The number of times African-Americans were brutalized by police this year? Unknown.
Troubling images of a police officer slamming a 14-year-old black girl to the ground and pointing a gun at a group of African-American teenagers in suburban McKinney, Texas, is the latest incident of police violence against African-Americans to go viral.
Police officers, as both the New York Times and CNN reported, bypassed white teens in the group and confronted black young people, many of whom had been invited to a pool party.
Remarkably, the officer, who is seen screaming obscenities, pointing his gun at unarmed teens and tackling a defenseless girl for “talking back,” was a training officer supervising two other officers. He resigned late Tuesday, after the city’s police chief had called his actions “indefensible” earlier that day.
While no one was shot or killed, the casual brutality seen in the videotaped confrontation underlines the desperate need for a national database on police-community relations across the United States. Efforts are already underway to count the number of police killings across America.
There have been, according to this data, 490 people killed by police this year as of this writing, 138 of whom were African-American. That’s close to 30 percent, a disproportionate number considering blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population. By way of comparison, the figures mean that the police killed more people in the first 24 days of 2015 (59) than have been killed in the past 24 years (55) in England and Wales.
This new data, which breaks down fatal police shootings by race, ethnicity and region, provides important evidence of the crisis in America’s criminal justice system. The prison population, for example, has increased from 300,000 to 2.3 million in the past 35 years, with blacks making up almost half that number. All this has sparked massive waves of protests under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter.
Counting the dead, while crucial, should not be done at the expense of documenting the much larger number of routine law enforcement incidents involving non-deadly force targeting black civilians. McKinney underscores the connection between the criminal justice system and the politics of racial segregation in the 21st century. Public schools are more racially segregated now than 40 years ago; 39 percent of black students come from poor families.
The black teens attempting to attend a pool party in a predominantly white suburb outside Dallas may well have been racially profiled twice. First by neighbors who called police. Then by law enforcement officers, who treated the groups of high school students (many whom live in McKinney) as threats to law and order and responded accordingly.
Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has characterized the mass incarceration of black men due to the war on drugs over the past 35 years as the “new Jim Crow.” Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has become an influential political and policy manifesto. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent speech calling for the end of unfair and racially based criminal-justice practices was clearly influenced by Alexander’s work. Clinton called for the end of felony disfranchisement, one of the Alexander’s signature arguments.
But the new Jim Crow metaphor extends beyond the criminal justice system into every facet of democratic society in America. Nowhere is this new segregation more potent, or fiercely defended, than at the neighborhood level. Six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed racial segregation in public schools, life in the United States is, for many, more racially isolated than ever.
McKinney, where the presence of too many black faces apparently precipitated calls for police to round up the offending teenagers, illustrates the depth and breadth of institutional racism in the age of Obama and Black Lives Matter movement.
The criminal justice system increasingly serves as a nexus for punishment, control and surveillance that focuses predominantly on black and brown and poor people. It can prevent many from gaining access to privileged and predominantly white spaces, institutions and corridors of power. From this perspective, black presence in overwhelmingly white spaces seems to be looked on as an assault on white safety and identity. It is an offense punishable — as we have seen in McKinney — by an astonishingly brutal use of force against children.
Databases that simply document police shootings and killings in the United States miss the larger narrative of anti-black violence and soul-killing encounters with cops, such as in McKinney, that explicitly demonize and denigrate black bodies.
On this score, we need to document police behavior in McKinney as much as we do in Ferguson, Missouri. There are more McKinneys than Fergusons, places where black bodies are publicly humiliated in displays of state violence that reinforce unequal power relations based on race, privilege, wealth and access.
A police officer pulling a gun on black children attending a pool party indicates the size of a problem that will likely require radical public policy, legal and legislative changes to stem. Acknowledging the spate of police killings is a necessary first step to a larger problem that, as we have seen, does not stop at the water’s edge of a swimming pool.
With the increasing use of cellphone video cameras, it has now spilled into the living room of every American and world citizen who recoils at images that now seem to be as commonplace as they are repulsive.