By Jelani Cobb
Coming just two weeks after the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner has the feel of a grim serial filled with redundant plot lines—a production that few of us wish to watch but none of us can avoid, and that a great many are complicit in creating. This is not imaginary.
Here is the man who aspired to become the first black President counselling calm following the acquittal of the officers who shot and killed Sean Bell, an unarmed black man, on the eve of Bell’s wedding, in New York, in 2006.
Obviously there was a tragedy in New York. I said at the time, without benefit of all the facts before me, that it looked like a possible case of excessive force. The judge has made his ruling, and we’re a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down.
Here is that same man, having now attained the office, counselling calm in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed the seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black man, in Sanford, Florida, in 2012.
The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher.
But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.
Two weeks ago, we saw the President, now in the last years of his second term, urge patience following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, who shot and killed the eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed.
First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law. And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make. There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction. But I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully.
Last night’s statement from the President regarding the unprosecuted death of Eric Garner establishes that history does not repeat itself verbatim—it usually changes the proper nouns.
Some of you may have heard there was a decision that came out today by a grand jury not to indict police officers who had interacted with an individual [named] Eric Garner in New York City, all of which was caught on videotape and speaks to the larger issues that we’ve been talking about now for the last week, the last month, the last year, and, sadly, for decades, and that is the concern … of too many minority communities, that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way.
None of this is President Obama’s fault; yet all of it reflects upon him. All of these redundancies indict the anodyne calls for “healing” that inevitably come in their wake. Here we don’t heal. We scar.
The stilted conversations that have followed these tragedies have largely focussed on the meaning and implications of the nonsensical phrase “racial profiling.” Nothing better illustrates the slick, manipulative power of euphemism than the fact that our dialogue takes seriously this non-term. There is no such thing as “racial profiling”—there is simply racism. What subsequent action, what logical end, does racial profiling produce that abject racism would not? The supposed definition of “racial profiling”—that the alleged behavior of any fragment of a population becomes the basis for categorizing it in its sum, that epidermal hues are a valid means of reflexively predicting character—is what we, in more honest moments in our past, simply referred to as racism.
If there is any glimmer of interracial unity to be found amid this morass, it’s found in the fact that black people and whites alike share a common confusion regarding racial profiling. Witness Charles Barkley, opining in favor of the practice.
“We as black people, we have a lot of crooks. We can’t just wait until something like [the Brown shooting] happens. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror,” Barkley said in an interview with CNN. “There is a reason that they racially profile us in the way they do. Sometimes it is wrong, and sometimes it is right.”
Fresh from an appearance on “Meet the Press,” where he charged that black crime, not police brutality, was the real problem, Rudolph Giuliani doubled down on “Fox News Sunday”:
I do believe that there is more interaction and more unfair interaction among police officers, white and black, in the black community than in the white community. And I think some of that responsibility is on the police department and on police departments to train their police officers better and to make their police departments much more diversified.
But I think just as much, if not more, responsibility is on the black community to reduce the reason why the police officers are assigned in such large numbers to the black community. It’s because blacks commit murder eight times more per capita than any other group in our society.
There’s a smugness that abides in these arguments, which benefit from the conflation of audacity with veracity. Far from being a novel bit of truth-telling, the argument that black crime is the cause of reactionary policing is among the aged and easily refuted clichés of American racial history. The spectre of black criminality justified governmental inaction against lynching during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When, in 1906, whites began wresting black passengers from streetcars and murdering them in the streets of downtown Atlanta, sparking three days of riots and resulting in dozens of black casualties, a specious wave of black crime was cited as the basis for their actions. In a masterstroke of soothing illogic, segregationists responded to the challenge posed by the civil-rights movement by arguing that black enfranchisement and equality could not be broached as long as “Negro crime” remained prevalent; they claimed, in short, that ending oppression was contingent upon eliminating the conditions that oppression had in fact produced.
This perspective has prevailed and even, from time to time, won converts among African-Americans. Listening to Bill Cosby’s responsibility tirades, prior to this fall, it was possible to believe that black pathology created racism, and that racism could not subside until the pathology was treated. Where whites find a facile absolution in this argument, black people find a simple solution to the miasma of racism, one rooted in the American ideals of self-reliance and determination. The most obvious contradiction to this doctrine of behavior modification is also the one least spoken. Gun homicide has declined by forty-nine per cent since its peak, in 1993, largely because of a decline in homicides perpetrated by black offenders against black victims. This reduction in violent crime over more than two decades has done little to diminish white fear of black criminality, or the potency of “black crime” in justifying the violation of black rights. Of course, racism, being a superstition, has never been contingent upon facts.
That this argument finds particular favor among conservatives is even more preposterous. The idea that the treatment of an individual hinges upon his or her demographic category flies in the face of the doctrine of individual rights central to modern conservatism. African-Americans are thirteen per cent of the population; they are also, horrifyingly, fifty-five per cent of the homicide victims. Whites, meanwhile, are sixty-three per cent of the population, but are only a quarter of the homicide victims. Yet, even if you eliminated every black homicide, the United States would still have a more violent population than Western democracies like the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Based on the logic of collective responsibility at the heart of “racial profiling,” we should also be asking white communities what they’ve done to deal with their tendency toward violence.
The fact that Americans die at the hands of other Americans is, one would naïvely suspect, an American problem—but if those Americans are black, it is considered anything but. This is the alchemy by which racial category takes precedent, yet again, over supposed citizenship. This is the skewed thinking that forms the context in which black people die in the United States.
Contrary to the thinking of its most indignant critics, the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is not an argument that deaths that come at the hands of the police warrant outrage, while those caused by common citizens warrant disregard. It’s a statement that these forms of violence reinforce each other in a vicious cycle of human devaluation. If there’s particular outrage about police violence, that’s because it strips us of the possibility of recourse for other violations.
A democracy of grief binds those of us who survive people who were violently dispatched from this life—those who die at the hands of civilians, those who die from the wrongful actions of people empowered by the state. The sole difference between these deaths is that only with the former do we already know it’s a crime.