As the brilliant left cultural theorist and social critic Henry Giroux noted more than a decade ago, the dominant neoliberal ideology “collapses” the nation’s “pervasive racial hierarchies…into power-evasive strategies such as blaming minorities of class and color for not working hard enough” and “refusing to exercise individual initiative.” Even as racism “functions” as “one of the deep and abiding currents in everyday [American] life,” Giroux wrote, neoliberal discourse works “to erase the social from the language of public life so as to reduce all racial problems to private issues [of]…individual character and cultural depravity.”
This “neoliberal racism,” as Giroux called it, “can imagine public issues only as private concerns.” It sees “human agency as simply a matter of individualized choices, the only obstacle to effective citizenship being the lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” on the part of those most victimized by structural oppression and the amoral agency of super-empowered actors atop the nation’s interrelated hierarchies of class and race. “Human misery is largely defined as a function of personal choices” and “all problems are private rather than social in nature.”
The reigning United States bourgeois and neoliberal wisdom claims that everyone is personally responsible for their own situation. Good or bad, it’s your own fault. There are no social structures and institutional and political power systems that make disproportionately white fortunate and privileged people rich, free, and comfortable while consigning millions of disproportionately non-white people to poverty, prison, and chronic insecurity. There’s no inherited advantages and disadvantages, no reigning hierarchies of oppression, and no unjust systems of class, race, and imperial rule, exploitation, and upward wealth transfer.
It all comes down to the individual and perhaps the family. It’s all about personal effort and cultural values. We are all the makers of our own circumstances. Winners win because they work hard, true, and smart. Losers lost because they didn’t play by the rules and do those things.
This vicious, victim-blaming narrative is applied in all kinds of situations – even sometimes in murder trials.
Look at the case of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old Black youth fatally shot sixteen times – yes, sixteen times – by white Chicago police officer Jason Van-Dyke on October 20th, 2014. Van Dyke’s murder trial started this week, nearly four years after the crime.
You can watch the tape of Laquan McDonald’s execution. Just Google up his name and “sixteen shots.” You can see young Laquan walking away from his murderer, posing no immediate threat to anyone. You can see Laquan’s prone body lying on the ground, curled up in a fetal position and jolted again and again as the crazed, mad-dog killer Officer Van Dyke pumps one more bullet after another into the Black teenager. You can discern smoke rising out of Laquan’s dying body as Van Dyke blasts one more slug after another into his victim.
“Only thirty seconds after arriving on the scene, and six seconds after exiting his car,” the political scientist Anthony DiMaggio writes in a forthcoming study of social movements, “Van Dyke fired numerous shots that brought McDonald to the ground, after which the officer emptied his clip into the suspect, despite McDonald being in a fetal position, not posing any danger to police. In total, Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times in 15 seconds, with the suspect on the ground for 13 of those seconds.”
Here we are four years after the brutal killing. Van Dyke has finally gone to trial, starting last Monday. Chicago’s white corporate media tried to help Van Dyke’s lawyer pollute the jury pool prior to jury selection by printing his prattling about how (in the murderer’s words) “Any loss of life was extremely difficult…You don’t ever want to shoot your gun.” Van Dyke told the Chicago Tribune: “I never would have fired my gun if I didn’t think my life was in jeopardy or another citizen’s life was.”
A local television station broadcast a pre-jury-selection interview in which Van Dyke’s wife tearfully told viewers that she is “petrified” over the prospect of tragically losing her husband to prison just because he did “the job for which he was trained.”
Van Dyke and his wife have been presented here as if they — a supposedly virtuous white public servant and his family — are the real victims in the killing of Laquan McDonald.
Van Dyke’s defense attorney Daniel Herbert failed to get the trial moved out of Chicago, where he feared that too many Black jurors might find his murderous defendant guilty. But not to worry. The killer cop’s lawyer succeeded in securing a twelve-person jury that includes just one Black person! That was an astonishing and disturbing development in a city that is 32.9 percent Black and home to the second largest urban Black population in the nation. The ominous meaning of this egregious and racially inflammatory Black under-representation on the jury that will decide Van Dyke’s fate is not lost on Black Chicagoans and civil rights activists.
The opening trial statement from Van Dyke’s attorney was equally provocative. As the Chicago Tribunereported:
“While prosecutors emphasized that Van Dyke fired so many shots, Herbert said, an average officer can fire five or six times in just a single second…Van Dyke fired many of the shots before even realizing McDonald had fallen to the street, he told jurors. Herbert said Van Dyke paused to reassess after firing 14 of the 16 shots. He didn’t know if they were lethal gunshots. He didn’t know if Laquan McDonald had the ability to get back up and attack him,’ he said. ‘McDonald holds on to his knife the whole time he’s on the ground, despite being shot 14 times he starts making movements’” (emphasis added).
That was gaslighting on steroids. In what bizarre universe was McDonald a threat to the gun-wielding Van Dyke as the bullet-riddled teenager lay dying, his body jerking with each new shot? Does Herbert think the disproportionately white jury will imagine that McDonald was a Marvel Comics super-villain able to rise from imminent death to miraculously slay his attacker with a knife? What kind of magical thinking could create such a bizarre and outlandish scenario?
On the second day of the trial, Herbert rolled out Van Dyke’s former partner, officer Joe Walsh, who claimed that McDonald “raised [his] knife to shoulder height and swungit moments before Van Dyke opened fire.”
The video (viewed by millions) clearly shows Walsh’s testimony to be a bald-faced lie.
Walsh also preposterously testified that McDonald posed a danger after he was shot and fell to the street.
But this wasn’t the biggest lie told in defense of the racist cop-killer in court so far. Beyond ludicrous claims about the physical menace supposedly posed by McDonald,Van Dyke’s case rests on the broader underlying argument that Laquan was personally responsible for his own death. “The story in this case,”Herbert told the over-white jury in his opening statement, “is a story written, directed and orchestrated by one person: Laquan McDonald.”
How so? McDonald, Herbert said, went on “a wild rampage through the city” and had to be stopped before he killed someone, maybe even Van Dyke. What was this “wild rampage”? According to the Chicago Tribune, “A woman who called 911 to report McDonald–who was later determined to be on PCP–had asked to borrow her car in the middle of the previous night. Herbert also told the jury that McDonald had been using a disabled retired veteran’s public transit card throughout the city.” Then McDonald reportedly broke into cars and walked around with a small knife in his hands, being trailed by heavily armed squad cars.
Not exactly King Kong menacing Tokyo – or Chicago.
That’s how Laquan McDonald supposedly “wrote, directed, and orchestrated” his own ferocious sixteen-bullet murder by Jason Van Dyke!
Might oppressive institutions of any kind of have had anything to do with the “writing” of the “story” of the Laquan’s death? The one part of Van Dyke’s defense that makes some real sense is the claim that the killing was consistent with standard (and unmentionably racist) Chicago police practice/malpractice in the city’s Black and Latino neighborhoods. Sparked by mass protests following the egregiously delayed release of the McDonald kill video in late 2015, the U.S. Justice Department conducted and released in Barack Obama’s final days in the White House an official Investigation of the Chicago Police Department. The DOJ reported that:
“Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers engage in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, that is unreasonable…[and] in violation of the Constitution, [and reflects]…a collection of poor police practices…used routinely within CPD. …Officers engage in tactically unsound and unnecessary foot pursuits, …these foot pursuits too often end with officers unreasonably shooting someone—including unarmed individuals.…Officers shoot at vehicles without justification and in contradiction to CPD policy. …Officers exhibit poor discipline when discharging their weapons and engage in tactics that endanger themselves and public safety, including failing to await backup when they safely could and should; using unsound tactics in approaching vehicles; and using their own vehicles in a manner that is dangerous. Among the most egregious uses of deadly force we reviewed were incidents in which CPD officers shot at suspects who presented no immediate threat…CPD’s pattern or practice of unreasonable force and systemic deficiencies fall heaviest on the predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago, which are also experiencing higher crime. Raw statistics show that CPD uses force almost ten times more often against blacks than against whites. As a result, residents in black neighborhoods suffer more of the harms caused by breakdowns in uses of force, training, supervision, accountability, and community policing” (emphasis added).
“Suffer more” was an egregious understatement. The McDonald killing is one of many “officer-involved shootings” resulting in the death of a young Black person in Chicago during this and the previous centuries. The notion of a white teenager being shot sixteen times by a Chicago police officer is unthinkable.
Under ruling neoliberal race-class doctrine, it is outside the parameters of acceptable discussion to situate Laquan’s tragic story alongside the plight of millions of other Black youths struggling with the combined forces of institutionalized race-class segregation, endemic race-class discrimination, savage race-class inequality, ubiquitous racist police-state repression, and racially hyper-disparate mass arrest and incarceration. None of those interrelated social and political phenomena – the subjects of my exhaustive 2007 volume Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (my best yet curiously least-read book) – exist in the personal responsibility fantasy world of the reigning bourgeois ideology.