It has always been commonplace to label people as "race baiters" or "race hustlers" when they gain national attention by speaking out against racial discrimination and shed light on structural racism across the United States. Recently, it has become trendy for political pundits, talk-show hosts and talking heads (particularly on the right) to point to race "hustling" as the culprit behind heightened racial tensions in America. Dan Bongino, former NYPD police officer and Secret Service agent, charged New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rev. Al Sharpton, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder with being race "hustlers" who are in large part to blame for the murder of two NYPD police officers.
The facts in no way bear this assertion out, but here are some facts that can be proven. African Americans have been challenging police misconduct and brutality for a very long time. In this country we have had leaders on all sides of the issue try to eradicate state-sanctioned brutality against Blacks. The history is too long, but let's consider the following.
During the 1950s Martin Luther King Jr. preached non-violence as the appropriate response to racism and state-sanctioned killing of Blacks. Televised beatings and brutality against Blacks by citizens and law enforcement played on the morals of citizens across the country. Civil-rights laws changed, but police brutality did not.
In the late 1960s the Black Panther Party, led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, decided the best course of action was to take up arms against the police department: "police the police." The Black Panthers established a 10-point program. The seventh item states, "We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people." The Black Panthers focused their attention on this item as they began to organize and openly carry weapons to police the police, which was legal during this time. Presaging the solutions posited today, the Black Panthers also recognized that the only way to solve police brutality against Blacks was to be vigilant when an officer stopped a person of color. They did not have video cameras readily available, but they found it productive to gather around officers whenever a citizen was stopped by police. Oftentimes they shouted out legal advice to Black citizens during police interactions. The Black Panthers gained media attention for their cause, but police brutality and misconduct did not end.
In the late 1980s Audre Lorde sought to make connections between Apartheid in South Africa and police brutality in America. In her essay "Apartheid U.S.A.," written in response to police brutality and state-sanctioned harassment of Black people, she asks, "How does a system bent upon our ultimate destruction make the unacceptable gradually tolerable?" According to Rudy Giuliani, two-term Mayor of New York City, the answer is simple: All roads lead to "Black-on-Black crime" and, fundamentally, to Black culture.
For folks like Giuliani and Bongino, the blame will always be directed toward the ineptness of Black people and, by extension, Black culture. These visceral and rudimentary conclusions make it clear that there is a deep desire, on the part of some white people, to willfully put on blinders and wish away the burden of history in this country. In fact, these conclusions are ultimately in line with the erroneous conclusions of a growing number of white college students who genuinely believe that people of color receive more financial aid, grants and scholarships to attend college than white students, which is not true. The foundations of these faulty conclusions lie in the depths of cognitive dissonance, mental discomfort when the facts of life challenge deeply held beliefs.
For those who benefit from structural barriers, cognitive dissonance displays itself when they are confronted with any conversation that seeks to illuminate structural disadvantages for people of color, structural disadvantages that are empirically demonstrated time and time again. History bears out evidence of systemic racism; however, a system that provides some people (and their offspring) with unearned material advantages over others contradicts American values, and obviously, if you believe that America is a meritocracy, the existence of systemic racism is not something that you would willingly admit or want to acknowledge. As a result, white guilt sets in. Logically, to rid oneself of this guilt, one can only point to a deficiency in the culture that cannot overcome the structural barriers before them -- despite a long history (as noted at the outset of this piece) of trying to overcome these barriers.
American cultural logic tells us that if we work hard, we will succeed. American cultural logic also tell us that all people are created equal, and many white people fall back on this logic to convince themselves that everything they have is the result of their own hard work, and that since all people are created equal, not succeeding is a result of one's own failure, or the failure of one's collective community. This narrative conveniently rejects the implications of the history of race relations, and why wouldn't it? Reinforcing this narrative is the fact that we have a Black president (who is half white, but of course we conveniently ignore that fact so that we can be proud of ourselves as Americans for having come a long way by electing a Black president), so political pundits and talking heads can rest on a willfully faulty "post-racial America" ideology where anything is possible for anybody regardless of race, class, and circumstance. To think otherwise would contradict the historical progress of the American value system and delegitimize one's achievements in life. This logic is what makes Rudy Giuliani so comfortable with pointing to perceived deficiencies in Black culture to distract from the killing of Black unarmed youth by white officers. This is what makes his conclusion that all roads lead to Black-on-Black crime appear rational. This logic, however, is not restricted to white Americans only; Black Americans (see Charles Barkley, Ben Carson and others) rest on this cultural logic as well. Their logic oftentimes looks more like, "I am Black. I made it. Why cant they?"
In response to the Mike Brown case, Giuliani told an NBC News reporter, "I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We're talking about the exception here." Giuliani might be under the spotlight for his recent remarks, but the media and journalists, no matter their political leaning (liberal or otherwise), shape the narrative that implicitly justifies police brutality as well.
Since whiteness is the standard in this country, in the case of an altercation between a white police officer and a Black citizen in which the citizen ends up dead, the first thing news reports seek to do is look for the imperfections of the Black person involved -- even when they have absolutely nothing to do with the incident, and even if they are untrue. If the Black citizen is not found to have a flaw that would justify the police officer's actions, then reports seek to find flaws in the victim's family. (See the Tamir Rice coverage for a recent example.) Thus, instead of portraying the officer's actions as deviating from appropriate behavior, such reports implicitly justify them. This logic helps avoid the discomfort of acknowledging racism, even if you know it exists. It assuages the cognitive dissonance whereby many white people must pretend that white privilege doesn't exist so that they can avoid white guilt. This logic will continue to inhibit a rational conversation about not only police brutality but systemic racism and prejudice that continues to plague all areas of modern America.
So let's pretend for a second that Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rev. Al Sharpton, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder are "race hustlers." The fact of the matter is that if race were not an issue, there would be nothing to hustle.
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