Institutional police racism, brutality, and constant lies from those who supposedly serve to protect us are just the currently most visible manifestation of a host of societal problems that we refuse to address. It makes me feel physically ill that it takes the murder of a young man like Mike Brown to get most people to pay even the most superficial attention to these problems.
Make no mistake: the shooting of Mike Brown was different from the standard operating procedures of American law enforcement in degree, but not in kind. The few instances that we remember are the most egregious, but for every Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, or Abner Louima, there are literally millions of young men of color who have been subjected to racial profiling, baseless arrests, and excessive force by police.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, nor am I a radical who thinks we should overthrow all forms of civil government. But I’m also not a believer in the myths and lies I was taught as a child.
I grew up in a middle-class white family, and I was taught the 1990s version of middle-class white values.
We were taught about Martin Luther King, Jr., about his heroics and the leaps forward our country made thanks to his leadership. We were told that we had come to terms with our unspeakable past, that we had reconciled, and that race was no longer a characteristic that would determine our fates. We were taught that we shouldn’t judge people based on their skin color, and we were taught that others wouldn’t do so either. We were taught that the policeman was a nice person who we should find when we needed help.
In fairness, that last one might be partly true, but only because I’m a middle-class white guy.
We did not learn the truth: that we inhabit a broken and racist country, a country where one-third of black men are under the “supervision” of the criminal justice system. A country where black Americans are routinely and purposefully denied access to financial assistance, career advancement, and social respect. We did not learn that we lived in a country that would acquit a George Zimmerman for shooting a defenseless Trayvon Martin. We did not learn that we lived in a country where a James Crowley would be lauded for his baseless arrest of a Skip Gates. We did not learn that we lived in a country where four white cops could fire forty-one shots at a black man for reaching for his wallet, and suffer no consequences as a result.
We did not learn that we lived in a country where criminal prosecutors—the so-called representatives of the people—would purposefully and systematically over-charge black men, seek harsher punishments for black men, lie and conceal evidence to insure the convictions of black men. We did not learn that we lived in a country that would run the poor and non-white “undesirables” among us through each stage of this system: from brutal and racist cops, through brutal and racist prosecutors and judges, to brutal and racist prisons, providing them with no meaningful assistance along the way, and finally strap them to gurneys or chairs to kill them. We did not learn that we lived in a country that persists, in the year 2014, in doing these things in our names.
We did not learn that we live in a country where, even if we assume the best of intentions by our police, our prosecutors, and our judges—a benefit of the doubt that they do not deserve, incidentally—there is zero statistical uncertainty that our “criminal justice system” is systematically and knowingly racist at every single stage.
We were told that lynching was an unfortunate chapter in our past, but that it was no longer a part of our identity. We were lied to.