2015 was a whirlwind year, full of miserable happenings and scant hope for those of us who write about and study the color line in America.
The Republican Party finally surrendered to the nativism, racism and xenophobia that it nurtured among its base for decades. This toxic mix birthed the ascendance of the proto-fascist Know Nothing Donald Trump.
Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald and so many other black and brown people had their lives stolen from them by America’s out of control, hyper-violent, militarized, racist police.
The right-wing news/entertainment complex continued to weaponize its followers. Dylann Roof followed through on his programming and killed nine black Americans after they welcomed him into the fellowship of their church community. Robert Dear also heard the drumbeat of hatred and lies turned into truths by Fox News and Republican presidential candidates such as Carly Fiorina when he killed three people at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado.
The old combination of guns, racism and toxic white masculinity was lethal in 2015. There is no reason to believe that it will be sated in the years to come.
Bill Cosby, once “America’s Dad” and exemplar of “black respectability politics,” was revealed to be a likely sex predator/serial rapist.
President Barack Obama continued to face strident opposition from Republicans. America’s first black president is entering the twilight year of his two terms in office with the lesson now fully reinforced that “hope and change” was beaten back by old fashioned racial bigotry and white racial resentment. For too large a swath of white America, a black man who is president of the United States is illegitimate: his policies, however reasonable, are to be rejected as dead on arrival.
There is an ugly irony in how America’s first black president, the most powerful person in the world, is in many ways a 21st century Dred Scott, the latter a man deemed by the United States Supreme Court in 1857 as having “no rights which the white man is bound to respect."
For those of us who study race and politics during a time when white supremacy is resurgent, American empire is in decline, and the inhumanity of neoliberalism is accepted as the natural order of things, it is easy to surrender to racial battle fatigue. To resist this impulse, a person must develop mental and emotional armor. Ultimately, if the worst of human behavior is your object of study, it is easy to become cynical, to no longer be surprised.
Even by those low standards and expectations, the de facto street execution of a 12-year-old black child named Tamir Rice by an incompetent and emotionally unstable white Cleveland police officer, and his subsequent exoneration for such a foul and wicked act, shocked me.
However, the response by conservatives--in the news media, online forums and by at least one of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates--to the killing of Tamir Rice is potentially even more disturbing.
What should be a source of collective outrage and sadness has instead been transformed into an opportunity to lecture black people about “personal responsibility,” a lightning rod for virulent anti-black racism, a showcase for how white racial paranoic thinking always blames the black victim for his or her unjust killing by the State, as well as one more chances to make excuses for a broken American criminal justice system that enables police murder, abuse and violence against people of color, the poor, the mentally ill and other groups marked as the “disposable” Other.
For example, the comment sections at the website Cleveland.com (which is a news aggregator that also features content from the newspaper The Plain Dealer) were so infested with racism and hate speech against Tamir Rice that the site administrators deactivated them at the end of November.
So why, a lot of you have asked, have we chosen to turn off all comments on stories about Tamir Rice?
The simple answer is that we don't fancy our website as a place of hate, and the Tamir Rice story has been a magnet for haters.
We tried to maintain the conversation. The Tamir Rice case offers lessons for Greater Cleveland, and hashing out those lessons in an online community forum could be a healthy exercise. A lot of people firmly believe the police broke the law when they shot Tamir, but others feel just as strongly that the shooting was justified. Passions are strong, and because our comments section could provide a place for venting, we allowed comments on Tamir stories for months. We enlisted a small army on our staff to monitor the comments and delete any that violated our standards.
The trouble was that we couldn't keep up. Just about every piece we published about Tamir immediately became a cesspool of hateful, inflammatory or hostile comments. Rather than discuss the facts of the case, many commenters debased the conversation with racist invective. Or they made absurd statements about the clothing and appearance of people involved in the story. Or they attacked each other for having contrasting viewpoints. In many cases, well over half of the comments on Tamir stories broke our rules and had to be deleted.
We ultimately decided that the comments sections of Tamir stories, overrun as they were by wickedness, were not contributing to the needed conversation. In early October, we reluctantly and finally decided to close down the comments on any news story about Tamir…
In the last week of December, a grand jury decided not to place the two police officers who were involved in the killing of Tamir Rice on trial for committing a crime. Since that decision, members of the White Right have continued and escalated their hateful attacks on Tamir Rice.
Case in point. One prominent right-wing “news” website features hundreds of comments about Tamir Rice. They include screeds such as:
- “Until White America looks at Tamir Rice and sees their own children, there will be no racial justice in the U.S.” Much of “White America” raises their children so they in no way resemble Tamir Rice. We pay law enforcement to keep Tamir Rice at arm’s length.”
- “Until White America looks at Tamir Rice and sees their own children...I think that when America looks at Tamir Rice and sees their own children, we will have the economic activity and life expectancy of Bangladesh, or some other impoverished hell-hole.”
- “Comply - Don't Die"
- "When you have a whole (mostly) race who have no respect for authority of any type they are going to have issues when they come into contact with people in authority.”
- “Whites don’t need cops to kill their children to understand, blacks kill white children enough as it is.”
- “Tamir Rice was 12. He was also 5'7’’ 175#’s and walking around a playground in a high drug and crime area brandishing a realistic pellet gun. He was in the act of committing Agrievated Menacing by pointing a pistol in peoples faces. He then reached and puled his pistol when the police arrived. The evidence was incontrovertible. It was on video and he pulled his weapon. It is a tragedy, but his crack whore mother who lost custody of Tamir years ago will certainly gin up everything she can to fleece the citizens of Cleveland for as much money as she can get.”
- “Probably saved numerous black lives by taking this stupid gang banger off the planet. Pray America wakes”
- “Until Black America quits raising little thugs. No change.”
- “To many in the black community, personal responsibility is to them like holy water and crosses are to a vampire.”
- “Black Americans, The most racist and entitled people on the planet. Cut the dole, Kill the thugs and most of this will go away. Then start on the queers. Roll me back to the 50's.”
Why would someone feel this way about a child killed by the police for the “crime” of playing with a toy gun in public in an “open carry” state where brandishing real weapons in public is not illegal? Where is the empathy, care, or concern about a 12-year-old boy whose life was stolen in a manner so cavalier and mean spirited that the police left him to bleed to death on the ground? Why so much hostility toward a person they do not know?
The extreme and ugly anti-black sentiments that are summoned in response to the killing of Tamir Rice are not isolated events. They have been seen in response to other black and brown victims of police thuggery as well. There is an important dynamic that often goes uncommented upon: white rage and racism are not actually being directed at the literal person of Tamir Rice.
The white collective imagination is instead focused on symbolism, what it imagines “blackness” to be, and how being “black”—and especially black and male—is a target for anger, fear and insecurity. The person Tamir Rice is not hated; the idea of Tamir Rice the “black male” is.
As I wrote about in an earlier essay on Tamir Rice, black people have historically and in the present been viewed as poisons in the (white) American body politic. In the not so recent past, such attitudes fueled white racial pogroms and the thousands of lynchings committed by white people against African-Americans.
Sociologist Ivan Evans makes the following observation in his book “Cultures of Violence”:
What Southern Protestantism bequeathed to the twentieth century was a moral justification for concentrating subsequent violence on African Americans. Like the revamped theology of Afrikaners after 1910, Lost Causism in the South provided the glue to hold together a demoralized white community that was divided by class, anxious about its women, and fearful of the social and political equality that would flow from the emancipation of African Americans.
This is a frightening insight, one that accurately describes America both in the postbellum era of lynching, as well as the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Black people are no longer dragged to the lynching tree and pyre while “jubilant whites” scream “Here come the barbecued niggers!” But in many terrifying ways, American society remains a lynching culture…it is now one where the punishment, torture, and extrajudicial murder of black people is perpetrated by the police, courts and other parts of a racist and classist carceral society instead of by white mob violence.
This is a wonderful arrangement for a modern society that remains organized around protecting and maintaining white privilege. The State can use its institutions to target black and brown people for social control and intimidation via the police, prisons, jails and courts. White folks en masse can then benefit from these outcomes and say that “the system is fair” or “you have to respect the process”—even while knowing that the legal system is racist and unfair to black people…and supporting it anyway.
The flags of mourning, anger, protest and awareness-raising that the early NAACP and other activists displayed in cities like Chicago and New York during the 19th and early 20th century, which decried that “A Man was Lynched Yesterday,” have been replaced by cell phone videos, police dashcam footage, the alternative news media, Black Lives Matter and “Black Twitter.” While it has evolved over time, gripping to the contours of the color line to match the changing dynamics of white racism, “negrophobia” remains a deep and fixed part of American society.
Conservatism and racism are now one and the same thing in post-civil rights era America. Consequently, the radical and extreme politics of movement conservatives and the Republican Party will only gin up and encourage more white racial anxiety, animus and overt bigotry against people of color.
The hatred, disdain and contempt expressed by white conservatives (and their allies) for Tamir Rice, other black and brown victims of police thuggery, and the Black Lives Matter movement is a symptom of a deeper American cultural problem. This sickness of racism, white supremacy and disdain for the human rights of non-whites will only become more obvious (and odious) as the 2016 United States presidential campaign reaches its crescendo in November.