American Justice, in Black and White
I want white, law-abiding Americans to try and imagine what it must feel like to know there’s a chance that, as you drive home from work, or pop out to the grocery store to buy some milk, you might be pulled over by a police officer for a minor infraction and wind up dead. Imagine.
It is true, all lives matter. White lives, black lives, Latino lives, women’s lives, children’s lives, immigrants’ lives. Gay, lesbian, and transgendered lives matter. Nobody could argue that. Nobody is arguing that.
Except every single day in America nothing is done to the laws, policies, or practices to suggest there is more than tepid support for the idea that all lives matter. So when it is wielded like a brick-bat in response to hearing “black lives matter” it is just another denial of what is to many black folks, a harrowing reality. When it is said “all lives matter” the ones who utter it are simply doing as they’ve always done: negating the genuine concerns of blacks in American society.
The reality is that, in America, some lives are disposable; some lives are chattel to enrich the lives of others; some lives are not worthy of the legislative agenda pursued by politicians. If all lives mattered, the parties in power would not allow social security to be eroded, they would not enact laws that criminalize and incarcerate blacks in alarming numbers, they would ensure not a single citizen went without health care, they would not criminalize sexual orientation, or legislate how women use their bodies. If all lives mattered in America there would be funding for quality education and training of children and youth and nobody would starve on the streets.
No, not all lives matter, apparently. The lives of rich, white, corporate, privileged interests matter. The politicians and the powerful establishment are quick to respond to their needs with decisive action. The criminal deeds of the rich – financial frauds, Ponzi schemes, tax evasion, economic graft and corruption – go relatively unpunished. Their concerns are top of the legislative agenda. The rest of the lives in America are left to fend for themselves. If those among the thrown-away lives happen to be black males, they will spend a lifetime being arbitrarily subjected to random interrogations by police, frisked and detained in front of their children, or imprisoned or murdered for crimes borne of economic desperation.
Why does that happen to black men more than anyone else? Why are there countless videos of police encounters with white people who actually possess guns or knives, who really are poised to use them that end up with the perpetrator coming out of the situation in handcuffs? Why do they get to have their future fate determined by the justice system?
Those who say “all lives matter” are denying all the reasons a person might lay claim to a legitimate grievance in these senseless killings of black men. It is a sweeping dismissal of the legacy of slavery, racism, and intolerance that everybody damn well knows built America and which today still shakes its moral core. The fact serious people are saying “all lives matter” despite the senseless killings that gave life to the “black lives matter” movement is the most clear-cut indicator that America still has not breached the racial divide.
To say black lives matter is to shine the light on how racism continues to tear at the American social fabric. It isn’t to suggest all cops are racist, corrupt, would-be killers. It isn’t an argument that all other lives don’t matter. So stop it. Let blacks, for once, air their grievances without trying to shut them down like a bunch of “uppity negroes.”
I am deeply disturbed by what I see transpiring on America’s streets and outraged by the sheer lack of moral leadership in response to these injustices. I have to confess, my horror is as much existential as it is ethical. These events are a stark reminder that my black-ness, which has intermittently been the object of mild racism here in Canada, could be the undoing of my existence should I choose to visit the United States. Until recently, I’ve been able to live in a state of relative denial about how my black-ness is of any social consequence.
Thanks to what I see in America on a regular basis, I am constantly reminded that my black-ness could get me killed. By a cop. What the fuck, America?
It makes me angry and it makes me frightened. It is an existential threat that no law-abiding white person in America has to fear. So yes, all lives matter, which is true. Except when it comes to black men and the American justice system. If statistics on death by cop, incarceration rates of blacks, and the ubiquity of systemic harassment of blacks by law enforcement are considered, it becomes obvious that black lives don’t matter.
Given this reality, when it is said “black lives matter”, shut the fuck up and listen. Stop acting as if the facts do not clearly show how much more likely are black men to feel the sharpest, most brutal edge of American justice.
I am not anti-cop and I am tired of this dichotomy being thrown at those who express their desire for justice in these instances. Criticism of the thing does not imply a desire to negate the thing. The fact this constantly comes up in American discourse betrays a retrograde, fascist strain of anti-intellectualism that undermines constructive dialogue. The effect of this tactic is to suppress ideas and discourage novel approaches to foster change for the better.
In my career in law enforcement, I have worked with countless police officers in an investigative capacity. I know police officers suit up every day and willingly plunge head first into harm’s way. It is no trivial matter to say that most cops are good. Their choice of career is a noble one. Depending on where they work, they may have one of the most dangerous middle class jobs out there. Those who turn these tragic events into an opportunity to fuel hatred of the police community have no idea the scores of good men and women tarnished by such a broad brush.
But cops are also human. They are not incorruptible. No group of human beings is. Human beings as they are, there is a chance they arrive to the job with a host of biases and attitudes they have learned in their surroundings. Some of these may adversely impact how they perform their jobs in relation to the blacks they encounter.
They don’t recruit white cops from Mars to patrol streets in black neighbourhoods. I grew up in a white family, in an affluent suburb where there were only white people – basically the same kind of environment as most white cops in America. I know that it would be difficult for a white person to have been reared in this environment and come away with positive views of black men. They would have had to rely on culture to fill in the mental gaps left by their lack of actual experiences of who black men are. I know that I didn’t come away with a positive image of what it is to be black from appealing to the culture, and I am a black man.
It is important to say that “black lives matter” in order to displace the thousands upon thousands of images, media, and other cultural and social products that combine to fuel a mental proclivity to believe they don’t. It is to acknowledge the legacy of racism that pervades American culture and society which effectively negates, cheapens, and marginalizes black existence. It is to recognize that police officers are just as likely as anyone else to possess their culture’s predilection for racial bias; to posit that this may affect their judgement. It is to acknowledge the obvious: that, in America’s racially-divisive social context, many white cops are bound to possess racial biases that affect how they engage black men in their jobs.
In my heart I don’t believe racism made these cops kill these innocent black men. No, but racism propelled the cops to engage the black men in the first place. Racism made them perceive the black man’s deeds as non-compliant. Racism may have fueled the officers’ inclination to escalate their tactics in the situation, because racism fueled the idea the black man was displaying a thug’s disrespect for authority.
Ultimately, however, it isn’t racism but fear and recklessness which writes the final chapter of a story where a black man gets killed by a cop in an encounter that was poorly substantiated in the first place. It’s a story whose prologue was written by racism and whose epilogue will feature protagonists with a capacity to do something whose political calculations and moral cowardice will propel them to do nothing. The racist Canon that has tarnished American history for centuries will be left undisturbed. Some time will pass, until the next sordid tragedy in the American debacle is written in a black man’s blood, yet again.
Denial of the social realities that underlie these incidents do the good cops and the citizens they serve no good. The fact there are poor black men peddling on street corners, engaging in petty theft, or who are involved in other “black-market” activities that set the stage for the police encounter that led to their deaths isn’t entirely the fault of police. The whole scenario is predicated on the social ills that come with black poverty and disenfranchisement. It is terrible that police are left in the lurch on the front lines to sweep up what is a much larger social problem in America. If politicians were really pro-cop, they would put an end to this recurring nightmare with legislative, social, and economic programs to eradicate black poverty and stop criminalizing black existence.
I am the first to say most social ills do not easily submit to a casting of the issue in black and white. Except when it comes to the justice system in America. In that case there is one justice system for whites, and another for blacks; one which criminalizes, incarcerates, systemically harasses, and sometimes even murders them. When black and white are treated the same in the US justice system, we will be able to say without a whiff of smugness or disdain that all lives matter.
Until then, since it is black lives which are repeatedly and violently repudiated by the justice system, is it really unreasonable to suggest, in this context, that “black lives matter”? I don’t believe so. To say “all lives matter” in response is to dismiss the legitimate injustices being aggrieved. It perpetuates a legacy of denial about America’s racist underpinnings which, given it is the twenty-first century, is contemptible for its lack of moral growth.