That ripping sound you hear is the sound of the “post-racial” veneer being torn from the face of American society.
On November 25th a Missouri grand jury decided that the shooting death of an unarmed Black teenager, whose lifeless body was left lying in the streets, in the summer heat, for four and a half hours by the officer who shot him, would not have to go to trial. This means that evidence in the case would not be presented before a jury in criminal court and that the accused would not be subjected to cross-examination. The officer fired 12 bullets at the boy, six of which hit their target. In a highly unusual move, the prosecuting attorney went out of his way to provide information about the deliberations of the grand jury so that, some legal experts think, he could undermine any efforts by the family of the teenager to file a civil lawsuit or seek other avenues of legal action.
Immediately after the grand jury announced its decision the streets of major cities and towns across the United States filled with protesters against racism, police violence, and the apparent lack of value placed on the lives of Black Americans. Most of the protests were peaceful, but there were also highly-publicized instances of vandalism and violence.
Public opinion polls in the United States show that Americans are deeply divided in their perceptions of the degree of racism that persists in that society. Many Whites point, as evidence that the bad old days of racism are behind us, to the fact that the nation has its first Black president. Many Blacks, on the other hand, argue that it is precisely because the president is Black that it is harder to discuss matters of race as Whites retreat behind a wall of defensiveness and denial.
Black Americans are often frustrated by the apparent indifference of Whites toward the disparity in the experiences of the two races in terms of employment opportunities, housing, and especially interaction with the criminal justice system. Tensions between Blacks and the criminal justice system are fueled by a higher rate of incarceration, and longer or harsher sentences, for crimes that are similar to those committed by Whites. Policies such as the “War on Drugs” (which many refer to as the “War on the Poor” because of how this “war” is selectively executed), and police tactics such as “stop-and-frisk” and racial profiling that tend to target Black Americans and subject them to selective harassment and, many believe, the abuse of police power.
Black Americans are often depicted, in entertainment and popular media, as having superhuman strength – which some say is a way to make it appear as though Blacks are sub-human. This, they say, leads many Whites to be unable to empathize with the pain and suffering that Blacks experience. It also leads to the perception of the Black male as being a physical threat requiring nothing less than the use of deadly force in the interest of “public safety” and “order”. When the officer who shot the Black teenager in Missouri gave his testimony to the grand jury, many Americans thought they heard undertones of these stereotypes at work.
The officer testified that he had a physical altercation with the boy through the window of his police vehicle and that the teenager, who was the same height and weight as the officer, seemed to be like the popular action figure Hulk Hogan while he, the armed officer inside of an SUV, felt like a “five year old”. In his testimony the officer dehumanized the youth by referring to the boy as “it” and saying that the boy looked like a “demon” that was angry because the officer was firing shots at him. The officer said “It looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots. Like it was making him mad that I’m shooting him.” According to polls, most White Americans identified with the officer’s fears and believed there was no reason to take the case any further.
For many Black Americans what happened in the streets of Ferguson, and the refusal of the grand jury to even bring the case to trial, coupled with the officer’s testimony in which he described the youth in non-human terms, fit a pattern in which young Black males are gunned down by police or vigilantes under questionable circumstances. Among the most high-profile of these victims have been Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Kimani Gray, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford, Kendric McDade, and most recently Tamir Rice, a twelve year-old boy from Cleveland, Ohio who was gunned down by an officer while the boy was playing with a toy gun in a public park.
It is important to note that this is not a comprehensive list; these are only the high-profile cases. There are many other cases, across the country, that have gotten much less attention in the national media.
On the surface, the United States seems to be moving toward becoming a more inclusive multi-racial society – and in many ways this surface appearance is true, in contrast to where the nation was 50 years ago. If one looks beneath the surface, however, one discovers a society that is deeply conflicted, and in which there are embedded and dehumanizing stereotypes that are used to stoke inflated fear of the non-White “other” and to justify the use of deadly force against them.