Letter from America

White rage

Print edition : July 10, 2015

A silent protestor lies on grass in the same way a 14-year-old African-American girl was pinned to the ground by McKinney Police Officer Eric Casebolt on June 8. Photo: Tom Fox/AP

People carry a "Black Lives Matter" banner while protesting against the death of Ezell Ford in Los Angeles on June 9. Photo: PATRICK T. FALLON/REUTERS

Police violence, largely against black people, continues unabated in the U.S., with over 500 killed in the first five months of 2015. The institutional policies based on stereotypes that assume black criminality are not rooted in older forms of discrimination but can be traced to the 1990s.

You have lynched my comrades

Where the iron bridge crosses the stream,

Underpaid me for my labor,

And spit in the face of my dream.

Langston Hughes, "The Bitter River", 1942.

NOT a day goes by without news of police violence against unarmed persons in the United States. Here it is a young woman struggling with bipolar disorder who is shot and killed by the police; there it is a police officer who has his knee on the back of a young woman as he waves his gun around at young men. Statistics are incomplete. Police forces across the U.S. do not have to report incidents of police violence against the public. The Guardian newspaper produced some numbers based on press reports and social media. It found that in the U.S., the police had killed over 500 people (not all unarmed) in the first five months of 2015—that is three people killed a day.

The numbers show that police violence is disproportionately used against blacks, with Latinos a distant second. This concentration on black bodies provoked the #BlackLivesMatter social media campaign, which has now become a political movement. The slogan is aspirational—Black Lives Matter. The understanding is that to those officers who point their guns at black bodies, black lives do not matter. To them, it seems, black bodies are a threat or are disposable and they are not to be treated with dignity.

Ten sociologists gathered at the 2014 American Sociologists Association meeting to discuss the crisis provoked by the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests occasioned by it. They drafted a letter that captured the prevailing wisdom among those who study African-American lives and racism in the U.S. The letter that they circulated quickly got close to two thousand signatures, including those of distinguished sociologists in North America. “Instead of feeling protected by police,” wrote the sociologists, “many African Americans are intimidated and live in daily fear that their children will face abuse, arrest and death at the hands of police officers.” The feeling of fear is so commonplace that even President Barack Obama—in 2012—said after the killing of Trayvon Martin: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”

Why do the police kill people who “look like Trayvon”? The sociologists say that one of the reasons is that police officers act with “implicit biases or institutional policies based on stereotypes”. A bias that is implicit is one that is not consciously thought about—it is rooted in the habits and routines of how a person sees social life. When asked in surveys, 85 per cent of Americans deny being racists. One of the great enigmas of racism is that most people accept that racism exists, but very few admit to being racist or to acting towards racist outcomes.

Implicit bias means that people act in a discriminatory fashion even when they do not think they are being prejudiced. This does not imply that police departments are not also infected with white supremacist ideas. Stories continue to break of Nazi and Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia found inside police locker rooms. A recent story from Fruitland Park, Florida, revealed that some of its police officers were active members of the Ku Klux Klan. But this is unusual. As Sannye Jones of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) said, “Racism still exists, just not in the same way. People are not as open and not as blatant.” The sociologists suggest that “institutional policies” could also contribute to the killing of people who “look like Trayvon”. What are these institutional policies? The protests in Ferguson revealed two features of black life in the U.S. —joblessness and political disenfranchisement. These factors, the sociologists say, have “contributed to the marginalisation of the residents”. Over the past few years, the polling agency Gallup has found that among blacks the issue of unemployment has been the leading problem—ahead of racism. There is a good reason for this. In May 2015, government unemployment data showed that the unemployment rate for blacks was 10.2 per cent as against 4.7 per cent for whites. Youth unemployment, which presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders called a “national tragedy”, is particularly acute along racial lines. One full quarter of black college graduates are unable to find work. The situation among those without a college degree is worse. “The answer to unemployment and poverty,” Sanders said in a statement, “is not and cannot be the mass incarceration of young African Americans.” But that is precisely what the “institutional policy” response has been to the economic destruction of vast areas that are home to African Americans.

In McKinney, Texas, young black teenagers went to a pool party in a community swimming pool in June. White neighbours did not take kindly to their presence in this public pool. One woman, Tracey Carver-Allbritton, and her friend began to yell at the teenagers—“go back to where you came from” and “back to section 8 housing” (section 8 housing is public housing, typically used by the poor). A man named Sean Toon, who had been previously jailed for animal abuse and violence, called the police to have them remove the black teenagers from the pool. At this point, it could have been possible for the police to see that this was not an issue of trespassing (the teenagers had been invited to a party) but one of racism, of those who objected to black bodies in the public pool. But that was not what happened. The police officers yelled at the black teenagers, mainly at the black girls, and asked them to leave. When they talked back, the officers—particularly David Eric Casebolt—went ballistic. Casebolt grabbed a 15-year-old girl, threw her to the ground and put his body weight on her back. Then, when some teenaged boys came to her rescue, he drew his gun and pointed it threateningly at them. It was a hostile and dangerous situation. The police came to uphold the prejudices of some people against the rights of the others.

Protests broke out across the country, just as they have for some of the other outrages, forcing the resignation of Casebolt. As the sociologists put it, “protests often serve as one of few avenues for expressing anger and frustration with the prevailing social order”. On the surface, these protests appear to be a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement—linking the current dissatisfaction to the history of the fight for rights. While that is true, it is not fully accurate. The “institutional policies” that define the current conditions are not rooted in older forms of discrimination but in more recent actions.

During the 1990s, the attack on welfare and poverty came alongside the growth of policing and prisons. The gun—rather than education and dignity—was the response to starvation. Protests against police violence in that decade led to the creation of civilian police oversight boards. These boards, which are largely defunct, occasionally reappear to good effect. In Los Angeles, the civilian oversight board found that police officers had acted inappropriately when they killed Ezell Ford, a mentally ill black man.

These protests do not exhaust the rage in the U.S. The real rage is not black rage, says Emory University Professor Carol Anderson, but “white rage”. Black rage might “capture attention” and it does often lead to investigations and reconsideration of policy. But it is not as powerful as the more sedate white rage. What is this rage? It “smoulders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment”, Anderson says. In other words, it sets the “institutional policies” that end up with a police officer pointing a gun at a black teenager. This rage “carries an aura of respectability”, Anderson says. It runs the courts and the legislatures and sets the policies that allow Tracey Carver-Allbritton to curse at teenagers and Casebolt to take his gun out and wave it at them.