When I say “the year of the racist,” I’m not quite sure if I’m talking about 2014 or 2015. That’s up to us.
The cellphone-video-to-YouTube upload pipeline has given image to a systemic institutional racist violence legacy that American media has chosen to ignore since its inception. Thanks to these images the nation is finally talking about what previously was primarily discussed only in sociology courses and amongst communities of victims—the racist reality of policing in America. These images also provided for a clear and simple primer to help understand another formerly taboo concept—the role of the criminal justice system in legitimizing and protecting racist police violence. On one hand, 2014 went down in history as the year we as a society finally began to acknowledge and address our deep-seated racism. This discussion, however, has also brought the racists out of the closet, giving us a really ugly start to 2015.
Just as social media revolutionized journalism by allowing the public to bypass the gatekeepers, it also created new platforms for racist trolls—people who less than a generation ago were relegated to venting their xenophobic bile on the walls of public bathrooms. Comedian Chris Rock summed it up after the Ferguson decision, tweeting, “Just found a new app that that tells you which one of your friends are racist. It’s called Facebook.” Of course Facebook was always a platform for ignorant racists to share their ignorance and hate beyond the confines of their sad lives, but it really caught on fire just as meaningful anti-racism finally started to break through the mainstream media filter.
Without white warning cones on their heads
Consider this post:
Just some political satire to help you get over the beautiful drive this morning. I-65 will be closed tomorrow across Tennessee and Kentucky. They are hauling a 200 ton lump of coal to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota so they can add Barack Hussein Obama to Mount Rushmore…They had to settle for coal, because they couldn’t find a 200 ton piece of shit.
The post appeared on the Buffalo Republicans Facebook page, which is moderated by Tracey McNerney, the chair of the City of Buffalo Republican Committee. This is not political satire, as the poster claims. It doesn’t mention politics. It’s elementary school racism. Traditionally such unabashed drivel is expected from N-bombing cretins in piss-stenched bars or avowed racists adorned with white warning cones on their heads—with no backpedaling pretenses of “satire.” The new racism tries to package itself as anything but racism.
Today’s racism is once again ascendant in more mainstream venues—in this case a social media site run by a local affiliate of the political party that just won control of the US Senate and New York State Senate, while solidifying its control of the US House of Representatives. Unlike your dweeb cousin’s Myspace or Tumblr page, this is not an obscure racist outpost. It’s mainstream. The same page hosts posts from Rick Donovan, a recently defeated Republican candidate for the New York State Senate, who writes that Obama “brought in Illegal Immigrant children into America and placed them all over America causing a flu epidemic to OUR American children” [sic]. Donovan, who got almost 12,000 votes, also posts that American cities are “being taken over by Sharia law.” Such run-of-the-mill xenophobia has always been present in American society, but 2014 seems to have brought it to the surface after a few years of being out of fashion. Now it’s back in mainstream political discourse—and at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
A month ago, Donovan posted a link on the Buffalo Republicans site to a story about a 19-year-old white Mississippi woman who was set afire and burned to death. Above the link he wrote, “WHER’S THE LOCAL MEDIA ON THIS STORY ???? Where’s the WHITE ‘OUT CRY’ Black on White ‘HATE CRIME’ Three Black teens beat this young woman with a hammer” [sic]. He went on the write, “I WANT JUSTICE for this young woman and her family!”
This sort of anger is sadly familiar. Unlike systemic racist police brutality against black people, which medical professionals have termed a “public health crisis,” the horrific murder of this Mississippi woman is not part of a persistent historic national pattern of hate crimes against white people. The poster’s response is reminiscent of a historic pattern of rhetoric, the meme of out-of-control black men predating upon innocent white women, that fueled generations of lynching murders of innocent black men—the “white outcry” against “black on white hate crime.” And as was usually the case with lynchings, there are no “three black teens” who “beat this young woman with a hammer.” There have been no arrests to date. There are no suspects. We just know that this white women dated black men, which was always a taboo in lynching-era Mississippi, and now apparently in New York Republican politics.
The problem here is not so much that a few idiots soiled the GOP Facebook page, but that the moderator, who is the leader of the local party, didn’t perceive these posts as problematic.
In New York City, the YouTube broadcast police killing of Eric Garner and the grand jury failure to indict his police-officer killer has ignited a long-overdue dialog about patterns of police assaults against innocent black men in that city. As part of that dialog, New York’s progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, discussed how he and his wife gave their biracial son Dante the same obligatory talk that unfortunately is part of the rearing of almost every non-white child in the US. According to the mayor, “We said, ‘Look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cell phone…Because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.”
This should be one of those comments that flies by without controversy—just sadness. Unfortunately this is necessary parental advice that is certainly backed up by data. The outrage should be that a parent has to say this to his son, rather than that he said it. But in the rising racism of 2014, it drew condemnation from the unfortunately named president of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch. The opening for Lynch’s attack on the mayor came after a mentally disturbed man with a semi-automatic handgun shot his girlfriend in Maryland and then returned to his hometown of Brooklyn and murdered two police officers, whom he apparently chose at random, ambushing them as they innocently sat in their car, then killed himself. The spin on this horrible murder/suicide wasn’t about the lack of available treatment for people suffering mental illness, or the easy availability of military-grade weapons, but instead, according to Lynch, “That blood on the hands, starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.” The New York City Sergeants Benevolent Association tweeted, “blood of 2 executed police officers is on the hands of @BilldeBlasio.”
Rather than embrace the investigations into patterns of racist violence that undermine the professionalism of the NYPD and threaten the lives of innocent New Yorkers, which the police are sworn to protect, Lynch and other PBA officials instead blame these deaths on demonstrators, community leaders, and politicians, including the mayor, who demanded accountability from police officials. It’s just too much of a leap to blame the murder of two innocent police officers by a disturbed man, on unrelated people who are exercising their constitutionally protected right to publically demand that other murderers also be brought to justice.
An uprising that makes no sense
Lynch’s uprising is pivotal in the Year of the Racist because, absent racism, it really doesn’t make any sense. The majority of rank-and-file NYPD officers patrolling the streets, including the two who were murdered, are non-white. Many of these officers have gone public with their own concerns about the dangers they perceive from their fellow officers when they are off-duty walking around in New York City. Lynch’s uprising against those calling for racial justice does not represent this majority—instead splitting the police department along racial lines. Many of the white officers, who generally are older, were recruited from segregated areas of the city, such as Bensonhurst in Brooklyn and Howard Beach and Breezy Point in Queens. When Lynch speaks in public, he’s usually flanked by white officers, presenting a statistical anomaly that could be perceived as a last hurrah for a centuries-old tradition of racist policing.
This uprising has presented a smokescreen for enlightened racists—those who look, smell, walk, and talk like racists, all while denouncing racism and anyone who would call them racist. We now see angry white men holding signs reading “I can breathe,” mocking Eric Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” which have become a rallying cry for the racial justice movement. What do you call a political action that exists only to oppose a movement for racial justice?
This movement is now growing, with “pro-police” demonstrations popping up in places where there are no racial justice demonstrators to counter. The new movement has memes such as “Blue Lives Matter.” The reality is, police lives do matter. They have always mattered. But that’s not what mocking the “Black Lives Matter” meme is about. Ironically, many of the same demonstrators who are coming out in support of “blue lives” were coming out last April to support Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy’s private war against the federal government, celebrating the vigilantes and mercenaries who came from around the country and set up sniper positions, taking aim upon officers who tried to evict Bundy’s cattle from public land after he refused to pay grazing fees, instead declaring public land to be his sovereign land. That movement included old-school white supremacists traveling hundreds of miles to take up arms against “Obama’s” cops.
Black and blue crime
It’s easy enough to research the new ascendant racism without leaving the discomfort of your own computer. Just follow Chris Rock’s advice and go on Facebook. Or read the comments posted after most mainstream media articles. Or surf through the muck at Fox News and listen to Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and “tough prosecutor” under whose watch police racism flourished. He’ll explain that the real problem is “black on black crime,” which he says accounts for 83 percent of black murders and requires white cops to protect black people.
The racism in this comment is illuminated by the lack of any logic in this argument. First off, what does this factoid have to do with white cops killing innocent black men like Eric Garner, which is the point of the “Black Lives Matter” protests? Deconstruct the term “black on black crime.” Technically, we can simply call this “crime.” Roughly the same percent of white people are killed by white people. This is a segregated society. But your average Fox viewer will never learn of the mirror statistic for white murders. Instead, Fox will assault you with a parade of similar commentators, all referencing the same “black on black” crime meme, asking why no one is protesting against these killings, as if we’re not supposed to expect any sort of difference between law enforcement officers and murderers. When these arguments get so thin, there’s really nothing left but racism.
I’d like to look back on 2014 as the Year of the Racist. They all came out of the closet. That’s good. Now let’s have a discussion. Let’s hope 2015 is the year we finally effectively begin to confront racism. Absent this, the discussion of racism can once again slip into the closet, snuffed out by fear, harassment, and a culture of trolls. I don’t see that happening, however. Liberty just feels too good to give up on.
Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and critical media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His columns are available globally through syndication and are archived at mediastudy.com.