Human Rights

Cops Killing Blacks Has Come to Be Expected

The law seems to operate on behalf of police officers rather than the people they are sworn to serve.

Photo Credit: a katz/Shutterstock

A police officer kills a black person in a show of excessive force and is then acquitted of all charges in a court of law. This sequence of events has played out time and again. It happened twice last week, when a mistrial was declared in the case of Cincinnati officer Ray Tensing accused of fatally shooting Sam DuBose during a traffic stop, and when Milwaukee officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was acquitted of fatally shooting Sylville Smith. It happened again on June 16, when Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges for fatally shooting Philando Castile in his car last July, with his girlfriend and her young daughter witnesses to his death.

The outcome of these cases, coupled with the studies showing that only a minuscule number of cops have been charged for killing another person, suggests that the law seems to operate on behalf of police officers—who are readily equipped with guns and the strength of police union contracts—rather than the people they are sworn to serve. It also seems like just about any justification can strengthen an officer’s case in a trial. Officer Yanez testified that he “feared for his life” because he smelled marijuana in Castile’s car during the encounter, never mind the fact that Castile was complying with the officer throughout the traffic stop.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Ibram X. Kendi says it all comes down to the fact that it is black death that matters. “It matters to the life of America, by which I mean the blood flow of ideas that give life to Americans’ perception of their nation,” he writes.

“In these high-profile cases, it is not just police officers who are on trial,” Kendi writes. “America is on trial. Either these deaths are justified, and therefore America is just, or these deaths are unjustified, and America is unjust.”

It is not just jurors and prosecutors who have supported the actions of law enforcement over the lives of the people who have died by their hands—most Americans feel positively about the police and this country’s criminal justice system. According to the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of white people feel blacks and whites are treated equally by the police. In contrast, only 16 percent of black people felt this way, with 84 percent saying black people are treated less fairly than white people. Within the court system, 43 percent of white people believe black people are treated less fairly than whites, compared to 75 percent of black people who believe this statement.

The survey also revealed disparities in how black people and white people think about achieving racial equality. About 38 percent of white people think the U.S. has made the changes needed to make black people equal to whites, while only 8 percent of black people believe this.

Kendi argues that these stark contrasts about race and race relations are rooted in the American falsehood that this country is post-racial, that it has solved its race problem. This echoes similar points made by James Baldwin in the film “I Am Not Your Negro,” the belief that Americans deal with race by believing in a dream and thinking that they are not responsible for racism or racist attacks.

But time after time, Kendi points out, white Americans have actually contributed to the systemic oppression of black people by justifying and enabling state-sanctioned discrimination. There was the defense of slavery as a “positive good” or a “tool to civilize.” The 1900s saw the defense of separate but equal under Jim Crow laws, and later there was the victim-blaming of rioters who marched for their civil rights.

Landmark advances in equality for black people were fiercely met with racist and oppressive backlash from white Americans to stop justice in its tracks. The ending of slavery via the Emancipation Proclamation was met with the convict-leasing system and black codes that ensnared many free blacks into another form of slavery through forced labor. Thousands of lynchings were employed by the KKK following the end of the Civil War to uphold white supremacy and terrorize black people. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, America’s prison population skyrocketed into the millions, making the U.S. the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The Republicans’ Southern Strategy also helped to exacerbate white fears of black people through dog-whistle politics. It’s no surprise that the so-called war on drugs waged by Nixon and subsequent presidents incarcerated black people at alarmingly high rates.

Kendi adds that the constant vilification of black people allows many Americans to hold onto the myth of a post-racial America: “Black people were violent, not the slaveholder, not the lyncher, not the cop,” he writes.

“This is not just the America people perceive,” he continues. “This is the America people seem to love. And they are going to defend their beloved America against all those nasty charges of racism. People seem determined to exonerate the police officer because they are determined to exonerate America.”

For any true change and justice to occur, Kendi says, Americans must confront the reality of racism head first and kill the post-racial myth, for “black people and the post-racial myth cannot both live in the United States of America.”

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Celisa Calacal is a journalist from Los Angeles. She is a writing fellow for the Independent Media Institute and a news intern with KCUR in Kansas City. She graduated with a degree in journalism from Ithaca College, where she worked as an editor and reporter for the Ithacan. Her writing has appeared in ThinkProgress, AlterNet, and Salon. Follow Celisa on Twitter @celisa_mia.