Structural racism in the US won’t diminish with time


Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Baton Rouge police on July 5. Less than 24 hours later, Philando Castile, a black Minnesota man five years his junior, was shot dead by police outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The police homicides were the 558th and 559th extrajudicial police killings of 2016, and in the direct aftermath of July 4, stark and sudden reminders that the disproportionate targeting of black men and women by police – an age-old American tradition – unravelled on the streets just like fireworks exploded in the night sky.

Both killings were captured on video. Castile was shot four times in his stomach, shortly after he reached for his identification, in line with police orders. His fiancee, Diamond Reynolds, videotaped his execution with their four-year old daughter watching from the back seat. Americans, from their telephones and computers, watched shortly after.

After an encounter with two Baton Rouge policemen, Sterling was killed outside of the Triple S Mart. The two policemen arrested Sterling, and while pinning him to the ground, at least one of them shot him and took his life.

Mundane nature of their actions
Castile was pulled over for allegedly having a broken tail light and Sterling was selling C’s to the Baton Rouge convenience store, activities that for most of America should not result in arrest, let alone death.

However, Castile and Sterling were black men, and the threat posed by their bodies alone superceded, and altogether extinguished, the mundane nature of their actions for the arresting policemen.

This racial construction of blackness is what triggers the disproportionate arrest, incarceration, and extrajudicial execution of black men and women.

Black bodies are systematically linked to criminality, and perceived as threatening even when unarmed, following police orders, or being manhandled by two officers.

This “weaponization of blackness” is a cornerstone of the structural racism that pervades police departments in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, and law enforcement agencies between and beyond them.

It is the very lifeline of the growing mistrust for police in black communities, and the crux of the marching orders driving the Black Lives Matter movement forward.

While much of America views the execution of Sterling and Castile as the aberrant acts of deviant cops, black America understands them as foreseeable consequences of coordinated policing structures and strategies.

Racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and “broken windows” law enforcement are all carefully coordinated policing strategies, which causally link blackness to a higher propensity of criminality. Cadets are trained accordingly, and subsequently, expected to enforce the law in line with this baseline.

The system is not broken
Indeed, the system is not broken. But designed to police, punish and prosecute black men and women as it does. Particularly in poor and working class geographies, where patrol cars and plainclothes police are more pervasive, and as starkly illustrated in Baton Rouge on Tuesday night, more inclined to exact more intimate and deadly violence.

The fruit of US law enforcement may be strange, but it is calculable. The natural progeny of embedded structures that leave black women dead in jail cells, black men bleeding to death in cars, and the bodies of black teenagers uncovered and uncollected on hot, sticky city streets for hours.

Structural racism does not diminish with time but rather adjusts to prevailing political norms and sensibilities.

Beyond Black America, however, structural racism is merely a phrase. An abstract phenomenon that is regurgitated by pundits and is ubiquitous on social media, yet seldom understood because it has not been experienced with the same frequency and ferocity.

Indeed, understanding the depths of systemic racism is born most out of experiencing it, and more specifically, enduring the recurring violence and dehumanization that comes with it.

For (non-black) Muslim Americans, the protracting national security state and state-sponsored Islamophobia – which links religiosity to propensity for terrorism, or “radicalization,” enables city law enforcement personnel to spy on Muslim subjects, and seed informants in places of worship. Indeed, another institutional manifestation of structural racism whereby an entire policing model is based almost entirely on stereotyped threat – instead of statistical evidence.

Latin Americans sit at the intersection of violent criminal policing and immigration enforcement. Converging mechanisms of state policing that associate Latino identity with an enhanced propensity of criminality, on one hand, and undocumented status on the other.

Genuine solidarity
For non-black communities of color, genuine solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives exists somewhere between sympathy and education. Namely, a literacy associated with understanding how anti-terror and immigration policing are not only kindred forms of structural racism, but more importantly, ones rooted in the very structures that have bonded, bloodied and broken blacks in America for centuries and, as evidenced in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, are still taking place, without hitch, and according to plan.

For non-black allies, sustainable solidarity may begin with marching, protesting or posting “Black Lives Matter” on social media platforms. But it ends with identifying, then seeking to dismantle, the institutions that mark blackness as criminal and disposable, which have been extended to brand brown bodies as suspicious, terrorists, or illegal.

Solidarity isn’t merely an act of altruism or coalition building in the United States today. But for Americans of colour, faced with the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency, a necessary step of self-preservation.

Khaled A Beydoun is an Associate Law Professor with the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. He is Affiliated Faculty at UC-Berkeley, and a native of Detroit.



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