Did the color of his skin kill Philando Castile?

July 14, 2016

Barbara Fields and Karen Fields, authors of the 2012 book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, offer their perspective on what's at the root of police violence and on the language we use to describe it, in an article first published at Jacobin.

THIS TIME it was President Barack Obama who used the formula "because of the color of their skin," after a police officer killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop for a broken taillight: "When incidents like this occur, there's a big chunk of our citizenry that feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same."

He was not the first and will not be the last to cast matters in that topsy-turvy way. Martin Luther King Jr.'s reference to "the color of their skin" in his "I Have a Dream" speech has normalized the formula in Americans' ears, though King probably considered it a reductio ad absurdum rather than an explanation.

Because the formula is habitual in American common speech, few reflect on its weird reversal of cause and effect. "Racecraft" is our term for it. 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.

Demonstrating in San Francisco after the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile
Demonstrating in San Francisco after the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (Josh On | SW)

The human aggressors need not be driven by malice, though they often are. Nor need they be the authors or originators of the double standard--in other words, racism--by which wearing a hoodie, selling loose cigarettes (or having done so in the past), talking back to a police officer, playing music too loudly, running from a traffic stop, or having a broken taillight subjects some but not others to instant capital punishment.

Indeed, when the double standard of racism results in obvious and irretrievable error--for example, when Afro- or Latino-American police officers working while off duty die at the hands of white officers who mistook them for criminals--the officers who killed them pay a heavy and probably lifelong emotional toll.

The point is this: skin color has no capacity to act, either for good or for ill. In police shootings, the harm is not done by the victims' skin color, but by the training, decisions and actions of the people wielding the clubs, guns or Tasers, as well as their superiors (who usually escape the consequences). The formula "because of the color of their skin" shifts responsibility from the aggressor to the target.

The ironic tags "driving while Black" and "walking while Black" originally underscored the absurdity of the incidents they characterized. But the tags quickly lost their ironic edge with a public inured to the belief that a driver or pedestrian's skin color is what determines a police officer's action, rather than the officer's training, judgment, mental stability or instructions from higher-ups.

BEYOND SHIFTING responsibility away from the actual aggressor, "because of the color of their skin" conceals a reality that ought to alarm even those who expect their white skin color to stand between them and injury or death as a result of misconduct by police.

Zachary Hammond, an unarmed white teenager, died in August 2015 at the hands of a police officer in Seneca, South Carolina, for no greater offense, it seems, than the presence in his car of marijuana that may not even have been his. Only through the efforts of Black Lives Matter activists did the episode come to widespread public notice. Not even the Hammond family's white neighbors felt moved to support them publicly.

In Frederick, Maryland, in 2011, a 26-year-old white man with Down's syndrome, Robert Ethan Saylor, died of suffocation in an eerie preview of Eric Garner's death. (Like Garner, Saylor was hefty.) Sheriff's deputies moonlighting as bouncers put three sets of handcuffs on him, laid him facedown, and sat on him. They were trying to arrest him because he would not leave a movie theater after the feature ended.

Advocates for disabled persons spoke up for Mr. Saylor and his family, but only on the rather narrow grounds that police should be better trained in handling the mentally disabled. The real question is why the moonlighting deputies decided to handle him at all, let alone manhandle him, over such a trivial matter. In a world of ordinary human decency, might not someone--the theater's managers, the officers or a member of the public--have offered to pay the trifling cost of a ticket and let him watch the feature again while he waited for his mother to arrive with the money?

The color of Zachary Hammond's or Robert Ethan Saylor's skin did not save their lives, any more than the color of Philando Castile's skin took his. The double standard of racism did not single Hammond and Saylor out as targets.

But the fact is that militarized police habituated to the shoot-first, command-presence mentality of an occupying army cannot ultimately be confined to the neighborhoods, environ, and persons against whom such conduct has long been deployed with impunity.

It is time to stop fooling ourselves with the racecraft of "because of the color of their skin" and acknowledge the emotional instability, poor judgment, inadequate training and ill-considered policies that turn human beings, not the victims' skin color, into killers.

First published at Jacobin.

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