Racist Terror, Then and Now

Oppenheimer, Martin

Publisher:  Against the Current
Date Written:  21/09/2015
Year Published:  2015  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX18755

African-Americans have been murdered by white mobs, vigilantes, and "law enforcement" from the time of slavery to, quite possibly, this morning. The fundamental reason for the killing of African-Americans by whites has been fear by many whites of all classes that the existing rules of racial hierarchy, that is, white supremacy, are endangered.



These figures bring us back to the major factor underlying the history of African-American deaths at the hands of whites: fear. Police shooters commonly defend their actions by saying they feared for their lives, even when the victims were unarmed and running or driving away. How can we account for this? One excuse has been that the police are poorly trained and use force unnecessarily.

No doubt this is a factor. However, media coverage has overlooked another issue. There is a lot of research on "the police personality" going back many years, although controversy remains.6 Many police share certain traits with many of the working class (both white and Black) from which they are disproportionally recruited, especially a tendency towards a rigid black/white, good/evil moralistic view of the world, and a punitive attitude towards those who violate conventional values.

This attitude becomes cemented by the fact that police have "more contact with the seamy side of life than most people." Research indicates that officers (including Blacks) evidence more prejudice when they work in African-American neighborhoods than when they work in mixed or white (and less poor) areas of a city. Their politics on the average tend to be conservative, partly because liberals select themselves out of the recruitment pool.

One result is the continued stereotyping of the Black male as potentially dangerous no matter in what situation -- as when even a Black Harvard professor attempting to enter his own home is viewed as a possible criminal and arrested, as happened to Henry Louis Gates in July 2009. Gates is relatively short and walks with a cane, and was hardly a threat. It is unlikely that attitudes deeply rooted in family upbringing and reinforced by "continual exposure to the very worst in life" as a cop can be changed to any significant degree.


Black Lives Matter and other grassroots anti-racist organizations understand, in a general way, that the murders of African-Americans over the years (and the ideologies behind them) are rooted in a system of oppression that requires repressive institutions and practices to survive. This system includes the "prison-industrial complex," discriminatory policing, surveillance of progressive organizations and individuals, and biased media coverage. This culture of oppression has been tolerated by too many people much too long.

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