Being Black in America

Being Black in America

By Andre Fields

In The Beginning

Imagine growing up in a world where heritage defines almost everything about who you are. American’s won’t have a hard time with this, because this is the world we live in today. Now imagine that you and almost an entire nationality of people have no idea what their heritage even is. This is the case for black people in America, because a little over 500 years ago, Africans were brought to America as slaves, and completely cut off from their home countries and cultures. Almost 200 years ago, Africans were freed from slavery in the United States, but not from the bondage that came with it. During that approximate 300 years of forced servitude, African slaves were bought, sold and used, much like a person would use cattle, or a horse… although in most cases, the horse was treated better. This buying and selling often broke up families with little regard for maintaining a record of the purchase that would enable one to trace their history. After all, would you keep a family record of a horse you sold to another person? In fact, for a long period of time, blacks were officially considered 3/5 of a person.

That said, I personally know nothing of my family history beyond my great-great-grandmother, who herself was a slave as a child in Mississippi. She was freed as a child but remained with the slave owner and was even forced to take his surname. She was raised on the plantation where her foremothers had slaved and became an indentured servant, which was still slavery of a sort. But what could she do? She was never allowed to be educated, had no money, no land, and no family. In turn, my great grandmother was “forced” to become an indentured servant herself. My grandmother was born on the same plantation, and so was my mother. It wasn’t until my mother was a child that my great grandmother took her daughter and her grand daughters (my mother included) and moved from Mississippi to Chicago, Illinois, during what has been called “The Great Migration.”

Deep Rooted Racism & Human Rights Hypocrisy in the U.S.

Separate and Unequal Education

During the civil rights movement in the US (1954-1968), my mother was a teenager growing up in Chicago and remembers what was going on and shared stories with me once I became a teenager. She shared with me experiences that were not told in the history books. One particularly memorable example was the education situation. My great grandmother had no formal education, and my grandmother only had up to a 3rdgrade education (education most receive when they are 9 years old). My mother and her older sister were the first in my family to graduate high school (secondary education). During the civil rights movement, black students were not allowed to go to the same schools as white students, and the schools that black students were allowed to attend were severely underfunded and inadequate. In turn, students that graduated from black schools received a below standard education, which did not prepare them for decent jobs or the ability to attend top-rated white schools. And in most cases, you were shunned if you did not attend one of these top universities.

Black universities, which would later be known as HBCUs (Historically Black Universities and Colleges), were erected to keep the races separate. In the mid to late 1980s, schools were required to have a certain number of black students by law, a law called “Affirmative Action.” This was around the time I was to enter high school. I applied for the top-rated high school in the city of Chicago. Still, although I had the grades to be accepted, I received a letter in the mail that stated I would not be allowed because the school had reached its quota of black students, meaning they did not want too many blacks and would only accept the minimum amount required by law. Not only was this my first experience with overt racism, but it was also the start of the story of systemic racism designed to keep Blacks and other minorities down.

Being relegated to attend a less than high performing school meant that I was not an attractive candidate for top-performing universities. There would be no scholarships, no loans, and of course, my family could not afford to pay for me to go to college because there was no college fund. How could there be? My family had very recently emerged into a world where with no education, no generational wealth, no generational college graduates, no good jobs because of the former, or any other opportunity that would allow most white children to attend college. I was told the only way I was going to pay for college was to join the Army and get them to pay for it. So, I joined the Army right out of high school. In the Army, I experienced other forms of racism, but I will get to that a little later.

Because of my leadership ability and knowledge, I was recommended for the “Green-to-Gold” scholarship, which was awarded to enlisted Soldiers to allow them to get a college degree and become an officer in the Army. I was awarded the scholarship, but I had to be accepted into a university as a condition of the award. Because of my less than impressive high school pedigree, I was not accepted to almost every university I applied to except for Jackson State University in Mississippi, one of those HBCU’s I mentioned earlier. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Finance, becoming the first person in my family to earn a college degree. Did this stop the discrimination? Of course not. There were many examples from high school all the way through today. But I will have to go back a little bit.

Growing up with Racism and the Police

            My mother lived through a lot of discrimination, watching Blacks being killed simply because of their skin color and being treated less than human. She shielded me from a lot of racism to the point that I did not know what it was other than what I read in books. She raised me to believe that all humans were equal. A person is a person. No one race was better than another. In fact, the high school I eventually went to was a mix of White, Black, Latino, and Asian, while living in a predominantly poor all-black neighborhood. My mother said, “This is not an all Black world so you need to learn how to live with and get along with all races.”

While I was in high school, I began my first encounters with the police. I remember my mother being stopped for driving through a red light when she really didn’t. When she questioned the officer, he said “Isaid you ran the red light, so what are you going to do?” It was obvious he was waiting for my mother to argue back to escalate the encounter, but my mother, always a sweet person, did not argue, despite the officer asking my mother a series of humiliating questions. She accepted the ticket and moved on. I never fully understood that encounter until I got older.

A few years later, when I had my own car; by then we had moved to a mostly white neighborhood. I was waiting for my brother outside a store near our house, fixing my car radio when a police officer pulled up and asked what I was doing. When I told him, he insisted I was trying to steal the car. “Why else would you be in this neighborhood?” he said. When I showed him I had the keys to the car and gave him my ID, that was not enough. Soon after, I was surrounded by four police cars with six white officers trying to decide what to do with me and questioning my presence in the neighborhood.

While I was in college in Mississippi, and still serving in the Army Reserves, I was violently dragged from my car and slammed face down on the concrete by six white police officers.  I was in military uniform at the time, as they accused me of committing a crime that was physically impossible for me to have committed. When they finally realized I was “probably” the wrong guy, instead of apologizing for the mix-up, one of the officers said to me, “This ain’t over, boy. When we get more evidence, we know where you live, and we will be back!” The truth was, I had just dropped off my white girlfriend at work, and I was followed from her job to campus by a white officer, and they wanted to catch me before I entered the campus gates where they had no jurisdiction.

‘We are facing systematic racism’: ex-military cop Andre Fields discusses the race crisis in the US

When I graduated and became an officer in the Army, I found out that only 10% of the officers in the Army were Black. And it showed immediately. I was treated differently, denied opportunities, and harshly punished for mistakes that generally would result in an oral reprimand had I been white. Instead, I was forced to resign my commission and leave the service. Once I left the service, I sought to make a difference as a police officer myself.

Even as a police officer, I still feared the blue lights of the police. While I was a police officer in the state of Indiana, I was stopped by a police officer in my own department! Because I was new to the department, we had never met, but he treated me with total disregard and disrespect until he realized I was one of his own. While the officer had a right to stop me for speeding, which I admitted to, he did not have the right to address and treat me the way he did, attempting to escalate the situation. He only changed after I was finally able to get him to look at my proof of being a police officer even though I was attempting to show him the entire time. I left the department later, but only because I needed to move to Baltimore for personal reasons.

I quickly got a job for another police department in Southern Maryland, near Washington DC, while living in Baltimore, which is a different jurisdiction. Baltimore officers arrested me for sitting in my car in front of my own home, saying I was reported as a threat in the neighborhood. Showing my license and my proof of being a police officer did not sway the officers. When I went to court, and the judge concluded I was not guilty, I was told that in order to have the arrest expunged from my record immediately, I would have to sign a waiver saying that I would not sue the city or the police department; otherwise, I would have to wait three years to get the arrest expunged. But I needed the expungement to keep my job with the police department. Of course, I signed the waiver to keep my job, but this protocol violated my rights, even if I had no intention to sue.

While still serving with the same department in Maryland, my white partner and I responded to a call for a disturbance; when we arrived, we found a group of Africans (Not African Americans, but recent African immigrants) talking around a table. They disbursed, except for one that was sitting on a table. My partner ordered him to get off the table. The guy refused. My partner told him he would arrest him if he did not get off. The guy asked him what would he be arrested for? My partner responded that it would be disorderly conduct. The guy did not move, so my partner forced him from the table and arrested him. I protested, but he was a “seasoned veteran officer,” and I had only been in the department a little less than a year, so I was told to be quiet. When I brought it to my supervisor’s attention, it was ignored. I was told not to make a big deal about it. I promptly turned in my badge and quit following this. When I attempted to apply for another department in Maryland, I was blocked by the department I had left so that no other department would hire me.

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These are just a few instances and not an all-inclusive list of all I have endured. There are many more instances; these are just the ones that stand out in my mind at the moment. I felt I needed to share these because as I have looked back on all of these incidents (and others), I realize that, at the time they happened, I assumed they were “no big deal”, told myself “that is just the way the world works” or wrote them off as isolated incidents. In light of what is going on today with the protests, it is clear that this problem is systemic, and that we must demand equity. Not just in the justice system, but in education, in economics, in jobs, etc. My story is tragically not unique in this country, and most have had worse experiences than I. We, as a nation, can no longer say, “Well, this is just the way it is.” The recent protests represent a failure to listen in this country. It is a failure to look at the policies that have been in place since the American Civil War, systems that did not place minorities, Blacks specifically, on equal footing and still not on totally equal footing today.

Some will say, “There are some successful Blacks in the US – look at Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, President Obama,” etc. We have indeed had some very successful Blacks over the years, and I would like to consider myself successful to a point… However, I am sure that they had to work much harder than any one of their white counterparts with the same circumstances; I know I did. Imagine where I would be without the obstacle of being black. It isn’t that you cannot be successful if you are black, it’s that being black is an unfortunate obstacle that you have to navigate to be successful. There is a saying in this country that there is “White Privilege,” and some white people take offense to it. Mostly those people who are upset are White people that are not as successful as they could be, those who are living in poverty just as much as some Blacks. However, White Privilege does not mean your life isn’t hard because you are White; it implies that being white isn’t one of the things making it harder.

Where Do We Go from Here?

            While I do not condone the looting or violence that has happened and still happening as a result of the protests, I do understand where some of the anger is coming from. Do I believe that there is some radical left-wing group controlling this? Absolutely not. The president wants to blame a group called “antifa” for the violence, and maybe there are some antifa elements out there. However, the president has an obligation to protect ALL people. I have read about what antifa groups are supposed to be about. While I am not promoting them, it would appear to me that the way he could have taken away some of their power would have been addressing the concerns of the protesters instead of addressing only the resultof the protests. From what I have read online, antifa is an anti-white supremacy group. While I denounce all of these different groups that are exclusionary and violent, now is the wrong time to attack them and give their cause more credibility, unless you think white supremacy is ok.

            From here, we can address the issues facing the police departments across the country, but this is not the real issue. This is a symptom of the problem. The real problem is the inequities between the rich and poor, and that most poor people happen to be Black or Latino. To fix this, we have to start with the education system. The education system is so inequitable that it forces underprivileged people into low paying jobs. When low paying jobs are not paying people enough to survive, people cannot take care of themselves or their families. Or they are envious that others have, and they have nothing.

When you cannot take care of yourself or your family, you will commit crimes. When more crimes are committed, you need more police. When most of the people that commit crimes are Black or Latino, the police will, over time, believe that any encounter with a Black or Latino person requires more caution. When police feel they have to be more cautious, they have a heightened awareness and anxiety. They will often escalate a situation, even if the situation does not call for it. Then we end up where we are now. If education is equitable, you have a smarter, more intelligent population, with a more educated population and better-paying jobs, people can earn a better living and have fewer obstacles to success. With fewer barriers to success, you have less crime. With less crime, you need fewer police. With fewer police, you can free up funding, with more funding, you can put more into education, and the cycle continues. Instead, we have a vicious cycle that continues, and we address it by removing statues of people long dead, changing the names of military installations, and talking about crazy ideas like defunding the police. We have to start addressing the root of the problem and not the symptoms.

My wife is Turkish, and we have visited Turkey every year for the past six years, except this year, of course, due to the pandemic, but every time I visit Turkey, I feel welcome everywhere I go. It doesn’t matter where I am or where I go; I am greeted fondly. In some cases, I feel more welcome in Turkey than I do in some places in my own country. I am embarrassed to say that I got a speeding ticket while driving to Marmaris last year. Initially, I was reflexively afraid of being stopped by police in another country, but the officer was very professional, courteous and friendly. He gave me and my family water as he wrote the ticket, and even expressed regret that he had to give me the ticket. There was no argument, not animosity, and I was surprised by the interaction! I thought for sure it would end badly being a foreigner with a Turkish wife in the car. Of course, I paid for the ticket. I even got a discount for paying early, as the officer had explained to me. Now, I am not saying that all police officers in the United States are corrupt. Most police officers are professional and respectable, but this gets overshadowed by the ones that abuse their authority, which is given to them by systemic racial issues that plague our country.

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            I do not want anyone to misunderstand, I love my country, and all I want is what is best for us to move forward. Most people in the United States are not racist, but they confuse being racist with unknowingly supporting systemically racial policies and norms that have been in existence since long before they were born. I am not a political person, and I support whoever will do what is best for all Americans, Democrat or Republican.

I am currently pursuing a Doctor of Education degree in Organizational Leadership with the hopes of maybe becoming the Secretary of Education someday. In my research, I have read many articles on what is best for educating our children to include a few pieces from Turkish authors that I plan to cite in my dissertation. I have been struck by the number of things that have been researched yet not done to make corrections in our education system. I am hoping that my story will permeate throughout Turkey, my country, and the rest of the world to do what is best for ALL human beings! Equity should be the goal for all races, nationalities, religions, and sexes. Being treated like a human being should be a basic human right.

Andre Fields:

“I am currently an Assistant Principal (Administrator) for a high school that has a high minority population. I also teach Accounting and Business Law for a local college. I am also a former police officer for an urban city with a majority black population and former Military Police Officer in the Army. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration Finance, a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice, a Master’s Degree in Education Administration, and I am currently working on a Doctor of Education Degree in Organizational Leadership. I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, but my wife and I live at Fort Hood, Texas, which is a few miles north of Austin, Texas. My wife is a Turkish National who also served in the U.S. Army, and we have a 5-year-old daughter together.”

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April 2024