THE BLOG

Being a Black Male in America: Racism and the Police

04/10/2015 10:32 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

Watching the dastardly shooting of Walter Scott by Officer Slager sent cold chills down my spine. It could have been me! I am filled with a deep sense of anger and outrage at what has become a pattern of white police officers hunting down black men and killing them in cold blood as if to say that their lives are expendable and disposable. Every time these terrible, racially inspired crimes are committed against a black man on our streets here in the United States, I am reminded that this society is failing black men for many reasons. What is happening to black men in the United States is a continuation of the racial violence of the past going back to the time of slavery. The only difference is that in the past, our ancestors knew that they were victims of a destructive racial system and fought to break the yoke of slavery, racism and segregation. Today we are told that every American has civil liberties but those who are meant to protect these rights for citizens like Walter Scott are the ones who are denying them to black men in the full glare of the public. At the heart of this unmitigated violence and killings of black men by police officers is a total abnegation of the dignity and value of the life of black men. In the eyes of many white police officers, being black and male in America makes you a potential criminal, a suspect, a trouble maker, and a dangerous person. Being a black male means that white police officers should "fear" you and "protect" themselves and society from you in a most violent manner.

True, Officer Slager has been arrested and will face justice. He might well be convicted or he might be acquitted, no one is sure. However, something is broken about a society where being a black man means that you are a target of police racial profiling. Something is patently wrong in a society where being a black man means that you are most likely to face an untimely death by a police officer's gun than from natural causes. When I moved from Toronto, Canada to Chicago last year, a white Canadian colleague of mine teaching in one of the premier universities in the U.S. expressed fear about my safety this way: "you are a big black guy with an imposing frame and a potential suspect in the eyes of U.S. police officers. I really worry about your safety in the U.S." Indeed, I received some informal instructions on the appropriate conduct required of me in the presence of police officers. I have learned that failing to follow those instructions as a black male could be the difference between life and death for me. I decided few years ago never to buy a new car, though the one I currently have is 13 years old and has clocked over 200,000 miles. Many people might think that being a Catholic priest, I am trying to live a simple life of poverty following the example of Pope Francis. However, the truth is that I do not wish to attract the attention of police officers by driving a brand new car. A friend of mine, a black professor at a Chicago university who drives an SUV told me that he is constantly being hounded by police officers who are apparently unable to believe that a black man could possess such a "big car" and wonder whether he stole the car. The question then is: if males of African descent here in the United States cannot feel free and safe in this great country, where should they go? How can this great nation justify the senseless destruction of black males in the United States--through police violence, through state sanctioned and disproportionate imposition of the death penalty? How can America, the shining beacon of democracy in the world, justify the fact that black people make up 44 percent of youth prison inmates in the United States whereas black people make up about 13 percent of the population?

Whenever I walk to work, drive to church, or visit the soup kitchen here in Chicago I wonder how a country as prosperous as the U.S. could leave so many Black males on the bottom rungs of its economic, social and political systems. The iniquitous social reproduction that is alive and flourishing in the United States emanates from the slavery era and shameful Jim Crow laws, practices and attitudes. Unfortunately, it has shaped the narrative of what being black and male means in the consciousness of non-Blacks and it has given rise to the inexcusable killings of black men like one would kill an animal. Many people will counter by saying that 94 percent of all black people murdered were killed by fellow black people from 1976 to 2005, and that a black male is seven times more likely to commit murder in the United States than a white man and six times more likely to be murdered. But the contention here is that those who protect people should not become threats to the lives of those they are meant to be protecting.

The problem is not so much about policing culture in the United States. There are many decent police officers in this country who deserve our respect and highest esteem. The problem is the attitude and racist norms which shape the way being black and male is framed in the United States by whites. The white police officers who are hunting down defenseless black males have been socialized in this racist narrative about black males and blacks in general in this country. The other day I was standing in front of the elevator. When the door opened, a white female emerged and terrified by my presence, immediately turned red and descended into a panic mode. I said nothing but wondered how the sight of me could produce such torrents of anxiety in this lady. How many times have I observed white women awkwardly step aside when they see me walking towards them on a sidewalk. I wonder what is wrong with this society or rather self-deprecatingly what is wrong with me as a black male. Sadly, the vast majority of black males have similar experiences.

Racism is a learned behavior; just like terrorism or hatred and other inhuman vices which hold the world in perpetual bondage. No one is born with a terrorism or racist attitude or disposition in their human genome. Racism, especially against blacks or any other racial group for that matter is a learned behavior. It has festered in the U.S. and the rest of the world for a long time. It is even made worse by the veneer of civil rights and liberties in the American constitution which give a false ideal of liberty and pursuit of happiness for all Americans. Unfortunately, many blacks in the U.S. suffer a painful cultural and existential alienation which have left them in a ghettoized world of pain and on the marginal sidelines of the so called American dream. Racism in America is also the result of the white social construction of identity and the jaundiced narrative of the "otherness" of the Black man which emerges from this narrative. The so called manifest destiny which America claims for herself has remained for many black males only an unflappable peripheral destiny in the throes of police brutality, violence, incarceration, joblessness, and constant surveillance.

When Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmermam, who was later acquitted by a jury, President Obama said that Trayvon could have been his son. White males can rarely, if ever, claim kinship or identity with a victim of police brutality or heightened insecurities. If Walter Scott were a white male, he would not have been killed this way by Officer Slager. America can hardly claim to be a post-racial society just because it elected a black man to the presidency. America will not be a post-racial society until injustice is no longer color-coded. Race relations have seemingly gotten worse since the election of President Obama because widespread instances of deep-seated prejudice, profiling, stereotypes against blacks in America remain unaddressed. The Obama presidency has created the false impression that America has evolved beyond her racial divide and the negation and inferiorization of people of color. But this is not true! Rather what is emerging are hidden forms of racism against black people which are no longer written in the legal codes of the land but in the hearts and attitudes of many non-blacks in the U.S. and many parts of the world. America is diminished when evils and racist structures of injustice are allowed to persist. The myth of American exceptionalism will ring hollow throughout the world if she continues to tolerate the vilification and attitude of fear of the black male. What nation will turn a blind eye to this vicious cycle of police violence against a particular racial group and the sweltering poverty of majority of black males? It is high time we revive the Civil Rights Movement, and move beyond occasional protests and rallies. It is high time we truly overcome through a new strategy and new course of action to reverse this shameful trajectory of history and this stench on America's social conscience.