Cop brutality exposes heart of society
Americans have failed to interrogate their history of slavery, which continues to have an impact today, writes Eusebius McKaiser.
Johannesburg - The assault on black bodies in America reveals the very foundations of a society founded on violence. It isn’t merely a policing problem.
It’s more sinister, more enduring and graver than the institutional racism problem within the police force. Black lives simply do not matter in America and therefore the inherent dignity of black people isn’t routinely accepted, affirmed and respected by everyone.
This is part of a long, global history of anti-black racism with its many historic permutations from slavery to colonialism and various forms of locale-specific discriminations in geographies around the world, like apartheid in South Africa.
It’s crucial to grasp the magnitude of these connections across time and space if we’re ever to deal decisively with the place of black bodies in a world still marred by these histories.
Not only is police brutality rife in general in America, but black men in particular are victims of this brutality far beyond what you would predict the numbers to be based on the demographics.
The Washington Post revealed in a study it undertook that 40 percent of unarmed men shot dead by police in the US in 2015 were black men, even though black men make up 6 percent of the US population.
There are broadly two possible interpretations for this: Either one concludes, with racist beliefs firmly operating in your logic, that black men simply are more prone to criminality or that racist social realities account for the disproportionate attacks on black men.
Of course it is the latter, for many reasons. First, black men arrived enslaved in America ready to be used as inputs on cotton fields and other parts of the industrial complex over time. Many writers over the years have chronicled and depicted this history, the most recent to have done so with explosive literary success being Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me.
If black people were historically treated as objects, then our societies would have to do much more than we have done to habituate news ways of seeing, interacting with and respecting black people. In fact, language doesn’t even capture the full phenomenological hell of living in a body marked as fair game by all the institutions of your society out to exploit you, criminalise your existence, or use you as an input in commerce.
If you combine these historic truths about attitudes towards black people with contemporary truths about the relatively poorer opportunities for flourishing within black communities, compared to other groups within America, then you have a present-day reality ripe for denial about anti-black racism.
Because those who do not want to face up to the racism seeping into every nook and cranny of American society can then build bogus defences to spare the police, and other institutions, from facing up to reality.
You can, for example, falsely pretend that while there is gross socio-economic deprivation in black communities and this is unjust, that fact nevertheless explains why black men might disproportionately end up stuck in the criminal justice system.
In other words, a denialist might then simply blame poverty and inequality rather than intentional discrimination or implicit bias within the police force and elsewhere. This kind of logic is now routine on media platforms as debates rage about what is truly going on in a country that deems itself to be the greatest nation on earth. But such wayward logic must be refuted because it is dishonest and certainly not cogent.
For one thing, this sort of reasoning doesn’t explain why white crime suspects are unlikely to be killed while apprehended even if they are armed. For another, socio-economic facts that lead to delinquency on the part of disaffected black youth and men are compatible with other facts, such as a long history of sheer disrespect of black people’s autonomy.
If your society has been reproducing memes - a kind of social version of genes, if you will - that explicitly transmit the message that black bodies are less worthy of respect than white bodies, then you will see such bodies as a threat, as dispensable, as not worthy of the same kind of respect as white bodies.
And that is ultimately why America doesn’t merely have a police brutality problem. It is a society that never adequately dealt with its legacy of slavery. Framing this shame as a policing problem simply allows ordinary Americans to escape the hard work an entire society needs to do to interrogate the myriad ways in which the history of slavery reaches into the here and now.
It is no different to us in South Africa framing the Marikana massacre as solely an exemplar of police brutality. That is simply too generous. The complete truth is uglier. Marikana revealed the violent foundations of our own society.
And clearly formal political equality, whether here or in America, does not guarantee genuine respect for black life. The world must face up to this shame instead of imagining a linear history of moral progress.
* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. His new book - Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism - is now available nationwide, and online through Amazon.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.