young men burning down their own community. The calm, sober part of me, the part that’s a comfortably middle-class therapist who’s learned to go back and forth in a racially divided society knew clearly that what was happening only makes a bad situation worse—and that’s how most of white America reacted. Yet as a black person, I felt something else.

As I watched the disaffected young men on my TV screen riot in the streets, I saw an unexpressed part of myself being played out while a jumble of memories from my personal and professional life passed through my head. Over decades of working in communities like inner-city Baltimore, I’ve spent countless hours with the kind of young people that the CNN reporters on the scene that day described as “thugs” and the pundits that night and through the following days condemned for their lawlessness. I understood that those young people had, in essence, already given up on whites and the dream of living in a racially just society in which their lives mattered.

I’ve spent the last four decades of my life working with young people who see themselves as trapped behind a wall-less prison with no exits, who live their lives hidden in the shadows of invisibility as far as white society is concerned. They know all too well that their daily experience—whether it’s going to lousy schools, or succumbing to drug use and abuse, or being the victims of crime, lack of employment prospects, or economic despair and hopelessness—doesn’t matter unless it interferes with or disrupts the lives of the white mainstream. While deeply rooted in the racial fabric of our country’s history, life behind the wall-less prison remains a mostly untold story.

Black inner-city youth understand the terms of the contract negotiated at the time of their births— you’re unseen, faceless, without value. You’ll forever be defined by others, losing the freedom to define yourself, to declare for yourself who you are. Instead of a proactive declaration, you feel trapped into a reactive one, a repudiation of how the world wants to define you. Perhaps this is why we so often hear black parents describe their children in terms of what they’re not, rather than who and what they are: “My son is not a bad child. He is not a criminal. He is not in gangs, and he doesn’t run around with the wrong crowd.”

Black kids know perfectly well how they’re perceived by white society: they’re threatening thugs and future criminals who need to be contained by any means necessary. Isn’t this the prevailing sentiment that undergirds the shooting of countless numbers of unarmed black men by law enforcement on a regular basis? Whether in a car or walking, running toward or away from the police, unarmed or carrying a toy weapon, the narrative is always the same: they were dangerous, and we feared for our lives.

Despite growing up in a middle- class, two-parent, observantly religious family, I’d gone through my own harsh training in how to ignore the injustices and humiliations that are the daily experience of black people. And I’ve also realized that even with the insights my therapeutic training has provided, and the fact that I’ve facilitated all kinds of workshops and consultations exploring the impact of race and racism on the lives of both white and black people, I’ve still spent a part of my life isolated in my own wall-less prison.

This passage will always be timely. Unfortunately, there are few signs that these conditions will change anytime soon. As a society, the enormity of this problem is well beyond the stage of giving speeches, making hallow promises, peaceful protests, or donating money as a solution. We have to engage in a process of self-interrogation, self- reflection, and self-awareness. We have to ask ourselves is this the type of world we wish to live in? Do I genuinely wish to be my brother/sister’s keeper? What am I willing to sacrifice in order to achieve the ideals I wish to live by?  Do I vociferously verbally denounce racism while remaining paralyzed by inaction. Does my commitment to social justice commit me to being and doing or merely saying? Is the commitment to Social Justice an abstraction or an action? As a clinician, do I embrace the connection between being a therapist and being an Activist? How many more Black and Brown people am I willingly to standby and watch die before I feel compelled to act?  And finally, how much longer can we allow these human indignities and atrocities to exist before the fractured faith and broken hopes they breed forever threaten our common purpose and existence?

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