Race and Genocide: “A Nation of Laws”
Note: This is the second article in a two-part series on race and genocide. The first article, “How Trayvon Martin’s Murder Became Deracialized,” can be found here.
By NAVID FARNIA
Since its inception, the United States’ legal system has consistently criminalized Black people. “Fugitive Slave Laws,” convict lease and Stop and Frisk are but a few examples of how the law has entrenched Black criminality. Federal, state and local laws together established a fundamental racial order that manifests to this day.
After the fall of slavery, Jim Crow eventually took form and resurrected white supremacy. From 1877 to 1964, racial apartheid ruled the land, as the legal system perpetuated the genocide against Black people.
Mass incarceration is the modern-day Jim Crow. As a result, Black people still encounter the same undying issues. But there are also major differences in the contemporary racial landscape. Today, a Black president sits in the White House; race is almost completely marginalized in our colorblind society; and American ideology depicts Black people as culturally deficient. These three developments are interrelated and define current racial discourse (or the lack thereof).
On the ground, Trayvon Martin’s murder and its aftermath illuminate these issues. Days after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke publicly regarding the trial and more broadly on race in America. He discussed racial profiling and its omnipresence in Black men’s lives, even giving personal examples.
Obama also suggested that federal, state and local governments work with law enforcement, providing training to alleviate the mistrust that exists between communities and police. He additionally stated that we should all do some “soul-searching.”
Obama’s comments deserve careful consideration and analysis. In his speech, Obama essentially advocates for a race relations approach to racial issues. The race relations paradigm aims to achieve racial reconciliation through constructive dialogue between Blacks and whites regarding individual prejudices and misunderstandings.
In truth, the race relations model is completely bankrupt. Race relations do not address racism’s relationship with power. Nor do they consider how structural racism is responsible for mass incarceration and state-sanctioned racial profiling (among countless other processes).
Nevertheless, this framework is consistent with Obama’s general position on race. Racial issues are almost entirely absent from the Obama administration’s agenda. Obama and his supporters constantly remind us he is not the Black community’s president; he is America’s president. This rationalization falls in line with colorblind ideology. The common argument is that his policies serving the American people will also inevitably benefit Blacks. In reality, race-neutral policies exacerbate existing inequalities. Moreover, the Obama policy agenda in fact actively incapacitates the Black community.
Industrializing the Security State
Until Zimmerman’s acquittal, Obama had not even addressed mass incarceration during his time in office. A more in-depth examination however, reveals the likely reason.
Barack Obama has actually expanded upon the security apparatus as president, further enhancing the police and surveillance states. In an informative article on the Obama administration’s security policies, Radley Balko outlines the various ways in which the president has accelerated police militarization. Obama’s support for law enforcement includes, among other things, defense of police violence in the courts, heightened provisions of military gear to police forces, and augmented police funding.
The Obama administration has expanded some police funding programs by unprecedented levels. Increased fund allocations toward the security apparatus help legitimize the already surging police and surveillance industries. This in turn, translates to escalated police and surveillance presence, particularly in working class communities of color.
Unsurprisingly, the prison system is also growing. Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report writes:
Even as Obama cuts deep into the bone and marrow of vital government services, he is requesting more money for the federal prison system, including funding for a brand new state-of-the-art supermax prison in Illinois that will house 400 inmates in solitary confinement – that is, in a perpetual state of torture.
Federal prisons and detention received a 3.5 percent rise in funding this year, not a coincidence considering the swaths of money allotted to police militarization. Blacks and Latinos account for about 60 percent of the U.S.’s prison population; Obama’s pro-prison policies therefore, debilitate these communities. Moreover, these policies that further criminalize Blackness reinforce both state-sponsored and extrajudicial anti-Black violence. In effect, this political, social and racial climate informed Zimmerman’s vigilante attitude and generally contributes to the genocide perpetrated against Black people.
Despite overwhelming evidence that the state perpetuates racial profiling, Obama’s statements suggest that racial profiling is an issue of “bad apples” in an imperfect system. The underlying theme is a refusal to acknowledge that expanded police and surveillance presence causes escalated racial tensions. Programs that institutionalize racial profiling establish an atmosphere that encourages anti-Black racism and violence. Stop and Frisk, a program widely known for disproportionately targeting Blacks and Latinos, inevitably expands the carceral state. Consequently, it also reinforces stereotypes of Black criminality and enables vigilantes like Zimmerman to routinely murder Black people without repercussion.
Propagating Anti-Black Racism
Mainstream American society, including the media, normalizes representations of Black criminality. Even before the jury’s ruling in the Zimmerman trial, media pundits speculated about whether (Black) people would riot if Zimmerman were acquitted. In her comprehensive piece, “The Monsterization of Trayvon Martin,” Patricia Williams eloquently describes media attitudes:
As I watched the media blare, there was a breathless, swooping, nearly operatic transport to the moment; pundits recapitulated all the reasons to be afraid, very afraid. Anticipating acquittal, they eagerly imagined crescendos of erupting terror, riot and civil collapse. Florida was under lockdown. Magical legions of hydra-headed Trayvon Martin-shaped “thug wannabes” were assembling at the edges of the badlands.
In this still-undecided, Schrödinger’s cat box of suspense, a lonely, against-the-odds voice inside me wondered white might happen if the jury were to find George Zimmerman guilty. Would the pundits and politicians fear armed uprisings in select white neighborhoods?
Williams continues, “But Zimmerman was found not guilty, and there were no riots, save the riot of hyperbole portraying peaceful protests as violent.”
The media certainly had the most vocally racist role in projecting post-verdict violence, but they were not alone. Before the verdict, prominent Black leaders condescendingly told (Black) people to behave themselves. Obama spewed similar rhetoric after the verdict, preemptively calling for tranquility ahead of seemingly inevitable riots and violence. “I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son,” the president said.
Predictions of violence and vociferous calls for Black people to behave exemplify cultural racism. While the mainstream constantly equates whites with non-violence and peaceful protest, representations of Black people regularly and falsely privilege riotous and violent conduct. Williams’ analysis regarding media speculations effectively demonstrates this phenomenon.
The conjecture surrounding whether Black people would riot after the verdict is the same rationale that Zimmerman used to kill Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman’s murder of Martin and the media’s reactions to the verdict were both informed by implicit beliefs that Black people are pathologically violent and criminal. Black leaders unfortunately contributed to this bogus notion. Let us not forget though, that violence against a Black person actually started this debate.
Fabricating Black Criminality
The Black criminal stereotype reflects culture of poverty theory, a significant and insidiously racist theoretical framework that appears everywhere in American society. Culture of poverty supporters argue that poor people’s skewed value systems cause their perpetual entrapment within the cycle of poverty. This theory is constantly employed against Black people in particular to create the stereotypical model Black criminal (juxtaposing it with the model white male citizen).
The racist myth that Black people are predisposed to crime and violence (and are thus, culturally deficient) justifies racial violence, racial profiling and mass incarceration. Zimmerman’s actions and subsequent acquittal embodies this logic. Moreover, the culture of poverty argument is utilized to explain why Black people are disproportionately unemployed and impoverished.
Culture of poverty theory and colorblind ideology conceal the state’s responsibility for persistently widening racial inequalities. While colorblindness renders structural racism extinct, culture of poverty equates racial inequalities with Black cultural deficiencies. For example, the logic states that because Black people are predisposed to crime, they are naturally incarcerated at high rates; thus, the state has little to do with mass incarceration.
In reality however, enforced colorblindness and culture of poverty have enabled an expanded security state, where police and surveillance particularly target Black bodies. In effect, this is a politically determined and legally sanctioned genocide where Black people are methodically locked up or murdered.
But state-sponsored genocide is consistently re-conceptualized to scapegoat Black people. This rationale also postulates that Trayvon Martin’s murder was ultimately self-inflicted. As a result, the idea that Black people are pathologically violent justifies their murder and systematic elimination.
The media seemingly led the charge in stereotyping Black people in the aftermath of the verdict. And Black leaders, including President Obama, were complicit in this behavior.
“A Nation of Laws”
Obama, like his mainstream media supporters and opponents, has reached moral bankruptcy. In addition to expanding the prison system and accelerating police militarization, the president’s foreign policy initiatives are equally hostile and deserve fierce criticism. Cornel West rightly called this to attention. Obama’s advocacy of drone strikes on innocent people in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other places, caused West to declare that Obama has lost all moral authority. We should remember that the U.S.’s drones target young Muslims who are identified as potential “terrorists,” in the same way that Zimmerman profiled Trayvon Martin as a potential “criminal.”
To be sure, the state played a crucial role in George Zimmerman’s acquittal. The media’s portrayal of Black people and government policies to perpetuate Black criminalization both supported Zimmerman’s case. In effect, the establishment was Zimmerman’s real defense team. Because Zimmerman acted to enforce white supremacy, the racist system was obliged to establish his innocence under the law.
Barack Obama’s proclamation that this is a nation of laws should ring loudly in our ears. These laws have in reality, centrally contributed to the ongoing genocide against Black people. America was similarly a nation of laws when the Dred Scott decision denied Black people citizenship and when the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling legalized segregation. We are therefore reminded that this nation’s laws do not eliminate white supremacy; rather, they are rooted in racial oppression.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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