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The Construction of Black Criminality

On September 19 this year a man named Terence Crutcher was driving home after attending a music class at a community college in Tulsa, OK. His car broke down and he was forced to stop on the road and seek assistance. The police showed up with their guns drawn responding to a 911 call from another motorist worried about a threatening man by a car stopped in the middle of the road. Video footage from a police helicopter hovering overhead shows Cutcher with his hands up. In the audio one of the pilots remarks, "looks like a bad dude…might be on something." Moments later, officer Betty Shelby shoots and kills him.

There are many curious and horrible aspects of this tale. First and foremost, it is horrible that a human being was killed by people sworn to protect him. What was curious was the diagnosis of drug use and the determination of evil intent, made from hundreds of feet above Crutcher and the scene unfolding below. Without the benefit of hearing the man, seeing his facial expressions, or reading the fine details of his body language, the police helicopter pilot somehow determined that Crutcher was villainous. One piece of information that was available and visible from ~100 feet: Crutcher was Black. And in America, Blackness is tragically, yet purposefully linked to criminality. 

It's commonplace for people to wonder whether the Tulsa police officers, or other officers involved in extrajudicial killings of Black and Brown women and men, are racists. Implicit in this question is the misconception that racism must involve malicious intent coupled with a conscious belief that someone of another race is lesser. But in our country, and many places in the world, racism need not be intentional. Humans are social creatures, and much of what we think and do is a result of the lessons we learn as we interact with our society. Our actions then feed back into society, showing others what is normative and acceptable, and we thereby create and recreate culture. Thus, the question should not be whether officer Shelby is a racist, but rather why is it that our society allows racist actions like this to play out predictably over and over again.

A simple example of the lessons we, as social creatures living in the US learn, is the way we head to the end of a line when enter a bank or approach a fast food restaurant counter. When we do so it signals to others that this is the correct behavior, and subtle yet clear social cues are sent to those who do otherwise. I cannot remember the origin of my "lineist" behavior, and I'm rarely conscious of it. Indeed, I can do other tasks such as reading an article on my cell phone at the pharmacy and simultaneously find my way to the correct position in a line. 

Similarly, the assumption of Crutcher's criminality, and mortal danger he posed to armed police officers who have him outnumbered six-to-one, was not an original nor conscious idea of the pilot hovering far above. His "commonsense" observation, and the actions of the officer-turned-executioner on the ground below were the tragic, yet predictable result of an idea that was created—constructed—over 150 years ago: the concept of Black criminality. 

The idea that race is meaningful enough to cause a human being like Crutcher, an otherwise social creature, to be inclined toward violent and antisocial behavior is absurd, especially since it was long ago determined that race is not a biological reality. No credible biologist, psychologist, anthropologist, or sociologist explicitly believes that the thickness of one's lips, the texture of one's hair, the tone of one's skin have a bearing on mental processes. This despite the incentives to discover otherwise, and despite race being the primary focus of these scientific enterprises for more than a century following Thomas Jefferson's inquiry into why it was that African slaves are inferior to those of European descent (not whether, but why. The faulty framing of this question should disturb any scientist). Yet Crutcher's skin tone was enough of a visual clue to signal his bad-dudeness to people empowered by the state to execute him. 

To understand this and other state-sanctioned police executions of Black and brown women and men, we need to follow that bright line stretching from the present back into the distant past. 

Profit and Ideology in the Land of the Free

The men pictured above lived in Alabama. Their days consisted of waking up before sunrise and working in a coal mine until long after dark. They often worked to fulfill a quota of two to three tons of ore mined per day. For meeting this quota, they received no remuneration other than a meager meal and a short night's sleep before repeating their toil the following day. For not achieving their quota, they could be beaten, whipped, waterboarded, or tortured by numerous other methods. These men were leased to private companies by the state of Alabama, and the income earned provided the state with upwards of 73 percent of its annual revenue, while the owners of coal mines made a fortune off of this source of inexpensive labor. 

If I told you this happened in the years just prior to the Civil War, you might not be too surprised. Slavery is a well known, ugly part of our nation's history. But what if I told you that the photo above was taken in 1907, more than four decades after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment? Said amendment to the Constitution of the US stated, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." So how was it that these men, and thousands upon thousands of others like them were sold, enslaved and most often worked to their deaths?

In this case, the devil is in the ellipses. In my quote of the Thirteenth Amendment the omitted text reads , "...except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." You see, according to our constitution, slavery is abolished...except for convicted criminals. By exploiting this loophole, Southern states and wealthy industrialists were able to literally recapture the cheap labor they lost following the Civil War. All that was needed were a few more laws worthy of prison time (vagrancy, cursing, spitting) along with law enforcement officials who would round up Black people found in violation of these laws. The result was Slavery by Another Name

This was yet another example of an American institution created to enrich the few at the expense of the many, just as indentured servitude and slavery were used prior to the Civil War . However, while antebellum slaves were generally considered loyal, religious, morally upstanding, and only threatening when they suffered from drapetomania (the so-called mental illness that caused slaves to escape captivity), the new system required a manufactured linkage between Blackness and criminality. Thus the origin of the social construct of Black criminality, together with the creation of regional police forces that were actively hostile toward the Black citizenry. Therein lay the what and how that led directly to Terence Crutcher's extrajudicial execution. But we should never forget that, as there was with antebellum slavery, the why is just as important. 

Convict leasing is another example of the utility of racism. Racism isn't simply a collection of ideas floating about in people's heads. Racism is an ideology that finds its origins in myriad motivating factors such as corporate profit and political power. But critically, it also requires the animating force of people continually creating and recreating it through their words and actions (and inactions). These words and actions need not involve rallies with hoods and burning crosses. It requires liberal academics—the "good" people—to sit idly by, or at most make a fleeting comment, when a political candidate talks about violence in Black ("urban") communities without discussing the violence visited on the people there by the state. It requires liberal academics to have no response when a relative asks "but what about Black-on-Black crime?" despite the ridiculousness of a concept, such as crime, having a race. What of Black-on-Black dining? Such a concept cannot be sanctioned without the tacit acceptance of the myth of Black criminality that has been created and recreated over the past century and a half.

Without people actively challenging the concept of Black criminality today, then a candidate's message and promise on "law and order" will continue to resonate with a white populace who harbor deep-seated, and historically old, fears of the menace of Black criminals. The leverage provided by that ancient fear can, and will, be extended to other groups to create nonsense such as Mexican (Latinx) illegality and Islamic terrorism. Mounting this challenge requires leadership from white people who are willing to dig deep into their history and follow the bright line that connects the men rounded up into a new slavery to the tragic murder of Terence Crutcher earlier this year.


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