White America’s scary delusion: Why its sense of black humanity is so skewed
The following piece is from Salon. It was written by Brittney Cooper.
By: Brittney Cooper
The failure of a St. Louis county grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, the former police officer who killed Michael Brown, created a maelstrom of protests last week. In more than 137 cities and on college campuses around the country, including Rutgers University where I teach, protesters walked out of classes, marched with signs, linked hands to stop traffic on interstate highways and train routes, staged a massive “die-in” to shut down the Galleria Mall in St. Louis, and chose to boycott Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the biggest shopping days of the year. On Sunday, five players for the St. Louis Rams entered the field with their hands up, a silent and peaceful protest in solidarity with Michael Brown’s final act as he attempted to save his own life.
These protests have been met at best with a kind of studied indifference and at worst with a kind of unrighteous indignation that truly baffles the mind. For instance, Black Friday sales dropped an estimated 11 percent from last year’s totals. While some decrease in revenue had been predicted, double-digit decreases were not. The New York Times coverage of the decline managed to not even consider the possibility that the massive, social media-driven boycott of Black Friday, through hashtags like #BlackoutBlackFriday and Rahiel Tesfamariam’s #NotOneCent, had contributed at all to the downward shift in sales.
Then on Sunday, after the protest by Rams players, the St. Louis Police Officers Association sent a letter demanding an apology and condemning the players’ peaceful protest as “tasteless, offensive, and inflammatory.”
Unfortunately, key players in this case, buttressed by a particularly clueless segment of white America, actually seemed to believe that a grand jury decision in favor of Darren Wilson would simply be accepted by black America. The outrage from the St. Louis Police Officers hearkens back to an era when black people were expected to willingly endure white people’s routine horrific act and humiliations committed against them. That this decision feels like a travesty worthy of literally stopping traffic in locales all over the country is an affective response that seems to escape white notice, an apparent casualty of the well-documented racial empathy gap, among white Americans. Though many white people do understand the racial magnitude of last week’s devastating decision – the sense it offers that black people, and in particular young black men, are simply sheep for the slaughter — far too many white people do not understand this.
Among those with more insidious and overt racial animus, the belief is that we should simply “lie down and take it.” Among well-meaning, reasonable white people, the view is more anodyne. These people implored us to wait for justice to take its course, for the evidence to be evaluated, the witnesses to testify, a decision to be made.
There is a real disconnect between what white people know and what black people know in this country. Philosophers and political theorists understand these as questions of “epistemology,” wherein they consider how social conditions shape our particular standpoint, and ability to apprehend the things that are supposed to be apparent to us. “How do we know what we know?” is one way we might ask the question.
It is deeply apparent to most black people that the legal proceedings in the grand jury deliberations were a farce. Whether we consider the deliberate incorrect instructions given to jurors by the prosecutor, or the refusal to challenge the incendiary and inhumane characterizations of Michael Brown as “it,” “demon” and “hulk,” black people know that a lie has been perpetrated.
Too many white people lie comfortably in bed each night with the illusion that justice was served, that the system worked, that the evidence vindicated the view that they need to believe – that white men do not deliberately murder black boys for sport in this day and time and get away with it. Most well-meaning white people need to believe this. For me as both teacher of different kinds of epistemology and as a black person, I do not have the luxury of believing this. I do not have the luxury of stepping over the bodies of Eric Garner, John Crawford and Tamir Rice, leaving my unasked questions strewn alongside their lifeless bodies.
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