It felt like a slap in the face. Even as Americans visibly protested police brutality against black Americans, a white police officer in Atlanta, Georgia, chased and shot a black man twice in his back killing him. The man had originally been apprehended by the officer and his partner, for sleeping in his car which blocked the drive-through lane at a Wendy’s restaurant.
As if one needed more proof, this latest incident, even amidst national protest, is solid evidence of systemic racism in America.
A pervasive remnant of slavery, systemic racism is woven into the fabric of American society through a conscious and consistent negative socialization process. This means that since slavery, the American society at large has been processed to identify with, learn and accept social norms, values, behavior that demean the black race.
The historic systematic dehumanization of the enslaved African is well documented—though much of it is whitewashed, misrepresented in history books, and is not properly taught in schools. In fact, slaves were considered to be two-thirds of a human—their primary function being to enhance their masters’ economic status, providing free labor on tobacco, cotton and other plantations.
The enslaved were underfed, forced to live in squalor, deliberately kept uneducated, denied medical care, and were easily dispensed with if they were ill and unable to produce. When slaves retaliated they were violently punished.
Historically, whites were socialized to see blacks as conditioned for hard labor, violent, fearsome individuals on which force must be used, objects of illicit sex, and lower class people who didn’t warrant respect from white folks.
There was a conscious, prolonged systemic campaign to vilify and dehumanize black folks—from minstrel shows that portrayed blacks as lazy, illiterate buffoons to redlining and the criminalization of young black makes as “superpredators” in the 1990s—all to keep them from being afforded the same rights as whites.
This negative socialization continued long after slavery, segregation, the civil rights movement, and is still pervasive today. This, despite black people making various significant contributions to American society in business, sports, entertainment, politics, medicine, academia, etc.
Policing Black Bodies
To understand why, even today, the police—or any white person for that matter—believe they have the unfettered right to police black bodies, one must look at slave patrols. Their job was simple—to control the movements and behaviors of slaves. If we look at how predominantly black communities are surveilled and policed, it is essentially the same concept.
Dr. Gary Potter describes it best in The History of Policing in the United States:
“Slave patrols had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law…Following the Civil War, these vigilante-style organizations evolved in modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves…and enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation laws, designed to deny freed slaves equal rights and access to the political system.”
Today, blacks continue to be aggressively disciplined, punished, and abused by law enforcement. And, for over 400 years, relatively little has been done to reverse the negative stereotypes—therefore, blacks are often thought to deserve the treatment meted out by police.
As calls intensify to change brutal policing against blacks, remove symbols commemorating the humiliation and brutality of slavery, and to give more social rights and recognition to blacks, none of these measures will fundamentally reverse the negative way in which white America has been socialized to view black America.
It’s not too late to reverse this negative socialization. However, it would need to be the collaborative effort of the best brains and profound commitment of black, white and brown America to develop and implement a national educational strategy from K1 to post graduate college, spilled over to societal institutions including the workplace, church, and chambers of all levels of government.
One positive sign emerging from the current protests, is most Americans seem tired of racism. Additionally, a significant number of white Americans are aware they are unfamiliar with the black experience, awaking to the realization they were involuntarily socialized over time to not accept blacks as equals.
Unless relentless efforts are made to reverse this negative socialization, whatever measures are taken to address the existing conflicts will be like placing a bandaid on a gunshot wound.