After Ferguson: Confronting the Myths of a Post-Racial America

The nation is convulsing after the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York. After the past week during which two grand juries failed to indict white police officers for killing unarmed black men, many are left contemplating the state of race relations in the United States. And to fuel the debates, similar stories of death by police are coming to light in rapid succession: November 21, Akai Gurley was shot outside his apartment. The officer who fired the fatal shot called his union representative as Gurley lay dying. On November 22, 2014, an officer shot and killed 12 year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio only minutes after arriving at the scene. Rice was playing with a toy gun, a possibility of which the police dispatcher was aware. On December 4, Rumain Brisbon was shot and killed outside his home when delivering food to his family.

Social media has been afire with outrage and calls for solidarity. Protests are ongoing across the country. Yet with each expression of pain and rage on Facebook and Twitter, there are parallel statements justifying the outcomes, denying racism, and questioning the motives of the protestors. The conversations on social media map the segregation so physically apparent in Ferguson and in many of our neighborhoods. Blacks see it one way, whites another and there seems little hope of convincing the other side. The mainstream media is no better, newspapers such as the Washington Post, contain conflicting if not polar opposite opinions in the same edition. Is this the post-racial America we were promised after the election of Barack Obama?

Of course, most people realize that the election of a black President in no way heralded the end of racial discrimination in the United State. Even a cursory exploration of the white anger against the President demonstrates the virulent racism that has grown exponentially in the past six years. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a 813% increase in patriot groups since the election of Barack Obama. The rise of the Tea Party has given an imprimatur of political legitimacy to an otherwise supremacist ideology. In spite of attempts at diversifying and presenting people of color like Ben Carson and Ted Cruz as leaders in the movement, no reasonable person seriously believes that the Tea Party is committed to racial justice. Since its inception, it has made a concerted effort to ensure that programs benefiting minorities are scaled down if not eliminated: affirmative action, welfare, healthcare, public education have all been targets of the movement while national security, resistance to immigration reform, and tough-on-crime policies directed at regulating minorities have been championed.

How is it that what seems a glaring example of racial injustice like the impunity afforded white police when they kill blacks even when caught on film fails to convince so many whites of the existence of racism? What allows whites to continue to believe in the façade of equal protection in the face of minorities vociferously protesting to the contrary? What allows even white friends and allies to dismiss personal stories of racism as well as the mountains of data that show its existence as merely a series of unfortunate events? Many factors are at play in the continued structural support for the status quo and the mistaken belief that our racial problems are in the past. Yet a few common threads have been emerging in the recent conversations on Facebook and Twitter as well as in the mainstream media that hold some clues about the tenacity of denial.

  • Criminality Justifies Use of Lethal Force

After the failure to indict Darren Wilson, racism-deniers focused on Mike Brown’s criminality. They argue that because Brown had committed a crime, he did not deserve the sympathy of law-abiding citizens. Further, because some witnesses including Wilson claimed that Brown “charged” him—an observation refuted by other witnesses—there was no choice but to kill him. According to Wilson, he was in fear of his life and acted in self-defense against an unarmed man. Brown’s criminality is used to obscure the central point: the police are not permitted to extrajudicially kill criminals. A subjective fear for their lives when only one is in possession of state authority and a lethal weapon ought to be carefully scrutinized. Moreover, a number of those who have been shot to death have died not while committing a serious crime but for minor infractions or failing to obey police. The victim’s criminal record is, nevertheless, used to justify police use of force as though the actions were provoked.

Human rights bodies worldwide routinely criticize the excessive use of force in Third World countries where paramilitary police are used to repress citizens. In the United States, the use of deadly force by a militarized police increasingly trained to subdue populations through use of SWAT tactics and violence does not register as a human rights violation even when the victim is a child. In many ways, the tactics that have become commonplace are learned in counterterrorism training and drug interdiction where the suspect is guilty until proven innocent.

  • Every Event is an Isolated Event

Like white terrorism, white police homicides of innocent civilians are treated as isolated events: Tragedies perhaps but certainly not a systemic problem. Once again, focusing on the cases in which criminals were killed, the victim’s identity and actions are used to obscure the structural problem of racial injustice. How many isolated anomalous incidents of white police officers killing black men will it take to demonstrate a pattern of subordination? If we continue to look at each dot without connecting them, is there any chance of seeing a bigger picture? In his Washington Post commentary, Paul Cassell, Professor of Law at the University of Utah, focuses on the testimony of a single witness to claim that the grand jury proceeding was fair. While it is certainly plausible to examine this particular case in isolation, the failure to consider the outrage voiced by law professors across the country who disagree with the outcome and to not comment on the broader societal context in which these incidents occur conveniently hide the structural racial inequality in the United States.

There is also the problem of mischaracterizing the real isolated event. The shooting in Utah of Dillon Taylor, a white male with a criminal past by a black police officer was used by some on social media to demonstrate a double standard. Why, they asked, has there been less outrage about this shooting. On one level, of course there should be outrage for any extrajudicial killing by the state. On the other hand, this is the real anomaly. A black officer shooting an unarmed white male is not an event made banal by its ubiquity as is the Brown/Wilson case. Nor does it reflect the systemic subordination, ghettoization, resource-deprivation of a group.

We need to connect the dots in order to see the picture of racial inequality. But we also need to be aware of the global context in which brown bodies have become disposable. The War on Terror has suspended procedural protections for Muslims across the globe. President Obama was able to order the killing of an American teenager in Yemen extrajudicially because that child may have posed a threat to the United States. How qualitatively different is this from Darren Wilson shooting Mike Brown for fear of his life?

  • Obeying the Police Could Prevent These Deaths

On occasion, someone on social media has remarked that Brown was resisting arrest and that is what led to his death. Certainly tangling with cops is a risky strategy. However, several other cases demonstrate that death at the hands of police has little to do with compliance or non-compliance but rather the subjective fear of the officer in question. Eric Garner was killed by the use of an illegal chokehold after telling police 11 times that he could not breathe. In 2009, the Chicago Tribune ran a story documenting the killing of black men: In a suburb of Houston, a 23 year-old black man was killed while sitting in his own SUV. Police thought he’d stolen it. In Louisiana, a 73 year-old man was shot at a family gathering. More recently, on December 4, 2014, 34 year-old Rumain Brisbon was bringing dinner home. He was killed on his doorstep in Phoenix, Arizona because police mistook his pill bottle for a gun.

Racism-deniers have been quick to focus on the character and actions of the victims. However, it is the police that ought to be scrutinized. In some cases, the officers have a history of complaints made against them. In other cases, they come from troubled departments. We should be looking at the misuses of authority that allow police to demand obedience to unreasonable and demeaning demands. Why should police be able to demand compliance with stops and searches when they lack any probable cause? Why should minorities be forced to endure rough treatment at the hands of those whose motto is to “protect and serve”? Why should they take on the demeanor of blacks in the Jim Crow South when addressed by police? Recently, civil rights lawyer, Chaumtoli Huq was arrested because she did not move from outside a New York restaurant while waiting for her husband and child. She had just returned from a pro-Palestinian rally wearing ethnic clothing. Police forcefully handcuffed and arrested her not for obstructing the sidewalk (which she was not doing) but because she did not comply with their unreasonable demands that she move. Black and brown people are simply expected to obey whereas whites may resist. Jody Westby, who faced down police officers in Washington, DC when they tried to question a black man, demonstrated the difference. Of course, the police officer was a black woman herself.

While bowing and scraping to those who are sworn to protect us “might” save us from being killed, the larger question is what permits police to assert this kind of authority? The CATO Institute’s report on police misconduct for 2010 shows that by percentage police are almost as likely to commit violent crimes as the general population. Moreover, in four categories (assaults, sexual assaults, murder, fatal excessive force), police offend at higher rates than the general population. The same report tells us that in spite of these shocking numbers, the conviction and incarceration rates are half those of the general population. Unfortunately, the message sent by the Ferguson and New York grand juries underscores the impunity that the police seem to enjoy.

Across the United States, the police have become increasingly militarized. A number of police departments are training their officers in methods designed more for Fallujah than Ferguson. Ostensibly this is needed to ensure national security. But because of the continued use of racial profiling to pursue Muslims, blacks, and Latinos in the Wars on Terror and Drugs that has repeatedly violated civil rights, due process of the law has been radically eroded.

  • The Justice System is Broken/The System Works

The justice system’s racism, which has caused the policing and incarceration of blacks disproportionately, has been well documented by Professor Michelle Alexander of Ohio State University. In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander forcefully argues that the state pursues blacks for petty crimes that whites often get away with, incarcerates them at very high numbers, and then burdens ex-convicts with a life-long stigma that prevents them from improving their lives. Proportionally, blacks are policed, incarcerated, placed in solitary, re-arrested, and then locked out of employment, benefits, and advancement for their crimes at disproportionately high numbers. In a system which is designed to maintain white privilege as Daria Roithmayr has suggested in Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage, the failure to indict a white police officer for killing a black criminal does not indicate a breakdown. Wilson benefited from a prosecutor who, like him, undoubtedly plays an integral part in jailing the Mike Brown’s of the world. Prosecutors work closely with the police. The system, analyzed using a critical race lens, is set up not to get an indictment and it worked very well.

In addition, the mainstream media has played its own part creating a very real social fear of black men by continually conjoining racial identity with criminality and poverty. It is no wonder that Darren Wilson described Brown as subhuman—an “it”—and a demon. Social constructions of blackness in the mainstream laid the foundation for the fear that Wilson felt when confronted with Brown. And it gave Wilson an all too familiar defense underwritten by racism.

Of course, this is not to say that the people arguing that the system works to provide equal treatment are right. If race neutrality resulting in fair outcomes is the measure of success, then clearly the system does not work. The failure to indict the officers involved in the Garner homicide suggests that even in the face of irrefutable evidence, justice did not prevail. All except the choke-holding officer were given immunity from prosecution. Those same officers demonstrated a chilling lack of concern after Garner’s death as they stood around his corpse as though nothing of great consequence had transpired. That callous disregard is the subject of a new video now coming to light. Proponents of police body cameras relying on the belief that better evidence will yield better outcomes must think again.

  • The Focus Should be on Black-on-Black Crime

Former New York City mayor, Rudy Guiliani’s contribution to the Ferguson analysis was to once again high light what should be our actual focus: black on black crime. Given that most crimes are committed within communities: blacks against blacks and whites against whites, the call for such a focus can be reduced to a tautological centering of our attention on…crime. Moreover, given Alexander’s work, it would be hard to argue that the state isn’t focused on black crime. The argument that far more blacks are killed by other blacks (just as whites are killed by other whites) obscures the problem at hand: pervasive structural racism. The more important question is how many blacks are killed by the state without due process as compared to other races—particularly whites. To be clear, it is not just black men who are at risk, the numbers of black women who have lost their lives to law enforcement is now coming to light. Taken together, blacks are 3 times more likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts. Black male teens are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed than white teens. And that’s where the disparity becomes problematic showing that there is no equal protection or equal treatment.

Recent events and protests are the bubbling over of a simmering racial problem that the United States continues to ignore. If anything, the country has become more racially polarized after 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama. Whites have used the advancement of a few minorities to deconstruct the legal protections against discrimination. In the area of policing and public security, increasing counter-terrorism training and the relative judicial immunity of law enforcement has resulted in increased regulation of minority populations. For many whites, the default position remains blaming the victim and propping up the unearned privileges that they enjoy. And to do so, a strategy of misdirection and denial continues to play an important part.