There has been a significant amount of brilliant commentary and analysis about the latest series of incidents rooted in institutional racism and state sanctioned violence. The commentary and analysis are sharper and more direct because the voices we are exposed to are more diverse and directly impacted than the usual punditry that attempts to tell folks how we feel and why we do what we do. I am not sure why, but something about the George Floyd, Chris Cooper, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery incidents have struck a different hopeful chord yet, I hesitate to believe that this time is really different. One can always hope.
What is not different is that these events must eventually be viewed through the prism of whiteness and the institutions it has constructed since the early 1800’s to protect the myths about white superiority. Thus, every facet of our civil society from education, health, transportation and housing etc. must negotiate the whiteness metric. That metric requires that everything be measured against whiteness for value, pedigree and worth. Thus, white supremacy is sewn into the fabric of every endeavor of American life — it is in our societal DNA. It is in the air we breathe, the stories told and the privileges that come with hundreds of years of free labor on stolen land. Indeed, the longer we live in a society steeped in whiteness being the superior way of being, the more invisible privilege becomes.
The role of government in all of our villages, towns and cities is to protect those privileges zealously. And law enforcement is the first line of racialized privilege protection against those deemed dangerous. It is the protection of the white privilege industry that is responsible for the creation and maintenance of policing as we know it in every city and county in this nation. In fact, it is so important that the city you live in probably spends more than half of its tax dollars on the administration of justice alone.
It is that privilege that Ms. Amy Cooper weaponized by calling the police because “she was being threatened by anAfrican American man.” She understood all too well what our societal mandate to law enforcement is — whiteness has a status that is paramount and Blackness must be controlled severely because it is scary, violent and dangerous. No matter how one tries to pretty it up, it is just that basic. Whiteness is order and, Blackness is chaos, disorder and must be controlled.
Therefore, policing adheres to these rules regardless of the color or gender of the chief, the power of police commissions or any other effort to reform them. Examine the use of policing from the civil rights movement in the 50’s with dogs and firehoses, to the civil disturbances of the 60’s and beyond with Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and now George Floyd and there is one common denominator — police misconduct. In each case, Black folks have tried to tell the larger society that we are suffocating and traumatized by the instructions you have given law enforcement for “safety”. Through it all policing has been given almost carte blanche to do whatever is seen as necessary to make sure “order” is maintained. As a result, they have demanded military style weapons and equipment that turned our communities into battlefields. Unfortunately, too many elected and appointed officials have given in to their demands claiming it is what we want them to do.
Law enforcement has gained so much power that it is fair to ask — are they too big to fail? Who can make them account for their actions? Any suggestion of reining in their power is seen as un-American and anyone daring to challenge their practices pays a high price. Given power, equipment and permission, it is no wonder that Black bodies have piled up — some in full view. Then on May 25th four Minneapolis police officers participated in the killing of a restrained George Floyd asphyxiating him by kneeling on his neck for almost 9 minutes. The chilling and calm look of Officer Derek Chauvin as he kills Mr. Floyd is visual proof that he believed he had society’s permission to extinguish this Black life in order to maintain “safety”. And history has shown his use of power to kill Mr. Floyd has been permitted over and over again.
So, after seeing the stark reality of the policing we have built and too often sanctioned, voices that have remained silent in the past are beginning to speak up and ask for change. However, real world concrete suggestions of alternatives to policing as we know it are few and far between. We have seen the ineffectiveness of tools and technologies to improve policing. Cultural competence training, implicit bias training, procedural justice practices and body cameras have not been transformative because they ignore the fact that policing was built to maintain the cultural superiority of whiteness and punish those in society who are deemed as the “other”. And the very definition of the “other” in these United States is Black folks.
Therefore, nothing will change until we give the law enforcement industry a new mission. We need to imagine how to reduce their footprint while providing for well-being in our communities. Three hundred years of structurally racist social control will not be eliminated over night and must be thought through carefully co-designed by victims and perpetrators. It may seem impossible now, but some city is going to step forward and examine how community well-being can be maintained without custody, control and suppression as its fundamental approach. Mr. Floyd’s very public killing presents an opportunity to move in that direction. It is an open question whether we will take it. If we do not, we know that we will be back here again in the near future. Aren’t we better than this? Aren’t we smart and humane enough to imagine and implement ways that promote community well-being equitably? Are we trapped by a history that subjugates one group over another? I hope not. Let’s get to work!
Author: James Bell, W. Haywood Burns Institute.
Media: Eddye Vanderkwaak, W. Haywood Burns Institute.