I couldn’t help thinking that as the Republican Party brought out numerous African-American speakers to the podium at their convention in Cleveland this week, like Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke, whom the pundits fawned over as evidence of the party’s diversity, and who reinforced Trump’s new “law and order” platform by reminding us how “blue lives matter in America,” is that many people still do not understand what is meant when it is claimed that racism is systemic and structural, and that his and other African-American’s appearances and words are not evidence against that claim at all, nor are two terms of a black president. And it’s not just David Clarke, or Jeffrey Lords gushing over how much applause the African American speakers received to Van Jones, it’s also Chris Mathews joking with SNL’s Michael Che about being black, funny, and exceptional.
What cultural theorists of a particular bent, like myself (who is white), but of course many other people, generally mean when we say that racism against African Americans in the U.S. is ‘systemic and structural’ is that it is not only oppressive and disciplinary (in rationalizing harassment, violence, imprisonment and lethal force disproportionally), but is productive of a certain type of perspective and practices–a perspective which has historical roots, that has particular expectations, and is normalized in institutions like the police force, and through which African Americans (especially young black men) are to be feared (by people like me especially), and taught that they are feared–that their mere presence can constitute a threat, that they are inherently threatening and should be acted on accordingly.
This means that we should not be surprised when someone who takes on the job of policing in America, regardless of that officer’s shade of skin or ’race’, shows fear and prejudice toward black citizens as much as their white colleagues. It also means that I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was when I watched from my front porch one night in New Orleans as a black cop took down to the ground and pummeled a black homeless man in the street, a person I’d chatted with a few times and said ‘hi’ to before numerous days and nights, for no other reason than he was walking through a block that was predominantly white, middle class, university students. Essentially, he was being reminded to ‘know his place’, which is the other side of racism’s productiveness: that is, as a black body, he should know where that black body should be.
This cop was ‘doing his duty’, upholding the “law and order” Trump is now doubling down on. His angry response toward me when I objected to his aggressiveness and tried to explain that I knew the guy was to tell me to “get in my house.” He showed incredulous offense at my questioning, as if I didn’t understand. My reaction seemed evidence to him, perhaps, of my ungratefulness, that I didn’t adequately appreciate his policing, that he was just fulfilling his obligation to ‘serve and protect’ as he had been trained.
But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Maybe I should have recalled that this system was first alluded to in the words of a white, upper-class native New Orleanian on my first night in town when he turned to me and my girlfriend with a presumptuous look after explaining how things are in New Orleans to say “Thank God for the New Orleans Police Department.”
So it is not a counter-argument against the claim of systemic, structural racism to point out that it was a black cop that killed a black man, or when a latino wanna-be cop vigilante (George Zimmerman) stalks and kills a black teen (Trayvon Martin), or even when one of the victims of a revenge killing against cops is black. These should not be surprises if we consider how deeply rooted and ingrained, how structural and systemic, this racism is in the culture of the United States. It is a racism that is not personal, not likely even articulated or owned, not, as President Obama reminded us, the individual who uses the ‘n-word’. It is instead the deeply rooted systemic and structural racism, and the accompanying perspectives, discourses, and practices, the fear and violence that it encourages, if not seems to necessitate, that Black Lives Matters is critiquing, protesting, and working to call attention to. And, most importantly, to change.
Michael Lukas is a Doctoral Candidate (English-CSPT) and Sessional Lecturer at the University of Victoria.