On November 15th, Jamar Clark was shot by police officers in Minneapolis. Details surrounding the shooting are contested, but far from encouraging. One side says Clark was interfering with paramedics who were helping a woman he had allegedly attacked. Another side says he was only trying to speak with her, not interfering with the medical help, and not resisting arrest at all.
The family revealed that Clark was shot directly in the head, execution style. Though the public has demanded the release of available video of the shooting, authorities have refused, stating it would jeopardize the investigation.
In a city that had been described as “one bullet away from Ferguson,” the protests erupted quickly. Gathered outside the police station, protesters demanded justice for the death of another unarmed black man. Their emotions were running high, though the demonstration itself was peaceful.
That is, until a group of self-avowed white supremacists opened fire on the crowd, hitting five. As protesters screamed to the police that people had been shot, officers reportedly said, “This is what you wanted,” before shutting their doors. When they finally did come out, they maced the protesters instead of pursuing the assailants.
In the meantime, protests continue in Chicago after the city finally released, after 400 days and a court order, video of an officer executing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, shooting him in the back as he walked away. Community members are furious that it took over a year to bring charges against the officer in question, especially with video evidence so clear, as he continued to collect a paycheck. Outrage was particularly fanned when it was revealed that officers had collectively conspired to erase more than 80 minutes of footage from nearby surveillance tapes. The city was aware of the impact the video’s release would have, stating plainly that they were preparing for mass unrest.
These aren’t isolated incidents. The names Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Reika Boyd, Sandra Bland, and too many others compose a kaleidoscope of lives ended too soon at the hands of law enforcement, often without consequence. And despite efforts to cast these victims as deserving of what happened to them and dismiss concerns of Black Lives Matter protesters, the data shows that these are not one-off cases. Regardless of whether the individual is resisting arrest or not, black individuals are far more likely to be on the receiving end of a police officer’s bullet.
As Vox reports:
The nationwide furor over the growing number of unarmed black men shot dead by police officers in recent months has put the public spotlight on a much bigger trend in the US: Black people are much more likely to be shot and killed by police.
An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox’s Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: Black people accounted for 31 percent of police shooting victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population.
Although the data is incomplete, since it’s based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.
Black teens were 21 times more likely than white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012.
The disproportionate violence suffered by people of color in the criminal justice system is not only physical, but structural. Structural violence, a term coined in 1969 by Norwegian sociologist John Galtung, refers to the way social institutions may, as a function of design or execution, cause disparate harm to a given population. Like when white people use drugs at five times the rate of black people but black people are ten times more likely to be sent to jail on similar drug charges. Like when black individuals comprise more than a million of the 2.3 million people in the prison system, despite comprising a fraction of the general population. Like when black people facing charges for the same crimes as white people receive sentences that are 20% longer.
In the face of this data, you’ve got two options. You can either believe that black people are inherently more violent and unethical, or you can recognize that the system is broken. That broken system tears families apart, wreaks havoc on communities, increases the rate of poverty, and breeds even more of the distrust of law enforcement, exacerbating tensions between police officers and the communities they serve, perpetuating the whole ugly cycle.
And when schools in communities of color receive substantially less funding than schools in primarily white districts, compromising access to resources, straining the teacher to student ratio, and limiting options post-graduation, it’s hard not to see that the way our institutions operate is creating significant harm to people of color in this country.
But it’s not just violence at the hands of the state people of color need to worry about. In June, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof entered the historically Black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and told the assembled congregants, “You rape our women, and you are taking over our country. And you have to go.” He then slaughtered nine people.
He’s not alone. Look at the litany of recent church burnings, a practice long used to terrorize communities of color. Look at the overwhelming number of hate crimes committed against people of color. Look at the recent spate of harassment seen on college campuses across the country. Look at the cesspool of racial slurs running through social media. Look at the growing movement that believes there is — I kid you not — a white genocide underway. Look at the concerted efforts to paint those in the streets literally begging for people to stop killing them as thugs and criminals who need to get jobs.
There’s a reason law enforcement leadership views white extremist groups as the greatest threat to American national security — far more so than Islamic extremists.
But turn on any news channel, navigate any news site, crack open a newspaper if you’re feeling old school and you’ll find that fears of a terrorist attack are focused on groups like ISIS. Whether covering the fallout of Paris, the less noticed attacks in Beirut and Tunisia, travel security over the holiday weekend, limits on Syrian refugees, or military tactics in the broader War on Terror, the headlines are, at their core, all the same: You’re not safe.
But when we talk about such threats with fear in our voices, we’re talking about potential attacks and prevention. In the meantime, homegrown terrorism is alive, well, and mounting a bigger and bigger body count.
You won’t see it referred to that way by most journalists (and definitely not by politicians). Even the more progressive folks in your social media feeds may not describe it as such. Because you know who’s really, substantively, demonstrably not safe in this country? People of color. Through our institutions and our social constructs and our overt racism and our apathy in the face of injustice, White America terrorizes Black Americans.
And yet that narrative is rarely heard, at least not in the context of “terrorism.” As Brit Bennett so eloquently put it in an essay for the New York Times:
While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil. The white terrorist exists solely as a dyad of extremes: Either he is humanized to the point of sympathy or he is so monstrous that he almost becomes mythological. Either way, he is never indicative of anything larger about whiteness, nor is he ever a garden-variety racist. He represents nothing but himself. A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.
I understand the comfort of this silence. If white violence is unspoken and unacknowledged, if white terrorists are either saints or demons, we don’t have to grapple with the much more complicated reality of racial violence. In our time, racialized terror no longer announces itself in white hoods and robes. You can be a 21-year-old who has many black Facebook friends and tells harmless racist jokes and still commit an act of horrifying racial violence. We cannot separate ourselves from the monsters because the monsters don’t exist. The monsters have been human all along.
In America’s contemporary imagination, terrorism is foreign and brown. Those terrorists do not have complex motivations. We do not urge one another to reserve judgment until we search through their Facebook histories or interview their friends. We do not trot out psychologists to analyze their mental states. We know immediately why they kill. But a white terrorist is an enigma. A white terrorist has no history, no context, no origin. He is forever unknowable. His very existence is unspeakable. We see him, but we pretend we cannot. He is a ghost floating in the night.
While Bennett makes an artful point regarding our treatment of white terrorists, there’s another element that goes untouched here, and one worthy of contemplation on this platform.
We’ve become used to discussing terrorism in a religious context, and to be sure, that’s frequently a driving factor. There are a number of hate groups that associated themselves with Christianity, particularly with the “Christian Identity” movement, and racism within the Religious Right has historic roots and modern manifestations. But white terrorists are not neatly monolithic. Believers and non-believers alike engage in these acts; hell, there’s a growing sect of them that worship Odin. But regardless of what god they do or do not worship, they do have one thing in common: a set of beliefs, internalized or displayed, that says white lives are the only ones that matter. And no matter what god we may or may not worship, we can all agree that a white supremacist belief system is one that has no place in a civilized society.
Enough is enough. White America’s terrorism is real and here and now. You want to talk about a theoretical if highly unlikely extremist boogeyman sneaking in under the cover of tragedy? Fine. But you damn well better be just as ready and willing to fight the terrorism in your own backyard.