Canadian Racism On Trial

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Because I’m a black man who isn’t living under a rock I’ve been forced to think a lot about racism lately. Most days I feel relatively lucky to live in Canada where cops don’t regularly shoot unarmed folks who look like me, or anyone else, for that matter. A year ago, we turfed our former Prime Minister, whose dalliance with race-baiting chauvinism cost him the election.

That said, every time an unarmed black man gets shot in the US my social media newsfeeds are littered with articles posted by Canadian white guys, almost always Baby Boomers, flatly denying the possibility race had any part to play in the incident. They unwittingly re-post videos and “news” clips fashioned by media organizations they may not realize are fronts for white supremacist groups or organizations funded for the specific aim of racism-denial.

These folks should be deeply concerned they are in league with avowed racists. They would be appalled to learn they are instrumental in the propaganda campaign waged to taint the backgrounds of the deceased and sustain the narrative that black men deserve to die in the street because they are thugs. Even if Canadian whites are unaware the messages they champion are crafted by racist organizations, the very idea they watched a video or read an article compiled by a white supremacist and said “Yeah!” should give them reason to pause for self-reflection.

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Carla Williams, “scooped up” from her parents as a child and shipped off to “more suitable” parents in the Netherlands.

Crimes committed by individuals whose parents are from a Muslim country are immediately touted as “Islamic terrorist” events by the media. Such a rendering by what is supposed to be an authoritative source of information makes it easy for many white folks to adopt this narrative as truth. For the next several days moderate Muslims are forced to unleash a media and PR campaign to appease suspicions that all Muslims are terrorists in waiting. Whenever these attacks happen my newsfeeds are festooned with bogeyman caricatures far too many sub-urban white North Americans believe reveal something axiomatic about all Muslims.
These narratives randomly pilfer the last fifteen years of world history to not so subtly suggest all the responsibility for the violence in the world rests at the feet of Islamic terror organizations and Muslims alike. In so doing, they have conveniently forgotten the centuries of history right up to the present, or the proxy wars in the decades during the Cold War. They missed the memo about the warplanes and bombs we and our allies have dropped all over the world.

Here is the bad news: people die when the high-tech fighter jets and cruise missiles, which are the toys we Western folks fight with, deliver their mega-tonnes of explosive ordinance. Women. Children. Arabs. Muslims. Human beings. Dead. At the hands of “Christian bombs” if you will. Death can’t be stopped where bombs are concerned. I am not arguing here about the foreign policy merits of these actions. I am arguing the belief that only Muslims have killed people in the last fifteen years is absolutely ridiculous.

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The MS St Louis arrived at a Canadian port of call in 1939 with 908 Jewish passengers fleeing the Holocaust. They were denied entry, sent back to Europe and, it was later learned, a quarter of them died in German death camps during World War II.

Every time a Canadian news agency publishes reports on crimes involving blacks or Aboriginals, after about two hours they have to close the comment threads. Some news organizations have simply stopped allowing comments on these stories. Why would that be, one wonders? Here’s a hint, it’s not because their servers are overwhelmed by shows of support from sympathetic trolls.

But our cops are not shooting blacks. We’ve been relatively nice to immigrants of colour since we began letting them in about twenty five years ago. This followed a period of racist immigration legislation that allowed only Western European immigration. Muslims who wear the hijab haven’t been harassed or subjected to random attacks like they have in the US. We let in 30,000 Syrian refugees, which is a drop in the hat given the four and a half million languishing throughout Europe and the Middle East. We don’t have cretins like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen in our mainstream politics. All true. So, racism isn’t a problem in Canada.

Bullshit.

Let us not forget, our Prime Minister did try his hand at bigotry in the last election. He knew that would play with a large segment of Canadian society, just like he knew his snitch line for “barbaric cultural practices” (code for “living like a Muslim” ) would be a hit with the same segment. Thankfully, it was not a large enough segment – just. During that same election, the campaign signs of candidates with Muslim-sounding names were defaced in one of the WASPiest communities in Southern Ontario.

More recently, a leadership candidate in the same party of the ousted Prime Minister posited a solution to appease what she accepts at face value are rational fears of would-be immigrants. Smart folks aren’t supposed to be inclined to this sort of rhetoric, but she is a medical doctor. The intelligence required of her profession makes her race-baiting a little more difficult to dismiss. When uttered from a person of her stature the air of legitimacy is cast upon what is clearly a racist idea, and bigotry becomes normalized.

The good doctor has written a prescription to rid Canada of “undesirable” immigrants: she proposes they pass a “values test” – whatever that is. Surely she should have run some more tests of her own, in particular to identify the underlying causes of this widespread illness for which “fear of others who don’t look like us” is a symptom. I think she would find a case of mass hysteria and would do better to hand out buckets of Ativan to calm everyone  down.

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In 1914, the SS Komagata Maru landed arrived on the west coast of Canada carrying 376 passengers, all British subjects from India of Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim backgrounds. Of these, 26 were allowed to enter Canada and the others were sent back. They were treated by the British as political agitators upon arrival back in India and arrested for the entirety of the First World War. Canada has officially apologized for this incident.

Canadians are a little too quick to blow their wads while mentally masturbating to the image of our post-racial Shangri-La. This delusional narrative is so easily maintained when we have countless vulgar, crass Archie Bunkers to the south to wield as our benchmark. Certainly, we have never had characters like Donald Trump gaining much political traction. Our political class hasn’t fashioned countless racist dog-whistles to divide disenfranchised whites from blacks and passed them off as legitimate political discourse. But why should the country where so many wish to simply forget slavery ever existed be heralded as the Canadian standard?

We dress our racism up a little nicer because our establishment, which is still one hundred per cent white, are the progeny of the tee-totallers across the pond. England was far more refined in institutionalizing racism. They had an aristocracy and class system that is only now loosening its ability to determine social outcomes. They shipped soldiers to loot the planet for Mother England in far-flung places like the near east and south Asia, wielded their guns at the brown, black, and Asian mobs for centuries, and plundered the lands of their tin, rubber, spices, gold, lumber, and free labour. They banned slavery because they didn’t need it; they had naval fleets who could subjugate the dark hordes and noble savages without having to cart them like chattel back to England. There wouldn’t have been the room to put them up, anyway.

We Canadian colonial upstarts tore a page right out of the English playbook. We didn’t proceed like the Americans: gunning down, marching, and starving the Indigenous people to kill them off and steal their land. Instead, we sent them off to reserves in the middle of nowhere – where it was easy to forget about them – and launched a campaign of cultural genocide upon their young’uns. Those are not my words, but that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which studied the issue of Residential Schools. One assumes that this solution seemed like a perfectly legitimate, naturally laudable, resolutely Canadian passive-aggressive way of rooting out the “Indian problem.”

In Canada there are First Nations reserves that have not had running water for twenty years. Many others living on reserves have to boil their water most of the year. We are only now learning more of the sordid details of another systematized attempt to eradicate Indigenous people by way of the “Sixties scoop.” Beginning in the 1960s and continuing on through the nineteen eighties indigenous children were seized by government social workers from their “unfit” biological parents and placed in foster or adoptive homes of whites who, one presumes, were obviously fit because they were white. In recent revelations, we have learned some of the “scooped up” indigenous children were sent to adoptive parents in the United States and Europe, and that some of these parents paid fees to adoption agencies. It was effectively the Canadian government trafficking in indigenous children to offset the costs of social welfare.

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Through the 1880s thousands of Chinese labourers were brought from China to construct the Canadian Pacific Railway. They were paid a third of what their co-workers were paid, and when the job was done, the Canadian government ensured they would not stay by imposing a head tax to immigrate, which they couldn’t pay because they were paid exploitation wages. A formal Canadian apology and redress for survivors was made in 2006.

We did not teach several generations of Canadians – mine included – a goddamned thing about any of this treatment of indigenous people. I can see why. It’s a bloody national disgrace. When my child was seven, he had already learned more about this country’s indigenous peoples than I or the generations before did in our entire public school tenure. He shakes his head at the truculence of my generation and those before in resisting genuine measures to remedy decades upon decades of tacit wrong-doing.

These shameful tales are the putrefying cherry on top of a festering bowl of racist history, Canadian-style. Historical incidents like the Komagata Maru, the Chinese head tax imposed to bar the Chinese labourers who built this country’s most vital engine of economic growth – the Canadian Pacific Railroad – and the lowest acceptance of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust of any nation in the world, are tragic examples in the sordid legacy of Canada’s racism.

As a black man I can attest to countless hurtful experiences of overt racism directed at me because of my skin colour, especially in my youth, when I was emotionally ill-equipped to deal with them. Every once in a while something happens to dredge up these experiences and it is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Lately, it isn’t the incidents happening in the United States picking at the wounds. These are terrible events to witness, but they do not speak directly to racism in the Canadian context. Obviously, this has tempted countless white people here to dismiss the racial antecedents of these tragic events. It is that tendency, and the way it is enacted, which does speak to racism in this country.

This deplorable phenomenon has re-opened some of  my own racial wounds, especially in the past two years. I have been subjected to an unceasing campaign of denial of the role race played in countless media stories of the day where non-white “others” are victims of crime. Such strident denials without having any apprehension of facts points to the bigotry within anyone who touts them, whether they are aware of this or not. The sharing of racist media publications veers very close to propagating hate speech. Anyone engaged in it should consider that.

The articles suggesting the unarmed black men gunned down by police in the US deserved to die, which some of my white social media friends have been posting on their pages, incite hostility and violence toward me in their excusing of that conduct. In so doing, they perpetuate the idea that I and those who look like me are incessant thugs, a stance which is deeply offensive. It is irrelevant if that is not what was intended. It is the consequence. People should consider that possibility before they share fake media stories about racially-charged events, lest they be mistaken for a racist.

I understand many people who aren’t minorities do not see the racism in their views or remarks; many don’t intend to espouse racism. For many of these folks, I believe their desire to not intentionally spread bigotry is genuine. I grew up a white guy with a black man’s skin. I know exactly how it is. When I was a kid, I went out for Hallowe’en in black face, for crying out loud!

This Western culture of ours, for a long, long time has incessantly touted itself as superior to everyone and everything else in the world. This isn’t to suggest we’re the only ones hailing our exceptionalism. Tribalism, pride, and vainglory are the most irresistible of human frailties. But I didn’t live in those other places, and can’t comment on how they executed their brand of chauvinism. I am only experienced in the dodgy end of white, Western bigotry. What I saw was how we lampoon and demean other races and creeds for the sheer fact of their difference alone. Most often, the sub-text is that otherness in itself is something to be feared and derided; it is never to be taken simply as a sociological fact, it is always in need of our judgment as to the degree of its implied inferiority.

This is why, if you are a white person living in a Western country, and genuinely desire not to be a racist, when a minority tells you something is racist, don’t argue that point as if you could possibly know what you’re talking about. Just listen. If it’s your words or deeds, stop being so defensive, own up, and say you’re sorry. To point it out isn’t to posit myself as a paragon of morality; I am no less likely to possess my culture’s chauvinist, oppressive biases than anyone else. It isn’t to suggest white folks are the spawn of Satan. It is merely to suggest the obvious; that white people can, at times, say or do something that is racist without realizing it because they’ve never really had to endure it – not in this society. They grew up in the dominant group.

The way many other race-baiting ideas are casually shared by some makes it obvious that a certain segment of white folks simply don’t give a shit because, let’s face it, they’re among the dominant group, right? These are the unabashed bigots who are tired of the political correctness police; they don’t want to have to stop and think about what they say or do in respect of those who are different. They don’t want to be called out for blurting out bigoted comments that spring into their mind. It’s too tiring to have to care about that; the others should adapt to our ways because they’re better anyway. If minorities don’t like it they can go back to where they came from. Fair enough, but I was born here, as were many black, brown, and other folk. HERE is where we came from.

To the regular Joes who are unabashed bigots I suggest that, since the option of deporting minorities or harassing them until they leave isn’t going to bear fruit, your energy is best directed at finding the real source of the insecurity and fear beneath your racism, and deal with that. Here’s a hint: the filthy rich, corporate guys in suits. They are messing with your mind.

On the one hand, they tell the regular Joes they are all entitled to the American Dream embodied in the wealth and privilege they and their corporate buddies enjoy, while on the other, they are doing everything behind closed doors to stack the system against Joe’s efforts to do just that. Instead, they reap all the spoils and point the finger at the minorities, the socialists, or the Muslims when Joe is struggling in the system they created to screw everyone except themselves. Racism is just another oligarch’s ploy to have Joe steeped in fear so his eyes are off a ball he never gets to touch, which helps Joe to buy into the lie that the game isn’t rigged. He’s been duped by his so-called white brethren.

Because the charlatans who have you hoodwinked are white like you, the fables they tell about how the black, brown, and heathen hordes have their hands in your pockets – how it is their presence which threatens your way of life – are impossible to resist. There is no pagan idol better than xenophobia and racism to keep the corporate courtesans enriched and empowered to everyone else’s detriment. With the serfs divided, fighting among themselves, fighting foreign ghosts, fighting everything but the system created to completely disempower them, the aristocrats are free to plunder from the coffers of the white tribe indefinitely.

The whole thing is sad and infuriating. It is the elephant between the lines that few are willing to acknowledge exists as the sub-text to many political divides in my country. It does temper my optimism for the future; makes me a little less inclined to believe my efforts to succeed will bear fruit in a society where pointless, atavistic, disenfranchising racism abounds. Such is the psychological torment systemic racism inflicts. It is hard for some minorities attuned to this ugly facet of their existential reality, to “pull up their socks” when, confronted with a racial slur here or a racially-motivated roadblock there, it seems like so many are intent on pulling them down.

There is plenty of evidence to disabuse anyone of the idea there is cause to celebrate Canada’s post-racial social order; that we’ve ascended the heights of a racially harmonious Pollyanna. The xenophobic, bigoted articles written by and posted by white Canadians on my social media feeds, the continued indifference to the plight of indigenous Canadians – despite all we now know about their lot – and the earnest propagation of racist dog-whistles by educated, well-esteemed white Canadians gives the lie to any claim this country is without a racism problem.

The one positive light going forward is that the bulk of those who champion the chauvinist ideas endemic in Western culture, the ones that fuel full-fledged racism, are a dying breed. These ideas, even if still prevalent, are not the only ideas the youth in our culture have been exposed to. Because they are fortunate to live in a world where technology gives them access to a plurality of ideas, they are less likely to be so strongly conditioned to racism, at least in its Western form, which gives me hope.

My wish would be that this problem fizzles out with those who were responsible for further instilling, or doing nothing to deter, these racial toxins in our culture; that those among my generation who continue to wave that flag will soon be outnumbered and marginalized by the more open-minded among the generations below. One can dare to dream. That said, we mustn’t rest on our laurels because too much damage has already been done, and we need to start healing ourselves of our racism now, so there are no more victims.

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This is the cover art for Secret Path, a project by Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie. It is a multi-media telling of the true story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve-year old boy who died in 1966 while trying to walk home from the residential school to the home he had been snatched from 400 miles away.

American Justice, in Black and White

Racist Rage, Puts Innocent Boy in a Cage

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.

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A New Missouri Compromise: Compassion in Place of Fear

Like many others, I was outraged but not surprised by the Grand Jury decision on the shooting death of Michael Brown. Another senseless, preventable death of an unarmed black man in another act of violence meted out by an official sworn to protect and serve his community. No punishment can ever replace a life, and given many recent court decisions in similar cases, the common law suggests there would have been no conviction had the case gone to trial.

Such is the essence of legal nihilism that furthers a disturbing, growing trend in America; that of a gradual withering away of the value of a black man’s life in its institutions of justice. It is alarming given the Courts’ role as arbiter of substantive moral questions in American democracy. When it comes to the lives of black men, the justice system increasingly defers to the implied moral rectitude of police authorities, even where it is clear the series of events from an officer’s initial provocation to a man’s tragic death are racially motivated and involve criminally grave errors.

Racist Rage, Puts Innocent Boy in a CageI used to be in law enforcement. I wasn’t a cop in uniform patrolling the streets, but I had a badge and enforced laws of parliament. I know what it is like to have an enforcement mandate aimed at keeping the peace and compelling respect for the laws of a country. When you engage those who may be breaking laws you don’t have the luxury of knowing the level of threat you’re dealing with. I worked with enough police to know how thankless and dangerous the job can be. Every time there’s a story about a police officer using excessive force against a black man, knee-jerk outrage is tempered by an understanding of the threat and fear police must work with day by day.

The workplace of police is often textured by violence, especially in the United States, where citizens are passionate about their weapons of destruction. It’s a police officer’s job to engage in situations where there is little doubt about the violent intentions of those they encounter. There is little room for error, and possibly fatal consequences if they have to second-guess their authority to employ lethal force if the situation escalates to an unacceptable level of threat. While that may be, it is also obvious, the risks incumbent in the job combine with racial biases that lead too many American police officers to ascribe higher degrees of threat from non-compliant behaviours in black men. The thresholds to justify their use of force, especially lethal force, are much too low in these cases.

It is an outrage to have to say this in the twenty first century, but black men in America must find a way to contain their anger when engaged by a white police officer given the divergent world view they bring to the job. This almost certainly involves a disreputable narrative of black men they carry from a childhood largely devoid of regular, meaningful contact with black peers.

A black man competes with a mental image engraved in a white officer’s mind by years of adverse conditioning. It renders him deaf and dumb to your protestations, to your calm, elegant appeals for reason. It makes him misconstrue all your actions as indicative of escalating threat. It is best if you silently capitulate to their commands or risk inciting the wrath of an official drunk with delusion about the expansiveness of their power and authority.

This doesn’t justify cops who kill when a subject fails to comply with police orders. Anyone trained in law enforcement knows that non-compliant behaviours – yelling, clenching fists, uttering verbal threats – merely justifies enhanced measures to engage a subject; the use of pepper spray, batons, or tasers to subdue a person, place him in restraints, and sit him down in your vehicle for quiet reflection. The mere fact of non-compliance does not justify an officer’s drawing of their weapon, unless there is a clear indication a subject aims to use a lethal instrument themselves.

The drawing of a weapon is a de facto statement of intent to use it, and those grounds need to be as justifiable as the death arising if events subsequent to it spiral downwards. The officer’s reasoning should always be tested in a court of law if there is a death, especially when the dead is unarmed. All the facts must be laid out to confidently rule out criminal errors in the officer’s judgement and afford the dead a chance to rebut the officer’s self-serving assertions to justify his needless taking of a life. In America, the courts are supposed to be the ultimate judge of who is a thief, a drug dealer, or even a suspect, not a cop on the street; the punishment the law prescribes for said crimes is not death.

The fact black men must make their case in the street with guns pointed and adrenaline drowning out a man’s reason, when everyone else gets their day in court, is an insidious aspect of American police culture that black men cannot wish away. It must be heeded to ensure the worst in a police officer’s street justice you experience is an escalation of your righteous indignation. Your pride may be wounded, but at least you’ll be alive.

If a black man demonstrates anger at being unreasonably stopped by police it will amplify the inference of threat the cop believes you already present; which informed their reasons for engaging you in the first place. Every gesture you make will confirm the hypothesis, fueling a perception you’re reaching for your putative weapon. So breathe, do what it takes to be silent and still, and obey the commands. Learn the positions law enforcement in your area are trained to understand as giving them total tactical advantage and know how to assume these positions calmly.

Innocence, irrespective of colourThese are tragic words for a black man such as I am to concede. I am lucky compared to American blacks. I grew up with my mother and her white family in Canada, a nation whose racist zeal is largely reserved for Aboriginals. My maternal grandfather was born to a Massachusetts establishment family who were of Quaker descent and among America’s founding colonialists.

I did not have any contact with my African-American father or any part of my black lineage, so I am merely a distant witness to the indignities of black American existence. I feel possessed at times by conflicting emotions pulling at me from both sides whenever racial tensions are aroused. I think ‘it could have been me,’ and then I become fearful and angry on a purely existential level; the idea certain whites, none of those I personally knew as friends or family, would be capable of such wickedness and cruelty simply because of the colour of a man’s skin. The colour of my skin.

My entire life I have been a student of America’s political and racial history, keenly aware of my blood ties to both sides of the divide. I’ve witnessed those in US history who look most like the only people I’ve ever loved enslave, persecute, murder, and oppress people who I more closely resemble, but do not know. To gain a sense of black identity growing up in the seventies and eighties, I was captive to what was a clearly racist media bias. From the time I was eleven, my understanding of blacks came mostly from the US network television feeds that came into my city from Detroit. I know perfectly well what any white person not growing up alongside blacks would have gleaned from watching Detroit news.

Myself and my white friends and family saw crack house raids, gang-land murders, drug dealers, pimps, and domestic violence. There in our Canadian living rooms, we’d be left shaking our heads at the never-ending acts of iniquity those dispatches from the black ghettos provided. There would have been no shortage of evidence to make inferences about black delinquency if that is what we were inclined to believe.

It is not difficult for anyone to imagine the impressions about blacks a white rookie cop who grew up in a US white enclave would bring to their job; how that might play in his comportment toward those in a black neighborhood. There would be a felt need to assert their authority as police officers; their bias telling them blacks possess an inherent disrespect for law and order. That would be easily deduced from all the unflattering media depictions laid before their judging eyes since childhood. The inference would be reinforced in the attitudes they heard in comments by parents, family, or other influential adults in their upbringing.

The contact with “reputable” blacks – teachers, doctors, those in their parents’ social network – to sway them from their prejudiced view would have been minimal. That is what happens when nations balkanize; the solitudes exist within the narrow realities of their racial stovepipes. The communities don’t really know each other at all, in spite of how closely their lives are weaved together in society; their toleration for the other remains fragile, weakened by apprehension and mistrust, mired in mutual fear and hostility.

A young white cop in the US would have little personal context for the disrespect and ambivalence they may experience some blacks display toward them. They would have grown up with cops in their neighborhood who were regular good guys that, at worst, busted up a raucous party. As a man, he would not accord much intellectual weight to the sociological phenomenon of black crime; that, to the degree it is higher than other ethnic communities, it is more a function of inter-generational poverty and disenfranchisement than it is to an innate tendency for delinquency. It would require an incredible amount of will and concerted mental effort to dispense with all the negative conditioning about blacks to form an enlightened sense of what they see day-to-day.

Given this, the habit of a white cop would not be to de-conflict or stand-down in their engagements with those perceived – even if sub-consciously – as lawless thugs. Their learned biases kick in, and they are compelled to provocatively assert their power and authority. The lack of common ground between these two total strangers is the catalyst for a tragic misunderstanding. A black man takes umbrage with his perceptions of police abuse, a cop construes this as a lethal threat, and the black man gets killed.

Pensive Times At SchoolOutrage quickly yields to resignation about the sad reality the Ferguson shooting has laid bare. America is a country over-run by a fear so endemic that it’s even robbed police of the mental faculties to compel proportionality in their conduct. Regular citizens see enemies everywhere, carry concealed weapons to fend off all manner of threat, real or imagined, and ready themselves to make war against their fellow citizens. In other words, the people mirror the behaviour they witness among their law enforcement authorities.

Writ large, all individuals, lawmakers and citizens alike, view the right to employ violent means as paramount; to subordinate a life to their own fear and to react in anger for the insecurity it breeds. It is obvious, the fear of powerless black men is profound in America; so much that the laws of the land readily condone violent, angry repudiations of their humanity in the most despicable way for a civil society: by police, in the streets.

I can empathize with how much these incidents diminish the hope for real progress in the wider black community. There is obviously anger about this reality, which increases the odds conflict will escalate with police in encounters provoked by them on the flimsiest legal pretense. The mistreatment is so widespread, so systemic as to smack of genuine persecution; very similar in nature to the tactics of police officials in military juntas.

If I were a white cop, I’d be more self-reflective about my conduct toward the citizens in a black community. It may be unfair to put this on police officers, but excesses in their conduct not only diminishes their authority but it also weakens perceptions of the legitimacy of the state that allows their misdeeds to go unpunished. It is vital to a democracy that citizens’ trust and faith in lawful authorities is maintained, otherwise widespread belief in the corruption of its institutions takes root, and civil society is severely undermined. The very legitimacy of American democracy requires that no more of these deaths goes unpunished; that legal remedies are enacted to address gaps preventing the application of justice to these cases.

The site of the Ferguson shooting reminds me of a quote by a US President:

This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of racism, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of racism itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest. (Source: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=lincoln;cc=lincoln;rgn=div2;view=text;idno=lincoln2;node=lincoln2:282.1)

I’ve substituted ‘racism’ where ‘slavery’ once marked the words of President Abraham Lincoln, the excerpt above from a speech in Peoria Illinois in 1854. The poignancy of his message denouncing the indifference to the expansion of slavery proscribed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 is relevant to the indifference toward the obvious racist underpinnings of the Ferguson shooting and of so many similar deaths across America.

The rhetorical hand-wringing in mainstream, reputable media of extra-judicial killings of blacks by police shares a common theme with many other political developments in the US. Voter registration laws, gerrymandering of black electoral districts, mandatory sentencing laws, repealing or proscribing of mandatory minimum wage laws, opposition to universal health care, and the slashing of social security benefits are spawned from the same tolerance for covert racism. They directly target the community of slaves brought against their will to build the country, who were supposed to have been free to enjoy prosperity alongside their fellow Americans, but have been willfully kept disenfranchised for generations since by the most conspicuous weapon of violence democracies possess: racist legislation.

Disconsolate SufferingThe world is a grateful benefactor of American ingenuity, innovation and perseverance, as well as to the democractic principles advanced in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. These are treasures in the human endeavour that rightly win admiration throughout the free, industrialized world. That is why the stridency with which so many Americans and their leaders deny racism, espouse racist policies, and condone wicked, racially-tinged actions by institutions at the heart of the nation’s democracy irrevocably tarnishes its reputation. It is a sad renunciation of the great spirit America was founded upon, and is by equal degrees the source of its declining moral suasion in global matters.

It is a state of affairs that renders President Lincoln’s words all too prophetic, another prescient example of his status as a luminary in American history. As he foresaw, the zeal of racism in spite of widespread American denunciation, has indeed robbed the nation of its just influence in the world. If there is anything to be salvaged from these terrible tragedies, one hopes it is the will to reflect on the massive gulf between the goodness Americans extol in themselves and the realities in the maligned existence of the powerless and vulnerable among them. It is a shameful come-down for a nation with such enormous prospects.

The desire to reclaim the noble aspirations upon which America was founded cannot come to fruition unless the cowardice of fear as a unifying principle is dispensed with for political gain and compassion is made to stand in its place. If there is to be no just compromise following this Missouri tragedy, if there are more Michael Browns in American streets, if there are more rhetorical flourishes to cultivate tolerance for acts of covert racism, then fear will have won and American interests advanced by appeal to what is morally just and right will be dismissed as insincere shibboleths around the world. They will seem like words as hollow as the promise of justice denied to powerless Americans who suffer, and need it most.