Melanin can’t commit homicide. Skin pigment can’t pull triggers and take lives. So tell us Barbara and Karen Fields:
Skin color cannot, in fact, cause a club to land, a gun to discharge, or a Taser to electrocute, any more than skin color can deny a job application or bank loan or locate a highway or toxic waste dump near a residential area. The “because” in each instance is not the victim’s skin color but a deliberate action by one or more human aggressors.
It is a mistake, they contend, to look for an explanation of Philando Castile’s death in the color of his skin. “The point is this,” they continue: “skin color has no capacity to act, either for good or for ill.”
This is true, of course, but it tells us very little, because no one is claiming the opposite. It doesn’t tell us why the car Castile was traveling in was stopped (his “wide-set nose”?), why as a passenger he was even asked for identification, or why his mention of a legally registered firearm provoked such terror in the officer — Jeronimo Yanez — that within a few short moments he had shot Castile dead.
Rhetorical acrobatics aside, it’s clear that the Fields seek to shift discussion from the physical appearance of the victim to the “deliberate action by one or more human aggressors.” Fair enough, but in the end they evade both the individuals and the structures they serve because they downplay the importance of white supremacy. Far more than individual prejudice, white supremacy is a core element of the structure governing our society.
To emphasize skin color, the Fields argue, is a “weird reversal of cause and effect” that they diagnose here and elsewhere as “racecraft.” But unless they are arguing that being killed is what made Castile black, it’s not at all clear what’s being reversed.
This is not the only confusion. The Fields’s claim that the phrase “because of the color of their skin” shifts responsibility “from the aggressor to the target.” But few who use that phrase are blaming the victim — almost all who use it are pointing toward structural patterns of white supremacy. Frantz Fanon, for example, diagnosed what he called the “racial allocation of guilt,” but recognized that to fight this reality we need to talk more about race, not less.
The Fields are concerned with a lack of attention to structure, and rightly so. But no matter what we think of the various positions, diagnoses, and proposals — from the Movement for Black Lives Pledge to Campaign Zero, everyone is talking about structure these days. Even President Obama — who the Fields critique — speaks of deep-seated racism while ordering federal investigations and commissioning national reports on policing.
The problem isn’t that Obama, mesmerized by racecraft, is ignoring or oblivious to structure. It’s that he’s gotten that structure wrong. But so have the Fields.
In their recent piece, instead of individual racism and structural white supremacy, they explain police killings as the result of the increasing “emotional instability, poor judgment, inadequate training, and ill-considered policies” of the present combined with military hardware.
But as a structural argument — the kind of argument they claim to want — their explanation falls flat. These factors can’t begin to explain why Castile, not to mention Alton Sterling or a thousand others, were targeted and subjected to peculiar scrutiny before ultimately being murdered.
And it can’t explain the long historical continuity: American police have always killed black people with near-total impunity. This history can’t be chalked up to bad training, emotional instability, or the more recent tendency — accelerated post–9/11 — toward militarization. It was no coincidence that Bull Connor had a tank that he was very proud of using against civil rights protesters.
Ultimately, while insisting that we turn our attention from individual to structure, the Fields themselves remain focused on individuals, and recount two cases of police killing whites to highlight the inadequacy of causal arguments that focus on skin color. But the collateral damage wrought on white communities by testosterone-fueled, militarized bullies in blue doesn’t change the fact that young black men are five times more likely to be killed by police than young white men.
To focus on white supremacy is not to neglect structure. It is to highlight how central it is to the hierarchy of power in US society. Without understanding structural white supremacy, it’s impossible to grasp why the Second Amendment applies to white Americans but not to black Americans, a reality that Castile’s death only underlines. Not to mention the peculiarly selective right to “Stand Your Ground” — one enjoyed by George Zimmerman but not Trayvon Martin or Marissa Alexander.
It is white supremacy that marks certain people as full humans and full citizens, while rendering others undeserving of legal protection, of “inalienable” rights, and thus killable. Any attempt to craft solutions that doesn’t take this into account is destined to fail.
We can improve training, provide psychological counseling, and demilitarize police forces, but it’s not clear that training or counseling would have changed the fate of Castile, Sterling, or the many others.
Inversely, to focus on demanding responsibility from individual police doesn’t divert attention from structural questions, either. The task of political struggle is to bind the individual act to structural change without neglecting either part. We get nowhere by telling the thousands clamoring for police to be held responsible that they should point their anger elsewhere or by reminding them — a la #AllLivesMatter — that the police kill white people too.
In fact, in this situation a focus on the individual is more effective than it might seem. American policing requires impunity, especially when it comes to murdering black people. Every individual case is an opportunity to set a crucial precedent, and this is why police unions are so intransigent and desperate to prevent any accountability and any oversight.
Our enemies’ fears point us in the right direction. Organizing around individual cases has provided a catalyst to mobilize masses of people and knit movements together into an increasingly unified movement against police (brutality).
What would this movement look like without the rallying cries provided by the seemingly endless litany of names? Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile . . . each a localized link in a vast chain struggling to transform a brutally racist present.