Whenever someone is murdered by the police, the question of why quickly arises. The answer to that question is always intertwined with the race of the victim. In the United States, race is a decider. Your race can decide where you live; your race can decide how you eat; your race can decide what your values are; your race can decide what you did; and your race can decide that you’re not worthy of being alive. It’s unfair for something completely out of one’s control to decide if one should live or die, but it does.
The extrajudicial killings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott are — accurately, unfortunately — described as “the latest” in the regular onslaught of violence against Black people. This violence, which has started to feel primordial through its regularity, is not simply a “senseless” fact of life. It is actually explainable. Black people in the United States are often charged with being alive and sentenced to death without a courtroom, because Blackness is rooted in associations that are contrary to living.
Therefore, the solution to this excruciatingly regular violence will not come without some upheaval. It’s pointless to think that a society which has never been removed from its disdain for Black people will change overnight through the whims of politicians or piecemeal “reforms.” Everything that’s killing us is embedded into the culture that is American.
The murder of Black people — with or without supposed provocation — is inextricably connected to and aligned with what is understood to be normal. Therefore, details of who, what, when, where and how often become irrelevant once Blackness is mentioned. The initial fresh announcements of new Black deaths are regularly welcomed and not necessarily mourned in many imaginations across Middle America.
There is just about nothing a Black person can do right to avoid dying if the state or its hands decide it should be so. This much was most recently shown when Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer Betty Shelby decided to take the life of Terence Crutcher. Shelby’s attorney, Scott Wood, has spoken publicly, describing her account of what happened. After stating that she gave numerous commands to this man who was having car troubles and claiming suspicion that Crutcher was possibly intoxicated or armed, she ultimately decided to kill him. She didn’t decide he should be shot in the leg or that tasering him was enough, he needed to die according to this officer’s reasoning.
Shelby was not alone in her decision; Crutcher’s Blackness helped her make this final choice. Crutcher’s race is one already associated with drugs, intoxication and weapons; he didn’t actually have to be any of the things she imagined to be worthy of death just because.
The same applies to Keith Lamont Scott who was shot by a police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 20. Scott may or may not have been armed, according to police statements. ABC News reported a comment on the possibility of a weapon at the scene: “Police Chief Kerr Putney said the footage he has reviewed does not provide definitive, visual evidence that would confirm that a person is pointing a gun.”
“I did not see that in the videos that I reviewed,” Putney said at a news conference on Thursday. “So what I can tell you, though, is when taken in the totality of all the other evidence, it supports what we’ve heard and the version of the truth that we gave about the circumstances that happened that led to the death of Mr. Scott.”
While the police department is working to accommodate the Scott family’s request to see the body-cam footage, Putney reiterated that he has no plans to publicly release the videos, arguing that it would “jeopardize the integrity of the investigation.”
Yet again, uncertainty reigns, crowned by anti-Blackness. When all else fails and nothing is certain, it is a person’s Blackness that determines the decision as to who will live and who will die. We should not lament Blackness as a cause of fatality, of course; rather, fatality is copied-and-pasted onto Black people’s bodies from the TVs, phones and computer screens of a society driven by racist perceptions that have been recycled over the generations.
Here we can revisit James Baldwin’s infamous question, “Who is the nigger?” A short clip of Baldwin pouring out his understanding of the “necessity” of what this country calls “the nigger” appears in the 1964 documentary film Take This Hammer. Here Baldwin deliberates on the word “nigger,” as well as the charge of being considered such in everyday life. “What you were afraid of was not me. It has to be something else … something you were afraid of — you invested me with,” Baldwin states. He ultimately concludes by explaining that racism is not our problem (though we bear the brunt of its violence) and closes saying, “So I give you your problem back. You’re the nigger baby, it isn’t me.” Baldwin’s eloquent explanation also applies here; our dying, our murders and our disposal have been far removed from us within a society that criminalizes our being alive. Unfortunately, Black people become seen as worth even less, based on gender, disability and impoverishment, among other things. This is the unbending truth of being Black in the USA, reinforced by statistical evidence, history and the observation of the willing.
Some have proposed that police simply need “sensitivity training” or “anti-racism training.” But police do not need more “sensitivity” to understand what’s glaringly obvious. It’s not that police are insensitive to Black people or are not understanding; it’s that perceptions of Blackness regularly cancel out understanding and sensitivity.
Transparency and cameras, too, can only do so much. Black America has been aware for centuries that police have been a threat to us, along with other white supremacist violence. It’s naive to think that people’s ability to watch killings or record them on video guarantees that the police will feel less sure of their impunity.
“Diversity” is no solution, either: Even if police were all Black or non-Black people of color, the problems ingrained in the lifeblood of a white supremacist society would not disappear.
Popular requests for Black people to be shot less lethally or to be treated the same as terror suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami often completely miss the point. This is about anti-Blackness, not better police work, not training, not cameras, not diversity.
Reforms like these — adjustments to the existing system — will not shift how Blackness is seen, perceived, responded to and attacked. This country is in dire need of a transformative and revolutionary reconceptualization of how we see and perceive Black people — not just how we train police or what weapons we give them. The need to transform this country’s poisonous outlook on Blackness stretches from the outermost peripheries of this empire to its innermost entrails.
When or if we start seeing a movement away from the anti-Black tendencies of the world we live in, things might begin to change. We should keep this in mind, amid the impending chaos of a new president — and the hope that people will attach to their respective political choices. Change will not be delivered by the promises and posturing of those who must lie to be selected for office.
We can start with the realization of what Blackness is and what it means, going beyond trying to reason with oppressors who are determined to maintain their power. For Black people, this has nothing to do with us being careful, more obedient, or more attentive. Being Black rules out all reason, rules, regulations and laws.
It’s crucial to comprehend this in the United States. Without a massive, structural transformation, Black people will continue to walk around expecting to possibly be killed for living.