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The safety of privilege

As conversations about securing the Capitol continue, it’s important to acknowledge that for Black people, America has never been a safe place.

National Guard troops walked near the Capitol in Washington Friday.Anna Moneymaker/NYT

Safety, for me, has always been an illusion.

It’s not that I live in fear. It’s that racism, and the consequences of living in a supremacist country, so inform my lifestyle that I’ve learned how to survive.

I am a Black woman in America. We know better than to trust America as a safe place.

Like Representative Ayanna Pressley said earlier this week, being a Black woman and feeling unsafe is not new.

“The experiences of Wednesday were harrowing and unfortunately very familiar in the deepest and most ancestral way, and that includes for you know all Black Americans.”


No, what happened on the Capitol was not shocking, nor was it the scariest thing we’ve seen in modern history.

Law enforcement officials knew white supremacists were coming to “fight like hell” at their president’s request. Yet they did not see it as a threat worthy of the militarized tactics they deployed on Black Lives Matter protesters.

The GOP speaks of unity and healing as if they haven’t conflated Christianity with supremacy, as if destruction hasn’t rolled off their tongues in the name of power and president number 45.

When you feel entitled to safety, you feel entitled to commit acts of terrorism in the name of patriotism. You are disillusioned into thinking equity is a danger to you because America has made safety a luxury item for white folk. You toss around words like unity without mention of justice.

This type of entitlement is how we got here. The Capitol has been closed for public tours since March, yet GOP members were seen allegedly guiding visitors around the day before the attack. We are in the middle of a pandemic, yet they were unmasked and breathing all over their fellow members of Congress while in lockdown, likely leading to a number of coronavirus infections.


What happened on the Capitol Jan. 6 was America pulling an America. It’s always been a scary place.

Modern history includes COINTELPRO and how the police, with the support of the FBI, killed Fred Hampton in 1969. Modern history includes the police unloading 10,000 rounds of ammunition and dropping a bomb on MOVE in Philadelphia. That was 1985.

Modern history includes Dylann Roof murdering folk at church as they studied the bible in 2015.

Modern history includes killing after killing after killing of unarmed Black folk while the police go free.

So when I hear members of Congress like Debbie Lesko and Lauren Boebert complain about being “wanded like criminals,” knowing their chosen leader incited a violent insurrection, it’s such a sick reflection of their privilege.

Are many of America’s Black students, who have been wanded most of their lives, criminals? No. Like Black and brown folk in America, they are over-policed and under-protected. And they would never get away with pushing past police and ignoring the metal detectors, as Republicans in Congress reportedly did this week.

They’d be suspended. Or arrested. The criminalization of black girls starts as young as age 5. A study by Georgetown Law found for Black boys, that bias starts around age 10. In Massachusetts, Black girls are nearly four times as likely to be disciplined as white girls.

We’ve seen it over and over, be it the arrests of a 6-year-old in 2019 or multiple Black college students who had campus cops called on them in 2018.


We as Black people account for 13 percent of the country’s population, but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans. According to the Stanford Open Policing Project, Black drivers are about 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers and nearly twice as likely to be searched.

In Boston, where Black folk are a quarter of the city’s population, we account for 69 percent of police stops.

This type of racism finds us at the doctor’s office, too. According to the city, Black folk make up 33 percent of coronavirus deaths. Again, we’re a quarter of Boston’s population. And Black women? Nationwide, we’re three times as likely as white women to die in childbirth.

We aren’t safe. We never have been.

At work, Black women are more likely to be the only one of their identity in their roles. According to a Lean In 2020 report, Black women are almost twice as likely as other women to say that they can’t be their whole selves at work.

And no, we’re not safe at home, either. Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7, was murdered by police in her home in 2010. Atatiana Jefferson, 28, was shot by police in her home in 2019. It was supposed to be a wellness check. Breonna Taylor was shot in her home by police last year.


Even when racism doesn’t kill us, it changes the way we navigate space.

I have been racially profiled by security in my own workplace. I know the emergency exits and potential spots to hide in every place I enter — I have to, given the death threats I receive. I am not alone. I know people who walk and talk differently to keep their jobs and go above and beyond to make their neighbors feel comfortable so they can have some peace being Black and at home.

So I move with caution, a kind of care that comes so naturally that I don’t associate it with fear until I see white folk crying over security measures, Twitter counts, and the truth: Biden won.

Their audaciousness is rooted in white privilege and the freedom to reframe the truth as a lie, to steal and storm and kill and call it patriotism, to say a prayer of unity while pushing oppression.

“Just remember this: you’re stronger, you’re smarter, you’ve got more going than anybody,” Donald Trump said at his seditious riot. “And they try and demean everybody having to do with us, and you’re the real people. You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation.”

Impeach him. Or wait him out at this point. But be clear: this was America’s president, a reflection of its values, an upholder of its divisiveness and danger.


I live loud and happily in spite of fear. I know safety not to be a place, but what I make it and who I build it with. I know peace to be mine to claim in my spirit until freedom is real and it rings.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.