June 19, 2018 at 10:56 am PDT | by David J. Johns
When ‘free’ isn’t really free

David J. Johns is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, nbjc.org. (Photo courtesy NBJC)

“Until all of us are free, none of us are free.” You will seldom hear me speak without noting this fact, but the truth is, it has historical context.

You see, slavery was formally abolished Jan. 31,1865 with the passing of the 13th Amendment, but it was not until June 19, 1865 — almost five months later — that this news reached slaves in the state of Texas, thus beginning the emancipation of enslaved Black people throughout the South. 

Fast forward 165 years to present day America, many in this country continue to keep Black people in bondage, and this is compounded if you are Black AND lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL). 

With each passing day our news tickers seem to report incidents of breakdowns in race relations, really everyday interactions where the humanity of Black people is disregarded or called into question, bringing forth the realization that what our ancestors hoped was settled more than a century ago is still hotly contested today. 

Take Roseanne Barr’s recent racially charged tweets about Valerie Jarrett (former senior adviser to President Obama), which led to the cancellation of the “Roseanne” sitcom reboot. It is baffling that we live at a time when anyone would think it acceptable to publicly refer to someone — an accomplished and well-respected Black woman at that — as “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes.” 

In today’s political climate, supporters of President Trump like Barr flex their free license to carry their racism, stigma and bias proudly while blatantly, and in their own minds justifiably, violating basic human rights —  especially of those individuals who live at the intersection of being Black and LGBTQ/SGL. As if the fight for racial equality was not enough, now the fight for sexual-oriented freedoms makes it even more of an uphill battle for individuals in our community. 

Individuals like Anthony Wall, the 22-year-old Black gay man who was assaulted by police in May at a Warsaw, N.C., Waffle House — one of too many acts of violence by police against young Black men that we have seen recently. Wall was placed in a chokehold and slammed against the concrete by an arresting officer following an incident in which a Waffle House employee hurled racist and homophobic comments at Wall! 

Wall’s incident happened just weeks after Chikesia Clemmons was violently arrested and exposed by police officers at a Waffle House in Alabama after being charged for plasticware – a fee none of her fellow white patrons were assessed. And in the past week, another instance of racial bias, at a Florida Waffle House this time, that led to the unwarranted and unnecessary arrest of a Black couple was brought to light.

Despite what can now be reasonably deemed as a trend within the popular southern food chain, the corporation’s leadership refuses to denounce the egregious behavior of its employees, therefore, enabling their racially discriminatory practices, reflective of those seen in the Jim Crow south. 

Yet and still, over Memorial Day weekend, Deja Smith, a Black transgender woman and celebrity makeup artist, was denied service at a Texas Chicken and Burgers restaurant in Harlem, New York — a community that despite aggressive gentrification remains Black in occupants and culture. While we are fortunate to have evidence of onlookers and patrons affirming the discrimination that Ms. Smith and her colleagues experienced, I find it beyond frustrating that far too often we see tepid public demonstrations of support for the Black trans – community — and often, it is only in instances in which Black trans women are murdered.  We rarely see support provided during day-to-day injustices that challenge the core of one’s lived experiences. 

How unfortunate that in the same month that we celebrate both LGBTQ Pride and the emancipation of slaves in the South, we also witnessed the sanctioning of legal discrimination by the Supreme Court with its decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case — a decision that can make the aforementioned offenses OK.  

The irony that businesses like the Waffle House chain, which already has a record of discrimination resulting in unwarranted arrests of Black people, while the Supreme Court was deciding if businesses have the right to discriminate on the grounds of religion cannot be missed.  

Juneteenth is a day that we should be celebrating freedom and access to basic civil liberties for all, but unfortunately, that is not something we are all afforded. We have much more work to do to improve cultural competence in ways that make space for every member of the Black and LGBTQ communities. And while we work to challenge and change systems and laws, it is important that allies speak up and out against every day acts of discrimination and injustice experienced by the members of our communities that are most marginalized and too often rendered invisible.  

After all, the Emancipation Proclamation states that “the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, [must] recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons … in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

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