As I write this, the latest uproar about racist speech, this after the SAE frat boys, after the Ferguson police comments, after the Paula Deen craziness, is the racist and homophobic tweets by members of the San Francisco Police Department.
It is the familiar pattern of getting caught out. It seems that the biggest lesson white people take from these experiences is to be more careful about their public utterances. No deep reflection. Just that non-apology apology: "I'm sorry if what I said offended you." (Notice how suddenly it you, the person offended, who is the problem not the racist.)
To get beyond the headlines and the squirming of the exposed ones, there are two important things to consider. First, please, let's give at least some attention to the actual operation of racial oppression, something that goes beyond words.
We have police officers, judges, prison guards, rehab centers, all making millions from the so-called drug wars, all marching black and brown bodies off to prison. They never get called out because they do all this as part of the routine, day-to-day operation of the prison-industrial system. The narrative in our society is to point to drug dealing and drug use, as the reason the inner cities are a wreck. But this is a lie, designed to take attention away from the real problems: poverty and oppression.
Don't talk about poverty, just say the word drug dealer and society is absolved. As long as you avoid saying the n-word, you can blithely pack the prison buses and take your paycheck home. If a cop kills an unarmed black or brown person, even if it is clear there was no cause, get ready for a long, long inquiry usually ending with case dropped. As long as he did not say the n-word, he's in the clear.
I might add that the same is true in education. If a teacher is caught saying something racist, as this guy was recently, then he's history. But the routine, daily, institutional crushing of African American and Chicano-Latino/a students gets a pass. And don't forget how many people get jobs from this fixed game. School specialists and private charter operators, foundation hustlers and education researchers.
The achievement gap, a constructed crisis, provides careers for lots of middle class and mostly white people. And the narrative that claims that if only education were "successful," if only everyone studied hard and got good grades, we would end poverty -- that narrative once again takes the focus off of the central problem in our society, poverty and oppression. Everyone shakes their head about education. But society is let off the hook as far as dealing with poverty or the unjust distribution of resources.
In the real world, racism is not simply the overt and stupid utterances against a marked category. The more important operations of racism are actions that result in unjust or unfair treatment of persons from a specific racial group. By this definition, the prison system and educational system are institutionally racist. Donald Sterling got in serious trouble for saying racist things but his slumlord mistreatment of tenants was simply a matter of doing business.
So on the one hand, the moments when white people "slip" and get caught saying something racist are trivial compared with the institutional operation of racism. But still, we might take a look at these utterances as a glimpse, a briefly shined light, into the collective unconscious of most white people. What do these comments tell us is going on in their minds?
Take a closer look at the S.F. Police Department text messages. They are not just a few slips of the tongue. Even a cursory analysis of the content of these messages shared among many officers in one of the most liberal cities in the US, can tell us much about the unspoken, the coded, the hidden thoughts of these people. For example, there are the ones that express just straight hatred of African Americans and fear of Black males:
• In response to a text saying "All niggers must fucking hang," Furminger wrote "Ask my 6 year old what he thinks about Obama."
• In response to a text saying "Just boarded train at Mission/16th," Furminger wrote "Ok, just watch out for BM's" [black males].
• In response to a text saying "Niggers should be spayed," Furminger wrote "I saw one an hour ago with 4 kids."
• In response to a text asking "Do you celebrate quanza [sic] at your school?" Furminger wrote: "Yeah we burn the cross on the field! Then we celebrate Whitemas."
• Another officer commented when Furminger was near a black man: "Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots. Its [sic] not against the law to put an animal down." Furminger responded, "Well said!"
• In response to a text from another SFPD officer regarding the promotion of a black officer to sergeant, Furminger wrote: "Fuckin nigger."
Imagine being young African Americans who are subject to being stopped by these cops. Do they suspect that this is what's going on in the cops' minds? Yes and it turns out they are right.
Then there are the insane views of history:
• "The buffalo soldier was why the Indians Wouldnt [sic] shoot the niggers that found for the confederate They [sic] thought they were sacred buffalo and not human."
• "Gunther Furminger was a famous slave auctioneer."
• "White power."
• "I am leaving it like it is, painting KKK on the sides and calling it a day!"
• "Cross burning lowers blood pressure! I did the test myself!"
But as an educator, I found these two comments on schooling most enlightening.
• "We got two blacks at my boys [sic] school and they are brother and sister! There cause dad works for the school district and I am watching them like hawks."
• "Its [sic] worth every penny to live here [Walnut Creek] away from the savages."
Again, if young African American students wonder if they are being scrutinized and singled out and hated by some white parents, well here is the evidence. Supposedly this is not a nut job; this is an upstanding and respected member of the community. This police officer is watching like a hawk, ready to pounce.
Then there is the issue of moving to the suburbs, in this case nice white Walnut Creek. Everyone knows it is white flight. Everyone knows parents who say they are moving here for the "good schools." But really, let's face it, they are desperate to get away from the "savages." This kind of narrative is always there but generally privileged parents manage to be more careful and coded in their language. I have seen liberal parents on Berkeley High discussion sites discuss wanting to keep their kids away from the "slack-jawed" students, the dangerous ones, the disruptors. This is the discussion of savages -- only more carefully framed.
If you think racist ideas are the possession of a few bad apples or a rare occurrence, please take a look at the "comments" section of most any urban newspaper's online edition. Look at any crime story, especially a crime in the black or brown community. Behind the cover of anonymity, the most vile and disgusting contempt for people of color boils up. And these are just the ones the editors let by. You can see many more that have been blocked because the language was just too disgusting. Do an analysis of the kinds of political theories that exist in these people, as well as of their psychological pathologies.
The S.F. Police Department text messages are comments that stand for a whole narrative, a whole reality that is difficult to even read. Remember, now, these are only a handful of messages that were made public because of one court case involving Sgt. Ian Furminger. Tens of thousands of other text messages by cops are still under wraps.
I'm tired of hearing authorities say they are "shocked, shocked" to hear such outrageous language. Instead of simply putting the idiots out to pasture, let's begin a serious examination of both institutional racism and the deep ideological hatred that still grips our society. And we need to remember that this is not just a bad idea in someone's head. It is a justification for oppression and an exercise of power. It is a crime for which amends and reparations must be paid.