While we can all rejoice in Derek Chauvin being found guilty of all charges in the killing of George Floyd, this humble spirt is running out of words to express my outrage at the killing of Black men by the police. After each tragic episode comes the contentious debate over what happened, the why and the how, and whether the officer’s actions were justified. How long can this go on?
If I may take some liberty in paraphrasing Leo Tolstoy’s comment about families at the beginning of Anna Karenina*: the circumstances of every police killing are different, but the fundamental reason for each killing is the same—white America has never overcome the demons it created for itself when it held Black people in bondage for almost 250 years. We have never conquered the systemic racism that still permeates our society, and whatever their faults and failures, the police cannot be expected to bridge the gap between our aspiration to provide liberty and justice for all versus the reality of African Americans being held down by a lack of opportunity and unequal justice. Every shooting is a wakeup call to white America that all is not as it should be in our country, but we steadfastly refuse to wake up.
It’s often pointed out that the police have their origin in the slave patrols, and there is some truth in that, but we should not forget that the patrols worked on behalf of the “slave power,” the almighty economic engine that powered the Cotton Kingdom. Until we overcome the modern-day slave power, this country’s mighty economic system that has brought us growing inequality and injustice, nothing is going to change and the killings won’t stop. I’m all for improving police training and holding officers accountable for their mistakes, but it won’t cure what’s really ailing us.
Every time a Black man is killed at the hands of the police, I’m reminded of that charming old Jim Crow era expression that includes mention of “a sunshiny day”? For those of you who think I’m being a wimp for not just spitting out the “N-word,” please understand that, back when I was growing up on the cotton farm in antebellum Alabama, my mama would have washed my mouth out with soap and water for using that word. Even back then, before the slaves were freed, generally only white trash and plantation overseers used that word.
“It doesn’t matter if he did anything, he’s Black.”
For those of you fortunate enough not to be familiar with the Jim Crow era, most likely because you are too young, let me clarify exactly what “N-word on a sunshiny day” means. The phrase is a response to the question, “What did he do?” meaning “It really doesn’t matter if he did anything, he’s Black.” Unfortunately, the question being answered was rarely so innocent, and was more likely one of the following:
- Why was he arrested?
- Why was he jailed?
- Why was he accused of rape?
- Why did he receive a lifetime sentence?
- Why was he sentenced to death?
- And the ever-popular . . . Why was he lynched?
The variations are almost limitless, but today the favorite version is “Why was he shot?”
The phrase readily admits that the Black man in question is very likely innocent; in other words, it concedes that the justice system is a rigged farce. It’s highly questionable, however, if an honest admission of this sort carried much value for someone facing the noose, just as today it’s of little consolation for someone who gets shot.
Which brings us to the more ominous aspect of the phrase—the sly, unsaid, “wink.” I’m talking about the wink between a white Jim Crow judge and his white sheriff that confirms their power and control on behalf of the white citizenry. Can’t you just picture a small-town sheriff responding with that phrase when asked what a black man did to deserve his punishment? And what exactly does the “wink” mean?
- Don’t you worry about it (wink), the Black man is still in our power.
- Don’t you worry about it (wink), the Black man is safely under our control.
- Don’t you worry about it (wink), the Black man is no sexual threat.
- Don’t you worry about it (wink), we can always castrate him and cut off his dick.
It didn’t matter what the Black man did or didn’t do, because that white judge and white sheriff pulled all the strings, pushed all the levers. Reality don’t matter (wink), because we’re white and he’s black. We ARE the reality in these parts, boy!
Sadly, every killing of a Black man by the police reminds me that things haven’t changed all that much.
* “All unhappy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”