Being Black in Foster Care Means Surviving an American Nightmare

The incident that took place in Central Park, with Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper was appalling. Christian Cooper is a Black man, Harvard graduate and avid bird watcher who asked Amy Cooper, a white woman, to leash her dog in an area of the park where it was required, and she refused. Instead, Amy Cooper chose to weaponize her white woman tears and terrorize Christian Cooper.

This kind of terrorism is nothing new, and it is also not lost on us that their common last name serves as a constant reminder of our country’s history of chattel slavery, in which Black people were given the same last name of their slave masters to denote ownership. This was an event we as Black men have been groomed to survive since we were children. As two Black men who grew up in foster care, we heard the horrific story of Emmett Till, we had the acrimonious knowledge to know what was going on in Central Park.

When we saw the video of Amy Cooper and her voice shrieking with racism, we understood very well that she was trying to deploy the same potential violent encounter on Christian Cooper that would soon cost George Floyd his life.

black foster care
Kenyon Lee Whitman, doctoral candidate at the University of California-Riverside. Photo courtesy of Whitman

Like Eric Garner, George Floyd cried for help. The sound of Black people pleading for their lives is being reused and repurposed as hashtags, protest chants and news headlines. To us, these images are eerie, unsettling and traumatic, but in the white gaze our bodies are disposable. Video of Black people dying has become a grim, sinister genre of an American horror story, something akin to trauma porn. Even with the ubiquity of our increased exposure to Black death, no real change is happening, but the mere numbing of our senses.

We live in a country that consistently attempts to gaslight Black Americans into thinking what we are feeling, seeing and hearing is not real. We see Eric Garner, being killed by a banned choke hold, caught on cellphone footage, and they tell us, “he should have complied.” We hear about Trayvon Martin being murdered by a vigilante, they tell us, “you weren’t there, you don’t know the full story.” We hear about Mike Brown being shot at least six times by a white ex-Ferguson police officer — collectively we feel enraged as his body lays on the hot August summer pavement for more than four hours, with a white sheet partially covering his body. They tell us, “Your rage isn’t justified.”

Behind the sturdy curtain of racism that makes the incessant violence on Black bodies newsworthy to the point that it’s evergreen, yet with nothing changing, all the while the police are killing non-Black people too. It is namely Black killings that are acceptable and justified; if we can stop the police from killing Black people, we can stop the police from killing all people. The Combahee River Collective discusses how when Black people are free, we are all free.

This moment is important to all sectors. Child welfare advocates must interrogate the system and its complicity in creating and maintaining anti-Black racism and how they work in tandem with the police state to cause injury to Black people, especially Black mothers who have been criminalized for being poor. Dismantling racism is not Black people’s responsibility, it is a problem for white people to solve.

To the people who have a critique for the movement, yet have no track record of being a co-conspirator for Black liberation, save it. For people who are offended about the protests because of a handful of looters, it’s clear you are not for Black liberation but for respectability politics. What should be critiqued is how racial injustice is tied to economic inequity. You should ask yourselves, why are people so poor that they need to use this opportunity to loot in the first place?

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Demontea Thompson. executive director for Twinspire. Photo courtesy of Thompson

To our white friends, reaching out, asking us how we are doing: We get it, but it is disingenuous. You were not there for us when the police killed Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Tanisha Anderson and countless other Black people whose name we don’t know — specifically Black women and Black trans people. We need you to check in on your co-workers, friends, and family who still harbor racist beliefs. We need you to be consistent in challenging systems of oppression. We encourage you to read literature on anti-Black racism and racial justice, and self-reflect on the ways in which you are perpetuating white supremacy.

Malcolm X said, “I don’t see an American dream, I see an American nightmare.” While reflecting on what to pen for this piece, we grappled with how there is no American dream for Black people. America is and has always been a nightmare, an American horror story, something that was conjured up in a Hollywood writer’s room.

Under these abhorrent circumstances we still achieve — our existence is our resistance. As two Black men, both pursuing PhDs, many folks would say we have made progress — we say we have just merely survived the beginning of the horror story. We know that our degrees, money or smiles won’t shield us from racism, we are just among the handful of Black people who have made it to the second act. Not until there is real reform, and we divest in the institutions that are killing us, can we be sure to make it till the end.

Kenyon Lee Whitman is a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Riverside where he researches the racialized college-going experiences of foster youth. Demontea Thompson is the executive director for Twinspire,  a nonprofit that supports economically disadvantaged foster youth in L.A. County.  

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