When they see us: 2021

The racism so alive in 1989 still thrives today

More Than Our Crimes
Feb 24 · 6 min read

The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by white supremacists continues to hog the headlines in the news I read. And it should, but not just because of the specific acts of the day, but also for the systemic biases it exposes once again in American government and society.

According to The New York Times, the officials who testified at the first of a series of hearings were “reluctant to accept responsibility for the politically charged issue of calling in National Guard troops — even as the violence escalated.” They went on to claim that the FBI had failed to provide adequate warnings that rioters planned to seize the Capitol.

Let’s stop right there. Imagine for a minute that the rioters had been mostly Black. Many pundits have posed this question and it must be asked again: Do you for one minute think that there would have been any reluctance in calling out the troops if the throngs were dominated by Black faces? No warnings of plans to seize anything would have been needed. Just their presence and their anger would have been enough.

Fear of the ‘other’

It’s not just Blacks asking why whites always seem to be given the benefit of the doubt. Palestinian comedian Amer Zahr deftly used humor to make the point:

Like you, I watched as Trump supporters, who happen to be overwhelmingly white (like almost of them) stormed the United States Capitol. And all I could think was, “Man, protesting while white looks amazing.”

I’m Arab and Palestinian, and I’ve been to hundreds of protests. I’ve organized dozens of them. But I didn’t see any of the normal protest markers I’m used to. No riot gear, no batons, no tear gas. I mean, some of that stuff came later. But if I understand the concept of riot gear correctly,it’s supposed to make an appearance before the riots, not after. And no hundreds of people handcuffed? Is there a zip tie shortage in D.C.?

Also, does tear gas not work on white people or something? Because I know the protests I’ve been to. If we act up, we have like five seconds before the gas comes in.

“Free, free, Pales– shit!”

As they say, there’s a lot of truth in a joke. And the punchline of Zahr’s joke speaks volumes about the criminal (in)justice system in America. It’s clear that when police and others in officialdom see people who aren’t like them, they see a threat.

‘Unconscious’ bias?

We live in a country in which implicit bias is baked into every aspect of our society, including our justice system. And that bias whispers that Black and brown people are innately more inclined toward criminality and thus must be watched and over-policed (and, at the same time, under-protected).

When white people see other whites, they tend to see law-abiding American citizens. But when “they” see us, women clutch their purses and cross the street, since we may rob them. When they see us, store owners watch us, since we look like we are trying to steal something. When they see us, our wallets turn into guns and the police shoot. When they see us, they see danger, a threat, a menace, a criminal. This is why a judge will spare a white Stanford University student charged with rape from spending six years behind bars because “a prison sentence would have a severe impact” on him, while throwing away a young black man’s entire life for selling drugs. This is also why a police officer is chooses to subdue an armed white man with just a taser but throws a 15-year-old girl in Texas to the ground, handcuffs her and presses his knee into her back. We are seen differently.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in an article I read in USA Today about the storming of the Capitol, calling the failure to properly respond a “failure of imagination.”

“[The] miscalculation may have been enhanced by unconscious bias,” suggested Clint Watts, a research fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “The attendees weren’t people of color, but mostly white — so some in authority may have viewed them as less threatening. This was a Blue Lives Matter crowd. I think that kind of gave (security officials) a disorienting way to think about it.”

If you’re a Black American, however, violent behavior by police and their supporters isn’t disorienting at all. In fact, we’ve come to expect it. And in many cases, it is quite conscious.

Watts agreed: “Anyone paying attention knew the Jan. 6 march was a potential flashpoint because of Trump’s rhetoric and his followers’ battle plans on social media. They were talking about storming the Capitol. I expected to see people being beaten, people being shot, Molotov cocktails. … Everybody knew. The intelligence community knew.”

That is the reality for Black Americans every day. In the wake of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery while he ran through a white neighborhood, Blacks everywhere feel compelled to follow a checklist of precautions reserved only for runners “of color.”

“His death changed everything for Black runners,” Kevin O. Davis, a member of a Texas running club, told NBC News. “I have changed everything. I’ve seen people in their car slow down as I run and look at me in their rearview mirror to make sure I was not robbing their house. I have come up on white ladies who scream just because they see me run by them. Once, when I stopped running at a light, this white guy rolled down his window and sprayed insecticide in my face — for no reason. I thought I was going blind. But Ahmaud Arbery was something different, something horrific. I don’t jog as much when it’s dark, and when I do I make sure I’m wearing reflectors. I’m nervous about running in black jogging clothes. It’s all different. We have to be self-aware.” (Ahmaud was murdered almost exactly a year ago. Sign this petition to call for repeal of Georgia’s Civil War-era Citizen’s Arrest statute, which allows private citizens to take the law into their own hands if they suspect that a person has committed a crime. That law is used by white supremacists like the men who killed Ahmaud to justify violence and vigilantism.)

Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was to live in a world where all people are treated equal. We haven’t reached that point in this country all these years later. President Biden kicked off his first 100 days in office with an executive order to advance racial equity, declaring, “Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths…Therefore, the policy of my administration that the federal government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”

But not one of his goals will bring real reform until there is a dramatic shift in the way the majority of white Americans see us.

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More Than Our Crimes

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Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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