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  • Olivie Blake

Olivie Blake *Is Writing

I assume anyone reading this is aware that I usually spend Monday mornings “Not Writing,” aka reflecting on questions I get about creativity and other random topics that people bring to my attention. Today, though, I think it’s best that I sit down and write.

Someone once left a review on one of my books speculating that I had a philosophy background, which was a criticism of my semi-convoluted and largely open-ended allegory for morality and the value of the human experience. Given the way the world looks currently, I now feel the urge to be very clear about the fact that I am not, in fact, a philosopher, but someone who graduated with two degrees in urban planning: sociology’s structurally-inclined cousin. My education is not in the theory of what it means to exist (that’s just a fun hobby), but in the study of what it means to be part of a society. Specifically, how our perception of spaces and places informs our functions at an institutional level, and therefore determines our perception of the world.

This means I’ve put a lot of hours towards trying to understand the sociology of racism—which, yes, is often misunderstood as biological (see also: those who do not “see color,” or who feel that “black, white, blue, purple” is all equally irrelevant) but is entirely sociological. The color of someone’s skin might have everything to do with their DNA, but how they are perceived by others is a matter of environment. There is nothing inherently better or worse about having more or less pigment in your skin; no part of the globe is naturally better than the others because of proximity to the sun. My husband, a high school Physics teacher who also teaches one or two classes on evolution, can make this very clear in terms a middle schooler can understand. In a world where humans can travel freely between continents without worrying about apex predators, race means absolutely nothing at all.

...Except that it doesn’t, and this is where perception comes in. In terms of my personal background, after graduating with my masters in urban planning I went to law school, where it was my intention to specialize in criminal law. For three years, I worked for the Office of the Public Defender in Chicago, which you may have heard referred to as “Chiraq” as a result of almost constant gun violence. Most of what I understand about prejudice comes from this period of my life. 

As a law clerk granted an unusual amount of autonomy, my job was to go into what’s called “lock-up,” which is the area behind the courtroom where the people being brought in from the Cook County jail that day were all placed together in a cell. Typically I would walk back there, yell out the name of the person I was supposed to be speaking with—almost always a Black man, almost always aged 19-25—and then they’d push through a crowd of people to speak to me through the bars. I’d say okay, tell me what happened, and they’d usually flirt with me for a bit or jokingly propose marriage. I’d say okay okay, very funny, but seriously, what happened? And they’d usually give me some variation on an almost identical story. Whatever happened when the person in question was stopped by a cop, they almost always tried to flee the scene. I would ask the same questions over and over; mostly, “Why did you run?”, because I was a law student taught that running signifies guilt. It’s almost impossible to get a client off if they run, because... why would an innocent person run? 

The answer I usually got was: If you lived where I lived and you looked like me, you’d run, too.

It took me a long time to understand this argument, because I’m a biracial woman from an affluent community. I’ve never been affluent myself by any means, but in my world the police have always been background noise—decoration to provide my community with a sense of safety. If you didn’t do anything to bother them, they didn’t bother you. I knew from my urban planning classes—aka very theoretically—that as an institution, police officers have a very unique culture. They respect hierarchy to a militaristic degree. As a matter of safety, they do not question orders. Also, for a police officer, the belief that a partner has their back creates a stronger bond than blood. I distinctly remember my professor pausing the class at this point to remark that this is what keeps the institution alive, but it’s also what creates the fundamental flaw in American policing: that at an institutional level, there are more punishments in place for blowing the whistle on a fellow officer than there are for endangering any member of the populace they’re supposed to protect. What this means in practice is that while not every apple has bad intentions, the bad apple is the one indiscriminately and unconditionally protected. Even a good apple has everything to lose, and it is by staying silent that they spoil the bunch.

By the end of my first summer working in felony crime, I started to grasp the point. Typically police officers have no memory of the details of the case before arriving. The reporting officer is usually called in early to testify, so I’ve seen how they behave pre-trial. They sat in the back of the courtroom joking with the judge and the prosecutors while I shuffled back and forth from the judge’s chambers, which are well-lit, clean, and usually stocked with coffee and food, to lock-up where my clients were waiting to be brought before the judge. I can’t really explain to you the effect of walking from the dark, crowded cell that smells like mold and poor hygiene into the brightness of a room filled with police officers, most of whom can’t even name the lives they’re about to ruin. I don’t know how to explain to you that one of those rooms is designed for human beings and the other is simply not, so you might just have to trust me on that.

Another major aspect of my job was prepping the client for trial, if they chose to pursue that route. (They rarely did, but I’ll discuss that later.) This meant teaching them how to respond to cross-examination by a prosecutor. I’ve been cross-examined before—again, I’m a biracial woman, I graduated magna cum laude with a masters by the time I was 22, and, at this point in time, I was attending a top law school with an LSAT score that confused all the other lawyers I worked with as to why I wasn’t making six figures as a corporate intern instead—and let me tell you, there is no good way to undergo this process. The prosecution’s job—what they get paid to do, with their salaries increasing based solely on how many guilty convictions they get—is to make you look like a liar. They discredit you, dehumanize you, demoralize you. The prosecutor who questioned me concluded his cross-examination with this statement: “Yesterday, this young woman defended a man who was convicted of felony assault, and as such, her understanding of morality is flawed. She can’t be trusted to judge anyone’s character”—and all this because I was advocating a lighter criminal sentence for a young man convicted for possession of bullet casings. Not even because someone else’s life was ever at stake at all.

And this was me. Imagine what prosecutors do to uneducated Black men on a regular basis, which brings me back to my point about perception. When a police officer takes the stand, they have the benefit of perception. A police officer holds an elevated position in society. Does it matter that the minimum education requirement is a GED? Does it matter that certification to be a hair stylist requires more apprentice hours than a cop, or that while teachers are exhaustively trained to never, ever to harm a student in their charge, cops have no such bar when de-escalating a situation? Does it matter that 40% of the families of police officers report domestic abuse in the home—and that’s only the percentage that’s reporting? No, ultimately it doesn't matter. Nobody considers these statistics when a police officer takes the stand. A man sits down in uniform, reads his badge number aloud to the court reporter, and the possibility that he has every reason to lie suddenly vanishes without a trace.

Meanwhile, my Black client takes the stand and I don’t have to tell you what to think. This is because prejudice is wordless; nobody has to say a thing to explain it, and this is the flaw. Because if the color of your skin is what determines your perception, how can you ever speak loudly enough to drown it out? Particularly not when the people listening—the judge, the prosecutor, the jury, and probably even your public defender—are speaking a different language altogether.

And I do mean that literally. At one point while I was a law clerk, one of my clients said during his cross-examination that it had “been a minute” since he’d seen someone in question, meaning colloquially that it had been a long time. The prosecutor, a white man, picked this apart during his cross, claiming that it was impossible for something to have occurred in sixty seconds. My client, a Black man, grew visibly frustrated, which is of course something we have to very carefully remind them they can never do. (“Another angry Black man.” You do the math.) At this point, I was furiously signaling to my supervising attorney, also a white man, trying to get him to clarify this point on a re-direct. “Make him explain that A MINUTE is slang!!!” I scribbled, and my supervisor frowned, but as I recall he did not press the issue. I only ever had one client who got a not-guilty verdict—a young Black man my age who sat in jail for three years awaiting trial—so I can tell you this one definitely did get convicted, and that there was nothing I could do to combat the amount of prejudice sitting in the room. 

Most of what you see in cop dramas is intended to make you sympathize with the infrastructure of justice rather than to make you understand the reality of crime. Most of “crime” in the sociological sense is a matter of perception. There are better people to discuss this than me, but I can tell you what I understand of this from my experience. One of the best places to start is the foundations of a very common prejudice: that Black people moving into a predominantly white neighborhood will destroy the property values. Is this because violence increases with the pigment of your skin, or that being Black means you don’t care about the beauty of your community? Presumably you know that answer is no. The reality is not that Black people make worse neighbors, but that local governments and loan structures have been designed for nearly a century to undervalue Black residents and their communities as a whole. (Look up “redlining” if it’s not something you’ve ever heard of before.)

Back to my clients: another common aspect of the story had to do with possession (having something, but not using or distributing it—guns, drugs, ammunition). A first offense often went to probation, which is legally a conviction. Most people prefer to plead guilty for probation rather than go to trial. The problem with this, again from my perspective as a law student, is that once you have a conviction on record, your chances of employment drop considerably. Probation is a “light” sentence, but it also has a lot of rules: you have to check in with your probation officer regularly, which is hard to do if you have children or an unsympathetic employer or no means of transportation. Where you go and what you do is limited, and the rules are very easy to break. But as a young Black man in Chicago, fighting for a not-guilty verdict is an uphill battle. Imagine that as a provider in your family—probably working for an hourly wage rather than a salaried position, which means no benefits and zero income for every hour that you don’t work—any time you spend fighting your conviction means losing money while expenses continue to rise. The choice between time in jail and time earning an income is obvious. The luxury of fighting the system is precisely that—the luxury of time. 

I understood that, sort of. Mostly I was concerned with consequences, because many of my clients who took probation had an extremely high likelihood of being back in the system again at a later point, and with a felony conviction on record, that meant 10-15 years of prison time the next time they made a mistake. For me, who spent all my time thinking about the future, this is something it took three years to learn. I remember asking someone once in a fit of frustration, “If you were already on probation, why the hell would you ever do anything to chance winding up in the system again?”

This answer, too, was effectively the same: Forget the system. If everyone else has a gun and you don’t, how do you expect to stay alive?

I know some of you might be encountering a bit of a road block here. You might be asking yourself questions like… then why do these communities destroy themselves? I’ve heard every “devil’s advocate” position there is, so I’m not going to discuss them now. There are plenty of answers available from smarter and more articulate people than me. Rather than giving you a speech about the cycle of poverty or chronic recidivism or disproportionate access to public services or systemic failures across the board in every industry and institution, what I’m trying to point out right now is this: To whom are you instinctively giving the benefit of your doubt?

Because here’s the truth: acknowledging privilege is uncomfortable. It’s hard to sit with, and that’s not to say that any of us have it easy to begin with. I’m a woman, so I could easily flood you with stories about the difficulties I’ve faced in male-dominated fields. I could tell you that every man I’ve ever worked with had the presumption of competence whereas I had to fight for it. I could tell you how many times I was mistaken for the secretary while standing beside a man who did my exact job. I could tell you how, as a rule, I didn’t date white men who had a history of dating Asian women because of a fetishization based on a stereotype of docility that I resent. But the fact is that our system is racist, and therefore so are we. So right now we need to talk about the reality, which is that we should never be comfortable. We should be actively anti-racist, which means effort. It means sitting with the errors in our perception and learning to question them, to understand why they exist. Understanding that and educating ourselves is the first step to what will undoubtedly be a longer road than you might imagine.

Here is what I learned about the reality of being Black on the west side of Chicago: imagining the presumption of innocence is a fantasy. A judge or a jury will look at you and have already made up their minds. You could be shot and killed by a cop tomorrow, or that cop could find a reason to escalate the situation and target you at any time. They’re not here to protect you, they’re trying to eradicate you, to put you behind bars, because your entire life is one big crime. Nothing is fair—it wasn’t fair for your friends or your family or anyone else who looks like you—so why bother trying to live within the prejudiced rules of an unfair system? There is no use planning for a future that might not even exist. The future is a luxury of time.

How would your decisions change if you didn’t believe you had a right to tomorrow? This is the reality, and the impact of saying that Black lives matter. This is why we must say it, over and over, and why we have to keep saying it until we as a society believe that it’s true. Because if you don’t have the benefit of knowing that your life matters to the society you were born into, what does that do to the way you exist in this world?

I’m not saying I’m the perfect anti-racist. I’m privileged for a number of reasons; because foundation in my skin tone is easy for me to find, and because I’m not scared for my life when a cop pulls me over. The irony is that in some respects, I’m privileged because my perception is curated carefully, correctly—my mother made sure I spoke English perfectly so that nobody would ever question my value; so they would hear my privilege in my vocabulary, in my accent, in my voice. I am privileged because I believe I have a future, and that other people believe in my future and will choose to act in a way that ensures that I am right. These are things I have because of everything you see when you look at me, but they also wouldn’t be enough to save me if my skin were the same color as Breonna Taylor’s or George Floyd’s.

As a fanfiction author, people naturally want me to reflect on whatever recently came out of JK Rowling’s mouth. I urge you to ignore it. Your outrage is justified, of course, because what she wrote informed a collective imagination that defined a generation and beyond. But to rail against a classist system while she wasn’t one of the ones benefiting from it was never bravery or creativity. She has always played into stereotypes and has never accurately reflected the depth of experiences that her audience has. For her, diversity is an aesthetic—the appearance of many threads. But the fabric itself is still what has always been, and this is why she’s not important to the conversation right now. 

If you have to qualify the statement that Black lives matter, you’re not uncomfortable enough. If you find yourself saying “but these vulnerable lives matter too,” you’re absolutely right, and you’re also missing the point. It starts here, but it doesn’t end here. What’s important is that every day—not every day this week, but every day for the rest of your life—you feel that discomfort of confronting your opinions, your prejudices, and your perceptions of who is or isn’t right. Do not grow comfortable. It is your personal responsibility to question the way you perceive the world and adjust your beliefs accordingly. Systemic inequality is something that has been broken for centuries, and in all likelihood, it will not be fixed within our lifetimes. But this is time: a luxury. The future is something we have to fight for. We have to be uncomfortable until every single person in our communities can believe their life has value, and until our systems reflect that belief, we keep going. We keep learning. We fight on.

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