† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
The War on Black ~ “Color-blindness” and Criminalization, Part 1
by nancy a heitzeg
As we brace ourselves for the George Zimmerman murder trial — where the defense will continue attempts to paint teen-aged Trayvon Martin as the stereotypical danger, not the victim – we have no shortage of brutalizing images to remind of us of the toxic power of that criminalizing narrative.
As we have written here before, the Black Man as Dangerous is a lethal idea, ironically, not to those who perpetrate and fear, but to those to whom it is attached. It is also a very old idea, one that has evolved over centuries. The Savage, The Brute, the Defiler of White Women — honed and solidified in the Post Civil Rights Era into an archetype that scholars and activists now refer to in aggregate short-hand: The Criminal-Black-Man.
This image is ubiquitous — it is the text and subtext of all crime-reporting and “reality” cop/prison programing. It shapes the contours of everyday racism, the school to prison pipeline, police patrols and profiles; it offers the framework for both creating and then perversely justifying the demographics of both the prison industrial complex and the face of death row.
The Criminal-Black-Man archetype is the centerpiece of the Post-Civil Rights Era’s reliance on color-blind coding to re-constitute the Old Jim Crow into the New – with The War on Drugs, The War on Gangs, and coming soon to a city near you, The War on Guns. Race need never be explicitly named but “high crime neighborhoods”, “gangs”, “thugs”, ghettos, “hoods and “hoodies” all evoke a racialized image. As intended. All people of color — Latino/as and Native American especially- the poor, the queer are targets here too – but it is Blackness that provides the paradigm.
And the Criminal Black Man need not be a literal “man” — Black women are deemed threatening too (See Kiera Wilmot), as are Black children. From the Scottsboro Boys to Emmet Till to Trayvon Martin, age has offered no mitigation for the irrational fear triggered in some by the presence of Black.
Just this week, 14 year old Tremaine McMillian was violently restrained by police for “dehumanizing stares” and was charged with a felony count of resisting arrest with violence and disorderly conduct.
Driving While Black, Walking While Black, Standing While Black, Carrying Skittles While Black, Doing Science While Black, Now Looking While Black are supposed rationale for a series of disproportionate responses from law enforcement, security personnel and every day would-be vigilantes.
Often these encounters are lethal. Too often. A recent report issued by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the extrajudicial killing of 313 Black people by police, security guards and vigilantes , notes this:
Every 28 hours in 2012 someone employed or protected by the US government killed a Black man, woman, or child.
Extra-judicial Killings and the Black Body Count
Operation Ghetto Storm is a follow-up report to MXGM’s Report on the Extrajudicial Killing of 120 Black People, January 1n to June 30 2012 that documented the police killing of one Black Man Woman or Child every 36 hours; this data is not otherwise nationally gathered or reported. While local state and Federal law enforcement agencies keep absolutely accurate records of the number of police officers killed or assaulted in the line of duty (typically less than 60 killed per year), there is no comparable systematic accounting of the number of citizens killed by police each year.
This report is an attempt to fill that void. MXGM acknowledges that the data is probably an under-count of Black deaths at state hands; it certainly under-estimates the total number of extra-judicial killings for all people of color. A look at 5 key cities provides a brief glimpse of broader racial disparities.
- the majority of those killed — nearly 60% -were between the ages of 18-31;
- most are unarmed;
- the majority were are initially targeted via profiling and stop/frisk activities;
- many cases involved some indication of mental health issues;
- a disturbing number were killed after actually calling 911 for assistance;
- not surprisingly, perceived threat was the over-whelming rationale given by officers for their use of deadly force
“We Charge Genocide Again”
MXGM locates their report in the tradition of “On Lynching” by Ida B. Wells-Burnet and “We Charge Genocide” by William L. Patterson, and makes it plain in the preface that ” the practice of executing Black people without pretense of a trial, jury, or judge is an integral part of the government’s current overall strategy of containing the Black community in a state of perpetual colonial subjugation and exploitation.”
It is a War Against Black People, and certainly, extra-judicial killings represent just one aspect of that criminalizing war:
These killings come on top of other forms of oppression black people face. Mass incarceration of nonwhites is one of them. While African-Americans constitute 13.1% of the nation’s population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. Even though African-Americans use or sell drugs about the same rate as whites, they are 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested for drugs than whites. Black offenders also receive longer sentences compared to whites. Most offenders are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses.
The report and curriculum guide also raise critical questions: Why are only a handful of the 313 names recognizable? Why did only a few of these cases come to national attention? Where is the outrage?
A recent New York Times headline/article of an “aberrant” police shooting, reveals extent to which polite society has avoided, justified, normalized, and otherwise accepted the War on Black in America.:
A Police Killing That Seemed to Go Against Type
But after officers were called to the Fairfield County home owned by John Valluzzo last week, it was as if the expected story line evoking Amadou Diallo or other police killings had been turned on its head. This time the person who was shot was a successful 75-year-old businessman and philanthropist, and the policeman a well-liked veteran who was a rare minority officer in a virtually all-white department. The setting was not a dark city street but a 9,000-square-foot estate in a green, historic Connecticut town whose residents have included Eugene O’Neill, Judy Collins and Henry Luce.
Police are not expected to be shooting old white businessmen in lush neighborhoods — even if the victim was allegedly “drunk and brandishing a gun.” This is not the scenario polite society expects — the police are there to “protect and serve” them. And protect them, of course, from the Criminal-Black-Man.
In this context of deep archetypical criminalizing, the extra-judicial killing of Blacks is unsurprising, routinized, expected, perhaps, legitimated by some. And not just by overt racists or those designated to speak on behalf of police state tactics. Aside from exceptional/notorious/high profile cases, this on-going systemic practice is ignored by upstanding liberals of all stripes, including by those who have public platforms and the political power to illuminate and seek change.
The entire endeavor of mass criminalization – from stereotyping to racial profiling to arrest, incarceration, legal/extra-legal death – is rendered possible by complicity. Certainly the complicity of white liberals, but also that of some people of color themselves, whose participation ranges from by-stander to active enforcer of the laws.
This too is a complex topic, fueled by many factors, including, not least, the desire for distance from on-going efforts to criminalize them as well.
We Charge Genocide Again, an organizing toolkit produced by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement to accompany the Operation Ghetto Storm report, makes an important point about colonial regimes:
Neo Colonialism is the same system as colonialism, but instead of having outside white soldiers, politicians, even business people dominate Black and Brown people; the white power structure positions Black and Brown soldiers, politicians and business people to dominate the Black and Brown people on their behalf. The white power structure still makes the same money off of the oppressed people. The white power structure maintains the same control over the oppressed people. The difference is that white people are not in all of the system’s positions. Remember people who are not white still work for the white power structure.
- Why is it good for the white power structure to have Black police officers?
- Why is it good for the white power structure to have Black mayors?
- Why is it good for the white power structure to have Black business people?
- Why is it good for the white power structure of the United States to have a Black president?
We turn to those questions next week in Part 2.
Until then, Let Your Motto Be Resistance.