This commentary has been revised and updated to reflect breaking news events after the article was first published late Thursday afternoon.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile join a roll call of martyrs — from Sandra Bland in Hempstead, Texas, to Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — who have died after contact with law enforcement officials over the past two years, a pattern of racial violence that ignited the Black Live Matter movement that has gripped the national imagination.
The police shooting death of Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, early Tuesday was captured on video. The aftermath of the police shooting of Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on Wednesday was live streamed on the Internet by the victim’s girlfriend. Her heartbreaking cri de coeur has become a viral soliloquy, ending as her 4 year-old daughter, who is also in the car, tries to soothe her.
As the videos played on cable news programs across the nation, they offer a stark illustration of what it means to be poor, working-class black folk in America today.
The U.S. Supreme Court just gave police carte blanche to stop virtually any person they want. So now it might be even more acceptable for black men and women, girls and boys, gay, straight and transgender to be routinely marked for surveillance and harassment. Perhaps again leading to brutality, violence and even death. It is a world in which, so far this year, police have killed more than 560 people.
Though Representative John Lewis of Georgia was rightfully applauded for leading a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to press for a vote on gun reform, many national politicians have exhibited no such energy in challenging the deaths of blacks at the hands of the police.
Will any politician have the courage to stage a new House sit-in for Sterling and Castile and push bipartisan legislation to end this epidemic of anti-black violence?
President Barack Obama, in Warsaw for a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, delivered an extemporaneous address about the dual shootings, discussing the meaning of the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” Obama cited data about traffic stops and other statistics to show that the nation’s brutal history of racial disparity continued, he seemed to suggest, despite his unprecedented ascendancy to the White House.
Sterling had been approached by police after they received a 911 call about a man selling CD’s outside a convenience store and possessing a gun. The video evidence that has been widely played, however, does not appear to corroborate these allegations. Instead it depicts two officers tackling, beating and shooting Sterling several times in the chest in what, to many who viewed it on social media, looks more like an attack than an act of law and order.
These two shootings come a week after actor and activist Jesse Williams gave a galvanic speech at the Black Entertainment Television awards program about white supremacy and institutional racism detonated in American culture like a bomb. The speech left the stunned public gasping with praise and condemnation in its wake.
His remarks, which echoed some of the searing candor of James Baldwin and the passionately blunt truth of Malcolm X, touched on racism’s ability to harness wider evils such as mass incarceration. His speech defended anti-racist activism from charges of reverse racism, which has become one predictable response to today’s social-justice activists.
Williams’ words were still reverberating when Sterling and Castile were shot and killed. Both deaths triggered outrage and demonstrations. The Louisiana governor and local officials are calling for peace. The Justice Department swiftly announced an investigation into Sterling’s death. It later said it is looking into the Minnesota killing as well.
America’s criminal-justice system represents the collective will of millions of decision makers — voters, politicians, judges and prosecutors — who have created a structure that demonizes and denigrates black bodies. Law enforcement’s violent behavior toward black people should not be seen as an aberration, but as the culmination of institutional racism and bias against poor and working-class black folk.
The Justice Department’s successful efforts to forge consent decrees with cities such as Ferguson begin to scratch the surface of the systemic issue of black bodies being disproportionately punished by courts, probation and parole systems, local city jails and state and federal prisons.
Sterling’s and Castile’s deaths reflect the panoramic way in which American democratic institutions treat the black quotidian in the 21st century.
Black excellence, as represented by everyone from Obama to Beyonce, has found a measure of protection even as its denizens remain vulnerable to racial profiling and mistaken identity at the hands of law enforcement.
Most African Americans are excluded from this rarified status and, like Sterling and Castile, face life-and-death encounters with law enforcement every day. They inhabit America’s lower frequencies — places particularly vulnerable to poverty, racial profiling, violence, unemployment, segregation, environmental hazards, disease and death.
The persistence and evolution of institutional racism attests to its normalized state in American culture, our politics, and our democracy. The aberration from this perspective is not the death of Sterling and Castile but images of black excellence that are routinely hailed as racial “progress.”
Black America has always been the nation’s canary in the coal mine, the common denominator for measures of pain, suffering, misery. The civil rights movement used this status to warn the nation that Jim Crow segregation contradicted its founding claims of freedom and democracy. Black Power activists, like their Black Lives Matter counterparts, offered a more sobering assessment: They acknowledged slavery and racism as constitutive elements of the nation-state instead of an unseemly stain.
Yet people remained defiantly optimistic that radical political organizing could ultimately transform America into a multiracial democracy.
While some of these dreams have come true, many more have been held back by legal and legislative rollbacks and threatened by a resurgence of white nativism that has mainstreamed “old school” racism and catapulted a major presidential candidate who is openly supported by members of white supremacist groups and other hate groups.
This is the dark side of the Trump’s promise to return America to its Eisenhower-era glory. For that was a period marked by a starkly divided color line, open segregation, anti-black violence and racial anxiety.
Peniel E. Joseph is Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin. His most recent book is Stokely: A Life. He can be followed on Twitter at @penieljoseph.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.