The last words of Eric Garner, and perhaps the last gasp of the veil of ignorance that shrouds law-abiding suburban folk from the reality of the racial injustice that permeates and destroys every other part of America.
This is an incredibly complex issue – well, it is an incredibly simple issue to frame, but exceedingly complex to unpack, understand and solve.
Eric Garner was killed, that much is sure. That no one is to blame – legally – for that death is a mild surprise. That a prosecutor shirked his responsibility to do justice yet again is nothing but business as usual.
There is a racial divide in America. That much is certain. But how is it divided? Along what lines or groups or frames of reference? That’s the complex question.
In a must-read article at Salon, Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper explores and explains this:
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.
In other words, it’s a frame of reference problem – it’s a privilege problem – it’s a luxury of the oppressors problem.
The invisibility of black rage, black pain and black humanity are all elements of the same problem. That problem is a framework problem. Because Darren Wilson did not use any racial slur to refer to Michael Brown, our current racial frameworks are inadequate for helping your average all-American white people think through the contours of this encounter. That problem has plagued us since the beginning of this case; it dogged us throughout the Zimmerman trial; and it is helped along by the deep emotional dishonesty that characterizes race relations in the country.
Do you cross the street when you see a black person walking toward you at night? Do you think about the people who do cross the street? Do you think about how many people cross the street and how it impacts our government’s policies and laws? Do you think about how you’ve benefitted from those laws and policies?
Stopped 4 no inspection tags on new windshield;I wasn’t shot when I suddenly reached under the passenger seat to get them #CrimingWhileWhite
— Christine Cavalier (@PurpleCar) December 4, 2014
Stopped after buying drugs in Buffalo’s East Side, cops just wanted to make sure I knew the area was unsafe for me #CrimingWhileWhite
— Kate (@215kate) December 3, 2014
Blacked out friend told cop “I can get you fucked up off wax”, laid in busy intersection. Cop had me take him home. #CrimingWhileWhite
— Matt DePaolo (@mattdepaolo) December 3, 2014
— Craig Stark (@profcstark) December 3, 2014
There has been tremendous support for racial justice in the last few weeks, starting with Michael Brown and now with Garner. Protests, “die-ins”, boycotts and the like. But how does one explain to these well-meaning folks that the fight doesn’t end with the indictment of one officer or two? How does one explain that the racial oppression and injustice in America is omnipresent and attacks from all sides?
And no one denies that high-crime neighborhoods disproportionately overlap with minority neighborhoods. But the intersections don’t stop there. Concentrated poverty plays a consequential role. So does the school-to-prison pipeline. So do the scars of historical oppression. In fact, these and other factors intersect to such a degree that trying to separate any one — most often, the racial one — from the rest is bound to render a flimsy argument based on the fallacy of discrete factors.
Yet people continue to make such arguments, which can usually be distilled to some variation of this: Black dysfunction is mostly or even solely the result of black pathology. This argument is racist at its core because it rests too heavily on choice and too lightly on context. If you scratch it, what oozes out reeks of race-informed cultural decay or even genetic deficiency and predisposition, as if America is not the progenitor — the great-grandmother — of African-American violence.
Cops shoot minorities dead on the streets, but our courts also take away their lives. In the justice system, criminal in code for minority.
It seems, however, that people – usually white, middle-class, affluent – believe that there are two sets of laws and rights: one for criminals (minorities) and one for the “regular” folks. Professor Cooper again:
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 that 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.
It is easy to believe this. It is psychologically very easy to take the high road; to hold oneself up high above others. It is easy to distinguish oneself from “criminals” or “minorities” who get caught up in the justice system and call them “bad” or “evil” or bemoan their inability to rectify their lives and live the straight and narrow. It’s easy to judge their failure and chalk it up to a “lifestyle”. It’s easy to want to be law and order and support harsh and strict policies for punishment. It’s easy to point out statistics that purport to show that a majority of crimes are committed by minorities and thus, minorities are more prone to committing crimes.
Moral superiority is, after all, a sin. But most of us fail at recognizing our own sins. Most of us fail to see the causes for the differences between us and them. Most of us are oblivious to the opportunities that are present for us, but not for others.
Racial injustice needs to be viewed in the whole: from educational policies to municipal funding to tough on crime to housing to lack of re-entry to the long-lasting impact of felony convictions to the lack of alternatives and rehabilitation to the hidden prejudices that we keep re-affirming every time we watch Nancy Grace or CSI or Law and Order.
So protest all you want today, but realize that you haven’t done your part to change injustice yet. Not even close. You’ve barely opened your eyes as Eric Garner closed his.