Last year, following the murders of Islan Nettles, Tanisha Anderson, and Michael Brown – to name a few of the thousands of instances of police brutality against people of color – hundreds of Pittsburghers took to the streets and shut everything down, hoping to raise awareness and fight for justice when none could be found. Students at the University of Pittsburgh organized die-ins, protests, and even made a video on the app Yik-Yak to highlight the anonymous racism that Black students on campus face daily.
During these student-organized events, I observed something very peculiar: young, Black men were a rare sight. White people and Black women of all ages were plentiful. Even older Black men came in great numbers, but there seemed to be a lack of college-aged, Black men fighting for their own Black lives.
When asked about the perceived lack of young, Black men at protests and Black Lives Matter-related events, student organizer Bempoma Pieterson said, “I think for some [Black men] it’s an internalization of White supremacy so they feel that they’re the problem. Others feel that it’s not cool, that they’re too cool to be chanting and marching.”
University of Pittsburgh senior, Ifeanyi-Chukwu Urama has never been to a protest, die-in, or any other public forum to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement, despite being a Black man himself. When I asked him why he hadn’t participated, Ifeanyi-Chukwu said, “Public perception is definitely a huge bit of it. I remember when I was asked to join the die-in at [The University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library] and I said no because, truth be told, I was scared. Although I would consider joining a large protest now since there’s less of a focus on the individual.”
Not all agree that Pittsburgh suffers from a lack of young Black men at protests. Student organizer Linsey Eldridge said that she “noticed the opposite. At least at Black Lives Matter protests, specifically when it’s after the death of a Black man, I’ve seen more young, Black men. But when it’s a Black girl or woman, especially a Black, trans woman,” she noted, “I’ve seen less Black men.” This could be due to the misogyny and transphobia that runs throughout black communities, rather than respectability. Linsey believes that “if a young Black man is killed, that’s a reminder to other young, Back men that they could be the next ‘another hashtag.’ But with Black trans women, they can distance themselves from the fight because it’s ‘not them.’”
The logic here isn’t unclear. Why protest something that doesn’t concern you? Except it does. All instances of police brutality against any person of color should be of concern to Black men – they’re still victims of institutionalized racism. Linsey noted the indifference she saw in Black men, but suggested it might be regional: “I would say that in Pittsburgh, I saw less Black men than when I’ve been to protests in Baltimore and D.C. I think that’s because Baltimore and D.C. are primarily Black and possibly because, in D.C., people are more aware. You’ve got Howard and African-centered elementary schools and bookstores just for Black scholars, whereas with Pittsburgh, I think the education system is so awful for Black people that it builds a sense of apathy.”
It makes sense – Black is Black, regardless of the gender identity attached to it. But if Black people aren’t taught that, if they aren’t surrounded by a sense of community and togetherness, then they will not care when “other” Black people drop like rain around them.
To my fellow young, Black men: being heterosexual or cis will not save you from racism; your college degree isn’t bulletproof; not going to protests and not giving a shit about politics for the sake of public perception will not stop your Brothers and Sisters from getting killed. I understand – the act of caring is emotionally and spiritually draining, but we have to think about this accurately: an attack on one Black person’s humanity is an attack on us all. If we don’t support and look out for ourselves — for every Black man, woman, and child, straight or gay, cis or trans — who will?