The Shooting of Sean Bell and the Resurgence of American Racism

Sean Bell was murdered and his two friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were maimed by New York City cops minutes after the trio finished celebrating Bell’s marriage the next day. The three were set up by undercover cops who were looking for trouble in a bar in Queens; they were trapped in their car desperately trying to leave the scene. New York’s finest pumped fifty bullets in their direction-twenty-one shots hitting the car the three friends were in-invoking the ghost of Amadou Diallo.

The NYPD is already leaking and spreading lies to a willing press in hopes of shifting the blame onto three unarmed, innocent Black men-as per usual. So now we can read about the “sympathy shooting” explanation-likened to how when one person in a room laughs then everyone starts laughing: when one cop started shooting they all started shooting. The cops and the media are bending over backwards to troll through the histories of these men to bring up juvenile criminal records that were supposed to have been sealed. We are fed uncorroborated stories that Guzman bragged he had a gun. Predictably, in the smoking carnage of the aftermath of the NYPD execution of the three buddies no guns were found.

In many ways this case is just another example of the racist police terror that grips most of the inner cities in the United States. Police departments in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Dallas, and Philadelphia-to only name the most egregious-have spent the better part of the last two decades locked in corruption scandals from accusations of torture and racism; to drug dealing and murder for hire; to forced confessions and planting evidence, and battling lawsuits against charges of police brutality and police misconduct.

Racist police practice remains the main culprit for the disproportionate numbers of imprisoned African-American men and women in the nation’s jails and prison. 58 percent of all convicted drug felony cases involve African-American men-even though Black men are only 6 percent of the national population and 72 percent of all illegal drug users are white. 12 percent of Black men aged 25 to 29 years old are imprisoned compared to 3 percent of Latinos and 1 percent of white men. In 2002, there were 603,000 Black men in college compared to 791,600 Black men in prison. Black women are two and a half times more likely than Latinas and four and a half times more likely than white women to be imprisoned. In total, 49 percent of the U.S.’s two million prisoners-in prison or in jail-are African American. This is a shocking statistic considering that Blacks are less than 13 percent of the entire United States population.


Legitimizing Racism

The legal lynching of Sean Bell certainly fits into the historical continuity of racist police violence directed at African Americans. But racism against Latino immigrants, Arabs and Muslims have also risen sharply. The cold, hard facts are that the political rancor in Washington amongst Democrats and Republicans about immigrants, so-called border security, homeland security, and the War on Terror in general has made racism permissible, tolerable and legitimate all in the name of “political debate”.

The racist backlash against the nascent immigrant rights movement is not only embodied in the neo-fascist Minutemen Project, but has also found expression in a number of “state’s rights” initiatives aimed at rehabilitating Jim Crow segregation for Latinos and relegating Latinos to second class citizenship. Since the mass marches of last spring, several local ordinances have passed in favor of English only laws, prohibiting the extension of social services to the undocumented, and essentially criminalizing the undocumented-and those who look like the undocumented-across the country. Local officials and anti-immigrant activists have taken their cue from Washington D.C., where politicians from both parties have blamed the presence of immigrants in this country for everything from unemployment, to low wages, to poor schools, and to placing an undo burden on the social safety net-a ludicrous charge considering the now two billion dollars a week the U.S. continues to plow into a losing effort in Iraq. Both Democrats and Republicans worked together to sanction the building of 700 mile long wall along the U.S. and Mexican border-including liberal darling Barack Obama who pitched in his vote for the wall as well. During a heated race for a Senate seat in Tennessee Democratic Congressman Harold Ford bragged, “I’m the only person on this stage who has ever voted for an anti-illegal-immigration bill” Congressman Tom Tancredo-an elected representative of the United States government-recently compared the 65 percent Latino city of Miami to a Third World country. He complained about Miami, “the sheer size and number of ethnic enclaves devoid of any English and dominated by foreign cultures is widespread. Frankly, many of these areas could have been located in another country. And until America gets serious about demanding assimilation, this problem will continue to spread.”

It is not only the racist nature of the “debate” over undocumented immigrants that poisons the atmosphere, but it is also the shrill anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric that has been the political vogue since 9-11-with no end in sight. Since 9-11 and the racist roundups of thousands of Muslim men, it has been open season on Arabs and Muslims in American society. According to a Washington Post poll taken last March, a majority of Americans think that “Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence.” The same poll found that one in four Americans has a negative view of Arabs. A USA Today poll in August found that almost 40 percent of Americans harbored some prejudice against Muslims and the same number favored Muslims having to carry national identification cards.

This anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism has been sanctioned from the highest levels of government as the Bush administration and the Democrats who support its war efforts demonize and de-humanize the Arab “enemy” to justify both the U.S. and Israeli destruction of Arab country after Arab country. The unfathomable, genocidal deaths of 655,000 Iraqis since the war began in 2003 is only tolerable if the Iraqis are viewed as having less humanity and less worth than the rest of the world. Even as late into the war as 2005, there was a 30 percent increase in hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) tracked 1,972 incidents against Muslims in 2005-the highest number since 1995 in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. According to a study compiled by the University of Illinois, the wages of Muslim men in the United States have dropped by 10 percent since 9-11.

Racism and the State

Racism in American society is hardly new, but there is a new respectability for it that is sanctioned by the highest levels of government lending an air of authority and legitimacy to the attacks on Latinos and Arabs in our society. Racism has historically been used to divide, distract and rule American workers. Today is no different. Neither political party has solutions for the ongoing crisis that all workers lives are mired in-unattainable healthcare, rising taxes, low wages, raided pension funds, perpetual downsizing and layoffs and general insecurity spurred on by unending wars and an uncertain future. In the absence of a real political program, the powers that be have opted for scapegoating and repression.

The resurgence of racism is coupled with ever expanding police powers and the legitimization of a “by all means necessary” approach to law enforcement. From wiretapping to the purposely vague “enemy combatant” label the Bush administration is not only preparing for battles abroad but the inevitable conflicts at home. In other words, not only has the Patriot Act allowed the Bush Administration to follow and surveil perpetually suspect Muslim organization, but the same laws are used to monitor and harass peace and anti-war organizations. From Abu Grahib to Guantanamo to the South Side of Chicago, to East L.A., to the streets of Queens where Sean Bell was gunned down law enforcement has been allowed to roam unchecked by city halls, state houses and the federal government.

It is inevitable that this web of “respectable” racism directed at the undocumented, Latinos, Muslims and Arabs would eventually entangle African Americans. American racism is not like a water facet that can be turned on for some and turned off for others. It is a continuous stream that eventually gets everyone wet. In the 1990s in California, tens of thousands of African Americans voted for the racist Proposition 187—an ordinance aimed at stripping immigrants of their access to a wide range of social services. Blacks were told that the presence of Latino immigrants-documented and undocumented-were cutting into desperately needed resources for the Black community. Of course the passing of Prop 187 did not increase resources in the Black community it only helped to stoke general racial animosity so much so that a few years later Proposition 209-a California ban on affirmative action-passed resulting in thousands of Black students being locked out of universities across the state.

When Latinos buy into the stereotypes that Blacks do not work as hard as immigrants, it helps to preserve an atmosphere of finger pointing and scapegoating and divides Latinos against a necessary ally. When Blacks and Latinos accept the racist caricatures of Muslims and Arabs as terrorists it only helps justify government spending on “security” and law enforcement which in turn contributes to a “law and order” atmosphere allowing the police, the military and the border patrol to do “whatever it takes to keep us safe”-including harassing, detaining and sometimes killing Muslims, Latinos and Blacks. The American state has used the scapegoating and demonization of undocumented immigrants and Muslims to rehabilitate racial profiling after African American protest in the late 1990s largely discredited the practice.


Fighting Back

The attacks on these affected communities has not only created victims but has also produced resistance. The immigrant rights movement, which drew millions of documented and undocumented workers onto American streets in unprecedented numbers, is the most powerful example of this dynamic. The movement was largely born out of reaction to a proposed congressional bill which would have criminalized the mere presence of the undocumented in the United States while turning all Latinos into suspects.

But there have been smaller expressions of resistance showing that the pieces for a generalized movement against racism exist. Earlier this month when six imams were handcuffed and herded off of a U.S. Airways plane because some passengers complained the men made them “uncomfortable”, supporters organized a pray-in at the airline’s ticket counter at Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C. UCLA student, Mostafa Tabatabainejad, was handcuffed and tasered in the school library when he was profiled and asked to show identification and he refused. In response to this blatant act of racism and police brutality, two hundred students organized a protest against the police tactics and anti-Muslim racism. When management at Smithfield Foods fired 75 immigrant workers because they said the workers social security numbers did not match federal data, nearly 1,000 Latino workers walked off the job to audible shouts of “justicia” , “we want justice” and “no more abuse.” Within two days management caved reinstating most of the fired workers and promising no reprisals for those who participated in the wildcat. Finally, in the aftermath of the murder of Sean Bell hundreds of Blacks took to the streets to demand justice and an end to police brutality in the Black community. This all just in the month of November.

The current debate and discussion amongst activists and in movement circles on how to achieve “Black-Brown” unity and collaboration are not simply abstract projections on “can’t we all get along”. These are desperately needed discussions on how to organize a movement based on the political principles of solidarity and “an injury to one is an injury to all.” In fact that debate needs to be widened to include Muslims and Arabs and white workers who are rapidly being disabused of any false notions of privilege and power as their living standards have followed everyone else’s down a bottomless sink hole.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes regularly on issues of race and class for the International Socialist Review. She is author of Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs: Racism in America Today and Racism and the Criminal Injustice System. She can be reached at