Deadly Consequences of White Racism in Death of Black Cop

I was downtown today and crossed paths with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly leaving City Hall.  I can only hope that he was there because he was being held accountable for the deadly consequences of white racism by the New York City Police Department.  In the most recent example of this, a white cop shot and killed an off-duty black cop he assumed was a criminal.

The off-dalg_edwards_familyuty and out-of-uniform man who was killed was Omar Edwards, pictured here with his wife and two small children (photo from NYDaily News).

Edwards had seen someone – an actual criminal – breaking into a car and decided to pursue him, even though he was off duty.  The suspect breaking into the car started to run away and Edward chased him with his gun drawn.   It was at this point that a white cop, later identified as Andrew Dutton, saw Edwards, yelled “Police! Stop!” and when Edwards turned with his gun still drawn, Dutton shot and killed him.

The local news here is filled with reports about this story, as it should be.   Unfortunately, the reporting on the story mostly obfuscates what happened rather than illuminates it.   The incident is being called variously: “friendly fire” and a case of “mistaken identity” by the mainstream press.   What this leaves out is the crucial fact of race.

Why did Dutton assume that Edwards was a suspect?    The plain fact of it is because Edwards was a black man and that Dutton interpreted that to mean that Edwards was, therfore, a suspect.      In New York City, racism is a persistent reality of urban life.   What that means for the city’s black and brown men is that they are much more likely to be targeted by police for “frisking,” arrest, or assault. Within this context, hard-working black men like Mr. Edwards often rely on uniforms, whether as police, bus drivers or the ‘uniform’ of a college student,  to protect them from this nearly constant onslaught from police.    Without his police uniform, Mr. Edwards looked like just another suspect in E. Harlem to Mr. Dutton.

Surely, part of this tragedy – and it certainly is a terrible tragedy – is Mr. Dutton’s inability to see beyond the white racial frame that blinded him to the possibility that Mr. Edwards might be something other than a suspect.

Don’t get me wrong.   I’m not accusing Mr. Dutton of being any more racist than any other white cop; what I am saying is that Mr. Dutton’s worldview was shaped by his experience and racial background in such a way that it predisposed him to assume that Edwards was a suspect rather than a fellow officer.    Details are coming out now about Mr. Dutton’s life, and one of these is that he lives in the predominantly white suburban Long Island.   Choosing to live in a white suburb while policing a predominantly non-white city doesn’t necessarily make one more racist, but it does little to challenge the predominant white racial frame.  Perhaps if, as community activists have long argued, Mr. Dutton were required to live in the city he might have known Mr. Edwards, or at the very least, hesistated before he made a deadly assumption he did.

This case is more than merely “mistaken identity” on the part of Mr. Dutton, but rather it is part of systemic racism that black police officers face again and again.  As one unnamed source quote in the NYDaily News says:

“This is always a black cop’s fear, that he’d be mistaken for a [suspect],” a source said.

What this source is saying is that he recognizes that if a case of “mistaken identity” happens, it’s going to happen in only one direction.  That is, it’s going to be a black cop that’s shot because he was thought to be a suspect.  This is not routinely happening to white cops.    As Kai Wright at The Root notes, this is part of a consistent with a larger pattern:

This is a pattern for NYPD’s confrontations with black men: Massive, lethal overreactions that turn difficult situations into disastrous ones. And it’s a pattern for police violence against black men nationally. They get scared; we get killed.

It’s (long past) time for this to end.  Mayor Bloomberg should hold Commissioner Kelly responsible for the actions of officers on the NYPD. And, even more than that, we need to challenge the white racial frame and the deadly consequences of white racism.

Ronald Takaki Has Died: A Great Loss for the Country, and for Race Scholarship

takaki AsianWeek has a sad notice, about the untimely death of the great scholar of race and racism, Prof. Ronald Takaki at U. California-Berkeley (Photo: AsianWeek).

I will do a long post over the next week or so, but for now their summary is fine:

It is with great sadness to announce that Professor Emeritus Ronald Takaki passed away on the evening of May 26th, 2009. He is survived by his wife, Carol Takaki, his three children Dana, Troy, and Todd Takaki, and his grandchildren.

Ron Takaki was one of the most preeminent scholars of our nation’s diversity, and considered “the father” of multicultural studies. As an academic, historian, ethnographer and author, his work helped dispel stereotypes of Asian Americans. In his study of multicultural people’s history in America, Takaki seeked to unite Americans, today and in the future, with each other and with the rest of the world.

He was a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught over 20,000 students during 34 years of teaching.

HeraldNet has this good post too.

Imaginary Black Men Invoked Once Again

We can add yet another racial hoax to a long list of incidents involving white “victims” and imaginary black assailants.

A Pennsylvania woman, Bonnie Sweeten, and her 9-year-old daughter, have been detained in Orlando, Florida this past week after the mother claimed they were abducted and stuffed into the trunk of a car:

In the frantic 911 calls, Sweeten, said two men had bumped her 2005 GMC Denali, carjacked her and stuffed her in the trunk of a dark Cadillac. She implied that her daughter was with her in the trunk, according to Philadelphia police Lt. Frank Vanore, who listened to tapes of the calls. Sweeten, who is white, described her assailants as black but otherwise gave few details about their appearance, Vanore said. “It was pretty generic,” he said.

Later in the day, she and her daughter were caught on surveillance tapes in the Philadelphia International Airport heading to a Florida Disney resort. Sweeten had apparently taken out $12,000 out of several bank accounts in days prior and it is unclear whether or not the money was stolen.

Unfortunately, racial hoaxes like Sweeten’s are all too common. Last fall we witnessed the case of Ashley Todd,a white 20-year-old student at Texas A&M and McCain supporter who claimed she had been pinned to the ground, robbed, and had the letter B scratched into her face by someone she described as a 6’4” black man wielding a knife. Besides the obvious backward B on her face, she soon admitted to investigators that she fabricated the entire story. She was later sentenced to nine months of probation for filing a false police report.

In her 1998 book The Color of Crime, Katheryn Russell-Brown provides data for 67 racial hoaxes between 1987 and 1996. Of those, 70% involved whites claiming black assailants. More than half of these stories are revealed as false within a week, but she writes:

The fact that so many white-on-black hoaxes are successful indicates society’s readiness to accept the image of blacks as criminals (Russell-Brown)

It is interesting to note that, “racial hoaxes are devised, perpetrated, and successful precisely because tap into widely held fears” (Russell-Brown). Perhaps unsurprisingly, media coverage has virtually ignored the fact that Sweeten’s story resembles so many that have come before her. Her racialized claim of being abducted by two black men (in a widely stereotyped Cadillac, no less) has only been presented as an afterthought.

While these recent racial hoaxes involving Sweeten and Todd were resolved rather quickly, racial harm still abounds. Media stories such as these serve to embolden the white racial frame by perpetuating stereotypes and images of black men as both dangerous and criminal. Hoaxes such as these are so easily believed because they readily hang on the white racial frame and touch upon (white) people’s racialized fears.

In addition, racial hoaxes involving white “victims” are more likely to receive significant media attention and an outpouring of support at the national level, as illustrated by Russell-Brown’s analysis and widely publicized cases such as the ones above and others (e.g., the case of Susan Smith, a woman who drowned her two children, first claiming she had been carjacked by a black man).

Lastly and perhaps most disturbing, is the fact this is clearly not the case when black victims make claims against white assailants, either as hoaxes, or as very real and disturbing [[]] events that are often ignored or are met with incredulity. What does our willingness to believe only some victims’ voices and stories, but not others, say about us?