Willful Whiteness: The Real Reason for Police Killings of African Americans

People hold hands and raise them up in the air at a vigil outside the Triple S convenience store in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesd
People hold hands and raise them up in the air at a vigil outside the Triple S convenience store in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Alton Sterling, 37, was shot and killed outside the store by Baton Rouge police, where he was selling CDs. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Do you really think the reason so many African Americans are killed by police is just the result of "bad policing"?

The statistics are staggering.

There have been 136 African Americans killed by police so far this year, according to The Counted Project of The Guardian. Alton Sterling became #135 after police shot him while he was held down on the ground in Baton Rouge, Lousiana. Philando Castile became #136 after a police officer shot him Wednesday night for a traffic violation and he bled to death near St. Paul, Minnesota.

Another round of public outrage has emerged, as have well-intentioned 'lists of things you can do now' to improve community policing. But these kinds of steps to provide better training and community oversight still are not getting to the root of the issue. The report Building From the Ground Up: A Toolkit for Promoting Justice in Policing does identify confronting racism as a root cause, and the policy recommendations are crucial.

Without confronting racism, however, community oversight and other such changes are not going to take hold. It has been proven they don't take hold since the killings continue and seem to be accelerating.

It is inconceivable that this pattern just shows how police need to be better trained and supervised. Lists of 'things you can do' actually can give White Americans a feeling of 'here's how we can get this done' and obscure the hard work of digging into white racism.

If you look at it from the perspective of what I am starting to call "Willful Whiteness," you can draw a different conclusion of the fundamental change required.

When, in community after community all across the United States, African Americans are killed by police and then the police are routinely acquitted of all charges, when charges are even brought, I have come to believe this whole pattern reflects the will of the dominant white community. That's "Willful Whiteness."

It cannot be otherwise. This lethal policing is the willful result of whiteness asserting its power through not only the police but through a "justice" system that refuses to hold police accountable for their actions.

As my friend, theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, remarked to me recently, "They won't be satisfied until they find Freddie Grey caused his own death." That's right. African Americans are made to seem guilty of their own deaths. So often, they are not.

In theological terms, "Willful Whiteness" is the sin of refusing to see what is right in front of you, namely that the widespread killing of African Americans by police and the failure of community after community to hold police accountable is not an "accident," a by-product of poor training or other excuses. It is deliberate and purposeful. In moral theology, this is called "willful ignorance." You have all you need to know to make better moral decisions and you still refuse to do it because you actually prefer your sin.

Or, to put this in non-theological terms, there's a (big) white elephant in the room. Quit looking everywhere else and focus on the elephant.

Whiteness (as opposed to simply being "white") is a regime of power that has centuries long roots in the way American social, political and economic life is arranged. Protests agains this run into the carefully cultivated myth that as the United States becomes more racially diverse this must translate into "less power for whites." That's why the term "reverse discrimination" exists and so many white Americans believe it is real.

As a white American, I need to put "Willful Whiteness" at the top of any list of "what needs to change." At every turn, this sinful behavior is both causal of the epidemic of lethal policing and it is responsible for the failure at every level to confront it effectively.

I have no way of actually knowing how God feels about the calls to pray for (fill in the blank with the latest city facing lethal police violence against African Americans) in the absence of real confession and change on what is causing all these killings, but I know the biblical prophets gave us clues. Amos (5:21) portrayed God as contemptuous of empty ritual in place of justice. God would not even deign to smell the burnt offerings until "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

Justice in our cities and towns requires the courage to reject the regime of whiteness as ruling power.