In France in the 1930’s, francophone African intellectuals who greatly disapproved of France’s colonialism believed that Africans needed a collective identity, one founded on principles of sentience, independence, and a holistic view of Black bodies as significant, especially in the fields of literature and intellectual thought. Prominent intellects like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon coined the school of thought Négritude. It was an ideology adopted by women and men of African, French, and Caribbean descent with the hopes that this heightened sense of Négritude would soon result in greater appreciation for Black minds and bodies. If there was any word to define the current trend in the slaying of Black minds and bodies in American streets these past several years—if there was any word that could capture the antithesis of Négritude, that could capture the 21st century fears with regard to policing Black minds and bodies, it would have to be “negrophobia”.
According to public records used during the Philando Castile case, he was stopped by police 46 times. 46 times. NPR reporter Eyder Peralta aptly put that, “Philando Castile was stopped from the very moment he got his license, through the moment of his death. That was his last stop.” During his testimony, Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot and killed Castile, said that he “feared for his life”, after alleging that Castile was reaching for his firearm. Officer Darren Wilson, whom jurors chose to acquit of charges for shooting and killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, said he too feared for his life and would not do things differently had he found himself in the situation again. Despite the systemic and institutionally racist factors that have pushed minorities to the margins, police officers have continued to fear for their lives even after weeks of police academy and training, when policing Black women and men.
The justice system was not built to protect Philando Castile. It in fact failed him. 46 stops over the span of 13 years, oftentimes for minor infractions—yet the idea that Black drivers are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement remains absent from many minds, including the minds of jurors in cases where officers have shot and killed Black motorists. Sandra Bland was pulled over for a traffic violation. Terrence Crutcher allegedly failed to obey commands from officers pointing a Taser and a firearm at him as he raised his hands. Eric Garner’s pleas for air went unnoticed as he allegedly "resisted arrest." Jordan Edwards was in a vehicle that, according to the initial report of the officer who shot and killed him, reversed in an aggressive manner. And Philando Castile who, according to Yanez, was reaching for a firearm. A firearm that he had a permit to carry. The same firearm that garners support from any 2nd Amendment ally, but continues to legitimize the slaying of many Black bodies in possession of them.
Philando Castile’s death was a painful reminder that our justice system reserves justice for some and not all. His death reminds us of the unforeseen dangers that still plague Black motorists who drive and break minor traffic laws. Implicit bias is not often a publicly held discussion with regard to jurors, but in the case of Castile or any slain Black motorist, implicit bias is crucial to confront. It is integral to understanding America’s history with Black minds and bodies and how those Black minds and bodies have been viewed within the context of the law. It wasn’t but one and a half centuries ago that Black women and men were viewed as human chattel, not but 60 years ago that we were viewed as sub-citizens. It is the same song, the same record, the same public decrying of excessive force where de-escalation should have been implemented. It is the mother who remains “mad as hell”, the father who is far removed from words, and the sisters and brothers who knew their kin as good people. Our justice system goes on trial every time an unarmed woman or man of color is killed, yet we the onlookers, the bystanders, the jurors fail to make amends. We fail to provide restitution where open caskets lie, fail to reassure the margins of our country that they still matter, and we continue to fail those to come.
We provide the verdicts, we always will, but how many more funeral processions should transpire before we acknowledge the disproportion, the imbalance of a scale said to be “just”? How many more Philando Castile’s or Sandra Bland’s before justice is served? How many Eric Garner’s or Tamir Rice’s? How many other Terrence Crutcher’s, Oscar Grant’s, Trayvon Martin’s, Michael Brown’s, Walter Scott’s, Darren Seals’, Freddie Gray’s, Alton Sterling’s, Jordan Edwards’, Kalief Browder’s, Cary Ball, Jr.’s, Malissa Williams’, Timothy Russell’s, Phillip White’s, Tony Robinson’s, Jerome Reid’s, Akai Gurley’s, Tanisha Anderson’s, Ezell Ford’s, and Emmet Till’s? How many more?
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Jamal Michel is a Duke graduate and an English teacher at Northern High School. His column runs on alternate Fridays.