During a pandemic, the savage murder of George Floyd has sparked protest demonstrations and the mobilization of millions who are morally outraged. His brutal death represents the everyday inhuman racist treatment of people of color in the United States. This case is socially and politically explosive.
To understand the social and political dynamics of this case, we have to focus on the centrality of race and the criminal justice system. Americans profess to believe that the rule of law should be applied equally to all citizens regardless of race or status. Yet, it is beyond dispute that the criminal “justice” system functions from start to finish (definitions of crime, investigation, arrest, charging, conviction, and sentencing) in a racially biased way.
Black bodies have been made to signify criminality, a threat and a menace to society by the American government at all levels. It logically follows that these bodies (male, female, young, and old) will be harshly and brutally assaulted by the law-enforcement forces of public safety (police).
The continuing and pervasive practice of the extremely aggressive policing of Black people is a manifestation of the fear and contempt that the White power structure and White American culture have of people of African ancestry. A militant, well-organized, and the highly politicalized Black community is necessary to curb anti-Black policing.
Recent mobilizations of the Black community in reaction to the shooting deaths of unarmed Black men demonstrate that we can have an impact on the course of actions by officials of the criminal justice system.
America: Racialized Police State
Every Black male, young and old is stigmatized as a potential or actual threat or menace to society. The vast majority of Black men have had a negative encounter with the criminal justice system, including Martin Luther King. One of my many personal encounters with the police department happened in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
On Monday, July 9, 2007, at about 3:40 pm, while walking home from my office at St. Cloud State University, I was stopped on the sidewalk by two police officers who were in separate squad cars. One officer got out of the car and looked at me and my bag, which I use to carry books and papers, and said that she had mistakenly perceived my bag as a purse.
The fact that I, a university professor and senior citizen, was stopped on a busy street in mid-afternoon and publicly humiliated by police officers because they perceived me as a suspected purse thief indicates the high level of anti-Black police profiling in the city of St. Cloud. I filed a formal complaint, but it was disdainfully dismissed. I did not even receive an apology.
The social structure of racism is predicated on stereotypes based on the appearance of our bodies. Negative stereotypes and anti-Black prejudices shape the discrimination that makes the everyday lives of Black Americans painful. Anti- Black stereotypes are derogatory beliefs and cognitions and feelings of antipathy toward Black people.
They are used to discredit, vilify, persecute, dehumanize, and target Black people, and they become toxic when supported by White power and dominance. The George Floyd case is especially painful for Blacks. Daily, Blacks feel the stress largely caused by White police officers and hostile Whites. The George Floyd case reveals more about the criminal justice system than it does about his killers.
The American Constitution: Black Lives do not Matter
Racial tensions are very high in the U.S. today. The Black community is angry, hurt, and in pain because of the frequent killings of Blacks by police officers. This institutionalized violence is evidence to Black people that their lives are not respected or valued by White American society.
Throughout American history, the government has created institutions that functioned to maintain White privilege and supremacy, resulting in the continuing oppression of Black people. One major arm of the government that is used to control Blacks is its criminal justice system. Since the very inception of the United States, through its ratification of the Constitution in 1787, Black people have had to fight against the legal system which legitimized our dehumanization and enslavement.
To understand why criminal justice works against black people, we need to know a little legal history. Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), was a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Dred Scott v. Sanford, Supreme Court judges considered this key question: Did the citizenship rights guaranteed by the Constitution apply to African Americans? The Supreme Court decided the case by a 7 to 2 decision that Black people were not American citizens.
They reasoned that people of African ancestry had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the White race, either in social or political relations—and so far inferior that they had no rights which the White man was bound to respect.
This decision continues to be the guiding constitutional principle of the legal system in the U.S. This is the legal anti-black foundation of the criminal justice system. it is morally bankrupt. It confirms that the legal system continues to operate on the basic principle that “Blacks have no rights which the White man was bound to respect.”
Today, the criminal justice system in Minnesota is being used to control and weaken the Black and American Indian communities by making felons a very large segment of the Black and Indian male populations.
Only about 6 percent of Minnesotans are Black, according to 2018 census estimates. Yet nearly 36 percent of the state’s prison population is Black. American Indians make up about 1 percent of the population and more than 9 percent of prisoners. Section 1. Adult Prison Population Summary as of 07/01/2018.
Turning the Black community against Itself
Perhaps the greatest immediate danger to the social fabric of the Black community is the criminal “justice” system. Through mass incarceration, millions of Black parents are now in prison, on probation, or parole. Moreover, a large segment of the Black population is legally marginalized by being branded as felons or ex-felons. Thus, police actions against the Black community have serious implications for the economic status of the family and the educational future of the children.
The criminal justice system has become a dominant presence in the lives of Black males. It impacts employment, housing, family formation, and political participation. Racialized incarceration is a manifestation of the political strategy to control and stigmatize Blacks as violent criminals and dangerous threats to civil society.
The social, economic, and political consequences of stigmatizing and criminalizing Black males have seriously weakened the social fabric of the Black community. Black ex-convicts are viewed as social pariahs.
They have been virtually banished from the labor market and in many states, they have been banned from civic engagement by the Felony Disenfranchisement Laws. They return to the Black community from prison with very few skills or opportunities to lead constructive lives.
The social dysfunctions in the depressed areas of the ghetto can be largely attributed to the anti-Black functions of the criminal justice system, which operates to debilitate the Black community by making felons out of a large proportion of Black men who then prey largely on members of their community- “Black-on-Black” crime.
Racial profiling is a tactic used in the strategy of the criminal justice system to maintain the subordination of Black people. But we are fighting back. The mass protest marches show our resolve to struggle against racial injustice in America. Racism divides and dehumanizes groups. Resisting racism is an act of liberation.
The militarization of the Police Force
This militarization of the police force is a manifestation of the strategic planning of the government to control Black people. The war on drugs serves as the rubric under which anti-drug laws and administrative policies have targeted Black people for marginalization and criminalization.
Through the criminal justice system, many Blacks are denied basic citizenship rights (the vote, student loans, public housing, etc.). The criminal justice system has become a dominant presence in the lives of Black males. It impacts employment, housing, family formation, and political participation.
The militarization of the police force in terms of army weapons, military tactics, and special assault units has been a long-term trend since the urban rebellions of the 1960s. The display of naked military-style intimidation against protesters for social justice in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown is an example of the extent to which the police departments across the nation have been militarized with equipment from the U. S. Department of Defense.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement grew out of this reality which continues to propel it. The main thrust of the movement is aimed at the criminal “justice” system, especially on police brutality and harassment, racial profiling and ticketing, police militarization, and mass incarceration.
The White ruling elite views BLM as a disruptive threat that has the potential to become an insurgent force that will challenge their stratified power structure of racial domination. Therefore, they are implementing both repressive and reform strategies to weaken and defuse BLM.
The repressive measures taken by the White elite include hiring more police officers and equipping them with military weapons, putting more people under surveillance and detention, restricting the space for protest demonstrations, and stigmatizing protesters as violent, uncivil, militant troublemakers.
Social Control through Deceptive Color-Blind Policies
The grievances that are acceptable to the White elite only address lite manifestations of racism in the criminal “justice” system. By making small concessions to minor demands and incorporating the moderate protest elements into the mainstream entities, the White elite wants to co-opt BLM.
The White liberal establishment has framed the issue as the bad or inappropriate behavior of a few White police officers. Hence their remedies include a better screening of police officer candidates at the point of hiring, conducting racial/cultural sensitivity training, and arranging get-acquainted sessions with people and police in the patrolled area. Also, recommendations are made to incorporate more people of color and women into the police force to change the White image and to reduce the racial criticism of the police force.
The racial integration of police departments and prison staffs may reduce the level of profiling, brutality, and harassment, but they will not address the basic underlying issues because these fixes are predicated on the erroneous idea that the blame for police profiling and brutality is on White police officers who harbor racial animosity toward people of color.
By focusing on racist police officers, serious attention is deflected away from the systemic control role of the police, of any color, which is to serve and protect the racialized capitalist social hierarchy from disruptive insurgent forces.
The basic fact is that the police force is under the command of the ruling White elite, which directs the criminal “justice” system to target those individuals and groups whom it views as a threat to social stability and its dominant power structure in the social order.
History has shown that organized morally driven disruptive strategies against racialized political structures by Black people and their allies have been effective in the struggle for social justice in America. The struggle to dismantle U.S. apartheid will continue.
Resistance to the Racist Police State
Why should Black people obey unjust laws that do not recognize their humanity? Protests in the form of demonstrations, marches, rallies are acts of resistance against a brutal repressive system that targets and dehumanizes and assaults Black people. The political officials are calling for calm and acceptance of the racialized capitalist structure. But to accept the structure is to legitimize the moral authority of an inherently racist system, which debases Black people.
Government officials view Black’s people’s moral outrage as a problem that must be repressed and dissipated; they ignore the anti-Black function of the CJS that caused the outrage. The CJS is used as an assault weapon and an extortion mechanism against the Black community. Black people have a moral duty to actively fight against a system that operates to strip them of their dignity. People who have a sense of what constitutes justice will not accept immoral policies.
Moreover, they will vigorously protest them. Racism divides and dehumanizes groups. Resisting racism is an act of liberation. Rallies, marches, forums, and petitions are moves we take to empower ourselves to dismantle racism. The struggle for justice in the George Floyd case is a struggle against racism. Paul Robeson, a Black liberation hero, reminds us that we “must take a stand” to advance our humanitarian struggle.
Dr. Luke Tripp is a professor of Ethnic, Gender & Women’s Studies at St. Cloud University. Dr. Tripp can be be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.