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Opinion | Michael P. Jeffries

White supremacy and the black experience

Protesters gathered outside the Minnesota governor's residence on Thursday.
Protesters gathered outside the Minnesota governor's residence on Thursday. Jim Mone/AP

After Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, filmed her partner’s gruesome death from the passenger seat, her 4-year-old daughter told her mother not to cry, and to stay strong. Reynolds heard her daughter pray as Castile bled to death in front of them both. She dared not disobey her child. She kept her composure, kept her video camera recording, and survived.

Black Americans now live in a world where we rely on 4-year-old children to protect us from the police. We understand that there is no safety in the here and now. The children who follow us — our neighbors, students, nieces, nephews, sons, and daughters — are our only solace and sanctuary. They cannot stop others from destroying our bodies, but they represent the future, and another place to go. The only way to get there is to reimagine policing and unmake white supremacy and the outcomes it prescribes for all Americans.

A new report by the Center for Policing Equity shows that from 2010 to 2015, the use of force rate for police against black residents is 3.6 times higher than the rate for white residents. As Michael Eric Dyson explains, blacks are killed by police “because we were selling cigarettes, or compact discs, or breathing too much for your comfort, or speaking too abrasively for your taste. Or running, or standing still, or talking back, or being silent, or doing as you say, or not doing as you say fast enough.” The president has repeatedly said that black people “are not making this stuff up,” and the governor of Minnesota affirmed, less than 48 hours after Alton Sterling’s death, that race played a role. But none of these facts and statements from observers and politicians have resulted in a change of conscience or changes in policy.

There are many reasons for apathy and a widespread refusal to recognize the current policing crisis as a national emergency. Historians would point out that the criminal justice system and police were never intended to protect black people or their property. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s landmark essay on reparations makes this case plainly, and the current divide in public opinion demonstrates that some Americans believe that the system is working just fine.


But another reason for the inertia is one of the great lies of white supremacy: the belief that most people are safe, because murder, harassment, exploitation, and rape will always be the burden of racial “others.” To be clear, there is no question that white Americans benefit materially from discrimination and the continued exploitation of nonwhites. One tragedy like Castile or Sterling is justification to condemn the system, yet America has proved that it does not consider black suffering reason enough to change its course. But what happens when everyone and anyone who demands human rights and dignity becomes subject to surveillance and extermination? What white supremacy does, eventually, is normalize and spread the abuse, trauma, and destruction initially prescribed for targeted groups.


The current state of policing reflects this truth. The racist criminalization and incarceration of black and Hispanic people wrought the full-fledged militarization of American police in the late 20th century. The military psychology, tactics, and weaponry deployed in urban communities during the war on drugs are now commonplace. Americans have come to accept them as basic conflict resolution. We scarcely bat an eye when police meet protestors in Ferguson with tanks and semiautomatic weapons, or eliminate a fugitive with a robot bomb in Dallas. Videos of extrajudicial police executions have become routine, sandwiched between cat pictures and birthday wishes on Facebook. When bodies pile up, the court system has proved unable or unwilling to hold officers and police departments accountable.


Many police officers, like Dallas Police Chief David Brown, still understand themselves to be public servants, charged with protecting the citizenry and democracy at all costs. Hours before the shooters began firing into the crowd, Brown’s officers were smiling and taking pictures with the protestors. Months ago, police chiefs from around the country denounced mass incarceration. This is not a question of good will or good intention, or whether individual officers and officials have a moral conscience. This is about whether police and the criminal justice system as we currently imagine, fund, train, and equip them can serve the public good. Black Americans have known the answer to this question for some time, and white supremacy is directly responsible for this crisis in mission.

We have no trouble looking into the future when it comes to national politics. The presidential election produces pundits and commentators who poll and prophesize about our ballots. Despite our obsession with prediction, the events of the past week reveal that our future-gazing is crippled by a lack of imagination. The statements from our public servants emphasize unity and trust, but offer little in the way of what 21st-century policing actually looks like, despite plenty of examples elsewhere around the globe. The nation-states we compare America to most frequently — Japan, Germany, England, and the like — have deep racism, to be sure, but nothing resembling our problem with deadly police violence. On our way to justice and equity for people of all backgrounds, we must meet the very first and most basic demand of Black Lives Matter activists: Stop Killing Us.


Michael P. Jeffries is an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College and author of “Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America.”