Beth Roy on Racism and Police Brutality
For the past few years, a simple but powerful phrase has dominated newspaper headlines, social media news feeds, and spoken conversations: Black Lives Matter. The activist movement began in 2012 after the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime, leaving Martin to be posthumously placed on trial for his own murder. Martin’s death sparked outrage both online using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and on the streets in the form of violent and non-violent protests. The highly-publicized deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland spurred the anger and division already brewing in the public.
While the deaths of these teenagers have sparked a recent discussion of the prevalence of racism, racial profiling, and police brutality in the country, this type of violence has a long history.
In the essay below, Beth Roy, author of 41 Shots…and Counting: What Amadou Diallo Teaches Us about Policing, Race, and Justice, offers her own insight on the ongoing police violence and the polarization within our nation.
In the early 1990s, I wrote a book about white racism, linking it with disappointment in the promises of the American dream—Bitters in the Honey: Tales of Hope and Disappointment across Divides of Race and Time. A decade later, I explored the ways law enforcement came to over-predict the killing of black men by (mostly white) police officers—41 Shots…and Counting: What Amadou Diallo Teaches Us about Policing, Race, and Justice (published by Syracuse University Press).
In the last months, both those themes have dominated American politics and protests. Tilting left or right, toward Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, anger at the failure of the state to accomplish economic security for 99% of the nation’s people—both working and middle class, white and people of color—produced an election campaign of extremes. Twisting through narratives of complaint pointedly by white voters was the plaintive cry: But, Uncle Sam, you promised! Since my study 25 years ago, I believe the nature of the promise has eroded somewhat under the continuous current of increasing wealth inequality. But for white people, it remains essentially the same: If we work hard, we are entitled not just to exist but also to prosper. Outrage about the betrayal of that bargain exploded in 2008 with the economy’s crash and the rise of the Occupy movement.
Now, Black Lives Matter is raising the fundamental, one might say “shadow,” question of whether people of color are even promised existence. White people may believe they are due affluence, but black people question whether they are entitled to even the most fundamental safety—from those police officers sworn to protect and serve.
These two protests, coursing through American life today, intertwine with each other repeatedly. But rarely do we read them as two currents in a single downward rushing river. I posit their inextricable unity: If black lives do not matter, white lives won’t prosper. Racism defeats the ability of the 99%, of all races, all heritages, all orientations, to truly call for the necessary changes to our polity. Without the understanding that racism undermines the rights of all citizens, we may occupy but we will not change the structures of our society that ensure inequality. As long as the social contract extends unequally to people of different races, there is no true social contract at all. White people’s anger can too easily be deflected toward those of a different social status, whether black or immigrant. The force of a unified citizenry to insist on right treatment is seriously deflected and does not succeed.
Those of us who write books, together with those who read them, need to play a role in making crystal clear how class and race bind like two strands of civil DNA. We are not the decisive architects of social change—that is the role of young people in the streets and in movement leadership. But our research, our advocacy for justice, our encouragement of those we teach to act on their convictions can make a valuable contribution.