Sandra Bland's American tragedy: How a country's vicious history lives on in an all-too-modern outrage

Sandra Bland's story is about race and migration, the ghosts that still haunt us and the violence that won't end

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 25, 2015 1:29PM (EDT)


It is likely that almost every black American has a story—familial or personal—about being unjustly harassed or otherwise treated badly by this country’s police. These stories begin in childhood and continue throughout life. I, for one, am lucky to have survived my own encounters with police and other security forces. Sandra Bland was not as fortunate.

Bland, as has now been widely reported, was driving from Chicago to Texas to take a dream job at her alma mater Prairie View A&M University. She changed lanes to allow a state trooper, Brian Encinia, to pass. Encinia decided to stop Sandra Bland for an “illegal lane change.” As recorded on Encinia’s dashboard camera, the situation begins badly and ends even worse: Sandra Bland’s basic questions about Encinia’s behavior go unanswered. Encinia becomes agitated that she, a black woman, would dare question him. He orders Bland out of the car, then threatens to “light her up” with his taser.

By this point, Bland must be panic stricken; the state trooper throws her to the ground, assaulting her, injuring her arm and head. The videotape of the incident appears to be altered. The police report is vague and imprecise. Sandra Bland is dead three days later, supposedly hung, having committed suicide with the garbage bag used as a makeshift curtain for her jail cell. This is not a good death.

Responsible black parents tell their children (and those others in their charge) about how to deal with America’s police:

Your life is at risk in every police encounter. The police are not your friends, not if you are a person of color in America. The police could kill you. They are racist, and the system which they are part of is racist. Know your rights but realize that your rights will likely not be respected, because you are black. Do what is necessary to survive. Please come back home alive.

Sandra Bland found herself in the middle of those parables and lessons. As a Black American, she knew how badly it could all end. During the 8 minute long dashboard video, she is narrating her own death.

Sandra Bland's story is a story about race, about intergenerational folk wisdom and practical knowledge about how to survive as a black person in a society that still views you as a threat, as the preeminent Other. Sandra Bland’s story is also an example of the great migrations and movements of black folks from and to the South, and the centrality of cars, the road, about Jim and Jane Crow, both in the past and lived present for those of us who are citizens of Black America. It started in the South, and for Sandra Bland, that's where it ended too.

The South, with its many thousands of black bodies killed by chattel slavery, and many thousands of Civil War dead, is full of ghosts. My grandmother used to tell me stories about how a white half-man/half-beast specter would run past the rural farm she grew up on, cursing any people he found on the road, spewing fire out of his nose. The beast was fond of black people who dared to pass through his territory. My grandmother made me promise that I would always be watchful for this evil creature, aware of my surroundings at all times.

With his arrogant swagger, authoritarian demeanor and crude power, Brian Encinia was no “hero cop” with a “hard job,” one of those police officers deified by an uncritical media and an American cultural mythology that prevents police from being held accountable for their thuggery. Brian Encinia was one of those demons of casual racism and violence that haunt the South (as well as other parts of the country) and the collective imagination of Black America.

From the late 19th through to the middle of the 20th centuries, African-Americans left the South -- with its slave-labor camps, mass rape, lynchings, Ku Klux Klan, racial pogroms, ethnic cleansing, debt peonage, and the indignity of Jim and Jane Crow -- for the improved opportunities they imagined would await them in other parts of the country, for “the warmth of other suns.” Of course, those freedom dreams ultimately encountered the realities of white racism and segregation in places like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Nevertheless, the ledger of African-American freedom and opportunities was more balanced there than under the formal American Apartheid of the Jim and Jane Crow South.

In the late 20th and early 21 centuries, Sandra Bland and millions of other African-Americans are returning to the South: They are participating in a “reverse migration” to their ancestral home on this side of the Black Atlantic. Sandra Bland was part of Black America’s Third Great Migration—alas, one that she would not complete, a journey interrupted by an over-zealous cop and death in a jail cell.

The automobile is central to this story.

Historically and in the present, cars facilitate a type of freedom for Black Americans. However, cars, and the freedom of the road, are not immune from white racism, violence, and cruelty. The automobile facilitates movement. It creates opportunities for encounters with different people—including police. The car is a type of status symbol in a consumer’s republic. The automobile is a marker of success.

Those realities are amplified by life on the other side of the color line. Thus, car ownership by black Americans had to be located within the existing system of white racial logic: During Jim and Jane Crow, car ownership by black people was seen as a type of threat to whites, because it meant that black Americans could escape white racial terrorism and economic exploitation by moving to other parts of the country.

Because cars are a type of status symbol, they could be viewed as a threat by the white racial imagination: If a black person owned a car that was deemed “too nice,” i.e. better than what a white person owned, the vehicle and its owner(s) could be subjected to violence. Ultimately, black success, and demonstrating it through consumerism, was a sign that he or she was “uppity” or “arrogant” and needed to be put “back in their place.”

Thus, the rules of Jim and Jane Crow for the sidewalk were also extended to the road: Black people were not allowed to pass white drivers for fear of death. Black drivers had to let white people have the right of way at intersections. Traveling by automobile was so perilous for Black Americans that in 1936, Victor H. Green published a handbook called “The Green Guide for Negro Motorists” that listed the stores, hotels, barbershops, restaurants, gas stations, and lodgings where black folks would be welcome.

When Sandra Bland got in her car to drive to Texas and begin the next stage of her life as a young professional, she found herself in a liminal space where the old ugly racism of the very near American past overlapped with the hopeful dreaming of Black America in the post-civil-rights era. Like so many other black Americans who have died under suspicious circumstances at the hands of the United States’ police and other enforcers, the lethal shadow of Jim and Jane Crow looms over those victims even in a moment when a black man is President of the United States and the Attorney General is a black woman.

And in keeping with the logic of Jim and Jane Crow, white supremacy and chattel slavery, Sandra Bland has been smeared by some in the Right-wing media as “arrogant,” which is code for “uppity,”  a literal and metaphorical crime for Black people in the United States. (See the repeated use of similar language by Republicans and the right-wing media to delegitimate Barack Obama.) The white racial paranoiac gaze will, as it always does, somehow find a way to blame Sandra Bland for her own death and the events that precipitated it. Sandra Bland’s character will be impugned. This is a tired and predictable script in the United States.

Whiteness is ahistorical: It is based on a bargain that transformed the various nationalities of Europe into “white” people in America through the genocide of First Nations people, white-on-black chattel slavery, Jim and Jane Crown, and the creation of enduring systems of white privilege and white supremacy that subsequent generations of white people benefit from.

Black and brown people, by contrast, are a deeply historical people; their past is alive in the present through their bodies and life experiences. Sandra Bland narrated the events that would lead to her death. The police, who have their origins as slave patrollers, enforced the rules of the color line, and a black body was made to suffer.

“White America” can continue to be “surprised” by the deaths of black folks and other people of color (as well as the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the poor, and the working classes) at the hands of the police. Black America can and will not be surprised. We know better. Victimization by America’s police is part of our history and lived present. Sandra Bland is not an apocryphal story, legend, conspiracy theory, or rumor ginned up by hysterical and hyper-emotional black people. She is a human being. Sandra Bland narrated her own death. She sensed the story’s end while she was the tragic star of its opening scene.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

American History Police Abuse Police Violence Racism Sandra Bland Slavery The South White Supremacy