Recent Chicago protests over the death of Laquan McDonald; the acquittal of officers Michael Brello in Cleveland, Ohio, and Randall Kerrick in Charlotte, North Carolina; and the grand jury investigation of Officer Timothy Loehmann in the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland have many people wondering, like Marvin Gaye’s 1971 single inspired by an incident of police brutality at the time, “What’s going on?”
Despite what some politicians and others might claim, these and so many other police killings all have a common bond — they reflect the ongoing story of life in America for African-Americans. Although the 2008 election of President Barack Obama caused some to think a brand new chapter of post-racial life had begun, the advent of cellphone cameras has reminded us that many old features of American life have remained unchanged. Despite that, many people I talk to seem at a loss for words to describe what the revelation of regular police shootings of unarmed African-American men and women — often without criminal consequences for the perpetrators — means about where we are. I also hear questions like, “How do we explain this? Are the killers racists?”
If you have struggled with any of these questions, consider this explanation. A social phenomenon older than America itself at the heart of these killings. Some have identified it as the legacy of slavery, but slavery was only one of its symptoms. Some argue it is racism or white supremacy. While these are accurate descriptions of some behavior it produces, the racial animus or ill will these terms connote rob them of their accuracy. All slave masters did not hate the enslaved, and every police shooting with unarmed Black victims is not done by an avowed racist. Beyond individual intent and conscious motivations, we must look to the system behind these phenomena. It operated behind the four centuries of racial slavery and segregation, and it allows the police to kill unarmed Black men and women today without significant repercussions. That system is white racial dominance. It represents the society’s unyielding commitment to the perceived best interest of its white majority.
White racial dominance over the Native American tribes demanded the conquest of tribal lands by force and justified it as Christian witness. White racial dominance motivated the enslavement of millions of Black women, men, and children and explained it as God’s will. White racial dominance dictated the taking of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and California from our neighbors and rationalized it as Manifest Destiny. White racial dominance called for the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II, but neither Germans nor Italians.
White racial dominance means and has always meant that, irrespective of the experiences of any white or Black individual, as a group whites have a disproportionate share of the things positively valued in society: wealth, education, political power, quality housing, leisure, security and abundant and quality food. African-Americans conversely have a disproportionate share of the things negatively valued in society: substandard housing, disease, underemployment, dangerous and distasteful work, disproportionate punishment, stigmatization and vilification. This reality is as firmly in place today as it was when the Declaration of Independence was signed. White racial dominance meant white men were authorized to use force to capture and return enslaved Black men or women who were off their plantations without permission. Likewise, white racial dominance enabled white mobs to lynch Black women and men with impunity and send pictures of the perpetrators and bystanders to friends and relatives as postcards. White racial dominance empowered two white men in Money, Mississippi, to kill 14-year-old Emmett Till without fear of legal repercussions in 1955, and it empowers police today.
White society today, as in the past, trusts the police much more than African-Americans, so these killings lead to comfort and reassurance at some level for most whites. African-American men in particular are seen as a threat, so their deaths, like their mass incarceration, reinforce and protect the system rather than threaten it. Until the racial dominance at the heart of this centuries-old reoccurrence is renounced, rejected and replaced with justice, we need not wonder, “What’s going on.”
Carlton Waterhouse is a professor of law and Dean’s Fellow at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.