OPINION: Black People, Let’s Stop Tearing Each Other Apart Over Meek Mill

Owens: Constant infighting over the rapper's prison sentence reveals a generational divide that's rooted in failed respectability politics.

Photo by AP/John Bazemore

Meek Mill got what he deserved,” my 46-year old barber declared in a shop full of other Black men while discussing the famed rapper’s recent prison sentence. “If he would have gotten his act together prior to his sentencing, he wouldn’t be worrying about prison time.”

This sentiment was surprisingly agreed upon by many of my barber’s clients in the room. At 26 years old, I was startled to witness other Black men in favor of excessive sentencing of another Black man for committing a nonviolent offense. Even though Mill had violated his probation numerous times for petty run-ins, I don’t think it warranted such a harsh penalty. In comparison, Brock Turner, who was sentenced to only six months for rape in June 2016, is now free, while Mill is being sentenced to two to four years behind bars. How could anyone not recognize the obvious double standard at play here?

Coincidentally, this barber shop talk happened on Election Day, in the midst a heated district attorney’s race. The city was hours away from electing one of the most progressive candidates to ever run for the position: Larry Krasner, a Democrat who has never prosecuted a case a day in life and ran on his experience of suing the police department more than 75 times. But while many in the room agreed that they were going to vote for the bold candidate, they still were willing to defend a system that had failed one of their own.

It was in that moment that it occurred to me these older Black men weren’t trying to justify the failures of the criminal justice system. Rather, they were attempting to uphold the illusion of respectability politics — a ideal that has repeatedly failed our community.

After the Civil Rights Act, many Black families believed that equal opportunity and justice would be achieved if they only acted accordingly. Growing up, I was told that if I worked hard, got an education, and stayed out of trouble, things would be fine. But years of Reagan-era politics, Bill Clinton’s horrific crime bill, and now Trumpism have all proven this was a lie.

As a Black male millennial with no criminal record and an Ivy League degree, I continue to feel as though the system is stacked up against me. Philadelphia still stops and frisks its residents. A Villanova University study found that police still conduct high levels of pat-downs and searches of minorities in Philly’s lowest-crime Black neighborhoods. Such research undermines the theory that model behavior will reduce the heavy hand of law enforcement. The hard truth that many generations before me don’t want to admit is that racial bias dashes any hope that respectable conduct will be appreciated. Even in communities trying to reduce crime, law enforcement officials don’t stop infringing upon the rights of those of color.

But older black people are scared to come to terms with reality: Our good manners and hard work won’t save us. Pop culture and societal norms have tried to create a “one-size-fits-all” approach to combatting racism and discrimination, oftentimes placing the responsibility on the victims instead of the system. “Pull up your pants,” the now disgraced icon Bill Cosby scolded at Black youth. Former Mayor Michael Nutter, too, once gave an infamous church sermon urging young Black men to “pull your pants up and buy a belt” and to comb their hair. “It’s not about pulling your pants up — it’s about respecting yourself,” CNN host Don Lemon likewise said on air.

But subconsciously trying to rationalize racial discrimination hasn’t gotten us anywhere. Business casual attire didn’t stop Emmett Till from being lynched in broad daylight, just as wearing a black hoodie didn’t justify Trayvon Martin being shot in cold blood.

We get it: You don’t like the current look and sound of hip-hop. Don’t let that get in the way of recognizing its impact on our current generation of movers and shakers.

Debating whether Meek Mill deserved his sentence or is a victim of injustice is needlessly dividing us, when we should be united against mass incarceration, stop-and-frisk, and other societal ills. Our elders should appreciate that Meek Mill’s sentencing is getting some young people involved who weren’t before. And while “staying out of trouble” indeed would have kept him out of jail, he is being treated differently than a white man in his situation would be, and that’s what matters here.

I hope the next generation of Black lives doesn’t have to resort to respectability politics as the sole (imagined) defense against oppression in the criminal justice system. The only way our respectability can make a difference in the future is if we realize it doesn’t today.