In July of 2015, a young black woman named Sandra Bland died far from home in a Texas jail after being stopped by a white police officer for failing to supposedly use her car signal lights while changing lanes.
On Monday, a Texas grand jury decided to not indict the police or other agents potentially involved in the death of Sandra Bland.
Black Americans share a waking nightmare when they encounter America’s police.
Will I live? Will I die? Will this cop find a reason to arrest me? Is white racism operative in this moment? A great deal? A little? None at all? Will this heavily armed and militarized cop use their “judgment” to decide they are somehow “in fear of their lives” and then shoot dead a black or brown body that has done nothing wrong? Will I make it home tonight? Can someone bail me out of jail if this police officer decides to manufacture a reason to beat upon me, put me in jail, or break my limbs or skull? Are there witnesses who will vouch for my innocence? Will I lose my job? Will someone know to feed my pet if I am in jail? Will justice be done if I am killed? My parents, friends, and other family know that I am not a monster who provoked lethal violence, but will the public ever truly understand that I am not a Negro fiend or beast that had to be put down for the safety of the (white) American public? How will the news media slur my name and memory?
Sandra Bland’s lonely death in a Texas jail, and a grand jury’s decision to not move forward with charges, is a parable drawn from the pages of the Jim Crow survival guide "The Negro Motorist Green Book "and the recent book by Nick Chiles called "Justice While Black."
As has been said many times before, Sandra Bland’s death is not a bug or error in the American legal and “criminal justice” system. No, it is American justice working precisely as designed.
At almost every level of the criminal justice system black and brown people are punished more severely than white people charged with the same crimes.
A black man who commits a capital crime is more likely to receive the death penalty.
If a murder victim is white the accused is much more likely to receive the death penalty than if the victim is black.
It is very rare that whites who kill blacks receive the death penalty. Blacks who kill whites are much likely to be sentenced to death.
Since 1976, 295 black people have been executed for killing a white person. In the same time period, 31 white people have been executed for killing a black person.
Black Americans are much more likely, relative to their percentage of the United States population, to receive the death penalty than are whites.
America’s police are seven times more likely to shoot dead an unarmed black man than they are an unarmed white man.
Black America knows this data, gathered by criminologists, sociologists, and others, is true on a personal level. These are not just numbers from government reports, presented in footnotes and crosstabs, or written down in books. The story of mass incarceration and police violence against Black America is a personal narrative and soundtrack. It is not a discussion of “public policy” in a vacuum.
Many black and brown folks (and some white allies too) are made numb by the recurring, tedious, tiresome, and draining ritual of outrage for how a given person of color’s life is stolen. This macabre American play, where a black person dies at the hands of the police under suspicious circumstances, is just a continuation of America’s long tradition of white on black lynchings “at the hands of persons unknown”. The only difference is that in the Age of Obama we know who committed the killing—and there may even be cell phone footage of them doing it.
Sandra Bland’s death, and the failure of a jury to find culpability for the police and her jailers, is a reminder of how the modern democratic State deals with questions of law and justice. As Michel Foucault outlined in his masterwork Discipline and Punish, the modern carceral society took enforcement out of the hands of the public and ended spectacles such as public executions in order to create a sense of “impersonal” punishment. Instead, it would be an act of ostensibly “neutral” law. In practice, this is of course not true: the crimes of the rich receive different punishments than those of the poor; in a society organized around maintaining white privilege and white supremacy, non-whites receive harsher punishments than whites who commit the same offenses.
Impersonal punishment by the State also allows the privileged to hold on to fictions such as “the system worked” or that “we need to respect the process”. The privileged—or in the United States the rich, middle class, those invested in Whiteness, and believers in the “just world fallacy”—have the luxury of giving legitimacy to a racist and classist criminal justice system precisely because they know that they will be treated better than a member of a marginalized or subordinate group.
Research on crime and punishment by race and class certainly supports this thesis. The recent public discourse and panic about how white people who are addicted to heroin and pain killers should be shown “compassion” and empathy while black and brown folks who are involved with other drugs are made victims of the War on Drugs, and shown no mercy is further proof of that thesis as well.
The impersonal punishment of the modern democratic State and carceral society also robs people of a sense of personal responsibility and connection to unjust outcomes—this is especially true if they are part of the in-group and it is the Other who is being punished (or in the case of Sandra Bland, not being treated in a just way). This is a profound indictment of the human capacity for empathy and sympathy: outrage and moral offense are apparently limited by a sense of in-group empathy and the white on black and brown color line in America and the West.
There are no demands of personal accountability and justice because it is just “the system” at work.
Ultimately, moments such as the grand jury decision about Sandra Bland, or the acquittal of the cop who choked to death Eric Garner--what should be moments of praxis, radical democratic politics, engagement, and demands for systematic change--are instead met by silence and complacency.
And while to varying degrees, and with divergent amounts of culpability and responsibility, this is true of too many black, brown and white Americans alike.
This type of a personal, radical, democratic politics and engagement can take many forms.
It can be communicative and personal. Black folks should be holding their white friends, family members, and acquaintances accountable, asking them, how do they feel about Sandra Bland and those others whose bodies have unjustly been put in the black necropolis of death in the Age of Obama by the police and other actors? If the answer is unacceptable the decision should be made to either jettison the relationship or work hard to educate your friend or loved one.
One of the paradoxes of race in America is that while white folks may love black athletes, musicians, and actors they do not necessarily feel any connection to the humanity of real, actual, black folks. White America may love the idea of “black culture” but they do not necessarily love the actual humanity of black people. This must change.
Black and brown folks (and of course our white brothers and sisters) should join local groups that are fighting police thuggery, and other types of violence in their own communities. We should also be practicing political consumerism by refusing to shop during the holidays (and other times too) at businesses that are fueled by the profligate consumer spending of black Americans, but that in other ways see no value in our lives.
White Americans should look in the mirror and ask “what type of white person do I want to be?” If white Americans stand silent, mute, and uninvolved in changing a government and legal system that devalues the lives of non-whites, they are in many ways culpable with social evil. White folks who are religious should ask their ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, and other members of their faith community, how they reconcile their godly values with how the human rights of people of color are routinely violated in the United States. “Not in my name” should be a rallying cry for all white Americans of conscience in an era of seemingly out of control police thuggery and violence against their fellow black and brown citizens.
Monday’s jury decision in the Sandra Bland case is one more reminder that while Black America may have physically built the United States, this is a country that from its founding through to the present is not designed (unlike for whites) to protect the lives, safety, security, dignity, equal rights, and prosperity of Black Americans. Black folks know this truth on an existential and visceral level, through our oral histories, family wisdom, told to us by our mentors and teachers, in song and on church pews, and through culture — both the “high culture” of great literature and the “low culture” of the blues.
Sandra Bland’s death and the grand jury decision to not pursue charges will exact a psychic, physical, and emotional toll on both her immediate family, and a broader black community who knows that under a none too different set of circumstances they could find themselves pulled over in a pretext stop by a random white cop, and later be found dead in a prison cell.
In the postbellum South, white men donned white sheets and formed the largest terrorist organization in America’s history. This group would eventually become known as the Ku Klux Klan. Their white sheets were designed to scare black people: the Kluxers wanted to evoke the “honored” dead of the Confederacy, their spirits roaming the Earth, seeking revenge by terrorizing African-Americans. America’s police—a group that had their modern origins in the slave patrols of the South—now do much the same thing…they now just wear colors such as blue, black, or green. In many black and brown and poor communities in the United States, the mission of the police is none too different from the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that was founded many years prior: too many of America’s police are agents of terror whose goal is to intimidate, commit violence upon, and reign over their subjects.
To that end, the American Right-win — aided and abetted in that task by the supposedly “liberal new media” such as CNN — have given legitimacy to the bizarre, perverse, and scurrilous lie known as the “Ferguson Effect." In this version of the white paranoiac gaze and the twisted delusions of the white racial frame, America’s police are somehow now “intimidated” and “afraid” to do their jobs because of how citizen advocacy groups such as the Black Lives Matter movement are, as is their constitutionally protected right, monitoring police behavior.
The complaints that police cannot do their “jobs” unless they are free to beat upon, kill, and violate the rights of black and brown people reveals a devastating truth. For most of American history, such wicked tasks have been precisely the job of America’s police. Advocates of the “Ferguson Effect” are actually—and quite unintentionally—revealing the true relationship between the police, the American criminal justice system, and black and brown Americans. This is one of the great shames of the nation: those who bray about the “Ferguson Effect” are admitting that America’s police cannot do their jobs unless they are allowed to illegally brutalize people of color without fear of consequence.
As we reflect upon the justice denied to Sandra Bland, we ought to begin talking not about a specious “Ferguson Effect," but rather how the “Sandra Bland Effect," the “Eric Garner Effect," the “Rekia Boyd Effect," the “Tamir Rice Effect," the “Trayvon Martin Effect” and those of many other thousands of black and brown folks whose lives were stolen by the police and white-identified vigilantes is an icy chill of terror over many millions of black and brown people in the United States. Ultimately, America’s police are rarely if ever victims. They are victimizers who often prey on the weak, vulnerable, and the innocent.
The decision by a grand jury to not indict the police and other officials involved in Sandra Bland’s death is a reminder of that basic fact.