Our times are exceedingly dark. No matter what pundits or politicians – even so-called progressive ones – may say, racism remains a central feature of this society, and this fact isn’t simply about the victimization of black people.
Consider Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old freshman from the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, who is now dead. A policeman shot him in the head with a rifle and offered an account of the circumstances that was contradicted by video evidence. He now faces murder charges. Jordan’s family grieves in public for the loss of their child. It is an old, haunting ritual in this country.
A few days after Edwards was killed, the justice department announced that it would not charge the police officers who shot and killed Alton Sterling at point-blank range in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on 5 July 2016. They were responding to a report that a man had threatened someone outside a convenience store. Sterling fit the description. The video shows two officers on top of him as he lay on the ground, when one yells: “He’s got a gun.” Louisiana is a concealed carry state. It didn’t matter. They shot him several times. And we saw it.
Michael Slager, the former North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer who killed Walter Scott, pleaded guilty to violating Scott’s civil rights when he shot him in the back during a 2015 traffic stop. As a result of the plea agreement, the federal prosecutors will drop the two remaining charges and state prosecutors will drop the outstanding murder charge. The family awaits the judge’s decision about Slager’s sentence. I am sure the deadlocked state jury lingers in their minds; that jury couldn’t decide if the shooting was even a crime.
Alongside these headlines are the videos of police violence against black people that continue to circulate: in Sacramento, California, we saw a police officer attack a man who was simply crossing the street and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a police officer violently attacked a young 14-year-old boy at Woodland Hills high school.
And then there are the more mundane events: a professional baseball player was peppered with racial slurs from fans at Boston’s Fenway Park; someone hung bananas with AKA letters (Alpha Kappa Alpha, a black sorority) in nooses on American University’s campus; fliers with racist and antisemitic comments were taped to buildings at Princeton University; and, of course, there are the daily cuts and slashes that lead some to call us “snowflakes”.
I even received a troubling phone call in my office after an appearance on television in which I criticized Donald Trump. “You are a f**ing lowlife, f**ing n**er,” the caller said. “Take that to the bank. Lowlife, f**ing n**er. F** you!”
Incidents like these reflect an adamant reassertion of the value of white people at the expense of all others in a moment of deep economic insecurity. And no amount of sentimentality about how far we have come or bleeding-heart sympathy about the horrors of these so-called isolated incidents can undo that fact.
There are those who walk among us (and they are not caricatures like Richard B Spencer or Ann Coulter; they are neighbors, our fellows), who continue to believe that this is a white nation. And Trump’s presidency has given them license to say as much and to act as if it’s true.
Trump knows this. Of all the things to respond to in the $1.1tn omnibus spending bill, Trump singled out a 25-year-old federal program that aids historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It helps them build buildings.
For him, the program may be unconstitutional, because it “allocates benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender”, and should be treated “in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the law under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment”.
This is a far cry from the 28 February meeting with presidents of HBCUs and the executive order he signed, which supposedly made these historic institutions “an absolute priority for this White House”. Tinkling cymbals and sounding brass.
We are in the midst of an intense white backlash. There is no doubt about it, and we can’t ignore that fact. I love some people who happen to be white. But those who see themselves as white people pose a grave danger, as they always have, to any chance of achieving real democracy in this country.
Progressive voices may declare that we need to talk about something more fundamental like class. Conservatives and liberals may agree that we have gone too far and have ignored white working people. And Trump will continue to be Trump.
All the while we have to endure. And bury our children … again. Explain to the ones living why a policeman put a bullet in Jordan Edwards’ head. And ready ourselves to fight, without the comforting illusion of tinkling cymbals and sounding brass, with everything we have.