Since the brutal murder of Black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of St. Louis County police, there has been a great deal of popular protest and anger, all of which is entirely justified, directed at an institution of “law” enforcement that has systematically oppressed the local Black community. Latest reports show that even journalists have been arrested, one reporting “I’ve been afraid several times while reporting on the ground here in Ferguson.” While reports of this kind certainly provide an unvarnished picture of the arbitrary use of force by county police, it’s worth noting that buried beneath this climate of terror is a history of Black life in America that provides insight not only into historical understandings of race, but how these understandings reverberate in contemporary society.
Paul Finkelman’s scholarly review of the 1857 Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford offers a revealing glimpse of this ignoble tradition. The Scott case, Finkelman observed, “symbolized the high point of racism in American law.” This “high point” was chillingly affirmed in the court ruling of 7 to 2, which declared that Scott, a former slave from northern Missouri, was to be denied freedom in opposition to the explicit mandate of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was, by far, the most enthusiastic of the supporters for slavery, stating that the framers of the Declaration of Independence were “great men” who “perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used”, namely that “it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the negro race, which by common consent, had been excluded from civilized Governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery.”
Concurring opinions echoed Justice Taney in racist cruelty. Justice Peter V. Daniel, alarmed by the very prospect of free Black people, proclaimed “the African negro race never have been acknowledged as belonging to the family of nations,” and “the introduction of that race into every section of this country was not as members of a civil or political society, but as slaves, as property in the strictest sense of the term.” He continued by advocating the continuation of slavery as necessary for the “preservation of order and social existence.” Emancipation of slaves, Justice Daniel argued, was an illustration of “despotic” power enforced to “arbitrarily invade and derange [the] most deliberate and solemn ordinances.” Therefore, “the injustice and extravagance necessarily implied,” by the “supposition” of free Black people could not “be nationally imputed to the patriotic or the honest, or to those merely sane …” Translation: only an anti-American lunatic would endorse Black liberation.
These opinions live on in the ongoing plague of police violence perpetrated against Black people today. From the murder of Eric Garner to the recent killing of Michael Brown, the idea of autonomous Black people, free from the arbitrary force of State-corporate power, still resounds as a thought overflowing with “extravagance.” Consequently, it’s in no respect surprising to read a report of a Ferguson police officer refer to those who the media misleadingly calls “rioters” as “fucking animals.” This brand of dehumanization is standard in colonial societies. For example, former Israeli Prime Minister Manachem Begin was recorded to have described Palestinian Arabs as “two-legged beasts.” Another much more recent example is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s description of Hamas as “human animals.”
Accompanying this effort on the part of the police department to dehumanize the Black community is a media discourse that all but ensures that this deeply seated culture of racism never rises to the surface in any meaningful way. A paradigmatic example of this journalistic malpractice can be found on CNN, where a discussion was held about what “Black parents tell their sons.” While it’s perfectly fine to explore what Black parents teach their children to do when confronted by racist police officers, this framing completely ignores a much larger question–at least for those serious about reversing police terror and not accommodating it–namely what do white parents tell their sons. It’s simply taken for granted that racist police officers are free to unleash indiscriminate violence and terror on Black communities with absolute impunity.
Accordingly, no questions arise about what their parents told them as children or why American society, despite claims of “post-racialism”, consistently produces generation after generation of police departments that explicitly function as instruments of racial oppression. The plausible answer is that white supremacy, and its institutional expressions, is accepted as legitimate, hence it is above serious inquiry. How nicely this conforms with an overarching two-tiered “justice” system where due process is accorded based on one’s net worth as opposed to their basic humanity. As Glenn Greenwald astutely notes in his penetrating study of the US “justice” system With Liberty and Justice for Some, “one of the ugliest and most toxic aspects of the multi-tiered approach to justice is that those who suffer the most from it are, in extreme disproportion, racial minorities.” Moreover, “at current rates … one-third of all black males will go to prison during their lifetimes.” One would be hard pressed to find any of this in President Obama’s statement on the murder of Michael Brown, which impressively managed not to mention the fact that he was murdered by the police. Incidentally, this decision aligned neatly with previous episodes of moral detachment where another aggressor was insulated from serious public criticism.
— homeland offense (@onekade) August 12, 2014
Much like the external colonies that the US military occupies and destroys abroad–Iraq and Afghanistan are two notable examples–a well managed empire also requires internal colonies and a domestic military (police departments) to suppress what Noam Chomsky accurately termed the “superfluous population”, “superfluous” because they contribute little to elite interests, particularly wealth accumulation. From the NYPD’s spying operations on New York’s Muslim communities and unlawful Stop and Frisk policies to outright murder, the contours of this colonial enterprise are becoming more and more visible. For far too long the Black community has been treated as a testing ground for the most structurally violent and oppressive policies in the so-called “industrialized world.” Even the UN highlighted the “enduring racial disparities in the [US] justice system, including large numbers of black prisoners serving longer sentences than whites”, “racial profiling by police, including the mass surveillance of Muslim communities by the New York police department”, and “segregation in schools,” in its latest human rights report.
Disgraceful realities of this kind highlight just how important a serious interrogation of white supremacy is in the wake of the Michael Brown murder. The refusal to punish–in this case even the refusal to release the identity of the officer who committed the killing–only reinforces this culture of immunity. In this culture the well known doctrine of deterrence is radically inverted. Typically, legal punishment is understood to be a deterrent to crime, but separate standards are invoked for the powerful. For the powerful punishment does not deter crime, but crime, when carried out with sufficient wealth and institutional backing, deters punishment. This is why it would never occur to CNN to ask what white parents tell their sons. Such questions, by elementary imperial logic, are patently absurd because it’s not white, but Black communities that need to change, specifically Black communities that fail to submit quietly to Justice Taney’s ruling that “civilized society” is not “supposed to embrace the negro race.”
Following the Dred Scott decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, effectively “[repealing] part of the Missouri Compromise, by allowing settlers in much of the Great Plains territories to decide for themselves if they wanted slavery”; basically, affirming the pro-slavery argument that emancipation was an unjust encroachment on states-rights (the position of Justice Samuel Nelson). Even after the Civil War, which led to the formal abolition of slavery, America’s Black population was re-enslaved in a brutal convict-lease system whereby “convicted people were ‘leased’ by the government to work without pay for private corporations, allowing both government and the owners to rake in exorbitant profits.” Scholar Eugene Puryear documents this phenomenon in expert detail in his book Shackled and Chained noting that “corporate prison bosses, who had acquired their Black labor on the cheap, were more willing to beat, work and starve them to death than the slave-owners decades earlier who invested large sums in their human property.”
This crucial history situates the murder of Michael Brown in the proper social context and helps to explain the “riots” and the militarized response from the St. Louis police department. Images are now emerging of Black men and women with their hands raised above their heads as a symbolic gesture against police brutality. “Don’t Shoot” is the central message. But how to respond to a system that has managed to target and kill, in addition to unarmed Black teenagers, an entire community’s sense of hope for a better future? Questions of this kind aren’t merely familiar to the Black community but has been a core aspect of the Black experience in America. The people of Ferguson, moved to action by an organization of domestic power that is fundamentally unjust, deserve the support of us all. Meanwhile, the ghosts of Justice Taney and his acolytes are free to mourn the “despotism” of free Black people rightfully prepared to bring an end to their “civilized world.”
With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful by Glenn Greenwald
Dred Scott v. Sanford: A Brief History with Documents by Paul Finkelman
Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky
Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America by Eugene Puryear