Yes, Philando was killed by racism

July 19, 2016

IN THEIR writings, authors Barbara Fields and Karen Fields make the important argument that while race is talked about to make it appear as if it is something natural, it is really the product of particular social relationships with historical roots in capitalism. Race is not the cause of racism--it is the consequence of racism.

The Fields' writings deserve to be read and discussed as an essential resource for a new generation of activists looking to understand and build a movement against racism and police violence today.

Unfortunately, though, their Jacobin article reprinted at, "Did the Color of His Skin Kill Philando Castile?" doesn't make this argument clearly. If you're familiar with their work, you can fill in the blanks and infer a position that makes sense. But the article as it is leaves far too much to interpretation and, if taken literally, can lead in all the wrong directions.

In the article, the Fields argue that it is wrong to say that Philando Castile was killed because of the color of his skin. As an example, they raise the fact that police murder white people--as well as the "heavy and probably lifelong emotional toll" on white officers who mistakenly kill Black officers who are off duty. Thus, goes their argument, there is nothing about skin color in and of itself that can cause (or deter) violence.

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How, then, do they explain Castile's murder? According to the article, it was the "deliberate action by one or more human aggressors"--and, more specifically, 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 Fields end by stating that it's time to "acknowledge the emotional instability, poor judgment, inadequate training and ill-considered policies that turn human beings, not the victims' skin color, into killers."

But when most people say Castile was murdered because of the color of his skin, they don't mean black skin has the power to attract bullets. They mean that racism played a role in Castile's murder. This is correct. Their conclusion represents an advance from the commentary, popular since Barack Obama's election as president, that we live in a "post-racial" America.

When people say that "Philando Castile was killed because of the color of his skin," socialists shouldn't be saying, "No, he wasn't." We should say, "Yes, he was killed because of racism," and then discuss how and why racism operates in the U.S., where its roots lie, and how it reproduces itself through institutions like the police.

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THE FIELDS' many books and articles have lots to offer on these questions, explaining how racism arose as justification for slavery, how it has reproduced and developed through institutions of U.S. capitalism such as the police, and how these institutions provide a landscape that shapes the behavior of individuals within those institutions.

But because their recent article in SW identifies the problem as "deliberate action by one or more human aggressors," it doesn't root these individuals within the police as an institution that is inherently racist, it opens the door to arguments that are being used to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement right now.

The idea that the police are emotionally unstable human aggressors with poor judgment and inadequate training sounds a lot like they were just bad apples or overwhelmed in a tough job. The problem can then be viewed as a moral one. The implication is that the issue of police violence can be solved with some minor reforms, such as better training or body cameras--rather than a more fundamental transformation involving disarming, defunding and ultimately abolishing the police altogether.

More troublesome is a line of argument in the Fields' article that ends up mirroring the main contention being used right now to attempt to delegitimize the Black Lives Matter movement--that the issue of police violence isn't about race or racism because police kill white people, too. This logic has been used to back up the slogan "All lives matter."

We certainly need to speak out and organize against police murder of anyone. In a system where so much wealth and power is concentrated with such a small minority at the top, a tremendously repressive apparatus like the police is necessary to protect this setup. So both white and Black workers and the poor are oppressed by the police. This helps to explain why so many white people have taken part in Black Lives Matter protests in solidarity.

But the existing setup cannot be defended by brute force alone. Racism is used to keep us divided and unable to struggle more effectively against the system.

Racism has therefore become inseparably baked into institutions of the state like the police. This means that African Americans suffer disproportionate oppression at the hands of the police.

Police murder more white people each year because there are more poor and working-class white people in the U.S. overall. But as a recent analysis in the Washington Post pointed out, Black Americans are two-and-a-half times more likely than white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers, and five times as likely to be killed by police when they are unarmed.

The Post article also points out--as we know from Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and many other cases of police murder that have brought the movement into the streets – that there is no correlation between violent crime and who is killed by police officers. The conclusion we have to draw, and must fight for as socialists and Black Lives Matter activists, is that the police as an institution are racist.

The Fields' writings have strengthened many activists' understanding of the social construction of race. In this instance, however, they seem too eager to use a quote by Obama to drive home their point about "Racecraft" without regard to the implications in this specific moment--a moment in which the specific oppression of Black people must be understood and underscored so that the working class of all colors can come to the defense of the Black Lives Matter movement at a crucial stage in its development.
Kyle Brown, New York City

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