We’ve had plenty of news lately about violence against innocents, or at least, against people who had done nothing to merit the brutality inflicted upon them. Casual observers seem to divide these into three categories: the timeless violence of individuals against each other for purely personal reasons of animus or greed; violence committed by marginalized zealots for the purpose of terrorism and political aggrandizement; and, as is increasingly being noted in current journalism, violence committed by authority figures on the population they are sworn to protect. What I’m coming to believe, though, is that categories 2 and 3 are much more like each other than either is like category 1.
Permit me to unpack that inflammatory statement by starting with a counterintuitive fact that I won’t bother backing up because THE INTERNET: crime is dropping. Violent, non-violent, inter-racial, intra-racial – since the 1970s, it’s been a down-curve across the US. Also, no ethnic or racial group is inherently violent or genetically predisposed to cruelty. Violence and crime are cultural phenomena. Furthermore, assaults against the police are at a very low ebb right now – fewer officers were killed in the line of duty in 2012 than in any year since 1944, and that total dropped by another 16% in 2013. Further, most of those that are killed fall prey to traffic accidents, not murderers.
However, we are better than ever at sharing news today, especially bad news. That creates the false impression that the things we hear about more, are actually happening more. In the case of citizen-on-citizen and citizen-on-cop crime, that’s demonstrably false. We are safer today than we’ve been since before Truman took office.
But there is another kind of violence, not personal but ideological, which I believe is on the rise. Terrorism, kidnappings, organized military-style activities carried out against civilian targets… this, I believe, though I don’t have hard evidence for it, is getting worse. The cowardly assassination of cartoonists is only the latest example of a very depressing trend. Thankfully, the world comes together when these things happen, and speaks in one multilingual voice to condemn them. Anyone who endorses terrorism, kidnapping, or armed raids on civilian targets, anyone whose philosophy requires the silencing – by death – of opposing voices, has resigned from civilization.
At the same time, we are hearing increasingly about violence committed by peace officers and authority figures on the public they serve. It sounds like news, but it’s older than time. Only video technology has raised this ancient story to headline levels. Rodney King, beaten senseless after a car chase, seemed an aberration 25 years ago to those of us living safely in pink skins, but his ordeal should have been our cue to ask ourselves how deep that iceberg of inhumanity went below the surface where we floated. The answer we didn’t want to face: very very deep. The power dynamic operating in poor neighborhoods has resulted in a form of oppression in which innocent people are viewed as merely not-yet-proven-guilty, and people guilty of small offenses are punished for egregious ones, often extrajudicially. From my perspective there are far too many honest citizens of color with heart-wrenching tales of being profiled, encountering selective enforcement of the law, and being hauled away and even compelled to confess to things they didn’t do, for no other reason than their ethnic heritage.
This isn’t about the cops, or our soldier-torturers in Iraqi prisons, or the school administrators who suspend only one of the two kids who fought because the white boy couldn’t have been at fault… This is about a power structure at work. We don’t live in a police state – the authorities are our own representatives. They stand for what we stand for. And from the stories assaulting us so regularly now, it looks like we stand for race-based oppression and ethnic marginalization. Maybe we don’t endorse those positions personally (though on-line comments to many news stories show that plenty of us think the oppression hasn’t gone far enough), but if we live in a society that treats some of its subgroups as subhuman, we cannot evade that taint simply through private belief in one’s own personal ethical propriety.
Maybe you find that to be a controversial position that offends you. Maybe you know it’s just a lead-in.
We USA-ians live in a country that we, effectively, stole. The wars we fought to gain this land (except the revolution itself) were trumped-up and one-sided; our historical policy toward the original inhabitants here was genocidal and consistently, viciously dishonest. When we “bought” Louisiana and tripled our national acreage, lots of people were already living there, some in large cities with thriving cultures. We treated them like vermin that needed to be cleared from land we valued more than their lives. At the same time, we maintained an economy significantly dependent on kidnapping people and forcing them into lifelong slavery unto their generations, consigning a whole race to animal status for our economic advantage. When a man comes to our shores in shackles and spends his life as chattel, what will he teach his children about authority? When the shackles are struck off but his home is burned and his children are lynched for failure to cede the sidewalk to a white woman, what role can have in our culture?
For those who think racial injustice is a bygone problem that is today eclipsed by racial entitlement, think again: YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. You are the ones who incite violence, both against the police and by the police. You perpetuate the disparities that you misinterpret as inherent racial failings. You were bred in hatred and have been steeped in it until you no longer taste its bitterness. Your history is false and you are ignorant of the truth experienced by millions of people surrounding you who struggle to achieve what you consider to be your birthright – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Try quoting that as you’re being raped by the police in their broom closet, and see how far Jeffersonian idealism gets you.
Here’s the tie-in: the violence we all condemn, the violence of terrorists and extremists that we associate with jihad or ethnic cleansing or intolerance in some sorry corner of a world we think we own, that violence is one side of a coin. It’s not selfish, personal violence – it’s the violence of the anguish of the powerless and hopeless. Even massively-funded forces that commit these atrocities see themselves as struggling against a riptide of western oppression and concupiscence, and lone jihadis or small extremist cells can imagine no way to bring the battle to their perceived enemies other than by imposing the kind of violence upon us, that they believe we imposed on them. And since they are zealots, individual distinctions are less important to them than group characterizations. Death to the west means death to westerners, regardless of their personal qualities. All that matters is that people who look like oppressors get a taste of their own medicine. It’s racial profiling, or ethnic, or national…. but it’s all profiling, for the purpose of committing violence, for the purpose of subverting a political dynamic.
In this nation, our political dynamic is well-entrenched. It has evolved significantly since the passage of the 14th amendment, though not always in a consistent direction. However, the treatment of non-white Americans as inherently subordinate to and lesser than our European founders and their ancestors, has never really been rectified. Generations of disenfranchisement, being distrusted, being deprived of opportunity and excluded from society, cannot be undone by a few dozen years of what we laughingly call our social safety net. There are still strong currents of xenophobia, chauvinism, and racism in America. In years past it was expressed through lynch mobs, arson, rape, enforced exclusion, and abuse of the legal system. Those expressions are now disfavored, but the sentiment still comes across through other avenues: random pull-overs, slurs, denials of common courtesies and opportunities. Black kids get kicked out of swimming pools they paid to use. Black cops report harassment from other cops while off-duty. Black patients don’t get the same quality of medical care in the same hospitals. Black candidates don’t get call-backs for job interviews even when they have identical resumes as white candidates. Black car buyers get worse deals. These are only examples; the list is nauseatingly long. Our racism runs very wide and deep – so much so it can be hard to point a finger directly at it sometimes. But that doesn’t mean it is not there.
For those who protest that black-on-black crime is much worse than the media depicts: you are wrong. First, the media depicts crime whenever it’s lurid, and there’s plenty of bad guys of all colors being outed on the media regardless of the color of their victims. But most crime isn’t lurid, it’s ordinary and squalid and no one wants to read about it. White welfare cheats and child beaters and muggers are arrested every day, and no one cares about them either. There’s not enough airtime for that much sad, dull news.
But more importantly, there is a world of difference between the act of a desperate or hopeless or twisted poor person mired in an underculture, and the act of a uniformed officer who pulls that poor person out of line at the supermarket for a stop-and-frisk because of the color of her skin. The first is an act of stupidity or selfishness. The second is an act of official oppression that perpetuates historic prejudice.
If a poor urban youth strapped bombs to himself and blew up a police substation where he’d been abused and humiliated, it would be a political act. Our poor urban youth don’t do that. That’s ISIL’s game, and Al Qaida’s. Those people use terror and violence against innocents to break down a structure that they think oppresses them. That’s wrong and stupid, but in a much more serious way than a carjacking or a robbery. It’s an assault against our deepest and most important values. But now I’m increasingly thinking, it’s just the photo-negative of what happens in gulags, torture chambers in occupied territories, and in parts of our cities where poor people need to prove their value and innocence every day to a hegemony that assumes them to be guilty, or at least defective.
Terrorists exploit the innocent for political gain. When they are not in power we call them out by name. When they own the system and their exploitations serve to sustain their own authority, we no longer use that word… but I wonder increasingly why not.
Maybe you disagree with everything I’ve said. But if you are a member of the cultural majority in this country and have never had a gun drawn on you or spent a night in jail because of the way you looked, I beg you to look at the information below before you excoriate me. I’m a very lucky guy, but my kids don’t look like me and I have no idea what the future holds for them. Please join me in working to make sure it’s better than it would have been in the past.