That’s just how things are done
The culture of America is steeped in racism and that’s why it sticks
I was interviewed recently about the state of racism in America and I put it in the context of culture. With almost 400 years of enslavement and post-emancipation oppression, this country has steeped itself in the belief that Black bodies (this can be read as non-white, when convenient) are disposable when they cannot be owned. When you compare that to the 51 years of effort since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to “actual” support for citizenship in terms of voting, we shouldn’t be surprised by what is happening, because to be honest, these thoughts and behaviors have never gone away.
After almost 300 years of slavery and another 100 years of Jim Crow, the muscle memory of this country continually defaults back to what I call the Master/Slave paradigm, the societal framework created once slavery is racialized in the early 1600s, that becomes the foundation of what will follow from then on. It supposes that the condition of “slave” is relegated to Blacks and “master” to white. It is supported by laws and social practice and ultimately culture, which simply shrugs it shoulders when these things happen and says, “that’s the way it’s always been”.
As Americans, we want to believe that things are better, but the fact is they are not, they are exactly the way they have been. Time and time again, we hear and now more than ever, see the heinous acts by law enforcement against Black citizens, who if they were white, would not have died. It seems an unfair binary to some, so often their first response is to immediately throw up Black-on-Black crime stats, but let’s be clear there is a difference between those who represent the law and private citizens. Those who serve the law, are sanctioned and protected by the law to act and therefore, should be held to a higher standard of scrutiny. For example, in the recent execution of Terence Cutcher, Officer Betty Shelby shoots for “fear of her life” and is sent home on paid leave. The laws in place for the use of deadly force don’t matter. She, surrounded by her colleagues, becomes judge and jury and is rewarded with some time off and no loss of income. What’s the message? In this case, it is quite simply that big Black dudes should be put down, for fear of “hulking out” like in the supposed case of Michael Brown. Now, if those who have been sworn to serve and protect don’t need to abide by the law what then can we really expect between private citizens?
51 years after the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is 100 years after the so-called Emancipation Proclamation, which by the way, comes with three very important amendments to the Constitution: 13th (abolishment of slavery), 14th (establishment of citizenship) and 15th (suffrage for Black men), Black people are still being killed by law enforcement for reading, driving, asking, smoking cigarettes, selling cigarettes, selling cds, etc. The fact of being a citizen and Black is a crime punishable by death, without the benefit of due process.
One of my favorite people of all times, Ida B. Wells-Barnett makes it plain in her 1895 work A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States:
Beginning with the emancipation of the Negro, the inevitable result of unbridled power exercised for two and a half centuries, by the white man over the Negro, began to show itself in acts of conscienceless outlawry. During the slave regime, the Southern white man owned the Negro body and soul. It was to his interest to dwarf the soul and preserve the body. Vested with unlimited power over his slave, to subject him to any and all kinds of physical punishment, the white man was still restrained from such punishment as tended to injure the slave by abating his physical powers and thereby reducing his financial worth. While slaves were scourged mercilessly, and in countless cases inhumanly treated in other respects, still the white owner rarely permitted his anger to go so far as to take a life, which would entail upon him a loss of several hundred dollars. The slave was rarely killed, he was too valuable; it was easier and quite as effective, for discipline or revenge, to sell him “Down South.”
But Emancipation came and the vested interests of the white man in the Negro’s body were lost. The white man had no right to scourge the emancipated Negro, still less has he a right to kill him. But the Southern white people had been educated so long in that school of practice, in which might makes right, that they disdained to draw strict lines of action in dealing with the Negro. In slave times the Negro was kept subservient and submissive by the frequency and severity of the scourging, but, with freedom, a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged; he was killed.
The thing about culture is that it often moves in the direction of those with the most power and support. If left alone and unchecked, it becomes the practical and accepted social law, which is why there is a history of laws being created to support previous laws that guarantee Black citizens their rights. Until there are immediate consequences for shooting Black citizens, this practice of shoot first, ask later and get off, will continue. If we really want to see change there needs to be power and support for that change in the form of swift action. Imagine if, for example, that Officer Shelby and others that have killed unarmed Black citizens in the line of duty, were immediately removed from the scene and placed in a holding cell pending a formal investigation, instead of being able to wait it out in the comfort and solidarity of their families and friends. If those were the consequences for death at the hands of law enforcement, across the board, maybe Terence Crutcher and other victims would still be alive to see another day instead of their families filing wrongful death lawsuits.
Racism is so ingrained in this country’s psyche and existence that it permeates everything that this country stands for, while at the same time, expecting some of its citizens to sit idly by while video after video prove that there needs to be a cultural shift. What many fail to realize is that these continued illogical responses to Black citizens going about daily life endanger the whole of American society because it condones the disposability of human lives simply because ‘that’s the way it’s been done’.
What an absolutely shameful way to have to live.