December 06, 2014

Our broken justice system

Why Is America's Sense of Black Humanity So Skewed?

There is a real disconnect between what white people know and what black people know in this country.

By Brittney Cooper
Unfortunately, key players in this case, buttressed by a particularly clueless segment of white America, actually seemed to believe that a grand jury decision in favor of Darren Wilson would simply be accepted by black America. The outrage from the St. Louis Police Officers hearkens back to an era when black people were expected to willingly endure white people’s routine horrific acts and humiliations committed against them. That this decision feels like a travesty worthy of literally stopping traffic in locales all over the country is an affective response that seems to escape white notice, an apparent casualty of the well-documented racial empathy gap, among white Americans. Though many white people do understand the racial magnitude of last week’s devastating decision—the sense it offers that black people, and in particular young black men, are simply sheep for the slaughter—far too many white people do not understand this.

Among those with more insidious and overt racial animus, the belief is that we should simply “lie down and take it.” Among well-meaning, reasonable white people, the view is more anodyne. These people implored us to wait for justice to take its course, for the evidence to be evaluated, the witnesses to testify, a decision to be made.

There is a real disconnect between what white people know and what black people know in this country. Philosophers and political theorists understand these as questions of “epistemology,” wherein they consider how social conditions shape our particular standpoint, and ability to apprehend the things that are supposed to be apparent to us. “How do we know what we know?” is one way we might ask the question.

It is deeply apparent to most black people that the legal proceedings in the grand jury deliberations were a farce. Whether we consider the deliberate incorrect instructions given to jurors by the prosecutor, or the refusal to challenge the incendiary and inhumane characterizations of Michael Brown as “it,” “demon” and “hulk,” black people know that a lie has been perpetrated.

Too many white people lie comfortably in bed each night with the illusion that justice was served, that the system worked, that the evidence vindicated the view they need to believe—that white men do not deliberately murder black boys for sport in this day and time and get away with it. Most well-meaning white people need to believe this. For me as both teacher of different kinds of epistemology and as a black person, I do not have the luxury of believing this. I do not have the luxury of stepping over the bodies of Eric Garner, John Crawford and Tamir Rice, leaving my unasked questions strewn alongside their lifeless bodies.
The American Justice System Is Not Broken

By Albert BurnekoThe American justice system is not broken. This is what the American justice system does. This is what America does.

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates has written damningly of the American preference for viewing our society's crimes as aberrations—betrayals of some deeper, truer virtue, or departures from some righteous intended path. This is a convenient mythology. If the institutions of white American power taking black lives and then exonerating themselves for it is understood as a failure to live out some more authentic American idea, rather than as the expression of that American idea, then your and my and our lives and lifestyles are distinct from those failures. We can stand over here, and shake our heads at the failures over there, and then return to the familiar business, and everything is OK. Likewise, if the individual police officers who take black lives are just some bad cops doing policework badly, and not good cops doing precisely what America has hired and trained them to do, then white Americans may continue calling the police when black people frighten us, free from moral responsibility for the whole range of possible outcomes.

The murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Sam Shepherd, and countless thousands of others at the hands of American law enforcement are not aberrations, or betrayals, or departures. The acquittals of their killers are not mistakes. There is no virtuous innermost America, sullied or besmirched or shaded by these murders. This is America. It is not broken. It is doing what it does.

America is a serial brutalizer of black and brown people. Brutalizing them is what it does. It does other things, too, yes, but brutalizing black and brown people is what it has done the most, and with the most zeal, and for the longest. The best argument you can make on behalf of the various systems and infrastructures the country uses against its black and brown citizens—the physical design of its cities, the methods it uses to allocate placement in elite institutions, the way it trains its police to treat citizens like enemy soldiers—might actually just be that they're more restrained than those used against black and brown people abroad. America employs the enforcers of its power to beat, kill, and terrorize, deploys its judiciary to say that that's OK, and has done this more times than anyone can hope to count. This is not a flaw in the design; this is the design.

The real problem in Ferguson, New York and all of America is institutional racism

By Vincent WarrenBlack men are not dying at the hands of (mostly) white cops–nor are those cops being excused from legal responsibility–because of mutual distrust between black and brown people and law enforcement agencies. To suggest so simply, and perhaps deliberately, mistakes the symptom for the disease.

Trust, or lack thereof, is based on lived experience, and it is the actions of law enforcement in communities of color that has eroded black and brown Americans’ trust. To present the situation as mutual distrust not only obscures the specific causes of that distrust–it intimates that everyone is equally responsible for the problem. The call for “conversation” as the solution then reinforces this idea that the legitimate problems with law enforcement vocalized by minority communities are really all just one big misunderstanding.

Our political leaders should not begin to offer solutions for a problem if they won’t even name it: systemic, institutional racism exists in police forces throughout our country.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Frederick Douglass famously said. “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”

From the prosecutor and the grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island to the halls of Congress–where reform ideas like the End Racial Profiling Act or the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act have hit a dead end–and a thousand places in between, our government institutions have been largely unresponsive to demands for real structural reform. Much like the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, grassroots protests in Missouri and New York and across the country–including the hundreds of actions of civil disobedience, bridge and highway shutdowns, and walkouts–are the engines of change, and communities and grassroots organizers are the ones providing the concrete solutions to the problem.
We Don’t Need Nice, We Need Justice: Racism and the Moral Blindness of White America

By Tim WiseNice is the enemy of justice because to raise one’s voice against oppression is to be instantly pegged as not nice, as disruptive, as unruly, as dangerous. To block traffic, or interfere with the all-important Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center is not nice. To interrupt the symphony orchestra in St. Louis, or the drunken revelry of nice white baseball fans at a Cardinals game is not nice. To signify sympathy for a murdered young man in Ferguson, with even a gesture as simple as raising one’s hands as you come out of the tunnel before the football game is not nice. It is, to some—who would rather just watch black men entertain them with a few nice interceptions—worthy of punishment, or professional discipline. How dare they, say the nice white people who paid good money to see black men play gladiator for the glory of the hometown team.

Nice people change nothing. They never have and they never will. Those who are nice are so invested in their niceness, in their sense of propriety and civility that they rarely raise their voices above a whisper, even in the face of sweltering oppression. Nice white people were the ones who didn’t own black folks during the period of enslavement but also didn’t raise their voices against the ones who did. Nice white people are the ones who didn’t spit on sit-in demonstrators but also had no problem spending money with businesses that had remained segregated all those years.

To be nice is to have an emotional stake in the prevention of one’s own pain. Nice people don’t like to look at the ugly. It’s upsetting, and most of all because it puts us on the hook and calls forth our humanity to actually put an end to that pain. Precisely because most people are good and decent and nice, they turn away from any evidence that the world, and their society is less decent than the sum total of its citizenry. It’s too much to take in. This is the irony of niceness: unlike persons with antisocial personalities or severe sociopathy who quite enjoy pain and suffering and often seek to cause it, those who are nice are so wrapped up in rainbows and lollipops as to make gazing upon the truth a bridge too far.

Nice people do not protest, angry people do; and right now, I’d trade every nice white person about whom Chris Rock was speaking for 100,000 angry ones. But not those who are angry at black folks or brown immigrants or taxes—we have more than enough of them. I mean 100,000 who are angry enough at a system of racial injustice to throw ourselves upon the gears of the machine, as Mario Savio once insisted. A hundred thousand angry enough to join with our brothers and sisters of color and say enough. A hundred thousand who are tired of silence, tired of collaboration, tired of nice, and ready for justice.
Comment:  For more on Ferguson, see Grand Juries Won't Indict Killer Cops and Police Prejudiced Against Blacks.

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