Injustice is Not a Glitch, It’s a Feature: Reflections on Philando Castile and the Machinery of Negrophobia

If, as the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, then hoping against hope that this time an officer who shot a black man in cold blood would be held to account, is a type of insanity most profound. Or at the very least evidence of an overactive imagination rivaling that of the most creative screenplay writer. But rest assured, this movie does not have an alternate ending. It has been screen-tested before jury after jury, and it is quite clear by now which conclusion the audience prefers. Expecting anything different is to expect the things that have always happened to stop happening, and for those which never have to become the norm: like believing that any day now, hummingbirds will walk and pre-schoolers take flight.

Philando Castile is dead because Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot him. And Yanez shot him because he claims he feared for his life. And he feared for his life, supposedly, because Castile informed him he had a gun and was ostensibly reaching for it. But this makes no sense, and surely in a society less infected with the pathogen of what Jody David Armour calls “Negrophobia,” all would see why. Aside from the fact that Castile had no criminal history that would suggest he posed a threat to Yanez (something about which Yanez could not have known at the time) there is one thing the officer most assuredly should have been able to discern: namely, that when a man intends to shoot you, he does not announce the presence of his weapon first, so as to give you time to draw yours. This was not, I beg to remind you, a duel.

And so we are left with the ineluctable conclusion that Yanez feared for his life because Philando Castile was a black man with a gun, and for no other reason. Although licensed to carry it — a point he made to Yanez in what would constitute some of his final words — such a thing means little, either to police, the NRA, or those “All Lives Matter” folks who by their silence over Castile’s killing and the acquittal of the one who killed him have made quite clear whom they mean, and don’t mean or include, in their definition of “all.”

This fear of black men — if indeed we should even call it that, rather than the contempt it more closely resembles — is a fascinating pathology, unmediated by even the most elementary logic. And yet we regularly ratify the pathology with the stamp of rationality, pronouncing it understandable even if tragically unfortunate. So the very same logic that says it makes sense for Yanez to think Castile would have told him about his gun before proceeding to shoot him with it, leads large numbers to believe Tamir Rice would have pointed a toy gun — which presumably he must have known held no real bullets — at police who carry actual guns, which most assuredly do. It’s the same logic that allows still more to believe John Crawford would have pointed an air rifle at the officer who killed him at Walmart. And even though we have video in the cases of Rice and Crawford demonstrating that neither pointed their fake guns at anyone, it is apparently easier to believe in the rationality of anti-black fear than to believe in what our own eyes are telling us.

But what is perhaps even more maddening than the facts of the case alone, more grotesque than for a man to be killed in front of a child, more sickening than the nonchalance with which the jury saw fit to return Yanez to the free world, it is the well-intended naiveté of those who would conclude from this, as I gather many do, that such things prove the American system of justice is failing. They are shocked (shocked I tell you!) to be confronted with still more evidence that the notion of liberty and justice for all carries no more weight, and is far less likely to be proved accurate, than a fortune-cookie aphorism or the Lotto numbers your uncle played this week. But the idea that awfulness is evidence of system failure is the kind of conviction one could only afford to fall back upon were they previously fortunate enough to have had faith in the system to begin with.

It is precisely this kind of conceit that columnist David Brooks displayed in the wake of Katrina and the inundation of New Orleans, when he wrote:

“The first rule of the social fabric — that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable — was trampled. Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield. No wonder confidence in civic institutions is plummeting.”

Brooks, who somehow manages to always be surprised at how terrible his country can be, despite possessing an affect most resembling constipation made flesh — and which might lead one to believe he already understood this kind of thing — is nearly a perfect representation of the naiveté we can ill-afford to indulge. To believe we have ever “protected the vulnerable” — especially the poor and vulnerable of color, who it should be said are in a state of perpetual crisis — is to call into question one’s entitlement to have matriculated past the eighth grade, let alone to find oneself firmly ensconced within the literary confines of the nation’s paper of record. Leaving such folks behind is not a violation of the nation’s social compact. It is this nation’s social compact; the manifestation of that compact in real time. And to lose confidence in our civic institutions as a result of it is only possible for those already possessed of such confidence; which is to say a damn few black people but an awful lot of white ones.

So too with yet another acquittal in yet another case in which yet another black man finds himself on the business end of a cop’s firearm or perhaps chokehold — and as with Rice and Crawford and Eric Garner, among others, on video no less — and yet, nothing is done. No one should be shocked, and I suspect most folks of color are not. They know that the so-called justice system was not established for them, but to protect others from them; that modern policing traces directly to slave patrols, which were the first iteration of real law enforcement in the colonies. They know that this society was quite literally established on the pretext that black peoples were dangerous and needed to be controlled, dominated, subordinated, even killed if need be, and that when they were, there would be little or no consequence for those who had done the deed.

It’s really quite simple: If a system is established to produce certain outcomes, and then proceeds to regularly and routinely produce them, upon what basis can we rationally suggest that the system is malfunctioning? Quite the opposite: if a system is established on the basis of unfairness and inequity, the only actual malfunction would be if that system suddenly and inexplicably began to produce justice. It would only be under such an odd and almost incomprehensible scenario that one might inquire as to why the machinery seemed to be breaking down. Or put a bit differently: If you’re standing at the end of a conveyor belt in a sausage factory and find yourself perplexed as to why it continually sends sausage in your direction rather than, say, chicken nuggets, it is quite apparent that you neglected to read the sign. It’s a sausage factory. Sausage is what it does. Expect sausage.

Put still another way: If America were an App, the devaluing of black life would not be a glitch, but a feature, programmed in from the beginning, with no patch or fix coming in a later edition–at least not courtesy of the folks who designed it.

And please spare me the insistence that because Yanez is Latino his treatment of Castile cannot have been rooted in race. Anti-blackness is no respecter of melanin count. It, like the overarching paradigm of white supremacy for which it serves as the most potent of fuels, is a contagion against which not only brown but even black too often prove defenseless. Nearly half of African Americans demonstrate implicit or subconscious biases against themselves in tests designed to ferret out such things, so the fact that a Latino male — especially one serving in an overwhelmingly white suburban police force — might internalize the same fears or dehumanizing biases of a white cop should hardly be a revelation. It was James Baldwin, after all, who insisted that the worst cops he remembered growing up in Harlem were black, because they were the ones who had the most to prove; specifically, to those above them, ever on the lookout for any evidence that their sympathies might reside with the people.

No, whether or not a phenomenon deserves the label of racism is not always dependent upon the color of the perpetrator. More so, it is dependent on the color of those disproportionately victimized by it. Were this not true then even the American system of chattel slavery could be acquitted on the charge of racism, since, after all, there were some black slaveowners as well as some who were Native American. So too, Nazism could be acquitted on the charge of racism because there were Jewish Kapos in the camps and some Jews in the German Army fighting for the Reich. But to deny the racist provenance of slavery here or the Holocaust of European Jewry there would be to assassinate language. What makes both examples of racism is not that whites were the only ones implicated in the suffering but that the targets in each case were racialized “others.” What made American slavery racist was the fact that although some blacks owned other blacks, they didn’t also get to bid on whites down at the auction block. The system of chattel subordination did not run both ways. What made Hitlerism racist was the fact that although there were Jews who assisted in the oppression of Jews and fought for the government oppressing them, there were no Jews also allowed to march SS men into the gas chambers and slam the doors shut.

And what makes the killing of Philando Castile, and so many others, about racism, is that although sometimes the killers are people of color, the victims are disproportionately black and brown, especially in cases where there is no direct threat posed but “fear” is allowed to serve as an affirmative defense. What makes it about racism is that although there are plenty of white people killed by police, it is almost only white people who are able to brazenly brandish weapons without concern that they might be killed by police for doing so.

To wit, earlier this year in Dearborn, Michigan, where two white gun fetishists walked into a police station, masked, armed, and wearing body armor, to file a complaint over a traffic stop to which they had previously been subjected. It was a traffic stop, one should note, from which they had managed to emerge unscathed, despite being armed (like Castile), and despite cursing at the officers (quite unlike Castile). Semi-automatic rifle in tow, and with face covered, in a way no black man or identifiably Muslim male could be without being seen as a gang member or terrorist, the men proceeded to ignore police commands for several minutes when told to lay down their weaponry. And they are still breathing in a manner Philando Castile is most certainly not.

And please, spare me the racist apologetics masquerading as social science about how police shootings of black folks are justifiable because of the higher crime rates in black communities. First and most importantly, research indicates that there is simply no correlation between local crime rates in given communities and the rates at which persons (white, black or otherwise) are shot and/or killed by members of law enforcement. If disproportionate killings of blacks by police were the simple result of blacks committing more crime, then we would expect those shootings to be more prevalent in places with higher rates of crime, and especially black crime. But this is not the case. According to a study spanning the years 2011-2014, which looked at county-level data across the country, controlling for crime rate differences has almost no independent effect on the rates at which police disproportionately shoot African Americans.

Second, by definition the only issue for any given shooting is whether or not the person shot by police could be reasonably perceived as posing a genuine threat to an officer or others. Crime rates have no role to play in assessing individual incidents. After all, if a white man pulls a gun on a cop and points it at them, the fact that in the aggregate black guys are seven times more likely than white guys to commit homicide (thanks to the correlation between homicide and various economic conditions disproportionately experienced by blacks), would hardly make it rational for the officer to calmly holster their weapon in deference to FBI statistical tables and abstract mathematical probabilities. Likewise, if a cop confronts a black person like Philando Castile who is courteous and actually informs the officer about his weapon and his license for it — which again, is not what a cop-killer does, ever — the fact that other black people who are not Philando Castile commit homicide seven times more often than white people would be irrelevant to what the officer should do in that moment. To suggest otherwise would be to allow cops to approach blacks on the street and blow their brains out on the daily, and so long as they only did it six times as often as they did it to whites, there would be no evidence of racial unfairness under the logic of the racism denialists and cop apologists who populate the far-right.

And please, no more questions about “Why don’t black people just respect authority, or do as they’re told by law enforcement?” Because even when they do, this is what happens. This is why they run, cross the street, turn around and walk the other way, or engage in some other “furtive movement” as the police like to call it. Because even when they’ve done nothing wrong, they cannot stake their lives on the dubious possibility that the officer they encounter will presume that. Indeed, the insistence for black folks to respect authority — when that authority has such a long history of disrespecting them — is more than a tone-deaf stretch. It amounts to a demand that the African American community ignore its history entirely, and by history I mean even those things that happened last week, let alone last century. It amounts to a demand that some 40 million people adopt amnesia as a cultural virtue, and that their failure to do so will then be used against them when they fail to show sufficient deference to the very forces that have operated as their enemies for so long. Or even when they do.

And finally, no more insistence the next time this happens that the deceased was “no angel.” Because in the eyes of the schoolchildren who knew and loved Philando Castile as a valued, trusted and caring staff member who made their days brighter, he was very close to that. And yet he is still dead. Because anti-blackness doesn’t care how you sag your pants or if you wear a tie to work. It doesn’t care if you hustle CDs from the back of your car to help support your family or punch a clock everyday. It doesn’t care how you play your music or if you say “Yes Sir,” and “No Sir.” It doesn’t care that you’re a doting father. It doesn’t care that you’re twelve years old. It doesn’t care if you’re an honor student or a dropout. It only cares that you’re black.

And if you are, it only seeks to remind you of two things: first, that according to the founding logic of the culture in which you reside, you have no rights that white men are bound to respect; and lastly, that you are the sausage, and the machinery is operating exactly as designed.

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