In South Carolina, 1944, George Stinney, a 14-year-old black child was so small that he was forced to sit on a pile of books in order to be “properly” electrocuted for supposedly killing two white girls. Stinney would be exonerated 70 years after his execution.
In November of 2014, a Cleveland police officer shot and killed a 12-year-old black boy named Tamir Rice for the “crime” of playing with a toy gun in a public park. This shooting occurred in a locale where “open carry laws” deem it legal to have a gun in public. Tamir Rice was de facto executed. The police gave him approximately two seconds to surrender. An officer shot Tamir Rice almost immediately after parking their vehicle next to him.
The state killed both of those black children.
The sociological phenomenon known as “adultification” deems black children to be treated like adults for the purposes of punishment, incarceration and execution. Adultification is a means to rationalize the deaths of Tamir Rice and George Stinney.
Tamir Rice and George Stinney were also victims of legal murder. Both in the past and present, the black body is not to be protected by the American legal system. Tamir Rice and George Stinney are reminders of how the black body is brutalized, vulnerable, subjected to random violence, and can find little if any justice by the courts. Once and again, unfair treatment of black and brown people is not a bug or error in the American legal system. No, it is a racist and classist system working exactly as designed in a country that was founded on white supremacist violence against people of color.
Tamir Rice joins so many others, lives prematurely ended by the police, and their bodies put in the necropolis of Black Death in the Age of Obama. When protesters shout “Black Lives Matter” it is a statement of rage, protest and a demand for justice at that ugly national mausoleum.
In reflecting on the myriad of circumstances where the lives of unarmed and innocent black people have been stolen by America’s police—while surrendering; following police orders; sleeping in cars; sleeping at home; seeking help after car accidents; opening up wallets; walking down the street; shopping; playing in a park; standing outside; riding bicycles; asking for help with a mentally ill relative or neighbor; breathing air and just being nearby—it is abundantly clear that there is one unifying factor common to all of those examples.
To be black is to be under assault by American society and its legal system.
It is the stigma placed on those who because of an arbitrary melanin count and America’s ‘one drop rule’ are placed on the bottom of the country’s racial hierarchy.
To be black in America is also to occupy a place of fear and threat in the white popular imagination and collective subconscious: “black people” are “scary”; “black crime” is an “epidemic”; the “black family” is “broken”; “black men” are dangerous, violent, hyper-libidinal “thugs”; and “black women” are promiscuous “welfare queens.”
If you are black in America then preemptive violence by the state, its police, their allies, and white folks en masse under “stand your ground laws,” is presumed to almost always be legitimate and justified. To be black is to be guilty until proven innocent. America’s system of jurisprudence is inverted along the color line.
To be black in America is ultimately a state of existential terror, threat and violence.
Unfortunately, because of the limitations and boundaries of human communication and experience, it is very difficult for most white people to comprehend this sense of dread. As such, many white folks default to the just world fallacy, excuse-make for police violence against black and brown people because “the victim must have done something to provoke the police”, or affirm the mouth-bloviating by right-wing pundits that “all you have to do is obey the police if you don’t want them to kill you.”
There are also others who revel in a perverse type of glee when police commit acts of thuggery and violence against people of color. While America is supposedly “post racial”, there are still too many white folks who because of authoritarianism, racism, and inter-racial sadism will always stand united with “the men and women in blue” against people of color. Their type shouts the new white power slogan “all lives matter” and gives money to support racists such as Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman.
The failure to indict the police who killed Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, and so many others forces an uncomfortable question. Could it be that black people in America (and the West, more generally) are somehow “stained”? Are they marked for special punishment? Is the Curse of Ham real, does that Judeo-Christian mythology from the era of colonialism, white empire, and chattel slavery endure into the post civil rights and ostensibly “post racial” American present?
Research in psychology and other fields has demonstrated that many white people do not feel that blacks are worthy of empathy. Other work shows that many white people possess a deep subconscious belief which dehumanizes black people by linking them with apes and other primates. Psychologists have also determined that white people consistently view black children as being older than they actually are. Other research has shown that white people believe that blacks have superhuman, magical powers. Implicit bias research suggests that approximately 50 percent of whites (as well as members of other groups) hold racist and prejudicial attitudes towards black people.
And of course, America’s police are quicker in their decision to shoot unarmed black people than they are whites in the same scenario. Likewise, America’s police also somehow believe that harmless objectswhen held by a black person are transformed into lethal items such as guns and knives.
These examples suggest that the White Gaze views “blackness,” and by implication, black people, as toxins in the white body politic, a human curse, or even worse as “takers” and social parasites.
The stigma placed on black people led to the obscenity that was the near instantaneous killing of Tamir Rice and how the police are not being held criminally accountable for such horrific deeds, deeds that even an investigating judge described as “cause for the charges of murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, negligent homicide and dereliction of duty.”
A society that fetishizes police has given them the license to kill with near impunity—especially if their victims are black or brown. America is so enamored with police that it even gives incompetent people such as Timothy Loehmann, a man who was forced out of his previous job as a cop with a nearby department because of emotional and impulse control issues, the privilege to commit legal murder. He exercised that “right” on November 22, 2014 when he de facto executed a 12-year-old black child named Tamir Rice. Police worship is so powerful a force in America that police departments are not required to publicly report how many people they brutalize, kill, or otherwise disappear.
African-Americans are the quintessential “real Americans.” Their culture and struggle for freedom have given America the best of its national character. Black people’s stolen labor also built White American Empire. That theft remains a debit that has not and likely will never be repaid. Alas, the killing of Tamir Rice is one more reminder among so many, that America does not love black people.
The question remains, as Martin Luther King Jr. so bravely and forcefully asked, where do we go from here?
Black Americans have done more than is necessary or expected in fighting for the human rights of all people both in the United States and abroad. They are not responsible for their own victimization by the State. The cycle of white on black police violence and thuggery is a never-ending carousel and perpetual motion machine. White Americans need to decide if they are willing to interrupt it, to do the right and moral thing, and hold accountable the police, criminal justice system, and others who are acting in their name. To the degree white Americans are silent, inactive, and passive on this issue they are complicit with one of the great shames of the nation.
The arc of history is long. White Americans need to decide if they are going to be on the right side of history or the wrong one. Until White America can look at the face of Tamir Rice and see their own children, there will be no true racial justice in the United States.