The Problem with Saying ALL Lives Matter

Turin Carter speaks to media

Turin Carter he uncle of 19-year-old Tony Robinson, speaks to the media outside the home where his nephew was killed on March 9, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images

“We don’t want to stop at just “black lives matter” because all lives matter. To look at Tony and say that he’s just black, based just off his appearance, is something we’re basing legislation that is 150 years old almost now – less than that. I’m referring to Plessy v. Ferguson, okay. Terrell is a mixture of everything. You can’t look at him and say he’s black. He’s black, white, he’s a mixture of everything because we all have our own complex heritage.” ~ Turin Carter, uncle of 19-year-old Tony Robinson, shot and killed by police

In the wake of a Mother’s Day that seemed to weigh more heavily than those of past years, I found myself returning to comments made in March of this year. When I first read of Turin Carter’s remarks on the fatal shooting of his nephew, Tony Terrell Robinson, Jr., I found myself equally saddened and frustrated. Yet, in the midst of my empathy, I found Carter’s heart-wrenching admission that Tony was a “misfit” and that he “just wanted to be loved” to be troubling.

 

Pic of Tony Robinson at protest

A family member holds a picture of Tony Robinson during a protest outside of the City Hall building on March 9, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Virtually all American blacks are considered to be of “mixed” descent due to rape during slavery and a long history of interracial relationships, but Carter’s comments suggest that to talk about black lives mattering is to not be wholly inclusive of his nephew’s life.

The narrative of mixed-race children who can find no place because they are so ambiguous perpetuates the stereotype of the “tragic mulatto” who can never find love.  Alongside Robinson’s “need to be loved,” Carter repeatedly insists in his drafted statement – and in response to the questions that follow – that Tony is not “just” black. And yet, he describes Tony as one of several “black children” of a white mother. The emphasis on Tony’s mixedness and how it caused him a particular kind of emotional duress – even while acknowledging that Tony was a “black child” – reifies Tony’s differentness from other young black men who have been killed by police.

As Carter notes, “we don’t want to stop at just black lives matter because all lives matter.” As well-intentioned as I’m sure his comment was, it reinforces the “all lives matter” rebuttal that pushes back against the #blacklivesmatter movement and serves as a means of erasure. Insisting that “all” lives matter suggests that a focus on black lives – which are being disproportionately snuffed out – is not inclusive of the various ways that state-sanctioned violence impacts our society. The push for recognition of “all lives” implies a universality of experience, rooted in a universal humanism that is less anti-racist and more colorblind. To say that black lives matter is not to say that other lives do not.

Black Lives Matter protestors with sign

Black Lives Matter protestors with sign (Source: Flickr/Gary Lauzon)

 

Carter also said that Tony’s “racial ambiguity reinforces the fact that America’s racial lines are completely and 100% blurred…We are all multiple races and we each have our own complex heritage. There’s no way you can look at me, there’s no way you can look at Tony or any of my nephews, and determine 100% what we are, in terms of our heritage and our ethnicity.” Despite the assertion that America’s racial lines are 100% blurred (not necessarily) and that Carter and his nephews can not be easily racially categorized (perhaps), these young men are viewed by the state as men of color, particularly ones who are deemed threatening and less innocent. Carter notes this himself when he refers to his nephews as “black children of a white mother.” However, it is this emphasis on the “children of a white mother” that causes me concern. When multiracial families insist that racial lines are blurred, they are working to validate their own experiences. This is why many parents of mixed-race children insist that their children are “both” (see, for example, pieces by Jacobs and by Kich in Racially Mixed People in America; and, Rockemore, et al., in Mixed Messages).

By placing the focus on “a white mother grieving her child,” we might think that it is white motherhood that is under attack rather than black and brown bodies.

The “he’s not black, he’s mixed” argument seems like it would be one that could work in the family’s favor; by painting Tony Robinson as “a mixture of everything” and “not just black,” Carter’s comments assert a connection to whiteness as a strategy of redemption in the midst of media demonization. Though it can be argued that these comments also attempt to diminish the value of whiteness, this ignores how multiracialism has a history of complicity in anti-blackness (for more on this, see Sexton).

Andrea Irwin, the mother of Tony Robinson, fights back tears at a press conference held by the Tony’s family near where he was shot following the Dane County District Attorney’s announcement of no charges for the officer ( Source: Scott Olson /Getty)

By playing up Robinson’s whiteness, his tragic mulatto-ness, the family’s comments engage in distancing from blackness and, thus, from danger. To have the deservedly emotional white mother and white grandmother standing behind Carter as he makes his statement bolsters this whiteness and therefore, our need as Americans to be concerned with Robinson’s death. The murder of a young black man – who was already a tragic tale due to being a racial “outcast” – is seemingly more tragic now that he has a white mother to grieve him. A problematic logic is further supported through Carter’s comments on having “multiple races” and “complex heritage.” To be “more than” implies colorblindness – that the issues of state violence and police brutality are beyond race.

 

So, it’s not surprising that media outlets picked up on the “beyond race” thread in Carter’s comments as it strengthens the colorblind logic that race “cannot be seen,” promoting universal sameness. The “all lives matter” rebuttal relies on colorblind racism; to point out that race informs the disparities we see in police-related assaults is to “be” racist. Carter’s statement that he and his nephews are beyond “just” black provides mainstream media with a post-racial soundbite that can be used to further undermine the insistence that black lives matter.

It is tragic that Andrea Irwin, Robinson’s mother, was reminded that her son was viewed as black when the state exercised violence against him. I imagine her realization was akin to Jane Lazarre’s realization that her whiteness would not protect her son from being strapped down to a hospital bed and treated as inherently dangerous. Though I had wondered if the family’s assertion of Robinson’s whiteness might lead to an indictment of the officer who killed him, as we have seen, that is not the case.

Not only was it ruled that Officer Kenny “legally” used deadly force, he was praised for his approach in the situation that ended in a 19 year-old black teen’s death. As Carter insightfully states, his nephew’s death “highlights a universal problem with law enforcement and how it’s procedures have been carried out…specifically, as it pertains to the systematic targeting of young black males.”

With no justice for Tony Robinson, it is my fear that no mother’s grief – including Andrea Irwin’s — transcends the deeply entrenched belief that black lives do not matter.

 

~ Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Texas-Austin. 

Police-Involved Killings Continue with No End in Sight

Police-involved killings in the U.S. continue with no end in sight. Today, the Madison, Wisconsin D.A. Ismael Ozanne announced that there will be no charges brought against the white police officer for shooting and killing 19-year-old Tony Robinson Jr. on March 6. With that murder, and the announcement of no indictment, Tony Robinson’s names gets added to the long and growing list of names-turned-hashtags for young black and brown people killed by police where there is no justice in the wake of their death, and likely no peace in Madison.

 

Tony Robinson, Jr.

Tony Robinson, Jr. Source: CNN

Comprehensive data on rate of death for police-involved killings is difficult to come by because no federal agency is tasked with collecting it in any systematic way. Even the FBI failed to count at least half the number of people killed by state and local law enforcement officers in the past decade, according to a government report released in March. In the wake of such a failure of basic data collection, citizen and activist groups have started compiling their own statistics through crime and media reports. One of the most comprehensive projects to date is a website called Killed By Police. The site logged nearly 1,500 police-involved deaths between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2015 and included documentation for each incident.

And, this is what the aggregation of those deaths look like over 16 months

 

Tracking Police Killings Nationwide

Tracking Police Killings Nationwide Source: http://killedbypolice.net

 

If this were the spread of an infectious disease, the CDC and public health officials around the nation would be scrambling to find a solution. Yet, as it is, this use of deadly force by police against black and brown people continues virtually unchecked by any individual or institution. It has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world, however.

Protest sign: Stop Racist Police Brutality

Stop Racist Police Brutality Source: PBS Newshour

Yesterday, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council slammed the U.S. over our abysmal human rights record. Among the human rights abuses that the U.N. called attention to were police violence and racial discrimination, the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility, pervasive surveillance and the continued use of the death penalty. But it was the issue of racism and police brutality that dominated the discussion during the second universal periodic review (UPR). Country after country recommended that the U.S. strengthen legislation and expand training to eliminate racism and excessive use of force by law enforcement.

Last month, Chris Rock made news after he started documenting the number of times he’s been pulled over by the police and posting the photos on Twitter. Rock didn’t state the reasons as to why he was being pulled over, but people assumed that he was making a point about being racially profiled. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Rock discussed being profiled and the recent uprising in Baltimore.

“It’s not that it’s gotten worse; it’s just that it’s part of the 24-hour news cycle. What’s weird is that it never happens to white kids. There’s no evidence that white youngsters are any less belligerent, you know? We can go to any Wall Street bar and they are way bigger a–holes than in any other black bar. But will I see cops stop shooting black kids in my lifetime? Probably not,” Rock said.

I hope Chris Rock is wrong, but it doesn’t look like he is today.

 

Police Kill Black People, Get Rewarded

Rekia Boyd, Eric Harris, Natasha McKenna, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray. Just some of the recent names in the scourge of black people who are killed every 28 hours by police in the U.S. And, each time police kill black people, it seems they are rewarded. The policeman who shot Michael Brown became a millionaire because of the crowdfunded support he received.  The prosecutor, Daniel Donovan, who failed to indict any of the officers who killed Eric Garner has recently been tapped by the Staten Island GOP to run for a plum senate seat.

Rekia Boyd

  • Rekia Boyd.After midnight, on March 21, 2012, 22-year-old Rekia Boyd was hanging out with friends in a Chicago park. Dante Servin, an off-duty cop who lived nearby, called to report a loud party in a park near his home. He left his home to get food, armed with an unregistered semiautomatic handgun, and got into an altercation with the group of people hanging out. He fired several shots, one struck a young man in the arm, another shot struck Boyd, who was unarmed, in the head. She was taken to the hospital where she later died. On April 20, 2015 a Cook County judge acquitted Servin (who is white/Hispanic) of several homicide-related charges. It was the first time in 15 years that a police officer had been charged in Chicago for a fatal shooting.

 

Eric Harris and his brother Andre

Eric Harris (right) with his brother Andre.

 

(Image source: © Courtesy of Andre Harris/Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, PLLC via BCN)

  • Eric Harris. Harris is the 44-year-old man in Tulsa, Oklahoma who was shot and killed April 2. Video footage from the scene, captures Harris saying, “I’m losing my breath…” and an officer can be plainly heard telling him “Fuck your breath.” The 73-year-old volunteer sheriff’s deputy who shot Harris – saying he mistook his gun for his taser – is taking a vacation in the Bahamas ahead of his court date for manslaughter.

Natasha McKenna

 

  • Natasha McKenna. McKenna, 37, of Fairfax, Virginia, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.She had been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment and was subsequently charged with felony assault for allegedly punching an officer in January, 2015. On February 3, 2015, McKenna was scheduled to be transferred to another location for a hearing. Then, according to published reports, this is what happened next:  McKenna initially cooperated with deputies, placed her hands through her cell door food slot and agreed to be handcuffed, the reports show. But McKenna, whose deteriorating mental state had caused Fairfax to seek help for her, then began trying to fight her way out of the cuffs, repeatedly screaming, “You promised you wouldn’t hurt me!” the reports show.Then, six members of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, dressed in white full-body biohazard suits and gas masks, arrived and placed a wildly struggling 130-pound McKenna into full restraints, their reports state. But when McKenna wouldn’t bend her knees so she could be placed into a wheeled restraint chair, a lieutenant delivered four 50,000-volt shocks from the Taser, enabling the other deputies to strap her into the chair….

The multiple, high-voltage shocks killed Natasha McKenna, who was shackled and masked and weighed all of 130-pounds. No actions have been taken against any of the six people in Virginia who were involved in her death, nor against the manufacturer of the Taser. In another case in which an officer tasered a woman to death, the officer was cleared of all charges.

Walter Scott, Coast Guard veteran

Walter Scott, Coast Guard veteran

  • Walter Scott. Walter Scott, 50-years-old, father of four children, studying massage therapy while working as a forklift operator, and a Coast Guard veteran had recently become engaged to his longtime girlfriend, when he was stopped for a broken tail light on his car.  The routine traffic stop on April 5 in No. Charleston, South Carolina turned into a deadly shooting when officer Michael Slaeger opened fire on Scott who fled the scene because of a bench warrant for failure to pay child support (see this for more on this vicious cycle of failure-to-pay and job-loss). After a citizen-video emerged of the shooting, Slaeger was fired and charged with murder. The reward here was more immediate and visceral for Slaeger, who in an audio recording describes the “adrenaline pumping” from the shooting. This is similar to the research that Scully & Marolla did with convicted rapists, asking them why they raped; for some, it was simply for the “thrill” or the adrenaline rush.
Freddie Gray

Freddie Gray

  • Freddie Gray. We don’t know much yet about Freddie Gray, except that he was 25-years-old, African American, lived in Baltimore, and now he is dead after an encounter with Baltimore PD. He died Sunday, April 19, after being taken into police custody. It’s still not clear what he was charged with or what happened after his arrest, but a picture is beginning to emerge. Again, citizen-capture cellphone video is helping to build a record of what happened at the scene. Initial video shows Gray shouting and moving his head as he was carried into a police van. Later, he had three broken vertebrae. Gray lapsed into a coma, was resuscitated, underwent extensive surgery and eventually died. Protests surrounding Gray’s death have begun in Baltimore and six officers involved in this case have been suspended, with pay. So, that’s like early retirement, I guess.

This litany of names-become-hashtags is a recitation of black bodies sacrificed at the altar of white supremacy. As Steven Thrasher points out, while it is hard for black people to breathe these days, yet for those who do the policing, they are breathing quite easily.

"I Can Breathe" T-shirts at Pro-Police Rally -  by Steven Thrasher

“I Can Breathe” T-shirts at Pro-Police Rally – by Steven Thrasher

This is what white supremacy looks like in practice: the routine, systematic killing of black people and a reward system for those who do the killing. More diversity in police forces will not fix this. More cameras-on-cops will not fix this. More black elected officials, as in Baltimore, will not fix this.

The only thing that will fix this is to work on dismantling a system of white supremacy that rewards the killing of black people with freedom from consequences, keeping your job, getting promoted to senator, million-dollar crowd-funded jackpots, paid suspensions, vacations to the Bahamas, and adrenaline rushes. As Toni Morrison observes, “the hostility, the racism — is the money-maker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it.”

Until we can disrupt that connection between the hostility and the reward, we will continue to recite this litany of names-become-hashtags.

If Michael Brown were Harvard Bound, And White, And Wealthy

During the Fall of 2014, I taught an Introduction to Sociology course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). We covered numerous concepts & theories, including Broken Windows Theory. This theory was developed by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling to illustrate how one broken window left unrepaired in a building is an invitation for more windows to be broken. If not repaired there can be a downward-spiral of vandalism that culminates into lawlessness. Basically, Broken Windows Theory explains how we rely upon social contexts and cues to assess and/or engage in behaviors considered deviant.

Harvard University is a campus largely absent of broken windows and other forms of esthetic disrepair. When teaching at UNL, I have used Harvard as an elite reference point and will now do so in this article. While working on my PhD at Harvard, I lived in an undergraduate Residence House (that’s Harvard speak for “dormitory”) and worked as a Resident Tutor (that’s Harvard speak for “resident assistant”). I had conversations with Harvard undergrads on numerous occasions including breakfast/lunch/dinner. I was always amazed by the privileged backgrounds of typical Harvard students. Though from a low-income background, I gained knowledge about the mannerisms, dress, and linguistic maneuvers of elitism while an undergrad at Georgetown University. I was, however, quick to correct persons at Harvard who assumed I shared their elite origins. Still, interactions with Harvard students from elite backgrounds moved me to empathize with the vulnerabilities of elite youths.

Among vulnerable students were wealthy sons emotionally neglected by their wealthy parents; sons desperate for emotional support. There were wealthy daughters deeply worried that they would fail parental expectations by wanting to play in a rock band instead of becoming doctors/lawyers/scientists/professors, and so on.

Two students that I came to know quite well shared stories of tribulation and triumph. One student, TJ, had hypothesized a fantastic science project despite inadequate support for his idea. After access to a Harvard science lab and a thoughtfully written report, TJ earned an “A”. Another student, GW, endured a confrontational encounter with a rude police officer; GW stood his ground and called for mutual respect. A third student, DJ, had shoplifted some goods before coming to Harvard. His parents used their clout to prevent DJ from serving jail/prison time. (Though vastly true, I have modified minor details of these stories to protect the students’ anonymity.)

At Harvard broken windows are constantly repaired. Transgressions are washed away or significantly minimized by a “Hahvarhd” affiliation. DJ and many elite students with histories of juvenile delinquency like him are now successful Harvard alums.

As I share stories about students I met while at Harvard, what images come to mind: Images of wealthy, White, students full of complex humanity; students who deserve to achieve their dreams; young women/men who are not easily reduced to individual mistakes or parental shortcomings? Actually, two examples above are NOT about Harvard students. What happens to the image of these students as I reveal that “TJ” was an African American teen and “GW” was an Afro-Latino-American teen; both were from low-income neighborhoods in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Are TJ and GW suddenly less deserving of the benefit of the doubt; do racial/ethnic and class details strip away their complex humanity? To learn more about TJ (aka “Malik”) and GW (aka “Robbie”), read my book Tough Fronts (2002). I came to know them while at Harvard not because they were Harvard students, but because they were middle and high school students from low-income neighborhoods in Cambridge who shared stories of mistreatment and oppression eclipsed by Harvard’s affluence. I interviewed them for my dissertation and for Tough Fronts. I arranged Malik’s access to the Harvard science lab. Doing so briefly bestowed Malik with enough Harvard clout to cause his middle-school teacher to suddenly see his potential to be an A-student in 8th-grade science. Of course, Malik’s Harvard clout was fleeting. As for Robbie, his respect for Cambridge police was not reciprocated. Malik and Robbie were (and still are) no less complexly human than the Harvard students with whom I lived; yet they were constantly treated as such by powerful social institutions like schools, police departments, and social service agencies.

What happens to your image of Harvard when I tell you that in addition to DJ there are Harvard students—and I’m talking about wealthy, White students—who shoplift and commit other crimes. This was the case well before I went to Harvard. It was the case while I attended Harvard during the 1990s. And continues well after I graduated with my PhD. For example, Harvard students who shoplift include the daughter of Rudy Giuliani.

Let’s return to DJ, who actually was one of the Harvard students from my Residence House and who was White and Male and Wealthy. Let’s update his story and try to strip DJ of his complex humanity by providing his shoplifting story with a different ending.

In August of 2014, before his freshman year at Harvard, DJ shoplifts some limited edition Gurkha Maharaja Cigars costing $2,000 per cigar, from M&M Cigar and Gift in Norwalk, Connecticut. DJ returns to his neighborhood of wealthy White professionals in Darien, Connecticut. As DJ exits his 2014 Porsche 911 Carrera, a police car pulls onto his street. DJ, known for being spoiled and obnoxious, has hubris enough to be confrontational with the police officer. At what point does this White police office fire a gun at this 18-year-old, Harvard bound, White male suspected of shoplifting? At what point does this police officer continue shooting at DJ who has now walked away from the confrontation? At what point does the officer continue to fire as DJ turns around with his hands up? At what point does the officer use deadly force and kill DJ? At what point is DJ’s body left on the street in his White professional, Darien, Connecticut neighborhood for four hours? At what point do the police prevent DJ’s parents from going to their son’s dead body? At what point is the police officer not held accountable once it is clear that he shot and killed an unarmed, college-bound, 18-year-old? At what point does the Assistant District Attorney tell the Grand Jury that the police officer had the right to shoot DJ because he had turned to flee? Few if any of these things would happen to a Wealthy, White teen like DJ, yet most if not all happened to Michael Brown, who was also a college-bound 18-year old male.

Experiences with Harvard students, especially wealthy, White male students, lead me to conclude that at no point would DJ share Michael’s fate. If DJ had been caught stealing the cigars, he would probably have been detained at the store while his parents were contacted. Or as was the case with Rudy Giuliani’s daughter, Caroline Giuliani, store managers may call the police yet decline to press charges! In elite places where broken windows are constantly repaired, people honor the complex humanity of young people, who commit or are suspected of committing criminal acts. Unlike unprivileged youths, privileged youths are not easily stripped of their complex humanity.

I can personally assure you that the absence of broken windows at Harvard does not mean an absence of deviant behavior. Despite well-manicured lawns and unbroken windows there are Harvard students who deal drugs as well as those who commit rape and other heinous acts. Studies on the youths of privilege reveal that they have higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other destructive behaviors than non-privileged youths. Furthermore, the presence of broken windows in urban communities of color does not mean an absence of complex humanity.

I have been to the place where Michael Brown was shot dead as if he were an aggressive monster instead of an unarmed teenager, like DJ; it is not a neighborhood full of broken windows. But even if it were, Michael and Black youths like him, whether males or females, deserve the same benefit of the doubt as privileged youths like DJ and Caroline Giuliani. And for places where windows are rarely repaired, the police should honor the humanity of youths as they would honor the humanity of spoiled and obnoxious rich kids. And at the very least, instead of destroying more windows with bullets from guns aimed to kill unarmed teens, police and other government officials should assist residents to restore shattered lives and broken windows. This is all the more necessary in Ferguson, Missouri where the police and government officials share a legacy of shattering the lives of African Americans.

L. Janelle Dance, Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Senior Researcher at Lund University in Sweden, with sociological input from Selma Hedlund, Sociology Master’s Student, Columbia University.

No Indictment in Eric Garner Case

On July 17, 2014 Eric Garner was approached by NYPD officers on a street in Staten Island. The NYPD suspected Garner of selling untaxed cigarettes, not in packs or cartons, known as “loosies”, a violation of the law usually handled by a ticket. This interaction quickly escalated and ended with the death of Mr. Garner at the hands of NYPD officers.

GarnerProtests_Lynchings

  (Image by Jessie Daniels – CC – attribution, non-commercial)

Almost all of the interaction between the NYPD and Mr. Garner was recorded on a cell phone video camera. One officer, Daniel Pantaleon, can clearly be seen pressing down on Mr. Garner’s body while several other officers gather around his body. On the recording, you can plainly – and painfully – hear Mr. Garner yelling,“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!” The person who recorded that video, Ramsey Orta, was indicted on a previous and unrelated charge.

Garner’s death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. And, in August, several thousand of us from around NYC marched on Staten Island to protest this death at the hands of police.

GarnerProtest_Justice

(Image by Jessie Daniels – CC – attribution, non-commercial)

Yet, today, a grand jury on Staten Island decided to not to indict Pantaleon. The reporting by most mainstream news outlets here in New York is focused on the scurrilous “will there be ‘rioting’ in the wake of this decision?” angle. But make no mistake, the no-bill decision by the grand jury in New York is not a local issue. As Nick Mirzoeff argued in a post earlier today about the Mike Brown case in Ferguson:

This is a systemic failure, not a local issue in St. Louis. For the election of Barack Obama has not changed the underlying structures of what Joe Feagin and Sean Elias call “systemic racism,” which “refers to the foundational, large-scale and inescapable hierarchical system of US racial oppression devised and maintained by whites and directed at people of color” (Feagin and Ellis 2013: 936). As Angela Davis has argued, the penitentiary system was a vital pillar for the white supremacy created after the abolition of slavery (2007). Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has called her analysis of the New Jim Crow at work in today’s prison-industrial complex, a “racial caste system” which is “creating and perpetuating a racial hierarchy in the United States” (New Jim Crow: 16).

In short, white supremacy and racial hierarchy are not incidental parts of the justice system as we now have it but are constitutive of it. What Ferguson has made visible cannot be simply “fixed” by a review of the grand jury system or other tinkering. White supremacy is the system. Many (white) people are not ready to go there yet. We have to help them.

Just as the decision in Ferguson to not indict Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown is not an aberration, so too is the decision to not indict Daniel Panteleon in the death of Eric Garner. This is the system of white supremacy at work, and it works with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Justice isn’t merely indicting one officer or locking up one cop, it’s changing the whole system. Justice means dismantling the machine of white supremacy so that it no longer churns up black bodies with regularity.

Rodney King speaks with fans before pres (Rodney King)

Right now, there are many people that I respect who are calling for body cameras on police as a way forward to racial justice, but a video didn’t make a difference for Eric Garner. And, a video helped ACQUIT the officers who beat Rodney King nearly to death. So, even as President Obama goes ahead with a request for $263 million of dollars for body cameras for 50,000 police, I’m not persuaded this is a solution. While I get the desire to “do something” in the face of the ongoing injustice, body cameras seem like a techno-solution to systemic racism that needs to be addressed by other means. The fact is, the system of white supremacy keeps churning in a way that protects (white) cops and keeps damaging black bodies.

Police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes extrajudicially killed at least 313 African-Americans in 2012. A recent report by grassroots activists estimates that every 28 hours a black man is killed by police. While the report can and should be faulted for not paying enough (or, indeed any) attention to the extrajudicial killings of cisgender and transgender women of color, the report is valuable to the extent that documents killings that the federal government is not.

As the Wall Street Journal reported today, hundreds of police killings are not counted in federal statistics (paywall).  The report looked at data from 105 of America’s largest police agencies and found that it is “nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year.” They also found that the FBI numbers about police killings vary greatly from those provided by the Centers for Disease Control and by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. According to the report:

“more than 550 police killings between 2007 and 2012 weren’t included in the FBI’s national tally.  The Journal looked at internal FBI records and found that while the 105 departments had 1,825 police killings, only 1,242 were reported as “justifiable homicides” by the FBI. The Journal “identified several holes in the FBI data” — of the 105 agencies contacted, justifiable police homicides from 35 agencies weren’t in the FBI records at all. Police in Washington, D.C., for example, didn’t report police killings to the FBI from 1998 to 2008, when the city “had one of the highest rates of officer-involved killings in the country.” In 28 of the 70 agencies that did report homicide data, the FBI report was missing records of police killings. And “missing from the FBI data are killings involving federal officers.” (from Meghan DeMaria, The Week)

Instead of body cameras on police, I’m more inclined to want to see federal action to collect data on police involved killings. Yet, the research tells me that gathering statistics is not likely to change the system of white supremacy either.

As Jamelle Bouie noted in his piece about the research of Jennifer Eberhardt, we know that—among white Americans—there’s a strong cognitive connection between “blackness” and criminality. “The mere presence of a black man can trigger thoughts that he is violent and criminal,” observes Eberhardt and colleagues in a 2004 paper. Basically, the twisty-racial dynamic plays out like this: tell people that blacks are over-represented in prison, and it triggers thoughts of crime, which leads to fear, which causes people to follow their fear and embrace the status quo of unfair, overly punitive punishments, like not indicting NYPD cops for homicide.

So, what is to be done to dismantle this system of white supremacy? To paraphrase Ella Baker, until the killing of black people is as important to the whole nation as the killing of a white person, we cannot rest.

GarnerProtest_EveryMothersSon (Image by Jessie Daniels – CC – attribution, non-commercial)

Social Alexithymia and White Response to Police Brutality

veraNote: My dear friend and colleague, the great and beloved Hérnan Vera, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, died yesterday after a long illness. His influence and impact on his colleagues, including his many students, will last for the ages. He practiced well the empathy about which we have written, as below (from 2010). RIP

The late Hérnan Vera and I have written about the importance of the breakdown of empathy as part of the creation of racist systems, including discrimination and its racial framing. We have coined the term “social alexithymia” for the inability of a majority of whites to relate to the commonplace, past and present, police brutality and other racial oppression faced by African Americans and other Americans of color.

Discover magazine’s blog reported in 2010 on research study by the Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti, who

recruited white and black Italian volunteers and asked them to watch videos of a stranger’s hand being poked. When people watch such scenes, it’s actually possible to measure their brain’s empathic tendencies. By simulating how the prick would feel, the brain activates the neurons of the observer’s hand in roughly the same place. These neurons become less excitable in the future. By checking their sensitivity, Avenanti could measure the effect that the video had on his recruits …. most interestingly of all, he found that the recruits (both white and black) only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, the volunteers were unmoved by the pain they saw.

Interestingly, like we have argued,

Avenanti actually thinks that empathy is the default state, which only later gets disrupted by racial biases. He repeated his experiment using brightly coloured violet hands, which clearly didn’t belong to any known ethnic group. Despite the hands’ weird hues, when they were poked with needles, the recruits all showed a strong empathic response, reacting as they would to hands of their own skin tone. … strong evidence that the lack of empathy from the first experiment stems not from mere novelty, but from racial biases.

He also gave the recruits the Implicit Association Test

which looks for hidden biases by measuring how easily people make positive or negative connections between different ethnic groups. For example, white Italians are typically quicker to associate positive words with the term “Italian” and negative ones with the term “African”. And the faster they make those connections, the greater the differences in their responses to the stabbed black and white hands. … All in all, Avenanti says when we see pain befall a person from our own racial group, it immediately triggers resonant activity in our own nervous system. When we see the same event happening to someone of a different race, these simulations are weaker and take longer to form.

These anti-empathetic reactions are most serious for those who have the greatest power to oppress others, to cause great, routine, and recurring pain in racialized others, which is typically whites in Europe and the United States.

In the U.S. case, whites’ recurring discriminatory actions targeting Americans of color — including thousands of police brutality and other malpractice incidents over the last decade — require a breakdown of normal human empathy. Most social theorists have missed the importance of the fact that all human life begins in empathetic networks–the dyad of mother and child. Usually central to these first networks is basic human empathy, a desire and ability to understand the feelings of others. Without empathy on the part of mothers and other relatives, no child would survive. As it develops, racial oppression severely distorts human relationships and desensitizes the minds of those oppressing others.

Oppression requires in oppressors a lack of recognition of the full humanity of racialized others. Psychiatrists use the term alexithymia to describe people unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, others. Hérnan and I have suggested going beyond this individualistic interpretation to a concept of social alexithymia.

Essential to being an oppressor is a significantly reduced ability to understand or relate to the emotions, such as recurring pain, of those targeted by oppression. Social alexithymia thus seems essential to the creation and maintenance of a racist society.

What needs to be explained most is not the reality of human empathy and solidarity—the problem often stated by western philosophers–but rather how this empathy for others gets destroyed and how human beings develop anti-empathetic inclinations essential to racial oppression.

Guide to Stop-and-Frisk

We’ve blogged here before about the issue of racial discrimination in the stop-and-frisk policing practice in New York City. There is lots of data that shows stop-and-frisk is discriminatory, harmful to communities and is not effective at “getting guns off the streets,” as is frequently claimed by advocates of the policing strategy. And, it’s very likely unconstitutional.

 

protestors hold sign saying "stop stop + frisk"

(Image source)

Bill diBlasio, the newly elected mayor of New York City, has promised to end stop-and-frisk and that means there is a new future ahead for the city and the communities most affected by this policy.

In an effort to assess where we are with stop-and-frisk, what the data shows, and how scholars, activists and journalists have worked to change this policy, JustPublics@365, a project of the Ford Foundation based at the CUNY-Graduate Center (and that I lead), recently curated a series on this topic.  And now, that series has been compiled as an all-in-one guide to stop-and-frisk (pdf)

The Information Guide is structured around three levels of social justice outcomes:

  • Make Your Issues Their Interest: Raising Awareness About An Issue with an Audience
  • Make Your Issue Their Issue: Getting an Audience More Deeply Engaged in An Issue
  • Make Your Issue Their Action: Moving an Audience Towards a Specific Action

If you are teaching a class or training people in your organization, you can also use this Information Guide as a tool for teaching and learning about stop-and-frisk.

You can download the guide(pdf) and reuse it for teaching, research, activism or media.

Reading for National Dialogue on Race Day

The  National Dialogue on Race Day happening later today at Tufts University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy hosted by Prof. Peniel Joseph will focus on three broad themes and questions. In anticipation of the event, we’ve selected a few previous posts from the six years of blogging here that touch on these topics.

50 Years after the March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom: How Far Have we Progressed as a Nation in Achieving Dr. King’s Dream of Multicultural and Multiracial Democracy?

 Trayvon Martin, Mass Incarceration, and the public school to prison crisis

Race and Democracy in the 21st Century: What does racial integration, justice, and equality mean in contemporary America and how can we shape and impact this dialogue in our respective communities, nationally and globally?

Read up and join the conversation! You can participate lots of ways, by commenting here, by watching the livestream from Tufts (beginning at 7pm ET) or through Twitter at the hashtag #NDRD.

I am Not Trayvon Martin

After Trayvon Martin was killed, in February of 2012, protestors gathered across the nation asking for justice for Trayvon Martin. The protestors rallied around the slogan “I am Trayvon Martin,” with people wearing hoodies and carrying bags of skittles. The rallying cry called attention to the fact that young black men are overly-surveilled and viewed with suspicion, considered criminal on sight, and thus frequently in the position of being the target of police or vigilante violence. The “I am Trayvon Martin” protests called attention to the terrifying reality that all of us with black sons could be in the position of Martin’s parents: awaiting a decision concerning the culpability of a man who shot and killed our babies because he assumed he was a criminal—but knowing that regardless of that decision, his life was over. In July of 2013, while the jury was deliberating, I saw a meme posted on facebook that flipped the frame of the “I am Trayvon Martin” slogan. It was a picture of a middle aged white man in a black hoodie, and the caption read:

I am not Trayvon Martin. When I was 14 I was caught in the middle of the night by a neighborhood watch setting fire to a stack of newspapers. Trayvon Martin was walking home with a bag of skittles. I was taken home to my parents. Trayvon was shot and killed.

The message resonated with me, because although there are many young black boys who I love, and often fear for, I am not Trayvon Martin: as a white woman, I have a lifetime of experiences that illustrate what a difference race makes.
Just to share one particularly relevant example, one night when I was 17 years old I was spending the night with a friend, another 17 year old white woman. She lived in a white middle to upper-middle class neighborhood. That night, after her parents went to bed, she and I snuck out of her house on a mission to creep through the neighborhood and find ourselves some fun, and probably some trouble. We were up to no good. At about two o’clock in the morning, after running the streets for hours, we were walking down a street which was lined with boutique shops and small businesses. One of the businesses on that street was a local investment company, The Johnson Company. My friend and I had a mutual friend—a boy who we were excited to impress—named Calvin Johnson, and in our mischievous mood we decided that we should steal the company’s sign so we could give it to Calvin–the was made of wood, it was about two feet long by four feet wide, and “The Johnson Company” was printed across it in huge red letters.

After prying the sign loose from the hooks that held it, we began the walk back to my friend’s house – with me carrying a two foot by four foot sign in my arms. As we were walking we were approached by a police car, which stopped beside us. At that moment, I knew for certain that we were going to jail. Of course we were. I was holding a huge sign that said “The Johnson Company,” and we were less than two blocks away from said company. My only hope was to attempt to concoct some story, some lie that explained my having the sign for a reason other than sheer criminal mischief, and my brain was working furiously as the officer driving rolled down his window. But I was surprised. Stopping me in my tracks, the officer simply asked “where are you young ladies headed?” My friend said “we’re on our way home right now.” I said nothing. I concentrated on keeping the surprise (and even indignation) off my face. The officer said, “where do you live?” She told him her address, which was approximately four blocks away, and, astounding me further, the police officer said, “well hurry and get home, and be careful, its late for you girls to be out.” Then he rolled up his window and drove away.

I was not Trayvon Martin that night. I was a young white woman, walking through a white upper-middle class neighborhood at 2 a.m., so even though I was holding a stolen sign, my presence was entirely unproblematic, except to the extent that I might be in danger. The officer assumed that we were not engaged in wrongdoing – even though we were, in fact engaged in wrongdoing. He had clearly seen the sign I was carrying, since it was more than half as tall as I was, but he also clearly assumed I had that sign for a legitimate reason. So on that night, a police officer showed us, two young white women, human kindness and empathy. He advised us to hurry home, letting us know that it was too late for us to be out, he was worried about our safety, not for the threat we may pose to others or the neighborhood.

On that night my life could have been changed forever. The sign we stole may have been worth enough money to make me eligible for a charge of felony theft. I may have gone to jail or prison instead of college; I may never have gotten the opportunity for an undergraduate education, much less graduate school. I certainly would have had trouble becoming a lawyer since the American Bar Association engages in strict background checks and resists admitting people with felony convictions to the bar. None of that happened because my whiteness never produced a moment of suspicion in that police officer; because I am not Trayvon Martin. I did not lose any aspect of my life as a result of my desire to go creeping that night; Trayvon Martin lost his entire life because he walked to the convenience store in a white gated neighborhood.

Throughout my youth I found that I was often viewed by that police officer as someone to take care of, to show concern for. By contrst, African Americans, especially African American men are viewed as potential criminals. African American men, of all ages, from young teens to elderly gentlemen, from every background, from high school students, to college professors to judges, experience the humiliation of being systematically surveilled and considered suspect—so much so that even a self-appointed vigilante neighborhood watch person, with no legitimate authority, feels entitled to follow a young black man who is merely walking home from the store. But more than that, it is this air of suspicion that leads people to the conclusion that it was reasonable for George Zimmerman to follow Trayvon Martin. The tacit, never fully considered or admitted, assumption that an African American young man in a hooded sweatshirt (as opposed to a white young woman holding a stolen sign) is a potential criminal. And through this nearly axiomatic presumption of black male criminality people can come to the outrageous conclusion that Zimmerman chasing after Martin and confronting him with a gun could lead to a scenario in which Trayvon Martin was viewed as an aggressor.

Several days ago a jury acquitted George Zimmerman (failed, even, to find him guilty of manslaughter, which would have only required recklessness in the shooting). The legal basis for the acquittal was the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to defend themselves with force from an attack without having to attempt to retreat or escape the situation. Evidently the jury decided that after Zimmerman chased Martin down, Martin’s defensive physical response meant that Zimmerman was justified in shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. Metrotrends analysts John Roman and Mithcell Downy have discovered that in the 29 states that have Stand Your Ground laws, shootings are more likely to be legally considered justified. More insidiously, Roman and Downy found that the shooting scenarios that have the highest likelihood of a ruling of justifiable homicide in Stand Your Ground states result when white civilians shoot black civilians. This racial disparity is not surprising to social scientists who study race, the pattern of racial disparity exists in every segment of the criminal justice system in the United States. Moreover, legal scholar Michael Tonry, in his 2011 book Punishing Race, notes that research indicates that when white people are made aware of the racial disparities that affect African Americans in the criminal justice system, their support for punitive criminal justice policies actually increases. (See pp. 91-97).

At this moment the Justice Department is in the process of considering charges against George Zimmerman for civil rights violations (civil rights violations!), and the Stand Your Ground law will not save Zimmerman from a civil suit. But whatever the outcome of that case, Trayvon Martin’s killing must become the motivation a critical systematic interrogation of the criminalization of African Americans in all its insidious forms. We must acknowledge that we are living in a police state in which the lives of young African Americans (especially boys and men) are threatened by extreme surveillance and suspicion, police and civilian harassment, mass incarceration, and even execution. The time has come to stop casually using the words democracy and freedom, and start interrogating what those words should substantively mean.

Dr. Wendy Leo Moore is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University. She is a sociologist and a lawyer and is the author of the award-winning book Reproducing Racism, White Space, Elite Law Schools, and Racial Inequality.

Sweden: No Longer the Exception to Western Racist Rule

Authored by Tobias Hübinette and L. Janelle Dance

Since May 20, 2013, mass vandalism, material damage and outbursts of rioting in the poor and non-white suburbs of Greater Stockholm have dominated Swedish and international news media. This civil unrest was sparked when, on May 12, the police shot and killed a 69-year-old man from Husby, one of the marginalized suburban communities of metropolitan Stockholm. The shooting is still under investigation. The burning of cars, other types of arsons, and attacks on the police erupted in Husby on the evening of May 19th and quickly spread to many other similar suburbs of Greater Stockholm such as Fittja, Tensta, Flemingsberg, Hjulsta, Jakobsberg, Hagsätra, Rågsved, Skärholmen and Skogås. As we write this post, after six nights of uninterrupted suburban unrest, the vandalism and the violence have also spread to other Swedish cities like Gothenburg, Örebro and Linköping. Although the US and UK embassy warnings to keep out from such districts are clearly exaggerated—the scale of the unrest cannot be compared to similar previous waves of riots in for example the US, the UK or France—a feeling of a serious social crisis is gaining ground in the political debate as leading government officials and the Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt urge a stop to the material damage.

This is not the first time that Sweden is experiencing a series of riots; the last time was between 2008-09. However, it is arguably the first time when voices from the suburbs are entering the public debate as a new nascent social movement. At the helm of this movement, which has gained the spotlight in recent years, are teens and young adults who are also usually born and raised in Sweden (the so-called second generation). More than ever before, these youth are denouncing police harassment, the declining social welfare services in the suburbs and the dramatically increasing disparities between rich and poor—a development which is heavily racialized as the proportion of poor white Swedes is below 5% while the proportion of poor Swedes of color hovers around 35-45%. Representatives from this movement have, for example, alerted the media to the use of racial slurs among the police who patrol the suburbs, and above all they have been able to express an unprecedented analysis of a New Sweden, which is becoming heavily polarized along racial lines.

For decades Sweden has proudly viewed itself as the most progressive country in the world, as “the conscience of the world”. Furthermore, Sweden’s antiracist image and radical anti-discrimination, migration and integration legislation are well known all over the world. However, recently Sweden has also become the OECD country showing the highest difference in unemployment between foreign-born and native-born Swedes, while its big- and mid-size cities are characterized by one of the most extreme ethno-racial residential segregation patterns in the Western world. Thus, it is not in the context of the old Sweden of exceptionalism but in the wake of the New Sweden of exclusion that we must understand the frustration, the desperation and the rage that can be found particularly among young people in the suburbs. This second generation has grown up in Sweden but due to stigmatized postal addresses and “non-Swedish” appearances they are not accepted within the majority society at large, without taking into account these worrying statistical correlations.

There are also other political groups that are exploiting the current suburban unrest. A fact overlooked by the media is that these other groups do not live in the suburbs yet exacerbate the unrest. While ignoring these instigators, the media focuses on spectacular videos and photos of burning buildings and cars and policemen fighting with youngsters. Firstly, there are indications that white Swedish leftist activists have encouraged and participated in the riots, something that also happened in 2008-09. Their sole political agenda is to sustain and encourage even more social antagonism at the expense of an even stronger stigmatization of the poor and non-white suburbs among the white majority population. Furthermore, Swedish extreme right-wing activists are also active in the events by portraying themselves as “ordinary Swedes” who want to help the police as “citizen guards”, a popular yet loaded discourse that the media all too often buy into. Saturday night for example, around 200 Nazi activists more or less invaded Tumba in Southern Botkyrka in the southern part of Greater Stockholm, and started to hunt down and beat up any youngster who was deemed to be a “rioter”.

However for ordinary white Swedes reading and watching the news it is highly probable that all the inhabitants in the suburbs are associated with violence and rioting. In the end, the Sweden Democrats (a former Nazi party which has transformed itself into a populist anti-immigration party and which, according to opinion polls, is the fourth or the third largest party in Sweden) will maybe become the biggest political winner due to the suburban unrest. Now, the Sweden Democrats will most probably gain even more support among the voters. Of course, representatives from the party have already made use of the events by calling for stronger police interventions and the introduction of temporary state of emergency measures in certain urban districts.

Once “exceptional” Sweden is no longer the exception to the general Western rule of blaming the racialized victim. On the contrary, white Swedes are remarkably unexceptional as they behave like racist and conservative white Americans. Ordinary white Swedes, who claim to embrace antiracism, equality and social democracy, look at the riots in Stockholm and blame marginalized youths for the institutional discrimination, political marginalization, and structural racism that have become common place in the former “conscience of the world”.

Tobias Hübinette is an Associate Professor and researcher at the Multicultural Centre in Botkyrka, Sweden. L. Janelle Dance is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska and a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. Dance is currently living in Sweden.