Last week, I woke up in Paris to the terrible news that yet another unarmed black man, Walter Scott, had been shot to death by a white police officer in the United States. I felt startled, not only by the horror of witnessing the willful extermination of black life, but also by the fact that it took several days for the story to traverse the Atlantic and reach my consciousness here in France, where I am completing a book on French racism and collective memory.
As I watched the traumatic video of officer Michael Slager shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott -- a father and Coast Guard veteran -- two questions immediately came to mind:
What kind of a person shoots an unarmed human being in the back, then handcuffs them as they lay dying?
Perhaps even more disturbingly:
What kind of society allows black people to be routinely violated and killed by police?
While I don't have an answer to the first question, the second query is more straightforward. Anti-racist scholars have demonstrated that we are still living in a white supremacist society. As historian George Lipsitz writes in his brilliant book The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (2006: xviii) , "the power, property and politics of race in our society continue to contain unacknowledged and unacceptable allegiances to white supremacy".
Understanding the slaying of Walter Scott requires situating this particular incident in the broader social and institutional context that has made the killing of unarmed black people a routine affair. It also requires making connections between the present day targeting of black people and the global history of anti-blackness. Least we forget, ours is a nation that was built on the exploitation and murder of enslaved people from Africa who came to be racialized as black by Euro-descended people who invented white supremacist ideology to justify slavery and colonialism.
In other words, black people being targeted, tortured or killed by the state is nothing new.
What is new, however, is seeing all of this go down with a black president in the White House.
As an African-American who worked on Obama's campaign in my 20s, I've had to confront just how naive I was to ever be so hopeful about the racial consequences of electing a black president. I'm especially ashamed of my naiveté because it means that I had not yet read enough about the global history of white supremacy to know that a simple changing of the racial guard could not guard against anti-blackness. Or, as sociologist Matthew Hughley put it , "One need only examine West Indian, Caribbean, Latin American or U.S. Southern politics to learn of the black faces of white empire". During my work on the campaign, I would publicly state that race relations would not radically change if Obama became president. Inwardly, though, I hoped against hope.
While Obama promised "change we can believe in", what has become painfully clear is just how much has not changed. For many African-Americans, witnessing the continuities of anti-black racism in the Obama era has been profoundly disappointing in a way that you're almost ashamed to admit, as we should have known better in the first place. The truth is that this is a particularly tragic moment in the tragic history of race in America. For, not only do we have to deal with the on-going trauma of anti-blackness, we also have to bear witness to the horrifying spectacle of a black president who stands idly by as other black people are killed by the state.
On election night in 2008, as tears streamed down my face, I would have been stunned to learn that unarmed black women, men and children would continue to be killed by police in broad daylight under Obama's presidency. I would have been appalled to know that 7-year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones would be gunned down by police in her sleep--and no one would be held accountable for her death.
My tears would take on new meaning had I seen a future in which a black president mostly said nothing as black citizens were routinely targeted for mass incarceration and killed by officers paid to protect and serve.
What we have learned since the election of Barack Obama is that it is possible for a black president to lead a white supremacist nation.
The onslaught of photographic and video evidence of unarmed black people being pummeled, strangled and shot to death by white police officers during a black man's presidency should make it abundantly clear (for anyone who needed further convincing) just how absurd it is to claim that we live in a post-racial society. But the sad reality is that there is no amount of video evidence that will convince some people that anti-blackness or white supremacy exist.
While it is appropriate that Slager was charged with murder, his being charged does not change the social fact of white supremacy in the United States. Nor does his being charged constitute "justice". Justice looks like a world in which people of color are not subject to harassment and death at the hands of people paid to protect them. And although I'm relieved that video surfaced to provide evidence of Michael Slager's wrongdoing, history shows us that images alone are not enough to transform the racial status quo. No, cell phone videos didn't exist during slavery, but everyone knew it was happening. People lived with that knowledge for hundreds of years.
Black precedent reveals that a black president is not enough to halt the onslaught of anti-black violence that has always been routine in our nation. What we continue to need is sustained multiracial activism and political engagement to bring about a more just and compassionate society -- the kind of grassroots work being done by organizers and activists pushing for police reform in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and across the country. In the end, perhaps the most enduring racial consequence of Obama's election will be the acknowledgement and disavowal of our collective naiveté. His presidency has underscored, as no other president could, the remarkable intransigence of white supremacy and the continued need for antiracist activism on the ground.
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