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The Black Precedents of a Black President: White Supremacy and the Killing of Walter Scott

This morning, I woke up in Paris to the terrible news that yet another unarmed black man, Walter Scott, had been shot to death by a white police officer in the United States. While the killing happened over the weekend, it took several days for the story to traverse the Atlantic and reach my consciousness here in France, where I am currently completing a book on French racism and the legacies of slavery.

As I watched the traumatic video of officer Michael Slager shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott — a father and Coast Guard veteran — two questions immediately came to mind:

What kind of a person shoots an unarmed human being in the back, then handcuffs them as they lay dying?

Even more to the point:

What kind of society allows black people to be routinely violated and killed by the state?

While I don’t have an answer to the first question, the second query is more straightforward. Anti-racist scholars have demonstrated that we are still living in a white supremacist society. As historian George Lipsitz (2006: xviii) writes in his brilliant book The Possessive Investment in Whiteness “the power, property and politics of race in our society continue to contain unacknowledged and unacceptable allegiances to white supremacy”.

The reality is that for students of U.S. history, there is nothing in the least surprising about black people being subject to violence by the state.

Understanding the slaying of Walter Scott requires situating this particular incident in the broader social and institutional context that has made the killing of unarmed black people a routine affair. It also requires making connections between the present day targeting of black people and our long history of anti-blackness. Least we forget, ours is a nation that was built on the exploitation, torture and murder of enslaved people from Africa who came to be racialized as black by Euro-descended people who invented white supremacist ideology to justify slavery and colonialism.

In other words, black people being targeted and killed by the state is nothing new.

What is new, however, is seeing all of this go down with a black president in the White House.

As an African-American who worked on Obama’s campaign in my 20s, I’ve had to admit over the years just how naive I was to be so hopeful about the racial consequences of electing a black president. I’m especially ashamed of my naiveté because it means that I had not yet read enough about the global history of white supremacy to know that a simple changing of the racial guard could not guard against anti-blackness. Or, as sociologist Matthew Hughley points out “One need only examine West Indian, Caribbean, Latin American or U.S. Southern politics to learn of the black faces of white empire”. During my work on the campaign, I would often publicly say that race relations would not radically change if Obama was elected. But, inwardly, I wanted to believe that things would be radically different.

On election night in 2008, as tears streamed down my face, I would have been stunned to learn that black people would continue to be killed in broad daylight under Obama’s presidency. And my tears would take on new meaning had I seen a future in which a black president mostly says nothing as black citizens are routinely targeted for mass incarceration and killed by police.

While Obama promised “change we can believe in”, what has become painfully clear is just how much has not changed. This is a particularly tragic moment in the tragic history of race in America. For, not only do we have to deal with the on-going trauma of anti-blackness, we also have to bear witness to the horrifying spectacle of a black president who stands idly by as other black people are killed by the state. Yet, looking back, I’m still glad that Obama was elected. His presence demonstrated, as no other president could, the intransigence of white supremacy.

What we have learned since the election of Barack Obama is that it is possible for a black president to lead a white supremacist nation.

The onslaught of photographic and video evidence of unarmed black women and men being pummeledstrangled and shot to death by white police officers during a black man’s presidency should make it abundantly clear (for anyone who needed further convincing) just how absurd it is for anyone to claim that we live in a post-racial society. But the sad reality is that there is no amount of video evidence that will convince some people that anti-blackness or white supremacy exist. And for those who are overtly racist, there is likely no amount of video evidence that will convince them that anti-blackness and white supremacy are both immoral.

While it is appropriate that Slager was charged with murder, his being charged does not change the social fact of white supremacy in the United States. Nor does his being charged constitute “justice”. What would be just is a world in which black folks are not subject to harassment and death at the hands of people paid to protect them. And although I’m relieved that video surfaced to provide evidence of Michael Slager’s wrongdoing, history shows us that images alone are not enough to transform the racial status quo. While cell phone videos didn’t exist during slavery, everyone knew it was happening. People lived with that knowledge for hundreds of years.

Black precedent reveals that a black president is not enough to halt the onslaught of anti-black violence that has always been routine in our nation. What we continue to need is multiracial activism and political engagement to bring about a more just and compassionate society — the kind of grassroots work being done by organizers like Mariame Kaba and activists pushing for police reform in #Ferguson, Cleveland and across the country. In the end, perhaps the one redeeming consequence of Obama’s election is the acknowledgement and transcendence of our collective racial naiveté. It should now be obvious to anyone paying attention to both history and the present moment that mobilization and activism are the only means we have for delivering “change we can believe in”.

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4 thoughts on “The Black Precedents of a Black President: White Supremacy and the Killing of Walter Scott”

  1. Many stand beside you in your grief.

    Your title is a wicked pun about entrenched wickedness.

    Are you being a bit hard on Obama – he has to deal with so many right-wingers who from here in the UK look psychotic and put the brakes full on with major programmes that he introduced.

    Recently we have seen documentaries about how bad anti-semitic aggression is in France so I hope you will spare a word or two in your book for them and for French people who are moslems. Hatred always needs a target. It is fear of the other – which I guess is some form of projected self-hate. The great cultural studies writer Terry Eagleton in chapters 7 and 8 deals more brilliantly with fundamentalism than any writer I have come across – in ‘After Theory’ – I feel sure that there is a common denominator between racial hatred and religious extremism – and it is a rejection of ‘the other’. Can you imagine wholesale slaughter of moslems by moslems based on some doctrinal difference? Also psychotic.

    I pray that the sacrifice made by Walter Scott and his family enables giant strides toward what the world needs most – a deeper realization of oneness.

    Enjoy your stay – and good luck with the book.

    Roger

  2. Racial profiling of Blacks by the police and the justice system has become the norm here in the United States. Some people chose to ignore the fact that America is as racially divided as it was in the times of Jim Crow, others chose to justify the mistreatment of Blacks, while others have sought to join hands and fight for equality for all. Some people seem to be okay with the taking of life of a Black man but not destruction of property by irate Blacks. I don’t support either, but if I were to take sides, I would choose life.

  3. Jah love sister. Give thanks and praises for a great blog post. I am so comforted by your insights which I find honest and well thought out. I never supported Obama because I don’t vote Democrat. But, I am quite older than you and I’ve lived through many s/elections in the U.S. and I realized that the duopoly is undifferentiated, both thed Dems and Republikkklans are bent on keeping the masses down or locked out and excluded so that the elite can keep on with the same old ways. I was living in Miami during the 2000 s/election debacle, and I got to see and experience first hand how blacks and specifically Ayiti people were disenfranchised and their vote discounted. And frankly, Al Gore and the other Dems stood by and watched because they wanted to be “civilized” “cautious” and “calm” even though they knew that there were millions of lives at risk if the Republikkklans took power. I also experienced the ravages of the kKKlinton administration that saw fit to destroy the social safety nets that many black folks (especially black women) counted on to help us along when we cannot make ends meet for our families. So, I knew from the get go that the hope and change that was market-ted to the general public was a catch phrase. Yes, Obama provided some hope to those of us who had been slaughtered and nearly destroyed during the Bush years. And as a bi-racial man who is half African, he was a real change from previous presidents of the U.S. But, no one really discussed the kinds of changes he would bring nor did anyone address the question of hope that he supposedly promise. I also felt warning bells go off in my head when he was so cold and mean to Reverand Wright, the man who had basically introduced him to the group in Chicago who would later help him to become Senator and so forth. (More than that, the title for his best selling book is a direct quote from a sermon that Rev Wright gave!) Since, Obama became president or POTUS, my life has been a constant state of changes that have not been so good for my health. I became homeless since my house was foreclosed in Miami in 2003. I was not able to get a job since 2001, folks like me were locked out of the economy because we looked like terrorist. In South Florida, Ayiti people were haunted, deported, locked up and excluded at record rates. Our “Little Haiti” neighborhood was being gentrified and taken over by the folks who were angry at the advances that we made during previous years. And, me, my children and their father were left to fend for ourselves. After my children’s father was deported, and since I could not get a job, my children were eventually taken from me and locked up in foster kill in Boston of all places. (A place that’s supposed to be the mecca of intellectual might in the world!!!) The powers that be wanted to destroy my life and take my children’s too simply because we dared to love our blackness by sporting natty dreadlocks, eating vegan (mostly organic food) and un-schooling. And for the past 4 years I have learned the hard way what change can be about. I beg for spare change in NYC so I can eat and go on with my self care. I now also beg in Paris so I can buy food to eat because the free meals are not vegan nor are they prepared with organic produce. Anyway, Obama was never challenged to discuss how he would deal with race and racism. His speech on race in Philadelphia was lauded as a great achievement by pundits and liberals but it was so thin on the real ways that racism kills hope and destroys lives. He has just been a representative of the black professional caste who needed to see someone from their midst in that position. And as POTUS he represents a good compromise between the Dems and Republikkklans. In my life and during the course of my academic career, I have met dozens of folks like Obama and his wife. They smile and go on about their business even when they know that others who are in their cohort hurt. I didn’t expect him to make any changes nor did he give me any hope. I felt that he ran a better campaign than his opponent and that he deserved to win because of that. Still, I got a false sense that I would be somewhat safer with him as POTUS and I quickly shed that misconception when shit started to hit the fan for black folks after he was s/elected. And lastly, I am not surprised that since his presidency, blacks have experienced high rates of violence at the hands of officers and folks with license to kill and that the socio economic system has also destroyed black lives. Black wealth had diminished by something like 80% which supposedly takes us back about 150 years! Meanwhile, POTUS has chosen to focus on sending drones to kill innocent black and brown folks in the Middle East and Africa while he scolds blacks in the U.S. for not being diligent. In short, he has done what other Dems do, he rewarded his opponents and the folks who sought his demise and royally fucked the blacks and brown folks who were dumb and stupid enough to vote for him. Blessed love.

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