Target Practice: The Unfair Treatment of Black Bodies and Institutionalized Racism By: Rosa Queen

After reading the BBC news article, “Virginia Governor Calls for Inquiry into Student Arrest,” which is dated March 19 of this year, I was overwhelmed by the increase in such race based violence within recent years. This got me thinking of whether this is truly an increase in such violent acts, or rather the increasing media coverage and reduced “hushing” of such incidents. Dating back to the days of slavery, violence against Black bodies has never really ended, with the recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner a sore reminder that it still exists. It is theorized that this is deeply rooted in slavery, and has become amalgamated into modern culture as a result of long standing colonialism. Slavery provided non-government personnel with the ability to discipline and hold power over another person’s life, especially when these persons were considered lesser. This is easily translated in the inappropriate use of power in the case of Martese Johnson. Who’s safety is sacrificed to allow for this power?

The ongoing anti-blackness that has been engraved into society has reached a point where young Black men especially have accepted this discriminatory violence as a natural and rationalized part of life. There is an underlying dichotomy in today’s society even in the appearance and understanding of bodies. A young White man is seen as the safe, average Joe that we are accustomed to seeing on the streets every day. However Black masculinity is seen as animalistic and intrinsically violent, a constant threat. Black women are also dehumanized and overly sexualised, simply for the colour of their skin. This dichotomy of appearances is evident in the case of Martese Johnson, who according to witnesses was arrested by Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents with unfair and unnecessary violence. Although these White officers were witnessed, the only punishment they received was being placed on administrative duty. This begs the question, if the roles were reversed, would the Black officers receive more punishment for using unnecessary violence on a White young man?

This plays into a larger pattern of institutionalized racism, in particular, Black bodies being unfairly treated by law enforcement personnel. There have been numerous accounts of White officers assaulting or even killing unarmed young Black men, however although some of these cases have gained much media attention, the perpetrators of these crimes have gotten off scot free. It is also interesting to see that the victims of these crimes are then branded in the media as deserving of such treatment for being “sketchy.” This is not isolated to just violence in public, but also in arrests. Black males make up 40% of the male inmates currently incarcerated in the U.S., with more Black males in jail than in college. What does that have to say about the way law enforcement works? That this minority group is more likely to be arrested either through over-surveillance or through unjustified police work. We have reached a point in society where fathers of young Black boys must tell their sons to be afraid of the police force, is this truly representative of an inclusive and progressive society? This is in fact representative of a collective failure of a society to provide non-biased treatment of a group based on race.

In order to combat this, many White politicians and media personalities have brought up Black respectability politics as a method of combatting this inequality. The worrying aspect of this is the concept of White bodies informing Black bodies of how to dress and act in order to avoid being victimized. The way to do this is through acting and dressing “more White.” How is being or acting White automatically associated with being respectable? This ethnocentric view imparts these suggested improvements in order to avoid discrimination. These include practices such as not wearing saggy pants, not wearing kerchiefs on your head or using vile language in public places. This is based on the underlying truth that Black bodies are seen as broken and in need of fixing, although this “undesirable behaviour” may be rooted in poverty. How has society decided that undesirable behaviours, poor social class and Black bodies intersected and were punishable? Simple, systematic discrimination in order to maintain the race based division of the economy. The interplaying power structures allow for these kinds of racialized statements, with Black bodies and their cultural practices being seen as unrespectable. But even these methods have shown to be useless. Keeping your hands visible proved useless to Michael brown, visual proof through a body camera also proved useless to Eric Garner, even staying in your own home still resulted in the death of 7 year old Aiyana Jones during a botched police raid.

What does this mean in a broad sense? In relation to Martese Johnson, this systematic brutalization of Black bodies condoned for this young man to be unnecessarily assaulted without showing any sign of aggression himself. It condoned the murder of several Black bodies such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and the victim blaming culture to brand these two young men as terrors to society in the wake of their deaths. Even the officers responsible for the assault on Johnson reported that he was “agitated and belligerent,” although this was not corroborated by witnesses on the scene. We live in a world where Black bodies are seen as lesser, animalistic and always dangerous, no matter if they are 20 year old men or 7 year old girls. What are the scary implications for Black bodies today? That their victimization has been engrained in society and that safety is not a right, but rather something that cannot be counted on. Until we as a society are able to analyse and reform the pre-existing power structures based on racial prejudice, we will be unable to neutralize this underlying threat to Black bodies. In conclusion, until there is mutual respect for all bodies, it will be impossible to live in the progressive and inclusive society that has seemed so elusive to us.

By: Rosa Queen

Works Cited

“”I Hate Myself!”: What Are Respectability Politics, and Why Do Black People Subscribe to Them?” A Line in the Sand. September 5, 2013. http://alineinthesand.com/respectability-politics/.

“Virginia Governor Calls for Inquiry into Student Arrest.” BBC News. March 18, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-31965856.

Abbey-Lambertz, Kate. “Charges Dismissed Against Joseph Weekley, Cop Who Fatally Shot Sleeping 7-Year-Old [UPDATE].” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/28/joseph-weekley-charges-dismissed-aiyana-stanley-jones_n_6566032.html.

Edwards, Breanna. “From Slavery to Ferguson: America’s History of Violence Toward Blacks.” http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/09/from_slavery_to_ferguson_america_s_history_of_violence_toward_blacks.html.

Mauer, Marc, and Ryan S. King. Uneven justice: State rates of incarceration by race and ethnicity. Washington, DC: Sentencing Project, 2007.

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6 thoughts on “Target Practice: The Unfair Treatment of Black Bodies and Institutionalized Racism By: Rosa Queen

  1. Elin

    Hi Rosa Queen,

    First off, I thought your piece was eloquently and articulately written, thoughtful and moving. I particularly liked how, at the beginning of the piece, you presented insight into how both females and males of different races are stereotypically portrayed and received in society, as this grounded your piece. The question you raised about whether “if the roles were reversed, would the Black officers receive more punishment for using unnecessary violence on a White young man?” was a brilliantly employed tactic as it forces the reader to view the issue as not an isolated event but rather a systemic issue. Further, your critique of the qualifications and merits of Black respectability politics showcased the glaring and overt issues with such policies. Overall great job!

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    1. Rosa Queen

      Hi Elin!
      Thank you for your feedback. In terms of my role reversal point, I think it’s always important to show the other side of the coin to a reader. In that way they can manage their own reactions to the two cases and really understand the systematic problems in this society. In this case, I was hoping that such an example would jar the reader into stopping and considering that in all reality the Black officers would have most likely been suspended and put in jail for their “atrocious animalistic” actions whereas in reality this was not the case for the White officers. It really goes to show you that we have all been programmed by society in such a way that we see some things as okay when the same act committed by a marginalized community would result in a completely different reaction.
      Thanks again!

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  2. Moira

    Hi Rosa! Thank you for your post! I really enjoyed the way that you pointed out the futility of the endless “suggestions” for ending anti-black violence. Whether it is keeping ones hands in sight, having cops wear cameras, or just plain staying at home, recommendations are made over and over with no real results. You are entirely right – this is because it’s not about changing little things like the clothes you wear (again, your mention of black respectability politics) or how you carry yourself. It’s about trying to survive in a racist system that fears black people… and this is something that has to change in as massive, systemic way. I recently listened to an episode of This American Life (called Cops See it Differently II) that discussed how certain police stations are doing racial bias training to reduce the amount of needless deaths caused by this prejudice. An interesting finding was, most cops are actually as racially biased (or less so) than average civilians… the average civilian just isn’t charged with keeping order and given a gun… frightening.

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    1. Rosa Queen

      Hi Moira!
      Thank you for your input. I believe respectability politics is a HUGE problem in our society not only in terms of racism but also in terms of sexism as seen in your blog. It all ties into the concept that marginalized populations who are often the victims of such crimes should “know better” and individuals are victim-blamed. This could be anything from a Black man wearing his pants 2 inches higher to a woman wearing heels 2 inches shorter. It is interesting to see that the people that are prescribing these rules as “cures to victmization” are not those who are victimized, in reality they are more representative of the population that is oppressing the others. As evidenced in a huge number of cases, including that of Martese Johnson, these politics do nothing for those that are actually victimized but serve as a series of useless “I told you so’s” after the fact.
      Thanks for a great comment!

      -Rosa Queen

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  3. gndsgirl11 Post author

    Rosa Queen,

    Once again, your piece was beautifully written, thought-provoking and had a deep emotional impact for readers. I thought that everything you said about the racism that is still so apparent in society was very spot on and something that is important for everyone to be aware of. Personally, I believe that many people today wish to look at society as something very different and progressive since the days of slavery and slave trade. However, at the bottom of all of this, is the same racialization of Black people as there was during slavery, it is just being showcased in a different manner. Do you believe that there will ever come a time where all races will be truly accepted for who they are in their entirety? I sure hope so, however there will always be someone who has been made to believe that people who are different from them are ‘bad’. Again, thank you for your insight. It has been a pleasure reading your blogs.

    -gndsgirl11

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  4. Darkling

    Hi Rosa Queen!
    I think you made an excellent connection between the perpetuation of violence against black bodies under slavery and the way in which violence is enacted against black people by law enforcement and the criminal justice system today. A country founded on slavery, and all the brutality and dehumanization attached to it, will invariably have a huge structural bias against the people whose suffering made its existence possible. There have never been reparations for slavery, and any legal protection from white violence has been won in spite of the legal system, not with its aid. This is why I find it so frustrating when well-meaning white liberals suggest dash cams and body cams for police, or talk about instilling “racial sensitivity training” for them: when the entire legal system is founded on antiblack racism and white supremacy, simply monitoring or “educating” cops is unlikely to have any meaningful impact. Something I just learned recently is that runaway slave patrols and night watches are the origin of modern police forces in the US. (http://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/brief-history-slavery-and-origins-american-policing) Policing in the US literally began with the primary purpose of maintaining slavery. Anyway, I really appreciate that you addressed the connection, because it’s so important and so overlooked.

    Anyway, I don’t really have any questions to pose to you: I really enjoyed reading your analysis of Martese Johnson’s arrest. I’m sad that this is your last blog post on here because you have so many incredible things to say! I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts this semester. Have a great summer, and good luck with exams!

    -Darkling

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