By David K. Shipler
There are racial killers among us. They are armed and dangerous, and they are hiding in plain sight. Some wear the camouflage of police uniforms and are hard to pick out from the ranks of law-abiding law enforcement officers. Others are civilians in street clothes. They act alone, or so it seems, outside any conspiracy or organization—so far. Yet they act in a context. They have their sympathizers and rhetorical enablers in America’s deep traditions of bigotry.
The police officers are vested by government with the authority to kill, and when they use that license wantonly, they are rarely punished, although a pageant of due process is often performed for the spectators in the streets. The victims usually have skin darker than the killers’.
Civilian murderers are allowed to arm themselves under a perverse political calculation by the Republican Party and a twisting of the Constitution’s Second Amendment by the conservative justices of the Supreme Court. The right to bear arms has become a malignancy in the healthy body of the rights that keep us free—the rights to speech, to religion, to peaceful assembly, to a free press, to counsel, to jury trial, and against forced confession and cruel and unusual punishment. The country is awash in lethal weapons, easily acquired. Cops are not wrong to assume that one or another citizen they encounter is armed.
Therefore, the events of the last few days have been both shocking and predictable. It should be no surprise that the spate of police shootings of black men, despite all the protests they have generated, has been followed by more shootings by police—in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Anthony, Minnesota. This is likely to continue until two things happen: the officers start being put in jail and police departments nationwide scrub themselves from top to bottom of the racial stereotypes picturing blacks as inherently violent and threatening.
That image of danger, one of the most prominent in the array of racial caricatures, heightens the wariness of some cops when they face black men. That can happen with black cops, too, who are not immune from the society’s messages about African-Americans. And when cops then become targets in retaliation, as they did in the Dallas sniper attack on Thursday night, officers’ fears are stoked further, and the trigger fingers get jittery. The black sniper told a police negotiator that he was out to get white officers; he killed five and wounded seven.
Ironically, Dallas is a police department that has worked hard to heal relations with minority communities. Many other departments across the country have done little to combat the racial stereotyping that many cops bring with them to the job, and which is reinforced by the comments of fellow officers, not to mention the society at large. It would be illuminating to learn whether cops who have killed unarmed blacks have visited racist web sites. It would be interesting to know whether they like what they hear when Donald Trump tells crowds of supporters to beat up a black protestor or to fear and exclude Muslims.
Trump has fueled a lust to assess people by their racial and ethnic groupings, and the measure of his success can be heard in the ugly roars of the crowds at his rallies. When he denounced the judge hearing the civil suit against Trump University for his Mexican heritage, he said, “I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump . . . His name is Gonzalo Curiel.” At the sound of the judge’s name, the mob erupted in a primitive, angry sound that will echo throughout the country long after Trump has disappeared.
Far from heralding the arrival of a post-racial society, Barak Obama’s election as the first black president has facilitated the eruption of online racist caricatures, web sites, T-shirts, even baby clothes. After decades of building an elaborate superstructure of inhibitions to curtail the expression of bigotry, American culture sees the structure eroding. Prejudice is voiced with increasing vigor and conviction. Using justifiable criticism of a president as a cover, many right-wingers have woven racial stereotyping into their arguments against Obama, and so have cracked the veneer of courtesy and decency that has developed since the civil rights movement. That veneer has masked virulent racist attitudes beneath, to be sure, but they are now loosened with greater ease. It is impossible for all police officers to resist the flows of toxic attitudes.
So, this will continue. The logic of vengeance dictates that the spate of shootings by police should be followed by shootings of police. It is significant that officials first believed that three or four snipers were involved in Dallas, carefully positioned to triangulate their targets. It would be an alarming escalation but entirely expected. The disciples of hatred find one another eventually, and they conspire. Furthermore, on the other side, the outraged and aggrieved include the legions of gun-toting white supremacists who have felt empowered by the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump.
Given the broad context, it is not enough to point only to the shooters. The observation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel comes to mind: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”