Hung from trees, shot hundreds of times, castrated, stabbed and stripped of every inch of their human dignity, blacks of America’s past endured a history of injustice the modern day has yet to put behind. Although this culture of lynching, herein defined as the practice of killing in the absence of a legal authority, may have originated in 18th-century United States as a method of justice, its current-day applications remain omnipresent.
In 2015 alone, the police shot and killed 986 people; similarly disconcerting to say the least is that unarmed black people are five times more likely to be killed at the hands of law enforcement, compared to unarmed whites. Of these 986, most of their names have remained unknown to the passive mainstream media follower, despite their vast legacies to be mourned. And yet, a counter-culture to fight back the threat of erasure remains limited.
These past weeks alone have ushered in yet another wave of names to be commemorated in a seemingly never ending battle to combat police brutality. On September 16, forty-year-old Terence Crutcher was fatally shot by a Tulsa police officer named Betty Shelby (who has since been charged with felony manslaughter in the first-degree). Just days later on September 20, another officer fatally shot Keith Lamont Scott, another black life lost in a muddle of apparent lack of grounds with the police square in the middle.
When we think about lynching, some may picture images of mangled corpses from a period in American history not too long ago. However, what is similarly horrific is how frequently these images and episodes of unfounded murder unfold without garnering a mere wince from those privileged enough to do so. What is similarly horrific is how minuscule an impact the prevalent rate of murder, what some have called incremental genocide against black Americans, truly has on those unwilling victims of desensitization.
The concept of lynching sounded terrifying to the non-blacks complicit in “lynch laws” for the purpose of controlling the “despised” Negroes. It is neither humane nor natural to perpetuate “burnings at the stake, maiming, dismemberment, castration and other brutal methods of physical torture,” as characterized by Robert A. Gibson of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Still, lynching was a staple of the five decades of American history—from the end of Reconstruction to the start of the Great Depression.
However, through years of injustice and action, complacency (if not participation) on part of oppressive institutions, racialized politics have created a perfect breeding ground for tragedies upon tragedies—and a bewildering desensitization of it all to accompany. Today, the U.S. is in midst of an epidemic once again targeting black minorities who have been stripped of their voting rights, ostracised from the political process, physically barred from achieving social mobility, stifled in the realm of education, unquestionable police brutality and a litany of other examples of social injustice. And to exacerbate the pain of this situation entirely, we now must deal with the issue of desensitization to the effects of police violence and the whole host of structural inequities that play out too frequently.
Popularized incidents of clear excessive force directed towards people of color (those of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Dontre Hamilton, Bettie Jones, Tanisha Anderson and too many more than one can possibly carry the burden of) run the threat of exposure; a society that has seen their stories unfold over and over again no longer feels the distress that empowers actors for social change.
Important to know is that, as well-articulated by Drew Harwell of the Washington Post, gut-wrenching images and videos of black death are nothing new to the black community; “only now, as the videos have grown beyond sites such as WorldStar to fill the Internet, has the visual horror of their violence become available to a mainstream audience—and that much harder to ignore.” Evidenced by the lack of imagines of the Charlie Hebdo offices and a conspicuous tendency to use titles of “former Stanford student” or other flattering associations, minority life is often times offered an unparalleled degree of respect than that afforded to black life. Still, the exposure offered to this specific audience is setting a huge precedent for how mainstream society at-large begins to address these issues.
When did the horrific killings of black people prompt a meager response of “thank God it wasn’t me or my family?” We, as a collective, need to take a step back and ask ourselves how did we become so grossly desensitized; and then, once we have internalized just a glimpse of the pain to be swallowed, think about what it takes to end this epidemic. After all, activism is not a taboo limited for individuals of a particular career path; today and tomorrow, contributions are to be made on part of people from all backgrounds and areas of expertise.
Importantly, at Duke University, these problems are not ignored; on September 21, about one hundred Divinity School students gathered in front of the Chapel to protest the shooting of Scott. However, there is certainly more to be done to ensure an open campus climate where these problems can even be objectively addressed to begin with.
For allies who recognize the strife and want to resist complacency, it is not fruitful to ask, “Why wasn’t I personally invited to the protests?” or even claim that “they have it taken care of.” Every “racial” identity group has a role to play in supporting efforts to combat institutionalized racism, and acknowledging privilege is simply an elementary prerequisite to these conversations. Rather, ask how can you, assuming a non-marginalized “racial” identity group, try to rectify the situation in conceding your privilege.
Allyship is also about informing yourself and asking the right questions. The Chicago Police Department recently announced plans to hire 970 officers in the next two years, 500 of whom will be patrol officers. Although the beleaguered department is in desperate need of reform, will the new officers be trained properly to prevent biases that manifest in excessive uses of force? Or do these hires represent a new batch of a virus strain to be injected into our security forces? Effectively, do not wait to be informed by “active” peers or through passive consumption from skewed social media platforms.
As the story of Eric Harris reminds, we live in a country where law enforcement officials can “accidentally” pull out guns to murder unarmed blacks. Black death in the public domain is so commonplace, reactions have become conflated and sensitivities, faded. The current standard of supposed authorities of law remains unacceptable, and although simply repeating an adage won’t change anything, the action it can spark for a movement remains profound.
This is a problem—not a black problem. Let this serve as your reminder: black lives still matter.
Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “in formation,” runs on alternate Mondays.
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Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.