Apparently, everything but racist policing killed Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner on Staten Island.
“It’s decades of racial disparity, and economic disparity. It’s not a problem with the police,” said Jeff Roorda, an official with the St. Louis Police Officers Association after the Ferguson grand jury announcement was announced. “If we spend this time in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing trying to change law enforcement to fix this problem, it’s going to be a betrayal to his legacy, because that’s not why Michael Brown ended on the street confronting a police officer.”
As delusional as that statement may seem to many, it’s not too far off from the one President Obama gave following the announcement that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson wouldn’t stand trial for killing Mike Brown, and it’s motivated by the same inability to hold police officers accountable. In his speech following the grand jury decision, the President called for order and championed the “rule of law.” He also played a dangerous rhetorical game.
“Finally, we need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation,” said Obama. “The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color. Some of this is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. And this is tragic, because nobody needs good policing more than poor communities with higher crime rates.”
The president doubled down on that theme last week in his statement following the announcement that Eric Garner’s killer wouldn’t face charges, emphasizing the right of police officers to come home and the need for confidence in the system. And, in his first sit-down on the topic on police brutality this week on BET, he said more of the same.
The President’s comments have been characteristically moderate and politically safe, but hold depressing implications for American race relations and our capacity to reform deadly police practices.
With both, the President attempted to do was what he always does around topics infused with race: hold a proverbial beer summit where the bias of all sides is called out. This time is different though. He’s not just riffing on how racial attitudes color the perception of events (like he did in his “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia or after Skip Gates was arrested on his own porch). This time, the President is aiming his problematic rhetoric at deadly matters of fact.
President Obama’s statements seem designed to divert blame and diffuse responsibility. The language about a “deep distrust” existing “between law enforcement and communities of color” sounds meant to evoke notions of a mutual combativeness that Americans endorse when thinking about our country’s modern race relations.
That rhetoric collapses on itself, especially when applied to events it’s meant to explain. When the President uses such speechifying to explain the facts and factors surrounding the Brown and Garner cases, he indicts communities of color. The nation is delivered the suggestion that communities of color are complicit in those tragedies and contribute to the troublesome policing that victimizes us.
That’s the myth. Here’s the truth.
American racial conflict has always been about White supremacy. What we have is a clear picture of White America fighting to maintain—and often advance—a system of oppression at the expense of people of color, and people of color fighting for our very lives. Abolition wasn’t about enslaving White people, but freeing Black people. The Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s wasn’t about taking rights away from White Americans, but ensuring them for everyone else. Similarly, opposition to deadly police practices today isn’t rooted in hatred of police, historical grievances, or even “distrust.” It’s about survival.
Comedian Chris Rock illustrated this dynamic brilliantly in a recent interview with New York magazine. On the topic of American racial progress, Rock said, “If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, ‘Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.’ It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner.”
Similarly, Eric Garner had no say in whether or not he’d be choked to death. Was it “distrust” or confusion Akai Gurley likely felt as an officer fired a bullet into his chest in a dark stairwell? Was a “legacy of racial discrimination” on the minds of Tamir Rice or John Crawford when officers gunned them down in Ohio in a park, in Wal-Mart? The answer, of course, is no. So let’s be honest about the policing that leads to the deaths of so many unarmed people of color.
As a matter of policy in many places, we are dangerously over-policed. Our interactions with police end in death too often and, far more often than not, there are no consequences for killer cops. That’s the reality of modern American policing, not a supposed cold war between cops and communities. If President Obama can’t bring himself to tell that truth then he shouldn’t say anything at all. Any fruitful conversation on modern American race relations has to be established on a foundation of fact—not polite, equivocating rhetoric that soothes the masses while keeping people of color in the crosshairs
Donovan X. Ramsey is a multimedia journalist whose work puts an emphasis on race and class. Donovan has written for outlets including MSNBC, Ebony, and TheGrio, among others. He's currently a Demos Emerging Voices fellow.