BOOK REVIEW: ‘Policing the Black Man’

You have to believe it’s hard to go wrong with a book enthusiastically endorsed by Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or Walter Mosley, never mind all three, and your money’s safe betting on a copy of Policing the Black Man (Pantheon Books).

Edited by American University Law Professor Angela J. Davis, eleven incisive essays, including her own “The Prosecution of Black Men,” cast unsparing light on the grimly entrenched, institutionalized and quite legal lynching of this society’s most feared and despised target of bigotry. It’s not ISIS or any other sworn foreign enemy, but citizens withstanding outright racial hatred from police departments, which is then upheld by the courts.

This isn’t academic, barely comprehensible language verging on gobbledygook, but intelligent, thoughtful, hard-hitting fare easy to read as it is fluidly articulate.

Roger A. Fairfax, Jr.’s “The Grand Jury and Police Violence Against Black Men,” holds to account a crucial process seldom considered, much less scrutinized, that theoretically shields the innocent from persecution masked as prosecution. Actually, it works the other way around, even against White citizens, so, Black suspects have a snowball’s chance facing what Fairfax calls as a rubber stamping. Cops, though, skate.

Police virtually hunt the unarmed, consequence-free with a literal license to kill. “This history,” Fairfax states, “is crucial to understanding the role grand jury plays in…Contemporary cases of police violence.” Starting with, he points out, that grand juries once did stand between Black men and being railroaded, particularly by southern kangaroo courts. Which was then. This is now, when, “Recent egregious examples of police violence against African American males have brought the issue to the forefront of the American consciousness,” states Fairfax. He highlights the deaths of Freddie Brown (Baltimore), Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri), Eric Garner (NYC), Walter Scott (North Charleston, SC), 12-year-old Tamir Rice (Cleveland) and 17-year-old Laquan McDonald (Chicago).

Police palm off killing Black men as done in the line of duty and grand juries let them walk. Civil protest and media coverage had no impact on the still sustained practice. Fairfax outlines a clear-cut solution, calling for grand jury accountability, integrity, and objectivity, but hardly holds his breath awaiting that day.

“Boys to Men: The Role of Policing in the Socialization of Black Boys” is Kristen’s Henning’s impassioned indictment of police and the society sanctioning their abuse. She observes that going overboard to punish Black teens for the boys-will-be-boys mischief tolerated, for that matter, expected of Whites, gives them criminal records early and makes it tough for them to have anything but a hard life headed for more trouble and, it goes without saying, prison.

“Black boys,” she notes, “are policed like no one else, not even Black men. [Society is] uniquely afraid of Black boys.” Rice’s tragedy, she cites, “is significant for [its] devaluing life [and] the message it sends. Youths’ experiences and perceptions of fairness and justice…may have substantial impact on their risk of…dangerous and hostile encounters with police as they transition into adulthood.”

Being mistreated fosters mistrust and wizened anger cum cynical rage at a system that, personified by police, targets them simply because they’re Black. It rapes boys of their innocence, turning them into men who resort to criminality as their lot in life. Henning is exhaustive in laying out the problem and suggests a sensible but unrealistic solution — that police and courts stop seeing all young Black males as thugs in training. That would require viewing them as human beings no less inherently criminal than young Whites.

From the street, through the system up to the Supreme Court, these essays cover vital ground in laying bare the very flesh and bones of exactly why and how Black men are at peril as never before, save the days of dragging them out of homes and stringing them up from trees. It would be fascinating to see such a treatment of the state of things for Black girls and women.  Meanwhile, Policing the Black Man stands as a landmark achievement.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403.