Racism and the Original Sin

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July 7, 2016 (San Diego) Two more men lay dead and did not go home to their families. These men are Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. They were two black men, who died in Baton Rouge Louisiana and in Minnesota. Then there are three Latino men, Anthony Nuñez, Pedro Erik Villanueva and Delrawn Small, who also died this week becuase they have a darker skin tone. These are families that are not going to see their loved ones come home.

Questions are being asked. Mark Dayton. Governor of the state of Minnesota spoke today. He was blunt. If Castile had been white, he would still be alive. That was one moment of courage, political courage. Most politicians dare not speak of this epidemic in such stark terms. We have a problem with law enforcement and how law enforcement interacts with people of color. This is a problem that in theory is recognized. Bias is real. It does exist and we need to face it.

We are now having these discussions every so often because of video, readily accessible video, that any of us can capture. We all have these video production facilities, in the palm of each one of our hands. Video cameras are making it much harder to hide when something happens. Police are trained in countless training academies. Officers are selected to serve in increasingly professionalized forces. Now many officers are wearing body cameras, since we all expect those to increase accountability. Yet…these shootings keep happening. All that seems to be for naught.

Governor Dayton had it right. Castile would still be alive if he were white. This is because of a history which we have not faced. It is our original sin as a country. That is the history of slavery and racism. There is a feeling within the African American community that it is open season on the community, with the full deployment of all the means of social control. As Michelle Alexander has written, we have replaced the old Jim Crow system, with a new system of social control, using the legal system and making sure African Americans and other people of color cannot vote, or exercise fully their rights as Americans. This is done by removing voting rights after conviction. This is done in some states, participially the old dominion. There are families where none of the adults have been able to vote, starting with the grandparents.

Alexander is clear in describing the caste system that has existed since after the end of slavery. She notes that as early as W.E.B Du Bois we can see a system where poor whites were rewarded for the color of their skin. She also wrote that this benefit led to these workers choosing their racial interest over their economic interest, never mind they had far more in common with the sharecropper than the business owner. The end of segregation affected poor whites. “Given that poor and working-class whites (not white elites) were the ones who had their world rocked by desegregation, it does not take a great leap of empathy to see why affirmative action could be experienced as salt in a wound.”

This wound remains and there is still a clear need to blame anybody for their ills. What is more, we have recreated the system of social control. Police are the tip of the spear and their goal is treating African Americans as second class citizens. This is not conscious, and you cannot find it in the training manuals of any police academy in the country, or the policies and procedures of any police agency. Nor do the vast majority of officers behave this way, at least consciously. Nor are officers alone in this bias. Multiple institutions behave this way. And while it is easy to look at law enforcement because their encounters tend to be lethal, we all need to look at other institutions as well. That includes media.

Yes, we know of the racism in decisions involving over policing of poor neighborhoods, and you can double this with neighborhoods where most of the residents are people of color. We in the media also help to perpetuate stereotypes. For example, when a white young man raped a young woman none went looking to see if he had a rap sheet. Instead, some bemoaned the fact that his brilliant swimming career was over. When young men of color are gunned down, that is almost the first thing media does. Did this young man had a record? The questions are almost never asked about white young men. Nor are their photos those of the booking room, but instead good photos.

There is more, when was the last time you saw a young white man (unless there are obvious gang tattoos) in county blues, or cuffs or in the back seat of a police car? But whenever a young person of color is arrested, that is a must get piece of video or photo. This is part of the implicit bias in the culture we live in. Nor are stories mostly written about things like school issues in poor neighborhoods, unless there is a fight.

We need to examine our society and our relationships with each other at the deepest of levels. It is easy to blame the police. The police are acting on behaviors and deep social biases that most of us are not willing to confront. We do believe a ten year old white child is a child, but a ten year old latino or African American child is feared as if he were an adult. See the case of Tamir Rice. Many of us unconsciously fear people of darker hue, or who have an accent. We also are taught to think of the other and blame the other for our troubles. Until we as a nation confront these issues, we will continue to ask why?

Yes, it does come to one word: Racism.

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2 replies

  1. Yes, it comes down to racism, and maybe even more clearly to white supremacy and white privilege riding on the powerful belief of many so-called white people that they are more valuable than so-called red, black, brown, and yellow people, and on their use of their still superior political, economic, and social power to maintain their supremacy, privilege, and belief.

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