Far & Near column published in the Hindustan Times (26 September, 2016)
In recent years, Americans have had to grapple with many instances of overzealous police officers killing black men. Last Tuesday, police in North Carolina killed Keith Scott as he was waiting to pick up his son. Another man, Terrence Crutcher, was shot dead in Oklahoma while standing next to his broken-down car. In both cases, police initially claimed that the men posed an immediate threat. Video evidence suggested otherwise, revealing that officers acted aggressively and callously.
Scott and Crutcher are only the latest names to be added to a litany of well-publicised police killings. The deaths of (to name just a few) Michael Brown in Missouri, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Alton Sterling in Louisiana, Philando Castile in Minnesota, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland awakened the country to its abiding problem with race, in general, and the criminalisation of black men, in particular. They sparked the most compelling new energy in American politics, the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Its simple message has percolated through popular and public culture, from Beyonce to Hillary Clinton. Supporters see Black Lives Matter as the next phase in the American quest for civil rights. It tries to advance the process set in motion by the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and continued by the fight against segregation in the 20th century, that ongoing struggle to address structural racism in America.
Much of the conversation around these tragic killings revolves around police procedures and racial bias. An unarmed black man is 3.5 times more likely to be shot by the police than an unarmed white man. Thanks to video-enabled smartphones, incidents that might have once been buried have now reached the knowledge of the public. If you have the stomach for it, you can watch Michael Slager, a white policeman in South Carolina, gun down from behind Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was only guilty of driving with a broken taillight.
Before killing the unarmed Crutcher in Oklahoma, police officers were recorded referring to him as a “big bad dude”. The body of a black man is seen as an inherently guilty object, worthy of brutal treatment. As the poet Claudia Rankine writes: “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.”
The deaths have become symbolic indictments not just of the police, but of the broader society. These awful episodes peel back the crust of American life and expose its glaring inequities. The Harvard statistician Sendhil Mullainathan argues that police target black men for reasons beyond mere racial prejudice. “The deeper you look, the more it appears that the race problem revealed by the statistics reflects a larger problem: the structure of our society, our laws and policies,” he wrote in the New York Times. Deadly police encounters open wider questions about the immiseration of black communities, the abiding segregation of schools and housing, and the unequal application of laws and sentencing.
More than ever before, these issues have swum to the surface of American attention. Writers like Rankine (who won the National Book Award for “Citizen,” a powerful examination of the banality of racism), Ta-Nehisi Coates and Mychal Denzel Smith have gained deserved plaudits for building a new public conversation about race. Black voices have rarely enjoyed such serious regard and discussion.
At the same time, they face a backlash from white conservatives, who refer to black activists as “thugs”. A few terrible retaliatory murders of policemen by black gunmen have also allowed conservatives to deflect the structural critique posed by Black Lives Matter. There is an entrenched reluctance to accept racism as a major part of America’s past and present. In an interview with the Guardian, a Donald Trump campaign chair in Ohio traced the history of racial divisions to only 2008. “I don’t think there was any racism until [Barack] Obama got elected,” Kathy Miller said. “Growing up as a kid, there was no racism, believe me.”
That startling naivety is matched by the indignation of conservatives when confronted with their own racism. Over the summer, Paul LePage, the outspoken right-wing governor of Maine, reacted furiously to the suggestion that certain comments he made were racist (which they indisputably were). He snapped that calling a white man a racist was “like calling a black man the ‘N’ word”.
It’s revealing that LePage believed the accusation of racism was as bad as racism itself. The horrific deaths of black men at the hands of the police are forcing many Americans into the long overdue awareness of their whiteness and its attendant privileges. This is a difficult process, especially hard for some conservatives who have long imagined race as solely the possession of “minorities”. As demographics continue to shift (by 2042, non-white Americans will be in the majority), the reimagining of whiteness is already becoming a turbulent new force in American culture and politics.