Institutional oppression and persecution have long been seen as normalized for the vast majority of African-Americans, whether through deliberately and systemically arrested socioeconomic advancement – as formerly experienced during the not-so-distant Jim Crow era, for the duration of Cointelpro and very recently seen in “ghetto loans” sold by Wells Fargo – the two-tiered justice system or legalized state-sponsored violence.
So for African-Americans, it’s probably fair to say that neither the cold-blooded murder of Walter Scott, nor that of Eric Harris, comes as any great surprise. In fact, in all the years of my being Black – including the many years I’ve interviewed others on the subject – as yet, I have not encountered a single Black person who expressed genuine shock at racial injustice.
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Among the many notable discussions with African-Americans on racial injustice, most recently I spoke with Sgt. Gregory Floyd (retired), a 16-year police veteran. Prior to being a police officer, Floyd was a firefighter and paramedic, and before that he was the first African-American awarded Top Airman of the Year in the US Marine Corps.
While serving as a police officer, Floyd never shot or killed anyone. Yet in contrast to his commendable record, Floyd says he had to endure years of derogatory racial comments from many of the White police officers with whom he served. Floyd said “there were two different worlds … I had to endure the jokes – you always heard the jokes and the racial slurs,” and that the White officers often “referred to the Blacks as ‘nigger.'” The n-word was “rampant in the police department,” he said.
Dwight Pettit is a renowned civil rights attorney, acclaimed for successfully suing the Baltimore City Police Department on behalf of victims of police violence. Pettit’s cases include numerous clients who were shot in the back by police, and he says that Scott’s death is a horror demonstrating “murder in the first degree.”
In an online broadcast recorded in April at The Real News Network, Pettit says it is typical of police to explain away fatal violence and other brutality with the excuse of “I thought I saw him going for a weapon, or I thought I saw something that looked like a weapon.” Pettit added that he can always rely on that being the argument of the legal team representing the police officer in question, but in spite of this, he has presented many successful arguments. Perhaps most importantly, and most relative to Scott’s murder, is that Pettit points out prior precedent for an unarmed Black man being shot in the back multiple times by police.
In his interview, Pettit talks about having represented Edward Lamar Hunt – an unarmed Black man who was shot twice in the back by police in 2008. Pettit said that “there was absolutely no excuse for the shooting of Hunt, because the officer knew he didn’t have a weapon.” Edward Lamar Hunt is not to be confused with Darren Hunt, who was a biracial Black man shot in the back by police in Utah in 2014.
Yet in either case, the question begs: Why?
The mother of 22-year-old Darren Hunt has a very clear answer for this question: Her son was killed by the police simply because he was Black.
There’s police injustice, which is then combined with economic injustice, which is in turn combined with a criminal justice system seemingly designed to ensnare African-Americans. All of which is as American as apple pie.
An article at Inequality.org speaks directly to this, where Chuck Collins writes that the “U.S. has a persistent racial wealth divide, rooted in the legacy of discrimination in asset building, starting with slavery up to present day discrimination in mortgage lending.” Citing a Forbes Magazine article on the wealthiest Americans, Collins points out that the 400 wealthiest Americans possess the same amount of wealth as the entire population of African-Americans. Of these 400 wealthiest, Oprah Winfrey is the only Black person listed.
Four years ago, I interviewed Michelle Alexander, the acclaimed author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, and one of the many salient issues she addressed in that conversation was that we live with the “illusion of racial progress.” But when “we scratch the surface of it,” Alexander told me, “there are millions of poor people of color who are stripped of basic civil and human rights, not the least of which is the right to vote – fundamental to any democratic society.” This time our excuse, she said, is “that they are criminals and felons, ignoring the fact that so many of them have been branded for criminal offenses for the same things that others have gotten away with on the other side of town.” Alexander said that it is in “this way, we have created a system of racial control that was claimed to be left behind.”
Alexander said then that a “caste system” of apartheid is alive and well in the United States. It still persists, and it is this exact point that must be rectified if equality in the United States is ever to truly become fully realized.
Recalling Ferguson, Missouri – that Midwestern town with a population 67 percent Black and a police department that’s more than 90 percent White, where a White police officer shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown – The Guardian reported on April 19 that last summer after Brown’s death when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon deployed the National Guard, “the troops used highly militarized language such as ‘enemy forces’ and ‘adversaries’ to refer to [Black] citizen demonstrators.”
Would any of this have happened if Michael Brown were a rich White man, walking around in his rich White neighborhood?
Economic and racial equality are inseparable – it’s a single equation that must be seen and solved as a whole.