“Justifiable” White Violence And The History Of The Criminalization Of Blackness
Updated: Jan 7
There has been a long and troubled history in this country of making righteous white violence and intimidation, while criminalizing skin color — especially as it pertains to black and brown people. White violence and intimidation is usually bathed in declarations of patriotism and dried off with the American flag. And when it can’t be thus sanctified, the rationale becomes some sort of mental phenomena or illness, divorced from any sort of “ethnic group” pathology.
A long history of “legal” oppression
Kill the savage, enslave the beast and loot the Mexican brute are notions all soaked, washed and rinsed in Manifest Destiny and the White Man’s burden. The Confederate flag, long a representation of oppression for blacks, is dry-cleaned — to continue the laundry metaphor — by Southern pride and tradition. Mind you, it is usually those who cling to that symbol of American division and death who deride the American Muslim woman for wearing a hijab — as if tradition and pride are reserved for a certain privileged ethnic group.
This narrative of law enforcement’s hostility toward and over-policing of the black community is a dynamic that goes back further than the founding of this nation itself. As far back as 1671, South Carolina had put together a watch group consisting of regular constables and citizen volunteers to guard Charles Town against potential problems — “problems” that included slave gatherings. In the 1700s, South Carolina established slave patrols meant to control and police slaves.
By 1785, South Carolina had integrated the slave patrols into the Charleston Guard and Watch. Some consider this the first modern police department, as this force was authorized by Charleston to use force, had enforcement responsibilities, was the city’s primary law enforcement agency, and had an established chain of command.
In post-Civil War America, as outlined by Nancy Maclean in “Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Second Making of the Ku Klux Klan,” “The Ku Klux Klan’s strategy of white dominance included Klan members serving on police forces. Southern white police officers helped to reassert white control by enforcing the pass system, which required blacks to carry a pass and present it on demand.”
This point was expounded upon in Sally E. Hadden’s “Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas”: “All niggers that did not have a paper from their master, showing that they were employees, must be taken to jail and hired out for 5 dollars per month.”
All of this points to a history among American law enforcement of considering blacks problems to be solved and threats to be neutralized and/or eliminated. And that history is inextricably linked to the current atmosphere of police aggression against black citizens across this country.
The black-on-black crime boogeyman
In the weeks since Ferguson, we have heard white — and more than a few black — voices ask, “Why don’t blacks address black-on-black crime with the same ferocity that they have in Ferguson?” It is rarely an honest question, and it usually designed to get one off of the subjects of police brutality, racial profiling and/or the shooting death of an unarmed black male. (This, by the way, is not all that dissimilar from how Israel uses the Hamas canard to try and quiet those who question its policy in regard to Palestine.)
This question ignores several things, however, the first of which is that there have been marches, rallies and vigils in a number of cities — including Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — regarding gun violence in the black community. The twisted irony is that the news organization that most vociferously asks the question — hint: its name rhymes with “box” — never gets around to covering those rallies, marches and vigils. Like every other corporate news entity, the network goes with the story that will get the ratings, the sales or the hits.
Further, the black-on-black crime question ignores the fact that protest is limited in its ability to impact all of the problems which contribute to violence in predominantly black communities. The issues of concentrated poverty (which has worsened in the past 50 years), school closings and substandard education, high unemployment, the closing of neighborhood grocery stores, and the institutional as well as the systemic racism have made a great deal of those things possible. These cannot merely be solved by protests; they must be, to a larger extent, solved by an actual implemented and executable plan — on both the micro and macro levels.
Additionally, the question almost completely disregards the obvious reality that every ethnic group, overwhelmingly, perpetrates violence against those within the same ethnic group. For example, 83 percent of whites are killed by whites. People who assault and kill usually do so to those who are in close proximity to them, and because we are more segregated as a society than we like to think, the victim and the offender, by a significant percentage, tend to be connected phenotypically.
Lastly, mentioning what is called black-on-black crime in the same sentence as law enforcement killing unarmed blacks links the two experiences in the way the propagators of such a line never intended. What the comparison says is that we should expect no different from police officers than we do felons on the street; it says that the badge doesn’t operate from a higher moral code than murderers and violent offenders; and it says, contrary to Stan Lee, that with great power, there isn’t great responsibility.
Since 2009, there have been 17 shooting incidents between anti-government extremists and law enforcement. In 2010, a father and son sovereign citizen tag team shot and killed two Arkansas police officers during a traffic stop. In California, another extremist who didn’t believe the laws of the land applied to him shot and injured two state troopers. And in Texas, which usually can be counted on for some form of radical behavior in regard to the federal government, an individual tried to kill two sheriff’s deputies. Sadly, these are only some of the incidents that have ended in death and bloodshed.
On April 12, 2014 a group of protesters, known by some as the “Liberty Movement,” gathered at the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada. Hundreds of these “protesters” were armed, and they essentially stared down the U.S. government with guns aimed at federal agents. Those who would speak of the looting that was done by a select few in Ferguson fail to consider the over $1 million in taxes that Bundy still owes for grazing fees.
One of those 17 shooting incidents between homegrown extremists and police is the April 2009 shootout between Richard Poplawski and Pittsburgh police. Poplawski killed 3 officers and wounded a fourth.
Another is the June 2014 killing of two Las Vegas police officers by Jerad and Amanda Miller — a couple who had spent some time at the Bundy ranch. They would later be killed in a shootout with police, but not before they murdered another individual.
What do all these incidents have in common? The overwhelming majority of these killers were white. And yet, the phrase “white-on-white crime” is never uttered, thus a compelling truth goes ignored: The statistics and the stories tell us that those most likely to kill law enforcement officers are not black males, but white males.
Another point worthy of consideration is the Bundy ranch incident, as well as the other examples of armed aggression against law enforcement, which, in a way, says that if you want to survive an encounter with police, make sure you’re armed to the teeth.
The futility of racialized logic
This writer is willing to ride on the racialized logic carousel with those who want to throw crime statistics in the faces of those attempting to address institutional and systemic racism. The assertion is that a high number of blacks are killed and assaulted by blacks, and those numbers should dictate how blacks should be treated by law enforcement. In other words: A black person’s rights as both a citizen and a human being are tied to the percentage of blacks who commit crimes.
So, if that is the case:
White young people should be pulled over by police a great deal more because white 21-year-olds are 50 percent more likely than their Hispanic, Asian or black peers to report driving after drinking.
We should regard white males with suspicion around children because most suspects charged with sex exploitation are white, male, U.S. citizens. They are nearly 70 percent more than any other group to commit violent crimes against children and three times more likely than black inmates to have committed a criminal offense against a child.
We shouldn’t trust whites with our money, either, because the financial crisis which began in 2007 destroyed $34.4 trillion of wealth globally by March 2009. Those at the helm and in management positions in these financial institutions were predominantly white. White-collar crime costs us between $300 and $660 billion annually, as of 2005. This is another crime whose perpetrators are mostly white.
We also shouldn’t entrust the running of our country to whites. Only 15 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job. Of the 535 members of the 112th U.S. Congress, 457 are white — that’s 85 percent. Although this may not fit into the crime category, it is a point worthy of consideration. Those who bash blacks over the head with the black-on-black crime club are usually operating from a belief in black incompetence. And if indeed that is the case, what does that say about Congress and its racial composition? And no fair using President Obama — his blackness is only 50 percent of the problem.
This writer could have used more examples, but these are adequate to make the point. Now, before the invectives are spewed, please remember that the rule of the racialized logic game dictates that statistics regarding crime or incompetence drive the debate and the preponderance of an ethnic group’s representation in certain misdeeds is what the argument hinges on. The point is simple: either we ask all groups to answer the what about blank-on-blank crime question, or we ask no group to.
Once again, this not my game — this writer is merely playing by the rules as they have been laid out by those who connect blacks and other people of color to crime and fail to mention whites and crime. Realize that when you push play on the racialized logic single, you are then obligated to hear the whole song.
The individuals on the right all happen to be white and very much alive. This writer would love to chalk it all up to coincidence that an alarming number of unarmed Blacks — who also hadn’t murdered anyone — are killed by law enforcement across this country, while Whites, who not only murder average citizens but kill cops as well, are still breathing, eating and sleeping. In order to do that, however, a whole lot of history and clearly observable phenomena would have to be ignored.
And this is not the time to ignore history — we must learn from it and then make it. We must, cease and desist from sending the brutal message - that has echoed through centuries - that Black life is not valued in this in country.
Note: different version of piece appears on Mint Press News