On October 26, video surfaced of a South Carolina sheriff’s deputy’s ridiculous and unnecessarily violent take down of a seated, silent black female teenager for the egregious offense of taking out her cell phone and refusing to turn it over to any one of three “authority” figures. While some have rushed to defend the officer’s actions or at least claim that we don’t have enough information to know whether the officer was justified, I stand with the victim in the video and those who insist that the officer’s actions were needless, violent, outrageous, and a violation of the sanctity of her body.
The idea of American society intentionally putting Black bodies in peril has gained a renewed airing given Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. In it, he discusses the fear that pervaded his life growing up in inner city Baltimore and how all the institutions that were supposed to help secure his prosperity and safety actually worked to threaten it. For Coates, these institutions are simply a continuation of America’s long-standing, racist subjugation of the Black body. How prescient does this quote seem now?
According to this theory “safety” was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value. I understood. What I would not have given, back in Baltimore, for a line of officers, agents of my country and my community, patrolling my route to school! There were no such officers, and whenever I saw the police it meant that something had already on wrong. All along I knew that there were some, those who lived the Dream, for whom the conversation was different. Their “safety” was in schools, portfolios, and skyscrapers. Ours was in men with guns who could only view us with the same contempt as the society that sent them.1
The contempt that the officer displayed because his “authority” was disregarded by a black girl sitting at her desk is the same contempt that America has always reserved, both historically and presently, for Black bodies. It is a contempt that America’s “progress” does not allow us to rightfully name as racist because we are not permitted to think about racism beyond what may or may not be in an individual’s heart. How is it racist if a black teacher and a black administrator called in a white cop to control the body of a black teenager? How is it racist if the white officer allegedly has a black girlfriend? The racism, systemic and institutional, is the legitimization of the idea that this black teenager and others like her need to be controlled (with state sanctioned violence at the discretion of whatever state official on the scene) as a matter of public safety. The fundamental question is whose safety and which public?
Too many will make this solely about the actions of one out of control cop and a bad teacher. They will call for the cop to be fired and perhaps call the Black teacher a sell out for allowing a Black student to be so manhandled. Some will even turn this line of inquiry upside down and ask, what would you have done with an obstinate student who refused to move when instructed? Both of these instincts are misguided. We must truly begin to search for and address root causes that permit and justify such treatment Black bodies. Forgive me if it seems as if the ill-treatment of Black bodies is at the very root of what it means to be American.
Kelly Brown Douglas says as much in her vitally important work Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.2 Douglas’ book is the perfect Black faith compliment and response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, despite being published a few months prior. Both books take seriously the Black body as a theological, ideological, and sociological challenge/problem for the construction of (U.S.) American identity. While Coates interrogates this problem through the prism of his own life experience, Douglas engages it by exploring the philosophies, ideologies, and myths that have determined America’s founding and defined our self-proclaimed exceptional identity. She finds that the majority of these ideologies and myths that inform the American Exceptionalism idea are racist at their root and will only ever truly include those who can call themselves white.
Douglas’ destruction of the American Exceptionalism myth gives us the space to actually address the ways in which America’s original and long-standing sin of systemic, institutional racism limits the outcomes of all of its citizens who will never be able to call themselves white. America, our sin problem is indeed and has always been a skin problem. And incidents like the one on Monday will occur again and again if this “exceptional” nation continues to look for excuses to keep the status quo.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Random House, 2015), 85. ↩
- Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015). ↩