The Insidious Problem Of Racism ‘By Omission’

Over the last nine months, four of the six Baltimore police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray have gone to trial. Officer William Porter, the first of the six to face a jury, avoided conviction after a mistrial in December of 2015. Then in quick succession this past summer: Officer Edward Nero was acquitted in May, Officer Caesar Goodson was acquitted in June, and Lt. Officer Brian Rice was acquitted in July. The ongoing series of judicial rulings in Baltimore have given the mourning, frustration and cynicism a repetitive overtone. Every ruling presents another chance to reexamine our nation’s long-standing, frequently lethal relationship between police officers and the Black American communities they police. And every reexamination offers the same conclusion.

Despite the video evidence in the Baltimore case, and what we know of the racialized conditions in this country, the actual charges presented in the Freddie Gay case have been exceptionally difficult to prosecute — even more so than in typical cases with officer-involved shootings. The coroner’s findings present a confusing cause of death; Gray’s death was ruled “homicide by omission” — a legal descriptor meaning a homicide was indeed committed, but by the intentional inaction or failure to act of another party. Given this definition, prosecutors would have to prove “criminal responsibility by inaction” in court in order to secure a conviction with any officer involved.

The concept is unusual in the legal sense, but in the lived experiences of many Black Americans, “homicide by omission” is a familiar killer. American racism has learned to kill and disempower Black communities in this manner exactly. And oftentimes, any state or institutional culpability is just as near-impossible to prove. Consider the kind of systematic anti-black racism that developed in the void of chattel slavery’s normalized brutality, strengthening throughout the reconstruction era and Jim Crow periods. Consider the anti-black political and economic disenfranchisement that has since expanded and evolved rapidly through the decades, giving rise to multiple protests, riots and uprisings in major cities across the country’s landscape over the last 2 years. Ultimately, the “by omission” of American racism is a version of white supremacy that manages to escape blame or any label of malicious intent by performing coincidence, happenstance, and benevolence with lethal accuracy.

In St. Louis — a city that, like Baltimore, is struggling to survive in the midst of hyper-segregation, de-industrialization, and rapidly advancing suburban development — the story is the same. The violence that Black communities in St. Louis are exposed to is often discussed as if the contemporary circumstances are untraceable. Even before the protests and community unrest of August 2014, St. Louis had been identified as a city with drastic social and economic inequality marked along geographic lines — lines that were also, of course, openly racialized, thanks to city planners, public housing projects, and decades of housing segregation and redlining.

This historical disparity is exemplified by the “Delmar Divide”: St. Louis’ Delmar Boulevard, which acts as a border between some of the most sharply contrasting examples of inequality in the country. The separation is characterized most noticeably by housing inequality and race: The area just south of Delmar is about 60% white with a median home value of over $400,000, while north of Delmar the home value drops below $60,000 in an area that is almost entirely Black. This disparity is further aggravated and maintained by a seemingly random inconvenience: St. Louis’ poorly organized public metro transportation system.

But is this a random inconvenience, or disenfranchisement by omission? St. Louis’ MetroLink transit system is noticeably deficient. The eastern half of the metro travels east to west through the city, splitting into two tracks on its western side with one line veering north towards the St. Louis International Airport, and the other line extending a few stops south. Much of the track’s length runs parallel to the Delmar Divide, leaving the geographic, economic and racialized separation in the city generally undisrupted. The only other major transportation service currently under construction is a $50 million 2.2-mile long trolley system that will be traveling — you guessed it — east to west along Delmar Boulevard. The mere juxtaposition is frustrating: a multimillion dollar trolley catering to the mobility and pleasure of tourists and the surrounding affluent neighborhoods, in the midst of north county residents managing the city’s landscape with limited options.

Aside from the bus system, there exists virtually no other public transportation option that regularly traverses the north-south divide in St. Louis. For many low-income Black communities on the northern side of the city, the effects of an insufficient public transit system that has neglected them for years is readily visible. The MetroLink has simply been omitted from their communities. The absence of adequate and reliable public transportation has been proven to contribute to the economic and social isolation of low-income urban neighborhoods, limiting things like job options and access to grocery stores, which in turn can affect everything from disease morbidity to infant mortality rates and life expectancy.

But how do you prove that a lack or a void is intentional? There’s nothing inherently racist or anti-Black about not expanding a metro transportation system in any given direction. So how do you prove that the process of rendering entire neighborhoods geographically invisible and relatively immobile — that the omission of public transit infrastructure in certain parts of the city — was deliberately racially motivated?

And really, what if it wasn’t? What if the motivations weren’t deliberate, or at least not maliciously so? Since the early 20th century, St. Louis has been prioritizing the economic development of affluent, majority-white neighborhoods in demonstrative ways; could the omission of economic development in majority Black neighborhoods simply be collateral?

Chicago’s similar geographic map of disparity is rife with state-initiated, state-facilitated, and state-promoted violences that kill and disenfranchise Black and brown communities “by omission.” While Chicago is often in the news for the violence reported in specific parts of the city — reported shootings over the course of a summer weekend, for example — the structural causes of the conditions that give rise to these news stories are pretty much always conspicuously absent. Many of these causes are “by omission” in character: institutional-level failings that facilitate the creation of environments that increase the likelihood of crime, while maintaining social, economic and political inequities.

In Chicago, one institutional-level failing that plagues the city is Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s annual push to cut funding from the Chicago Public School System — most notably resulting in the 2013 layoff of more than 1,000 teachers and staff and the closure of 49 elementary schools and one high school, mostly in majority Black and brown and often low-income areas. In fact, 88% of the students affected by the 2013 CPS closures were Black. Just this summer, these same communities were faced with yet another threat: State legislatures were unable to pass a budget for the second year in a row, meaning that Chicago Public Schools risked not opening at all for the 2016–2017 school year.

This reads, at least initially, as an unfortunate case of mismanaged money, void of any racial implications. But again, observing the demographics of the communities that CPS serves, in addition to the city being inundated with privatized education options (read: privately-funded charter schools), that open the American education system up to a new kind of economic exploitation and eventual segregation, again, based along economic and racial lines — there appears to be something more sinister and less apparent at work. The lack of urgency around supporting and working towards a sustainable public school system in Chicago — or rather, the willingness to close an incredible number of schools and push for yearly budget cuts, over, say, not building a brand new publicly-subsidized $164 million basketball arena — is particularly telling, all things considered. But again, how do you prove that a lack of urgency, or a willingness to regard a city’s public education system itself as expendable, is an intentional, racialized slight? There’s nothing to suggest that generally irresponsible or corrupt politicians are also necessarily racist. So how do you prove that the closing and defunding of Chicago Public Schools — a process that has been tied to community instability, increased crime rates, and lack of economic mobility — is deliberately racially motivated?

And again, what if it’s not? What if the lack of urgency and care around the public education of Chicago’s youngest Black residents is a matter of questionable political priorities? What if the choice to allocate public funds to a tourist-attracting sports arena instead is simply in support of the city’s economy? Would Chicago’s system be less racist then?

Here’s the thing: by and large, white supremacy is a self-sufficient beast that operates in its own best interest. It seeks to create the conditions that allow it to thrive, and will continue recreating those conditions for as long as it can manage to live. Though there are plenty of maliciously racist actors operating in countless spaces across the country, white supremacy has organized itself so that there need not be any admitted or overt racist intent in order to perpetuate institutional racism. The “by omission” aspect of American anti-Black racism is the “racism without racists” phenomenon. Racism is built into our country in such a way that the fuel it needs to operate is produced casually, without much attention or notice, with increasing regularity.

What we know of white supremacy and American anti-Black racism is that it adapts quickly, transforming its language and appearance without sacrificing much of its effectiveness. American anti-Blackness “by omission” doesn’t look like the more overt anti-Blackness we’re trained to recognize; it doesn’t look like signs on water fountains or burning crosses on lawns. It looks like Black men and women being shuffled in massive numbers into the U.S. prison system — coincidentally the one place slavery is still constitutionally permitted. It looks like deeply segregated neighborhoods and public schools more than six decades after Brown v. Board was decided, despite the efforts of desegregation, with underfunded schools serving primarily low-income Black students. “Homicide by omission” means no one deliberately poisoned the water, but when the lead shows up, it shows up in schools and communities with majority Black populations — in Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago and elsewhere.

We know that the neglect, the absence, the omission does not need to be deliberate in order for it to be effective; this is, perhaps, the greatest sign of its efficiency. The structure of white supremacy means system can and does operate as if by happenstance, without an evil mastermind turning racism’s wheel forward. But does the act of omission need to be deliberate in order for it to be effective? And if it does need to be deliberate, does a lack of criminality absolve anyone and everyone of responsibility? It’s difficult to have a conversation about accountability — legally or otherwise — when the system works to erase individual culpability. There are certainly individual racists putting racist things in motion, but the day-to-day churn of racism is largely due to the mundane and uncritical thoughtlessness that allows white supremacy to thrive. The “by omission” aspect of anti-Black racism is the reason anti-racist efforts must be unequivocally deliberate. Only with rigorous effort can we hope to counter a system constructed so that the easiest, most profitable response is the racist one.

But in this contemporary moment, where does that leave the aforementioned communities in Baltimore, St. Louis and Chicago? Where does that leave Black communities whose economic and political capital have been all but extracted? In this moment, where does that leave Freddie Gray?

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