Officer Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony, in which he describes Michael Brown as a “demon,” exemplifies socialized racism, and ignoring it won’t stop police killings.
(Originally published on DailyCollegian.com)
During his unprecedented four hours of uninterrupted, unquestioned testimony in front of the grand jury investigating his shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson described Brown’s face as looking “like a demon.”
He also said he “felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” This, despite the fact that both Wilson and Brown were 6-foot 4-inches and Wilson was a trained police officer with a variety of potential weapons at his disposal, including a police car, a flashlight and a gun.
Any person in a violent confrontation has a right to feel endangered, but a police officer supposedly trained to handle dangerous and potentially violent situations should not feel like a “five-year-old.” No officer I’ve ever encountered has acted on fear alone, something one would expect from a panicked civilian, not a trained fighter.
Yet our media presents Brown as the powerful fighter and Wilson as the fear-stricken victim, which represents the socialized racism that created the confrontation in the first place. The idea that black men are dangerous is embedded in almost all Americans from a young age by the mass media.
Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief, said in an August 2014 Vice Magazine interview, “Simply put, white cops are afraid of black men.” He argues cops learn discrimination on the job, just like most people learn discrimination from media and society.
“Almost always … (stories about individuals who threaten or attack police officers) are situated in the black community,” Stamper continued. “So what’s happening at a very subtle level – you don’t have to even express a racist point of view. But what you’re doing, the meta-communication of all of that is: If you’re going to get hurt as a cop, it’s going to be at the hands of a black person. It’s going to be a male.”
He wrote in “Breaking Rank,” his 2005 book, “I’m afraid this reality has licensed panicky white cops to shoot unarmed black men when they should be talking, or fighting, their way out of a sticky situation.”
As of 2010, black Americans were six times as likely to be imprisoned as white Americans, and nearly 2.5 times as likely as Latinos. A recent ProPublica analysis of federal crime data shows young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white counterparts. And that is with only incomplete data; New York City hasn’t filed reports since 2007, and the entire state of Florida hasn’t since 1997. Many of the country’s 17,000 jurisdictions don’t file fatal police shooting reports in any instance.
This social epidemic extends to all levels. From a massive change in school suspension policies in the Minneapolis Public Schools due to racial disparities (blacks make up 18 percent of preschoolers but 48 percent of preschool suspensions; Yes, it starts early) to the regular harassment a Vassar College professor faces from campus security and city police, and even the treatment of President Obama, who has admitted that he has been followed around stores and had women clutch their purses when they share an elevator with him.
This socialized attitude both started with and causes the ever-present institutional racism that people of color face in the U.S.
When archconservative Antonin Scalia authored a Supreme Court decision stating, “It is the grand jury’s function… only to example ‘upon what foundation (the charge) is made by the prosecutor.’ As a consequence… the suspect under investigation (has never been) thought to have a right to testify,” or when FiveThirtyEight reports that only 11 grand juries out of 162,000 federal cases in 2010 refused to indict the suspect, it still does not surprise me that Wilson was able to testify in front of the grand jury and avoid indictment, seemingly beating both precedent and the odds.
“I’ve never seen a prosecutor take such a hands-off approach. There’s a reason why they say prosecutors can indict a ham sandwich. It’s because they can entirely control that process,” Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said.
But the issue at hand here is not just the prosecution of Wilson. Racists made policy in America for hundreds of years to enormously deleterious effects. One of those effects is that Ferguson has few black cops and few black politicians. Representation matters. People will respond that race doesn’t matter, and that I’m somehow “viewing people by race rather than individuality.”
No, I’m not doing that. Racists did that for hundreds of years, created a system and I was raised in that system. We have to accept that racists built our system, and that if we are going to live in it, we must accept history and begin to reconcile with it, not ignore it entirely.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said in a “Washington Post” interview, “Whites tend to be less aware of the degree to which past discrimination shapes present inequity, and also the degree to which in some spheres, African-Americans — and probably, especially young black men — face continuing bias in law enforcement and the justice system and employment and many other areas.”
And while protestors continue to advocate for systemic change to protect black lives, politicians and media representatives all over the U.S. focus on the violence that broke out after the grand jury refused to indict Wilson. Rarely if ever did the cable news networks remind viewers that actual riots regularly break out after sports events across the country, like those at the University of Connecticut earlier this year, or at other events such as the Keene Pumpkin Festival, where mostly white students rampaged across a New Hampshire town, and it barely earned a mention on national news networks.
Even worse, the wealthy easily exploit our racist system to shape politics and policy. Since the late 1960s and due to the Civil Rights Movement, reactionary elites could no longer rely on disenfranchisement to hold political power. They created a new politics of implicit racism, based on “law and order,” Reagan’s welfare queens, and political advertisements deliberately depicting black men as menacing to convince poor and working class white Americans to vote against social programs. They did this mostly by arguing that “welfare” (public assistance) and “food stamps” (nutritional assistance) were created by Democrats to buy black votes. This ignores that the majority of recipients are poor whites.
This narrative has once again been adapted to the politics of our time.
The ideas of colorblindness and respectability politics now permeate discussions of race and racial oppression. When the history of slavery and legal discrimination, which only began to end 50 years ago, is brought up, defensive people (usually white) immediately say that one is “pulling the race card.”
As Bianca Williams, professor at the University of Colorado, said, “If you love me, and respect me, than that must include my Blackness.”
The rise of respectability politics compounds the idea of colorblindness or the “post-racial” society. Respectability politics is the idea that black Americans have to “show” white Americans that they are “worthy of full citizenship rights” by getting blacks to “rid themselves of bad customs and habits,” according to Dissent Magazine.
Ideas such as these are destructive, and have found their way into our institutions at the most personal level, such as restrictions on “unusual hairstyles” for schoolchildren, bra mandates for female parents, vulgarity or cursing prosecutable by criminal codes, or “inappropriate behavior” such as holding a crying baby while on the phone.
Politicians like former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani continue to other the black community by saying “why don’t you cut (the homicide rate)?” and pinning the reduction in NYC’s crime rate on “stop-and-frisk” policies, not local reductions in unemployment and increases in income.
And all of this political deception obscures the lynchings that continue to go uninvestigated, like that of Lennon Lacy in North Carolina who was found hanging from a swing set in a supposed suicide. And just one day after the grand jury decision, police found the body of 20-year-old DeAndre Joshua, best friend of Dorian Johnson who walked with Mike Brown the day he was killed, in his car in Ferguson. He was shot to death and set on fire.
Darren Wilson said, “I have a clean conscience,” in his first interview with George Stephanopoulos. No person should have a clean conscience after killing another. Only systematic devaluing of black life can account for that lack of empathy and humanity.
I do not blame Darren Wilson for having socialized racism. I blame him for acting on it. I do not blame all police officers for having socialized racism. I blame them when they act on it. Yes, Wilson was afraid, but that’s because we raised him to think that way.
And we’ll all have to live with that.