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 pummeled, strangled 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”.