A College Degree is Nice, But It Won’t Protect You From Police Violence – #BLM Guest post

[We continue to solicit #BLM guest posts. We pay $150 for accepted posts. 1000 words ballpark; profanity welcome. Poetry/art/video/song welcome. Please send a draft or query/pitch to Karen at gettenure@gmail.com]

Nehemiah Bester received his bachelor’s degree in media studies with a minor in political science from Radford University in Radford, Virginia. He received his master’s degree in Journalism from the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. Nehemiah has worked within his graduate program as a graduate assistant for Morgan State University. He has produced content for radio stations in WHCE 91.1 FM in Richmond, VA and WEAA 88.9 FM in Baltimore, Maryland. Additionally, he has worked as a fellow for the Wall Street Journal Journalism Exchange Program, a video and audio producer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, a columnist for Colors VA Magazine, a consultant for OVP Management Consulting Incorporated, a communications specialist at the Corporate Headquarters of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., contributor to the Sphinx Magazine, and directed and produced 4 mini documentaries. Nehemiah currently lives in Maryland. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @_nehhemiahh and he can be reached for inquiries at Nehemiah.elijah.2014@gmail.com.

by Nehemiah Bester

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I recently graduated with a master’s degree, so what? What should have been a celebratory moment is now a somber one. To be honest, it has been difficult wanting to celebrate and it’s not because of quarantine, but because whenever I look at the news and see that someone who looks like me has been murdered or accosted by those who wish to dim the light of our brilliance and existence, I don’t see anything to celebrate about. While I was tremendously grateful for this moment, to me it means nothing if people who share my phenotype, culture, and history continue to be the victims of systemic racism and police violence. This is more important than a piece of paper in formatted in old English; this to me is personal.

I have known since I was 18 years old that no matter how intelligent you think you are, or what you have planned for your life, they can use privilege, power, and terror to destroy it in an instant. As proud as I thought I would be knowing that I have 2 degrees at 24, I also know that won’t save me if I’m confronted in the wrong space at the wrong time, by the wrong individual. A 4.0 won’t save me, a graduation assistantship won’t save me, a fellowship wouldn’t save me, a new career won’t save me. It’s scary to think about but this is the world we live in today and it’s not-so-distant relationship with the past. No matter how many degrees I or anyone who looks like me obtains in their lifetime, it will not help us escape the harsh and unfair reality of being Black in America. We are often told that education is the way out of trouble with the law and while education is critical in dismantling a racist environment, our black lives are just as vulnerable and important as those afford higher education. That at any moment any of us can be taken from our families, a degree isn’t stopping a bullet, chokehold, or a knee.

I perfectly comprehend the desire to break a stereotype, but I promise it doesn’t matter how ordinary you are or how extraordinary you appear, they don’t care. To them, it doesn’t make a difference because before anything we are Black first. Black men and women are dying just to breathe. Our ability to breather should never be up for debate. Then they wonder why there is lawlessness in the streets. They question and minimize the rage we feel and act immediately to quell its quaking. The very reason there is lawlessness in the streets is because there is lawlessness within the police. A police system whose origins evolved from vigilante slave catching and made into federal law by way of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Police brutality is not a new phenomenon in the black community, it just wears a different badge.

To put it into perspective, Michael Brown and I would have been the same age. We were the same age when he was fatally shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. We even graduated from high school mere months apart. The only difference is that after high school I got to go to college while Michael Brown who was set to go to Vatterott College, died at the hands of a trigger-happy cop. I do not know Mike personally, but his passing is something I have taken personally. A tall, Black, 18-year-old who had dreams of furthering his education, yeah that’s me. I looked at the newspapers, and the reports on tv, I said to myself “That’s me.” Looking at his face, his dark eyes, with his red stole overtop his turtle green high school cap and gown with his chin held up as he clutches his high school diploma, “yeah that’s me.”

Seeing his face and eyes looking back and me, I didn’t see anyone threatening or scary, how can anyone look at this young man and see danger? Mike looked like we could have been friends like somehow I knew him, but instead, I only knew him in death. And I couldn’t stop this sudden pain in my heart or the tears that ran down my face because of it. I have never found relief for that hurt or the rage that came after when the St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Wilson and the U.S Department of Justice’s decision that Wilson shot Michael in self-defense. He was an 18-year-old who deserved to go to school, he deserved to live his life but was robbed the same way some of these young boys and men who looked like me were robbed of opportunity and a freedom called life.

When I see the riots and protests happening across the country, I understand the frustration. I get why people are angry and want to express that pain. For 400 years Black people in this country have been subjugated and oppressed by a system that perpetually refuses to give us the same rights, liberties, and freedom that America was founded on. Since 1619, we have been tired, and as Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” The rage Black Americans, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, and White allies and others feel right now comes from centuries of disenfranchisement and the intentional violence that is chronically brought upon Black lives. Black Lives Matter, and because for so long this nation has created legislation and modern-day black codes that would appear to say otherwise, our anger in this movement needs no explanation. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others deserved life, and because their lives were cut short, we will continue to say their names, so the world won’t forget what happened as we persist in the fight for what’s right and dispel all that is wrong. That is our hope, and that is the solidarity and love for one another the world can never take away.

I didn’t cry for graduation this year, I cried for those we lost. We cry because we care. We cry because as we experience this pain, we cannot hope to imagine the pain our brothers and our sisters felt as they were slain. I take every Black life lost to police violence extremely personal and have since the passing of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin two years before him. It was that moment that I realized I will never be immune to this plague as long as it exists, there is no vaccine.

So, what can I do, and what can we do to see this reoccurring nightmare’s conclusion? Defunding the police is one, along with the removal of statues honoring Confederate statues and slavers, economic and educational investment in Black and Brown communities, reformation in our prison and criminal justice system, restorative justice, and reparations for the land that was stolen from indigenous people and reparations for the descendants of the 12.5 million Africans that build this nation, that would be a reasonable start.

It’s 2020 and racism still maintains its relevance. Imagine being in your 20’s and witnessing enough trauma and generational damage upon people that look like you to last a lifetime. That’s what my generation is currently dealing with. So as I take a moment to acknowledge the accomplishment of a master’s degree, which by the way does nothing to define me and won’t protect me from police violence, I hold it in solidarity with those we have lost and use it as a proxy to do what I can to make this world better for people who look like me and for those who share an all too similar and scary existence.  

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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