From Claudette Colvin to Chikesia Clemons: Elitism and Victim Advocacy

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Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter…we shout it from the rooftops, we print it on protest signs, we wear it on T-shirts, and we hashtag it on social media. But when we say Black Lives Matter, are we saying that SOME Black Lives Matter or are we saying that ALL Black Lives Matter?

About a month and a half ago a story broke about two African American men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, who were arrested for taking too long to order in Starbucks, as they were waiting for another companion to arrive. In addition to the overwhelming agreement that this was outrageous and unjust, there was significant emphasis placed on the fact that these two men were upstanding real estate investors and fraternity brothers…i.e. educated. A few days later a story broke about a young woman in Alabama, Chikesia Clemons, who was assaulted by law enforcement in a Waffle House, after employees called because she was allegedly being belligerent. She says that she asked for management after they refused to give her plasticware. While the full story of what led to the confrontation isn’t entirely clear, what is clear is that this was another case of excessive and unnecessary force because apparently white complaints rank higher than Black civil liberties.

I was a bit disheartened as I turned to social media for more information because what I didn’t see with the Chikesia Clemons case that I saw with the Starbucks case was the collective outrage and outpouring of support. A few people shared the story, some lamenting about the excessive force and sexual assault (her body was exposed and roughly handled) but overall, there was not much of an outcry related to this case. Now I understand that the more things happen, the more we become desensitized to them. We see this with school shootings. They happen so much that they have mostly become just another brief breaking news story… we acknowledge it, shake our heads, send thoughts and prayers, and move on. So I am clear that with so many incidents of racism and mistreatment, one more can be just that to some people, one more…of many.

Some have posited that the disinterest in the Chikesia Clemons case is yet another example of how Black women are the least protected group in America. Brother Malcolm once said that “The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman”. As a Black woman, I can’t disagree with this sentiment. However, I worry that our collective lack of engagement with the Chikesia Clemons case has less to do with desensitization and the fact that she is a Black woman and more to do with elitism. I don’t know Ms. Clemons’ educational background or social class but I know that the fact that it has not been mentioned could mean that it is safe to assume that she is not college-educated, at least not degreed, and that she is from a lower or working-class background.

I could be wrong but IF this is the case, it is reminiscent of the Claudette Colvin/Rosa Parks story. We laud Rosa Parks (and rightfully so) for sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, one of the most pivotal points in the Civil Rights Movement, but the truth is, elitism and respectability politics were at the heart of this story. Claudette Colvin, a young, poor, pregnant teenager was arrested a few months before Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. At the time, the NAACP was looking for a case to use to challenge segregation. Although Ms. Colvin’s unjust arrest was a prime example of why segregation needed to end,  it was decided that her status as an unwed teenage mother would shift the focus from the issue at hand to the “negative aspects” of her personal life, hindering the traction that the movement needed.

Rosa Parks, by contrast, was a married adult and the secretary of the NAACP. Although Ms. Colvin herself speculated that Mrs. Parks lighter skin tone and hair texture were factors as well, I think in general it is fair to say that Mrs. Parks had the “right” social class and status to be the face of the movement. In other words, she was a more “credible” victim.

I am able to give a little more grace to the Colvin/Parks situation because we were not as evolved as a people in the 1950s as we are now, being only a generation or two removed from slavery. Nonetheless, I would hope that in 2018 we recognize the importance of not allowing elitism to play a role in how we advocate for one another. There is no perfect victim.

The way I see it, it doesn’t matter if the mistreatment is inflicted upon a third-grade dropout, drug dealer, or the contrived “welfare queen” <insert eye roll>, we have to go to bat just as hard for the Claudette Colvins and Chikesia Clemons of our community as we do for the Rosa Parks, Donte Robinsons, and Rashon Nelsons.

If we truly believe that Black lives matter then we must believe that ALL Black lives matter.

One Reply to “From Claudette Colvin to Chikesia Clemons: Elitism and Victim Advocacy”

  1. Good points. I’ve heard about the Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin story before, and it’s sad that we still have a ways to go.

    Like

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