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
“”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.