Saturday, 16 August 2014

We need to re-racialize the conversation about policing

Yes, Ferguson is about race

The Daily News here has been on a tear over police abuses, hitting the Staten Island chokehold case hard. It has uncovered and highlighted the long history of repeated complaints about excessive force stemming from that particular precinct and editorialized in blistering terms (this week adding the Ferguson case, which it called a “national disgrace”). Its widely read columnist Mike Lupica has added an important voice insisting on deep reform. This campaign is, I believe, highly significant because the paper sits somewhere in the middle of the city’s political culture, between the stately, stuffy Times and the mammonites at the Murdochian Post.

But there’s an odd twist to the Daily News’s take on these repeated killings of black men: the paper insists they’re not about race. Cops like those who caused Eric Garner’s death are bad apples, says Lupica, violent loose cannon who must be reined in, disciplined, charged, prosecuted, fired. The NYPD is allowing rogue cops to get away with, yes, murder, says the DN, and it’s got to stop.

All this is welcome, and it reflects a long overdue recognition that letting repeated offender cops off the hook again and again is dangerous, not just to their next potential victims but to social peace and the city itself. New York has worked very hard to get its diverse population back on track after violent incidents in past decades embittered each ethnic group in turn, made people suspicious of each other, polarized and racialized the city’s politics, and scared off tourists. It wasn’t that long ago that New York was a laughingstock, a punching bag for Middle America, that place where no sane person would risk his skin to visit.

Why then is it so important to de-racialize the incidents? Why does Lupica insist that since black and/or Latino officers were involved in the Garner chokehold case, it couldn’t be about Garner’s ethnicity? (By the way, there were plenty of black cops in apartheid South Africa—that means nothing.) Where does this insistence on seeing the cases, despite their consistency in terms of who is doing the shooting and who ends up shot, from a faux perspective of color-blindness?

I believe that at least part of the answer is that to recognize that we are facing the lingering effects of the slave system is too painful for most Americans. While everyone knows that Africans arrived to these shores as chattel slaves chained together in the hulls of boats, those are supposed to be the bad old days that we left behind long ago. Even the Jim Crow segregation that took the place of slavery after Reconstruction and only ended 50 years ago is now supposed to be an historic relic, a crazy time when people lived with bizarre rules based on the color line, separate drinking fountains, exclusion from public eateries, a whole race-infused ideology of pollution and difference. But now we are to suppose that that’s all over and done with.

If we were taught as schoolchildren the grim details of how slavery worked, we might be better able to see through that facile dismissal and perceive the workings of the past in our present. The few narratives written by American freedmen about their experience of captivity are not well known—that’s a great loss. At best, we might get a few pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or some inspiring excerpts by Frederick Douglass—although neither of these were part of my all-white school’s curriculum. But there was no exposure to the hair-raising and devastating autobiographies of Harriet Jacobs, Charles Bell, William Wells Brown, or Olaudah Equiano, any one of which is like getting a Ph.D. in American history. Solomon Northrup’s story has just now become widely known through the hit film, 12 Years a Slave, for the first time since it was published in 1853.

Slaves were kept in line through a pervasive, relentless and complex system of social control. When on errands away from their place of bondage, they would be stopped repeatedly by any white man and compelled to explain themselves, to prove they were on their masters’ business. Even during their so-called ‘free’ time, a slave might be beaten for visiting other slaves without first obtaining permission. Torture was routinely applied for misbehavior, and the most effective techniques for inflicting disciplinary pain were highly developed and shared among slaveholders (a disturbing aspect of the recent debate about the practice, which erroneously assumes that torture is somehow un-American and a new phenomenon).

Without the entire system of control, the system could not work because slaves rebelled against the misery of their lives and yearned for their freedom, just as we say all men and women do when oppressed—and remind ourselves once a year on July 4th. Without constant spying on slave movements (hello NSA), backed up by heavy policing, slaves would have worked less, run off more, and subverted the slave economy at every opportunity. Even with the repressive tactics, slaves did often resist and suffered extreme consequences when caught out.

There is an underlying racialism lurking beneath the Ferguson debacle, the Garner chokehold, Trayvon Martin’s death, and the many cases we never hear about. White America has not made peace with the economic and moral crimes that were fundamental to the country’s early life and vast later prosperity. That’s why it’s easy for complacent white police officers everywhere to reenact the color line in their daily interactions and not have a clue where their own behavior comes from.

So it’s no good to try to individualize the abuses as mere ‘police brutality’ or individual cop pathology although the repeat perpetrators often linked to the incidents may be extreme cases. We are dealing with a legacy of social control with precise roots, which, like any pathology, thrives in secretive silence.

Obama’s role is a curious one, given that as a dark-skinned president the entire country looks to him for insight. He recognizes the obvious fact that a younger version of himself would not be immune to dying in a Trayvon Martin-type incident. But his rise to prominence began with a 2004 speech in which he appealed to the country to move ‘beyond’ racial differences and be united as Americans. Whites love that because they prefer to think of themselves and their country as post-racial. But one doesn’t have to read far into the comments posted on news stories about Trayvon, Garner or Mike Brown to know that that is still an illusion wrapped in dewy ignorance.

No comments: