Millions of Americans have viewed the disturbing video of McKinney, TX police Corporal Eric Casebolt violently throwing 15 year-old bikini clad Dajerria Becton to the ground. The teen was allegedly refusing to leave the area when officers arrived in response to a 911 call about a disturbance at an afternoon pool party. Casebolt is white and Becton is black. Is race relevant?
While the video does not record all police activity, it seems to show that young black boys and girls were disproportionately handcuffed and were the objects of verbal abuse. Casebolt drew his gun as he chased several clearly frightened young black men from the scene. Casebolt's lawyer denies that he is racist.
America is a deeply divided nation. While the outcry against events in places like Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, Baltimore, and now McKinney, is loud and clear and a patchwork quilt of protest is growing (Black Lives Matter), a great many white people refuse to attribute any of it to racism.
These white folks believe we live in post-racial times. They accuse anti-racism activists of "playing the race card" or falling into a debilitating culture of "victim." The post-racists abhor affirmative action and love to cite the election of Barack Obama as evidence of equity in America. These folks talk of a meritocracy, where we get what we deserve and deserve what we get.
"Post-racists" often exercise a convoluted intellectualism to argue that people of color in the anti-racist movement are engaged in self-loathing, undermining their own opportunities by leaning on race as an excuse for failing to adequately strive. "Post-racists" vehemently deny that they are racist. Many are otherwise liberal or progressive in their politics. "Some of their best friends are black." The denial of racism in this form may be the most dangerous of all, because it is not characterized by overt bigotry, violence or prejudice, and is often couched in seemingly rational and dignified phrases.
There is, of course, abundant evidence of the pernicious effects of racism. Simply look at a few things: poverty rates, employment rates, inequitable accumulation of capital and, most glaringly, incarceration rates. If, as "post-racists" claim, you get what you deserve in our society, folks of color apparently don't deserve much. But talk to a "post-racist" about incarceration rates and they'll tell you it's just due to black men committing more crimes. It's their own fault. "Stop using racism as an excuse," they say.
The underlying cultural mindset that drives this perverse colorblindness is something New York Times columnist Charles Blow and others call racial pathology. Racial pathology is the unconscious or subconscious set of assumptions based on skin color that drives things like highly divergent policies in communities and schools. In these two contexts, the policies are based on an unexpressed, but clearly acted on, assumption that people of color have to be treated differently -- often described as "for their own good."
The most visible manifestation of racial pathology is found in police practice, especially in large cities. Before the courts imposed some restrictions, many cities, New York prominent among them, engaged in profiling, stop-and-frisk, and something known as "broken windows" policing. "Broken windows" policing asserts that cracking down on small acts, like breaking windows, will prevent more serious crimes. The "broken window" in most cases was possession or use of a small amount of marijuana or other illegal drug. The offenders fill America's jails, where they won't break any windows or do much of anything else. These prisoners are disproportionately boys, men and women of color. White kids, of course, are statistically more likely to use or sell drugs, but the racial pathology assumption is that the black kids are the window breakers and the drug dealers.
Profiling and its companion stop-and-frisk are similarly based on racial pathology. To a great extent the burden is on a young man of color to prove that he is not a criminal. Every black student in my school has been stopped and frisked and/or followed while shopping in neighborhood stores. No white student has ever reported being subjected to either practice. "All" and "none" seems fairly convincing.
These policies don't exist in privileged white communities because they would not be tolerated for a moment.
Precisely the same racial pathology is evident in the rapid growth of "no excuses" charter schools in urban America, like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools. These schools engage in an institutional version of "broken windows" policing. Students are shunned, humiliated and shamed by disciplinary practices based in racial pathology. In a forthcoming book I write about, and document, policies that subject students to physical and social isolation for relatively minor infractions. In one such school, misbehaving students reportedly wore signs labeled "miscreant." The dictionary offers "scoundrel, reprobate and lowlife" as synonyms for miscreant. It breaks my heart to think of any child being seen this way.
Supporters of the "no excuses" charter movement defend these practices by claiming the poor kids of color "need it." At a recent New York City event, one prominent hedge fund manager, a leader in the "no excuses" movement, said, "The students who go to schools like KIPP need more structure. The majority of KIPP students need the school to step in and provide that structure." This is racial pathology and condescension at its worst. And it comes from someone who claims opportunity for poor kids as his mission. I have no basis to question his sincerity, but note that his daughter attends a very selective Manhattan private school. As with aggressive urban policing, the parents of white children in privileged communities wouldn't tolerate this treatment of their children for even a day. I suppose it's because their children don't "need it."
The difficulties encountered in poor, urban communities of color are complex. Neighborhoods can be dangerous. Students who live in poverty and have had few generous developmental experiences can be hard to manage in school. I don't deny the challenges faced by police or schools. But we created these communities through relentless racism, economic neglect, segregation and a mean-spirited withdrawal of critical social programs. We need to fix that, not "fix" the children.
When Corporal Casebolt arrived on the scene in McKinney I doubt that he set out to intentionally target black kids, to slam a young girl to the ground and pin her with his knee, or to draw his gun and wave it wildly at several boys. But he has been saturated in racial pathology and, under stress, he saw these innocent kids in bathing suits as a threat.
It's going to be a long, hot summer in America.
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