I often ask my students why America is a great country. Usually I get blank stares as a response. Either due to them not having an answer or being perplexed by the question being asked.
In my class, I begin with reviewing some of the great ideas of the Enlightenment that form the foundations of the American system of government.
To their chagrin, my students are required to know how and why the writings of Moses, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas provide the foundation for the thoughts and ideas on democracy and the rule of law advocated by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Charles de Montesquieu, Cesare Beccaria, and Jeremy Bentham. These foundations, which I require them to know, are what James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson used to write the great Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
These writers together established the principle that all power, including the police on the street, is governed by the law. No one is above the law. America is a nation governed by the idea that it is rule of law centric, not rule by law. That means, among many things, that the police cannot take a life because they can.
Herein lies the problem. These high and great principles that make America great, did not apply to Blacks as a matter of law from before the generation that birthed Washington and Hamilton were born through 1968. This truth means something when we look at police use of force today.
Although the proposition that the police in 2020 (as supposed to 1920) cannot choke George Floyd, a black man, to death in the light of day, in the street for all to see and video is settled. The problem is that the 19-year police veteran – and the three officers who helped him – that killed him felt free to do it anyway. That is the point.
Why? Because the value of black life being equal to white life is a new concept in America. Black equality is only 52 years old in a nation that is 400 years old (starting with the importation of slaves in 1619). This history of black life not being equal in value manifests itself when the police decide to raid a black woman’s home, Breonna Taylor, and kill her when her boyfriend defends her person and home to what looked like a home invasion. The police are required to announce themselves. They did not. Why not? Well, it’s only black people. We don’t have to do the raid by the book.
Racism lies in the attitude of not doing what is required because its only blacks we are doing it to. Racism is an attitude, much more than actions. It’s one thing to think you have the right, in Georgia, to follow and attack a black man, Ahmaud Arbery, jogging down a southern street because you think he may have stolen something, and shoot him when he resists. It’s one thing when you think you can do this because you are a former police officer. But it’s something else when the local prosecutors, for three months, say the black man had it coming, and he should have been shot when he resisted two white men who jumped out of a pickup truck and attacked him. Who does this black man think he is defending his person against the desires of two white men? The prosecutor’s judgement would have prevailed if the video of the incident had not come to light.
The problem with black pain is that it’s silent. Unheard. Then some event occurs and ignites outrage. Violent social protests are never the result of the incident that ignites them. One black man killed by the police will not ignite social unrest, but one can be the one too many.
As any freshman in any criminology course learns, human behavior is personal, social, and societal. Human beings are social creatures and we act and adapt to the environments we are in. That environment defines perspectives, options, goals, and concepts of right and wrong and distinctions between what ought to be and what is. When that distinction is negative and the effects of that negativity is suffered by a specific people, Blacks, that group will resist within that environment. That resistance takes various forms, from Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, as well as the protests of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and to those of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Minneapolis.
But returning to the present situation, the reason the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are particularly egregious is because these killing don’t even have the pretense of legality. The blatant disregard for these two black lives is without dispute. The racism in the decision not to follow proper protocols that resulted in the raid of a black woman’s home and resulted in the killing of Breonna Taylor can at least be pretended to be the result of police incompetence in executing a warrant.
But in all three, what is shown is the disregard for black life. Blacks are disproportionately represented in all types of negative statistics. But the racism in policing and criminal justice is particularly egregious because it has the power to take life and as such it defines and reflects the value of those lives taken in the eyes of society and government. It’s how that definition is made and shown that births days of violent protest in the streets of Minneapolis. As the scriptures say, let those who have an ear let them hear, for the rest, let them have confusing parables.
Arthur Garrison is an associate professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University and author of the upcoming book, "Chained to the System: The History and Politics of Black Incarceration in America."