Why are so many young unarmed black men killed by the police? Obviously there is no easy answer to that question, but most evidence suggests it is race-related.
In addition, a whole divisive national culture of apartheid and inequality furnishes a fertile setting for angst and anger. In this setting, our media displays dual props of haves and have-nots, many of the latter, minorities. In a society of changing demographics, intent on winning white votes at any cost, conservative politicians set have-nots up as “whipping boys” for disgruntled whites with eroding wealth.
But stereotypes focus on young blacks. In a long history of bogeymen in American culture, young blacks typically carry a fearsome quality: uncontrollable, having uncommon sexual prowess, menacing, violent and non-productive. Code words in our society exploit this.
Studies and Incidents
A Mother Jones (MJ Report) report last month tried to deal with the frequency of police killings of blacks, but conceded that databases paint only a partial picture of the problem, local police department data being scattered and fragmented, and little or no data gathered by the federal government.
Previous studies to assess racial bias do seem to point to the racial factor. According to Mother Jones, a 2007 ColorLines and Chicago Reporter study of 10 major cities, found a disproportionately high number of African Americans among police shooting victims in every city, especially in New York, San Diego, and Las Vegas.
NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks speculated that it’s a culture in which people suspected of minor crimes are met with “overwhelmingly major, often lethal, use of force.” To counter this charge, conservatives will argue that there is a higher incidence of crime among non-white populations.
The killings of blacks by the police are not isolated incidents. USA Today reported last month that nearly two times a week in the U.S. for the years 2005 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person.
Recent shootings of unarmed black men for minor incidents or for seeking help are therefore repeated tragedies that are hard to explain with reasons other than racial bias. Michael Brown was shot with hands up by Ferguson police officer, Darrell Wilson, when encountered for jaywalking. An unarmed mentally ill black man, Ezell Ford, was shot by Los Angeles police. They said they stopped Ford because he was “making suspicious movements.” He was shot three times in the back.
For those who doubt racial profiling and extreme prejudice in using deadly force, we have the Columbia, S.C. case of Levar Edward Jones stopped by a state trooper at a convenience store. A police dashboard camera recorded the trooper firing four shots at Jones while reaching for his license which the trooper requested. The trooper is under indictment for felony assault and battery.
In NYC an illegal chokehold killed unarmed Eric Garner subdued for selling illegal cigarettes. Another black man, John Crawford, was killed by Ohio police in a WalMart for holding a display pellet gun in an unthreatening manner, a fact shown by videos. Sgt. David Darkow was not charged. Jonathan Ferrell was involved in a one-car accident in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. Seeking help at a nearby house, the homeowner called the police who duly shot the unarmed Darkow dead as he naively thought police were coming to help him.
Except for the Darkow incident, these are a sampling of deadly happenings taking place over a few weeks last month. As USA reported, many similar incidents take place every day throughout the country. The most noted in the news involved the George Zimmerman murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. After Zimmerman’s acquittal, Attorney General, Eric Holder spoke to an NAACP conference about counseling his own 15-year-old son about handling police stops, something his father had done with him and something that happened to him in Georgetown, even as a federal prosecutor.
The disproportionate police altercations with blacks is often explained as racial profiling, a practice that assumes guilt for a crime based on the presumed criminality of people of a certain race. Though racial profiling is illegal, it’s obviously still widely practiced.
This still doesn’t explain shooting an unarmed young black man in the back while lying on the ground or while he has his hands up, something akin to execution. Real hatred or unreasoning anger that dehumanizes your target seems to be required for such an action.
In the “Jim Crow” South such hatred toward African-Americans was bred into the Southern mind, with the perspective of blacks embodying subhuman qualities. Such behavior was taught as part of the Southern culture and reinforced daily by people in authority.
Inequality and Polarization
Is 21st century America a broadening environment for such a culture? Consider that, in effect, schools are nearly as segregated today as they were generations after the end of the Civil War, as demographics divide schools nationwide. Opportunity for minorities is slipping away with growing inequality in our society. Apartheid is subtly maintained with a large fraction of minorities incarcerated, easily stereotyped as welfare recipients, denied the vote by voter ID laws, and targeted for homelessness by laws on housing restrictions. Furthermore, the drug war disproportionately targets minorities, especially young black men.
Politics polarizes us too and its scope and pace is maintained daily.
A polarized society is fostered by radical conservatives whose Republican candidates often use racism to subtly attack blacks, either with veiled criticism of entitlements or direct attacks of President Obama with code words or images that exorcise the race card. We have a whole network, Fox News, that uses code words to characterize black people as criminal types, drug users, lazy thugs, or innate threats to us.
Frequently, even President Obama is described in disrespectful, mocking, race-image-code terms. For example, Fox News’ Karl Rove, displaying mock outrage over Obama carrying a latte while saluting Marines, paraphrased his talking point, “Are we surprised? After all we’ve got a chai-swillin’, golf-playin’, basketball trash-talkin’ leadin’ from behind I got no strategy Osama bin Laden is dead, GM is alive community organizing commander in chief … How disrespectful was that?” (See Jon Stewart comments on “latte gate:” [Stewart]).
Fox News’ daily dialogue of vitriol and mockery of what they call an entitlement society, characterizing minorities as the takers in that society, also includes “uppity” blacks. A mocking ridicule of intelligent (uppity) African-Americans like Neil Degrasse Tyson seems to be a Fox News sporting event as well (Tyson).
For many conservative Fox News followers, minorities are portrayed as at the root of destroying our society. Divide-conquer-and-blame has increasingly defined GOP tactics since Reagan’s early-80s image of “welfare queens,” always seen as a black woman. When his philosophy was questioned, Reagan said “the homeless … are homeless, you might say, by choice.”
Conservatives on Fox News were unleashed by Reagan trashing the FCC fairness doctrine, so you constantly hear Obama described as the “food-stamp president” (food stamp growth coming from the Bush recession), with Bill O’Reilly characterizing this as an “entitlement society versus a self-reliant one.” On top of inborn biases held by some Americans, blame is cast in the direction of blacks, and a black president is a constant Fox News target as “entitler-in-chief” for “takers,” and the oft-characterization of blacks as freeloaders.
Public Jobs, a GOP Target
Many police officers have been affected by the Wall-Street-engineered “Great Recession.” Even before taking control of the House, Republicans have worked hard to gut recovery funding for cities and states, in effect, trying to keep voter satisfaction low toward Obama and toward Democrats. There has been an unprecedented decline in public sector spending, public spending almost always increased during recessions. Republican obstruction has led to many layoffs of police departments throughout the country, with their pay being held flat, and job insecurity thus promoted.
In Ferguson, MO alone, budgets have been very dependent on traffic citations and fines against the Ferguson black majority, causing further division – even kindling hatred — between minorities and police.
Exploiting anger and bias has always been a means to divide and conquer. Bias will always be with us but a society that promotes understanding, fairness, equal opportunity and equal access to the good life is one with less violence against imagined enemies.
Black Americans have been the most identifiable minority group in America and variously the most maligned. Given the bogeyman status that conservative media – and some conservative politicians – promotes, minorities have become the preferred target of blame and resentment for inequality.
In such a climate of racial profiling, conservatives continue to malign minorities and the GOP purposely targets cuts in public spending that affect police officers. Such a bitter climate furnishes a perfect storm for hair-trigger attacks on an easily-identified target that emits an inborn fear – young black men.