We see this shit going on all around us, and we’re enraged, upset, disappointed, and confused by it. We know full well that it’s fueled by race. We think, “Again? Come on!” We think, “It’s 2014, for chrissakes! What about the civil rights movement?!” We make sarcastic jokes about the supposed end of racism and how we don’t see color; and then we bicker, ruminate, or go rogue as self-important Facebook activists bent on “intelligently debating” among ourselves as to why that last black man was shot—a common response to what is now a regularly occurring event.
We ask, “Who’s the next black kid to get shot in the face?” Indeed, it’s a miserable state of affairs, one that is surely statistically quantifiable by now. How many unarmed black people are killed every week, day, or hour? Is there a number? How big is it? Questions upon questions.
We wonder: Was it justifiable? Was it self-defense? Was it cowardice? Was it officer protocol? Was this nightmare cycle of police killings racially motivated? Let’s go through the names, together. Let’s activate the mantra: Washington, Jones, Ashley, Allen, Carey, Brown, Gray, Garner, McDade,Russell, Diallo, Jefferson, Wilson, Zongo, Dorismond, Stansbury, Williams,Francis, Campbell, Bell, Davis, Edwards, Boyd, Miller, Barlow, Steen,Madison, Brissette, McGill, Smith, Grant, and Graham, , to name a few.
So was it racially motivated? Is anything? The many unarmed black persons gunned down by police this year alone should tell you something. It’s a disgusting pattern that implies one of two things: either there is a racist problem in America, or black people are just simply dangerous. Ask the question now: Was it racially motivated?
I think we can see that both answers imply racial motivations. Here’s why: If a police officer guns down, say, an unarmed black man, and it’s not racially motivated, then it is presumably because that person posed a legitimate threat. And if an unarmed person posed a legitimate threat, one has to consider what kind of threat this might’ve been, given that a police officer has a gun while an unarmed person—well, an unarmed person is unarmed. There is no gun, no knife, no wrench, no candlestick, no rope—I think you can see where I’m going with this.
So what exactly constitutes a “threat” in such cases? Maybe the unarmed person is a black belt in Taekwondo? Nah, police officers are trained in hand-to-hand combat, so that can’t possibly be it. Hmm… Well, let’s see. Does this unarmed individual possess some dangerous built-in survival mechanism? Quills? Tentacles? Maybe he spits a paralyzing agent like the Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park? Or perhaps the unarmed individual has access to some intergalactic fucking dragon that will attack on command? Probably not, right? None of this “threat” shit really computes.
Nonetheless, the sheer volume of unarmed black peoples harassed by police officers—even when it does not culminate in bloodshed—implies that black people are either perceived as dangerous, or they actually are dangerous. I think we can all agree that both options are fucked up generalizations that leave us with a race issue on our hands, either way.
So yes—in fact, duh—these homicides are racially motivated (and yes, they are homicides). This is where we find ourselves, steeped in this seemingly never-ending cycle of history repeating itself…almost every month. The fact of it all—the boldness and the regularity—is perplexing, to say the least. I mean, this is America; didn’t we fix this? So, why is this racism shit still happening? Why are we still dying over it? (Yes, we are dying over it. Not they but we.)
The problem is that we’re not asking the right questions. We already know that these killings are racially motivated regardless of who wants to split hairs. The two questions we should actually be asking are: Is the racially motivated murder of unarmed black persons intentional or reactionary? Second—and perhaps most importantly—what is racism? Although it might seem like an elementary question, our situation warrants the indulgence. I want to start this dialogue afresh, right now.
Question 1: Is the racially motivated murder of unarmed black persons intentional or reactionary?
In this scenario, an intentional racially motivated killing by police (or an RMKP, sadly enough) is where an officer is believed to see an unarmed black person and think, “Let’s kill this goddamn nigger and get away with it because we can.” I believe that many police sympathizers—particularly those who believe that killings by police can never be racially motivated—are really just in disagreement with the idea that such murders may be intentional or pre-meditated. (After all, you can’t really “disagree” with an RMKP. It is what it is. You can’t wish it away. That’s like choosing not to believe in UFOs [unidentified flying objects], when what you actually mean is that you don’t believe aliens are operating UFOs.)
Most of these sympathizers find this murderous intentionality highly improbable, as if it goes against some kind of scientific axiom. They hold that since police officers are sworn to serve and protect us, they could not possibly be “out to get us.” Serve and protect—that is what they hold onto, as if anyone is actually contending the fact that sometimes officers have to make tough calls. Among these people there are those who—almost as a rule—deny any racist claims by people of color. Brushing it aside with a “Come on, I’m sure it wasn’t because you’re black,” or a “Hey, I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it, she loves Puerto Ricans,” or even a classic “Nah, I don’t buy it. I’m sure you must’ve done something to get pulled over.” They find such things hard to believe. Sadly, and despite those beliefs, these things do happen with astonishing regularity, the kind of regularity with enough victims, and officer wrist-slaps, to prove it.
The intentional RMKP might range from some police officer getting payback for being bullied in high school to the sadistic meathead who just “wants to know what it feels like to kill someone.” These police officers exist because they are people, and these people exist. Monsters are everywhere. Most psychological issues are not deal breakers when it comes to getting a police badge, I promise; it’s not exactly hard. The requirements are usually particularly lax, because if they were stringent, America would have a hard time filling those spots. So what do we do? We avoid this systemic weakness and opt for scraping the bottom of the barrel instead, serving ourselves hefty portions of psycho fucks with guns and sworn oaths. This is actually happening.
So how about the reactionary RMKP? What is it? First of all, I’m using “reactionary” here to describe a kind of psychological knee-jerk, an impulse-murder influenced by skewed perspectives about minorities and people of color, a racist motivation grounded on subconscious ideas and perceptions wherein one is swayed, manipulated, or convinced by stereotypes. It is a scientific fact that people are deeply affected by these insidious stereotypes and that without awareness and education, one will act according to archaic, irresponsible, and politically incorrect dictates.
The sad truth is many people do consider black people dangerous. It is actually such an established fact that we make light of it in movies, TV shows, and comedy skits. In proximity to a black person, many of you clutch your purse, lock your car door, increase your pace, tense up, and assume that there are drugs and/or weapons in the car. It’s ugly, but it’s reality—our reality.
We all know the story about the black guy shot by police after pulling a dark object from his pocket (i.e., wallet, candy bar, cellphone, hand). We know this happens all the time. And though it’s common knowledge, it keeps on happening due to the reactionary impulse that so often informs our decision-making: the good ole “Shit, he’s drawing a gun!” routine. We assume a threat from a black person with much more rapidity than we would otherwise; conditioned, as we are, to do so. And no, this does not excuse anyone from his or her actions, whether intentional or reactionary. It is simply an attempt at setting up discussion, and maybe even the next question.
Question 2: “What is racism, actually?”
Do we find ourselves at an impasse because we feel that, by now, we understand racism but just can’t seem to find a way to fix it? I don’t think so. I think the problem stems from the fact that we don’t yet truly understand racism. And though this essay does not purport my understanding of it any more than you, it is an attempt at exploring a different angle that is primarily based on our relationship with racism, which I believe is just as important as how we define it. We just need to pay more attention to this.
So what do we think racism means? Well, I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you what I think most people think it means. According to the Oxford Dictionary, racism is “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” Such definitions are safe, and general enough to make critics happy.
Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Once again, we have a definition safe enough to avoid academia’s PC fire and brimstone. Nevertheless, both definitions are relatively agreeable. Yet if you were to take a poll, most people would have a slightly different or at least not-so “thorough” definition of racism. I imagine that on a moment’s notice, most would define racism as “the dislike or aversion to people with different skin colors or cultures,” or some variation thereof, which is not necessarily wrong. However, there is more to racism embedded within the negative space surrounding how we define it, namely the group motivations of racism.
The thing is, people get caught in symbols and clichés all the time, confusing the map for the reality. It’s an old story. Racism, as we can see from general experience, is about much more than color; otherwise bigots would hate themselves at night. Sounds stupid, but it’s true. Someone is “black” who is brown. Someone is “white” who is pink. It’s shorthand. “Black” has always been a metaphor, one the bigot uses interchangeably with the word “nigger” to transmit the hateful bundle of invectives that they feel comprises a person of “evident” African American heritage, without realizing that it is—in actuality—a symbolic medium broadcasting their own fears and bouts of self-hate. The bigot is, therefore, an atrocious poet living by a desiccated poem that they carry around without ever actually reading. The bigot is a wreckage of stunted self-examination “connecting” with others of the same ilk via unstable metaphors and ideas, welding a kind of psychic twisted metal. There are no real thought processes behind these campaigns. The racist individual, therefore, is not even an effective racist, because this person does not actually think. This person rallies.
You see, my claim is that racism does not exist in a vacuum. It is hinged on peer validation. It is about wanting to be part of a clique. It is an amorally executed, immorally based social acceptance tool. One is racist more because of the community that racism gives one access to, than because of that person’s actual, weighed distaste of an Other. There is no actual weighed distaste. There are only moldings, stock convictions, and hand-me-down ideas spinning down from some broken social vortex. Imagine a young boy growing up in a racist family. That person is indoctrinated with skewed perspectives about race, religion, and socializing without ever even having a say. It would be to that person’s disadvantage to disagree or defect from such perspectives as it could mean ostracism, neglect, or even death. When survival is at stake, some would consider it—without any real deliberation—better to be racist than to risk being denied, disowned, or disrespected. Of course, it would be honorable to risk all of this in the name of justice and true morality, but when you’re six years old, your options are drastically limited.
In another example, by hurling hateful garbage about Korean people on a Facebook feed, a bigot might hope for the agreement of a similar-minded someone who is perceived to have some form of social value. It is all about pandering. No one is truly racist alone. One is racist because one is part of a community, or group, that will accept one for those ideas as a result of its massive validation complex. This validation complex is one wherein a member of a group is psychologically rewarded, and trained to reward others, for participating in its circle. The group even develops a system of justifications that insulates it from outer attacks, usually making it stronger by strengthening the attributes of its false resolves. Accusing said group of being ignorant might simply activate predetermined defenses and deflections. (“Yeah, whatever, you just don’t get it. You’re a dirty liberal, anyway.”)
The group finds no real incentive to leap out of its bigoted bubble because not only does the unknown threaten its members, they also find themselves unable to ascertain any applicable reward for stepping outside of these views. The group keeps on stimulating itself with those limited rewards and resources until it is weakened or fortified by an even larger group that allows it to make a safe transition into an even more complex system of bigoted ideas. But the racist individual does not necessarily need to be in the presence of this group in order to find this sense of solidarity. Take the case of the bigoted veteran loner: he is not alone in his racist diatribe. Like the group, he grows laterally from his stale inner agreements. He is memorially linked to a kind of schema, or thought pattern, based primarily on the views of a group that once validated him. He is desperately sucking on the marrow of those memories. He doesn’t hate “blacks,” but fears the void in himself that he projects onto the Other. Fear is not simply an emotion; it is a mask: a costume composed of primitive reactions.
The truth is, no one is born racist. Racism is a creation, a systematic collection of arbitrary characteristics that are exploited as a means of psychological validation from peers with similar mindsets and psycho-emotional needs. It is a system of initiations. To be accepted by a group (e.g., family, friends, co-workers, religious sects, etc.)—even if this group thrives on bigotry—could mean the difference between immediate psychological health and imbalance, components notched along the continuum of life and death. (After all, the apathetic is closer to death than the hopeful.)
Psychology always matters, especially when you are a developing individual in the process of becoming. Children and young adults are the most impressionable. To be sure, the most psychologically vulnerable are the most susceptible to becoming racists, because those views are part of a complex negotiation where survival benefits are endowed upon those who accept such views. Surely, one can refuse such a viewpoint, but again, if this person does not know that there is another option, there is little chance of rejecting such mind frames. In a sense, racism is also a defense mechanism against unknown, or potentially shocking, perspectives. The racist individual does not realize that in many ways a black man symbolically represents the void, the unknown, and though we don’t believe ourselves to think in such metaphorical terms, our minds—totally indifferent to this—use these compressed artifacts to create efficient shortcuts in our cognitive processes. Our minds are impersonal machines; it is up to us to fill them with worthwhile thoughts, reactions, and sentiments. I mean, think about it. This is exactly how we use language—as strings of symbolic items used to represent all phenomena experienced, insofar as we have the labels for them.
Racism is ingrained in all of us in the subtlest of ways, and this is because we are all social creatures who more or less require the acceptance of others to survive. So long as there is a social need, there will be conflicting viewpoints due to the very nature of human diversity. So, how about those informed, conscientious people who rally against racism while soberly maintaining that they are not immune to it? Are they also part of a group, or community, thriving on the same? I think so, but in a different way. I don’t think anyone is absolutely exempt from this need for validation.
Frankly, without others who are also “passively racist but trying to stop,” this form of ingrained racism would not exist. This kind of racism, the likes of which is often caught and corrected (i.e., you decide not to lock your car door next time a Hispanic kid walks by), does not necessarily form part of some hate group with shared racist ideals. The tendency seems to be part of a social group, which at its best is impelled to self-awareness, and at its worst subsists as a culture of individuals thriving on being down-to-earth enough to acknowledge this racism without making any real effort to change. They are drunk off the certainty provided them in an otherwise doubtful existence. These are groups of people who prefer to believe that what they are is more than enough, and because others also gain an ego-boost from such a certain (falsely confident) admission, they bask in that “illuminated” self-conception, lest something comes along to shatter this fragile armor: “We’re all racist to some extent, so what?! At least I’m being realistic.”
Conversely, those of us on the receiving end of racism use it in a similar way, even when not being racist ourselves. (And yes, people of color can be racist. It applies to everyone. So long as you have a mind, a psyche that has been exposed to our world, you can be—and most likely are—racist. What matters is what you do with this knowledge and how you conduct yourself as a growing, conscientious individual.) As a person of color, I can tell you from examining myself, as well as others of color, that we use racism in the same self/group-validating way. By outing and pointing out racism, I will most likely receive validation from my peers. I am then considered perceptive, brave, down-to-earth, intrepid, revolutionary and, ultimately, an intelligent, discerning person. Because I am suddenly more valuable, I receive more security from this group and become a much more valuable part of my society. I may then want more validation without even realizing it, which might make me more “aware” of racism to the point that I may claim to find it where there is little indication of it. I might fabricate instances of racist behavior in order to receive a similar boost of validation, with or without the group’s presence, since I am now able to activate these psychological benefits on my own as purely based on that of the previous group conditioning and by virtue of my internal associations.
Yes, this is a dangerous idea. I know. It flirts with misconception and the possibility of false racist claims being used as arguments against the validity of pointing out authentic racist attacks. (I can imagine someone hoping to point out the supposed irony of this very essay.) The caveat, however, is that no group can use this as a way of fostering their own bigoted—or supposedly non-bigoted—ideas, without any real, growth-stunting repercussions. This tendency to exploit race as a way of finding validation benefits no one and is a cowardly detail that should be eliminated. Yet, we must first become aware of this tendency.
Police officers who kill/have killed/will kill unarmed black persons have a large ready-made network of apologists—civilians and law enforcement personnel alike—who are ready to defend them in the name of some unpronounceable “principle,” whether or not said police officers may be guilty. This tells us that it is not about justice, that it is not about morality, and that—shockingly—it is almost only incidentally about race in the traditionally defined sense. It is mostly about a shameless pandering for validation, recognition, and acceptance. And this doesn’t make it any more excusable. It makes it worse, because if you identify with any conceptualization that is based on the disparaging or aversion of anyone because of race, you are not only ignorant, but also mindless. You are cult material. And should you ever find yourself, at any point, thinking for yourself, I guarantee that you will find your racist ideas completely ridiculous, empty, and devastatingly unfounded. You will be forced to change, to actually become human and think for yourself. And the next time an RMKP takes place (and it will, sadly, it will), you’ll be in a better position to reconsider the question: Was it racially motivated?
You’ll soon find that we’re all in this together, haunted by these names: Washington, Jones, Ashley, Allen, Carey, Brown, Gray, Garner, McDade,Russell, Diallo, Jefferson, Wilson, Zongo, Dorismond, Stansbury, Williams,Francis, Campbell, Bell, Davis, Edwards, Boyd, Miller, Barlow, Steen,Madison, Brissette, McGill, Smith, Grant, and Graham, …to name enough.
(Originally published on Disinfo.com on Oct. 23, 2014.)