IBRAM X. KENDI, JUNE 24, 2017, New York Times [original article contains links]
Image from article, with caption: A memorial in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was killed by police in 2014.
Why are police officers rarely charged for taking black lives, and when they are, why
do juries rarely convict?
Many Americans asked this question when a Minnesota jury decided that
Philando Castile was responsible for his own death and that the officer who shot
him, Jeronimo Yanez, did nothing wrong. Many Americans asked it again a few days
later, when the police released the seemingly damning video from the dashboard
camera of Officer Yanez’s patrol car.
We may never know why justice is still segregated from black death.
Prosecutors, like juries deliberate behind closed doors. But that has not stopped
people trying to find answers. On one side, people say: America is racist, and jurors
are like cops — they hate black people. On the other: The police account is
indisputable. Black lives do not matter.
The deeper answer is that black death matters. It matters to the life of America,
by which I mean the blood flow of ideas that give life to Americans’ perceptions of
In these high-profile cases, it is not just police officers who are on trial. America is
on trial. Either these deaths are justified, and therefore America is just, or these
deaths are unjustified, and America is unjust.
Many Americans — possibly most — think the criminal justice system is fair.
Nearly 63 million Americans elected a president who rejects the idea that there is a
systemic war against black people and accepts the idea that there is a systemic war
against cops. A survey by the Pew Research Center last year found that 50 percent of
whites feel the races are treated equally by the police, compared with 16 percent of
blacks. Even more whites feel the races are treated equally in the courts. The survey
found that 38 percent of whites think their country has no more racial work to do.
These Americans refuse to see their country as a place where racist politicians
and judges maintain laws that form a racist criminal justice system that produces
and defends racist cops who disproportionately kill innocent black people. When
they are told that black males aged 15 to 34 were nine times more likely than other
Americans to be killed by police officers last year, they assume something must be
wrong with those young men, since discrimination is over. They cannot help blaming
Mr. Castile, even though he calmly told the officer about his registered gun, even
though he never pulled it out, even though he had been stopped by officers 49 times
in 13 years.
“Post-racial” is a new term with an old pedigree. Ever since Thomas Jefferson
wrote “all men are created equal,” Americans have seen their nation as post-racial,
As a result, Americans defended slavery by characterizing it as a necessary evil
or a positive good. As Florida secessionists stated in their unpublished Declaration
of Causes in 1861, Americans enslaved black people because “their natural tendency”
was toward “idleness, vagrancy and crime.”
A century ago, Americans believed the “Negro problem” had been solved
through the separate but equal wings of Jim Crow, so those who violated its laws
deserved to be punished. “The greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration,
especially by black men, of the hideous crime of rape,” President Theodore Roosevelt
said in his Annual Message to Congress on Dec. 3, 1906.
Fifty years ago, some Americans blamed the “rioters” who rebelled and were
killed by the police in nearly 130 cities for their own deaths.
And over the past few decades, prosecutors and juries ruled that the officers
who killed Eleanor Bumpurs and Amadou Diallo and Rekia Boyd and Michael
Brown and Eric Garner were innocent.
When black criminality ceased, black death would cease, President Roosevelt
suggested. Black people were violent, not the slaveholder, not the lyncher, not the
cop. Many Americans are still echoing that argument today.
This blaming of the black victim stands in the way of change that might prevent
more victims of violent policing in the future. Could it be that some Americans
would rather black people die than their perceptions of America? Is black death
more palatable than accepting the racist reality of slaveholding America, of
segregating America, of mass-incarcerating America? Is black death the cost of
maintaining the myth of a just and meritorious America?
This is not just the America people perceive. This is the America people seem to
love. And they are going to defend their beloved America against all those nasty
charges of racism. People seem determined to exonerate the police officer because
they are determined to exonerate America.
And in exonerating the police officer and America of racism, people end up
exonerating themselves. Americans who deeply fear black bodies, who think their
fears are sensible, can empathize when cops like Officer Yanez testify that they
feared for their lives.
To diagnose police officers’ lethal fears as racist, juries and prosecutors would
also have to diagnose their own fears of black bodies as racist. That is a tall task. It
may even be easier to get a racist cop convicted of murdering a black person than it
is to get a racist American to acknowledge his or her own racism. Racist Americans
keep justice as far away from black death as possible to keep the racist label as far
away from themselves as possible.
But this can change. Killing the post-racial myth and confessing racism is the
first step toward antiracism. Police officers can recognize that label as the start of
their better selves instead of the end of their careers. Americans can recognize that
label as an opening to a just future.
Black people and the post-racial myth cannot both live in the United States of
Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of history and international relations at American
University, is the author of “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of
Racist Ideas in America.”