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Manufacturing the ‘other’

One of the frequent memes that emerges from racial discourse is that people of colour are expected to try extra hard to justify their existence and inclusion in American society. Nowhere was this more evident than when Congressman Peter King basically revived Joe McCarthy to investigate whether or not Muslims were ‘patriotic’ enough. It is not enough, according to Mr. King, to simply live in the United States – to be a real American, Muslims have to go above and beyond to prove that they’re not ‘too Muslimy’.

Of course, those kinds of obsessive intrusions often only serve to contribute to the general climate of xenophobia that leads to radicalization in the first place. Why on Earth would you be patriotic toward a country that uses the force of its government to peer into your personal life simply because you worship the wrong god? I alluded to this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of exclusion earlier this week:

It’s not hard, therefore, to imagine why black Americans do not see themselves reflected in the priorities of their country. It is certainly not hard to imagine that they may be less patriotic than one might expect. They see a country that seeks to lie about what it cannot hide. They see a country that seeks to erase what it cannot destroy. They see this country, and they say “god damn America”.

I would be interested to see a study investigating the causal association I believe exists between feelings of exclusion and likelihood of antisocial behaviour. We know, for example, that racial profiling by police makes members of minority communities less likely to co-operate. It’s not exactly rocket science – if you don’t believe the police are on your side, why would you work with them? What I’m curious about is whether or not that refusal to comply with social norms (i.e., recognizing authority figures) translates into a generalized contempt for other types of normative behaviours, like compliance with the law.

Or put another way, are New York’s ‘Stop and Frisk’ policies making their problems worse:

During New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first year in office, the New York Police Department stopped and interrogated 97,296 people on the streets. By 2007, with the Bloomberg administration pushing the a stop-and-frisk strategy, police made more than a half a million stops. Last year, the figure rose to a record 685,724 people. And according to a New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) report, the vast majorities of stops — about 87 percent — were of blacks and Latinos. Despite robust defenses of the tactics, they appear to be less effective than the Bloomberg administration and NYPD claim.

Most troubling, the NYCLU report seemed to bear out charges of racial profiling in stop-and-frisk situations. In precincts where blacks and Latinos are least represented among the population (14 percent or less), blacks and Latinos were nonetheless the target of 70 percent of stops. Perhaps most staggeringly, the the Wall Street Journal highlighted that the number of stops of black men between the ages of 14 and 24 (168,126) exceeded the total city population of black men in that age range (158,406).

Michael Bloomberg’s policies, nakedly racist as they are, have created a climate in which simply being a young black man is an offense deserving of police intervention. What’s worth noting is that, despite the egregiously disproportionate number of stops of black/Latino men, it is white men who are more likely to be found with contraband:

Percentage of NYC stop-and-frisks that resulted in a weapon, by race

It is probably not the case that white men are more likely to be carrying weapons than black/Latino men – what it might mean is that the bar for ‘looking suspicious’ is set far lower for men of colour than for non-men-of-colour. This certainly fits with our discussion this morning about how ‘Stand Your Ground’ gun laws interact with the nascent racism prevalent in the United States to make simply walking down the street far more dangerous if you’re black. Simply being black/Latino is, in itself, seen as a threatening action. Of course police will stop men of colour more often – they all look suspicious. And when you have a policy that consistently gives you lousy results, questions about the true motivation behind it become more and more salient.

I don’t know whether or not it is fair to say that policies like ‘Stand Your Ground’ and ‘Stop and Frisk’ are intended to remind black and brown folks that they simply are not welcome in America. It may not be accurate to attribute that kind of intentional malice to these policies. However, I have little doubt that they are the product of a mind that truly does believe that people of colour are an existential threat to the country, and that they must be kept in their place. Sure, if you are extra-scrupulous and make sure you don’t ‘look suspicious’ you might be able to get away with only occasional unwarranted searches (and make sure you show some gratitude for that, boy), but simply obeying the law isn’t enough.

Whatever the relationship between ‘othering’ and criminal activity, it is pretty clear that police are engaged in a concerted action to be the enemies of black and brown men in New York. This is an enmity with casualties stacked up heavily on one side, a trend which shows few signs of abating. However, the true existential danger is not from police – it’s what happens when they find they can’t control and brutalize a group of people who no longer recognize their authority. Does anyone remember 1992?

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