10 Ways Racism Killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner
A New York City police officer put his arm around Eric Garner’s neck and choked out his life as he gasped, “I can’t breathe.”
A police officer in Ferguson, MO aimed his gun at Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager and shot him multiple times while he reportedly pleaded, “I don't have a gun. Stop shooting!”
While the police ended the lives of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, it was white racism that actually killed them.
American society is organized around the maintenance and protection of white privilege. Racism is not an opinion. Racism is a fact. The reality of the color line, how whiteness is a type of material and psychological privilege, and that people of color are disadvantaged in American society, are among the most repeated findings in all of the social sciences.
Critics of white supremacy and white racism work from the reasonable and informed belief—given the mountains of empirical data in support of the claim—that racism is one of the most powerful social forces in the United States. White racism deniers, and those others who have perverted the notion of colorblindness in order to advance and protect white supremacy as one of the United States' dominant ideologies, proceed from the opposite assumption.
Gravity is a fact. It does not need an extraordinary proof. Likewise, the fact of how racism continues to structure life chances in the post civil rights era should be a given for any fair-minded and intelligent person.
Colorblind racism and the white racial frame invert and distort reality: reasonable and sensible claims are rejected in favor of extraordinary proofs for the well-documented social reality that is white racism. For white racism deniers and their allies, the standards of evidence are made so absurdly high as to be virtually impossible to satisfy or meet with any degree of confidence or certitude.
Events such as the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown are a nexus where white racial resentment and white supremacy are made to confront black pain, reasonable hurt and righteous anger.
From the American lynching tree of the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the police harassment and racial profiling of the present, white racial logic deems black humanity to be a type of perpetual threat and poison in the white body politic. The black body must be controlled and terrorized in order to create a sense of safety (and community) for the white public.
Consequently, white racial paranoia twists the murder of two unarmed black people by the police into “justifiable” acts, where the victims of gross and unjust violence are somehow made responsible for their own deaths.
Colorblind racism, white racism denying and police brutality do the work of white supremacy. They are also micro-aggressions, the goal of which is to exhaust and confuse black and brown people by invalidating their life experiences and assaulting (quite literally in the case of police violence) their personhood.
Colorblind racism, and the related claims that racism does not influence how police and the broader criminal justice system interact with black and brown people, are also assaults on empirical reality and the truth.
Justice for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the many hundreds and thousands of innocent black and brown people who have been killed by the police requires a clear and direct engagement with the twin facts of American racism and white supremacy.
Eric Garner and Michael Brown were killed by white racism. What is my evidence for this claim?
1. The United States, from its founding to the present, is structured around maintaining the dominant power position of those people who are categorized as “white.”
America, as a society structured around racial inequality and hierarchy, will reflect that dynamic in its politics, culture, and social institutions. Thus, the legal system and the police will reflect America’s dominant ideologies. America is a racist society; it logically follows that its social and political institutions will channel those values.
2. In his essential book, Discipline and Punish, philosopher Michel Foucault detailed how a society’s legal system and approach to punishment and incarceration reflect the values and norms of its elites and dominant group.
The law is a social construction. It is not a natural arrangement. Elites make the law in order to serve their own interests. For example, the distinction between white collar and other crimes are but one way that those individuals who make the law can insulate themselves from its full consequences.
The class and racial disparities in American law and punishment are not accidents or a coincident: they are how the dominant and in-group protect their own interests to the disadvantage of the Other.
3. Police in America can trace their origins to the slave patrollers and “paddy rollers” of the antebellum South. Their goal was to support and protect the southern slaveocracy by terrorizing black people. The violence, terror, and harassment of black and brown communities, and the violation of the civil liberties of black and brown people, are not aberrations or outliers. They are part of a long cultural habit and tradition of racist behavior by American police departments and other law enforcement agencies.
4. As Michelle Alexander and others have extensively documented, there is racial bias against black people at every level of the criminal justice system. The cumulative effect of institutional and interpersonal racism by police and other law enforcement agencies is that black people are disproportionately incarcerated, receive longer sentences for the same crimes as white people, and are subjected to supervision and harassment by the legal system throughout their lives. The United States is a two-tier racially ordered society where the color line extends to the criminal justice system.
5. A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice details how police and other elements of the criminal justice system have a remarkable amount of discretion in how they choose to punish or otherwise interact with citizens. Those agents use their discretionary powers to disproportionately and unfairly harass, arrest and punish blacks and Latinos as compared to white people.
6. Police mirror the broader racial biases of white Americans towards African Americans. The association between black people and criminality has been reinforced by a racially biased media, educational system, entertainment industry, and other agents of political socialization for centuries in the United States specifically, and the West more generally. Researchers at Stanford University have recently demonstrated that white people have been so deeply taught to associate black people with crime that they continue to support racially biased sentencing even when shown that it is unfair.
7. While white people were found to be more likely to have drugs or weapons on their persons, African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately targeted for stop-and-frisk police searches in major cities such as New York. So-called quality-of-life crimes and “broken windows” police tactics are disproportionately used in black and brown communities. The systematic harassment of innocent black and brown people by the police creates a space for negative encounters which may end in incarceration or even police violence.
8. Communities of color, both because of race and class inequalities, suffer under aggressive and hostile police tactics.The militarization of the United States’ police departments is a national problem. This dynamic is amplified in black and brown communities, where for decades, American police departments have viewed them as territories to be conquered and its citizens as enemy insurgents or combatants. Because police see black and brown communities—and their residents—as threats, they are much more likely to use violence and draconian tactics against them.
9. Recent work by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a think tank and social justice research and advocacy organization, reveals how police, street vigilantes or security guards have killed one black person every 28 hours. A common scenario involves the police shooting and killing unarmed black people who are holding harmless objects in their hands—with the former claiming that they thought that a wallet, house keys or even a telephone were guns or other dangerous objects.
Psychologists have conducted research which suggests that implicit racial bias influences how white people (and others) may actually see non-whites in a negative manner. Thus, the subconscious thinking processes of white people may actually be transforming black people into threats where none actually exist.
Other research complements this disturbing finding: researchers at the University of Chicago and elsewhere have reported that white police officers (and others) are influenced by racial bias in their decision-making processes regarding when and if to shoot (unarmed) black people. The research on implicit bias and racial attitudes indicates that white racial animus and subconscious racism influences how police interact with black people—often with deadly results.
10. As assistant professor Vesla Weaver of Yale University deftly argued in a piece for the Boston Review, black and brown Americans who live in low-income and working-class communities are denied the full rights of citizenship by an expansive, punitive, and intrusive state bureaucracy and legal system. Consequently, police are much more likely to come in contact with innocent black people than they are whites who are involved in criminal behavior.
As a result, white criminals are more likely to be ignored by police; innocent black people are harassed and often arrested by the police.
Blackness is judged by the white gaze as de facto criminality. Whiteness is judged by the white gaze as innocent and harmless.
The police reportedly have a saying: “I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six.” The governing logic is simple: when in doubt, shoot and kill someone because you would rather be alive and put on trial than be dead and in the ground. That logic is increasingly applied in an unrestrained manner by police who see the black body as a primordial and imminent threat, and consequently do not hesitate to use lethal and often unjustified force against it. The police channeled this racism to kill Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
The killing of unarmed black people by American police is a human rights issue. It should also be a concern for all people, on all sides of the color line, who care about civil liberties, rights, and freedom. Why? The terrorizing of black and brown communities is a preview of what a militarized and fully unleashed police department, enlisted in the service of the surveillance society and a culture of cruelty, can (and will) do to white Americans in the future.