There’s a scene in a particularly cringe-worthy episode of The Office where Michael Scott, the bumbling boss, tries to manipulate the audience into picturing a criminal in their mind. He describes this fictitious person, using increasingly racial language, and then ‘stuns’ us all with the big ‘reveal’: the criminal is a white woman. Steve Carell does a masterful job of portraying the sneering arch-liberalism of the Michael character as he tries to demonstrate how racist his audience is, and yet how ideologically pure he is. The bonus of course is in the fact that Michael himself commits various acts of well-intentioned racism throughout the series, especially in this particular episode.
But like most of the satirical edge of The Office, there is a truth to be mined from Michael’s nuttiness: we do have racialized ideas of criminals that exist in our public life. These are not so mysterious when you are aware of how those attitudes came to be, dragged along as part of the overt and noxious racism of the past into the ‘polite’ racism of our contemporary world. Add to these attitudes a capitalist system that foists the burdens of poverty disproportionately upon certain racial groups, and the fact that poverty and criminality are causally linked, and you end up with the repeated emergence of the image of “the black criminal”.
A particularly great example of the pernicious power of this idea comes to us from Brooklyn:
The person of interest, who was caught on surveillance video carrying bags in the vicinity of at least two crime scenes, voluntarily entered the 68th Precinct in Bay Ridge to be interviewed by police, according to New York Daily News.
He was later transferee to another police location for additional questioning. Police have yet to release his name, but law enforcement sources said he is from Staten Island and is believed to be the man whose image was captured most clearly near the latest murder scene in Flatbush.
This part of the story is not so remarkable. Someone, who police are not calling a suspect (but who nonetheless was present at two crime scenes), has been taken in for questioning about some shootings. Pretty standard police work, right? Here’s the fun part of the story – check out the picture of the suspect they were looking for:
Now check out who they ended up arresting for the crime:
The resemblance is fucking uncanny, wouldn’t you say?
The sketch above should be seen as the racist caricature that it is, but it should also be understood as a sort of emergent Rorschach test for the mental state of the New York Police Department, and perhaps New Yorkers more generally. The yawning chasm between who we’re taught to be afraid of and who might actually harm us is serious, and it can be deadly.
My position is and has been for some time that when we cannot get a grip on the history of our racism, we end up doing ourselves a disservice. Not just those of us who are profiled, viewed with suspicion, stopped and ‘randomly’ searched, and who suffer the psychological, economic, and legal consequences of a society whose relationship with its own racism can be described as ‘just friends’, but also those who rely on the proper function of a justice system. It turns the focus of our fear in the wrong direction, toward someone who might psychically ‘feel’ guilty, but is, in fact, nothing more than the composite sketch of generations of our bogeyman nightmares about black men.
The ironic part of the story is that, while a story about who does the killing can be racially ambiguous, it is often the case that the racial identity of the victims is all too clear:
Hoke County deputies have charged a man with shooting a husband and wife outside their home in the Rockfish community Saturday evening. Sheriff Hubert Peterkin said it happened around 7:30 at 110 T.C. Jones Road.
Neighbors said 35-year-old Tommy Brown was playing basketball with his sons and was concerned because neighbor John Oliver Hill Jr., 48, was shooting a gun in the area. ”And this nut from across the street – who had been outside shooting his gun – the gentleman asked him if he would quit because of all the kids outside playing. And so he took it upon his self to come over here and he just shot the man. Shot him in the head,” said neighbor Lois Clairmont.
Deputies said the weapon was a .30-30 hunting rifle. The three boys who witnessed the shooting ran inside to get their mother and when she came out, Hill allegedly shot her twice.
There are no racial clues about the identity of the victim (except maybe “basketball”, but white people still play basketball with their kids, right?). A picture of the murderer is provided:
And if you’ve got the same sinking feeling in your stomach that I did when I read the story, then your gut’s not lying to you. Here’s a picture of the victims:
Now please don’t interpret this as a “white people are murderers” message. This is just one anecdote about a killing where the victims were people of colour, and the murderer was a white man. We can talk, and have talked, about the sense of racial entitlement that seems to accompany these kinds of murders in Jordan Davis’ case, in Trayvon Martin’s, and in Everett Gant’s (all of which, one might note, happened in Florida). The conversation about racial entitlement, right-wing gun fantasy, and who shoulders the harm of racism is a well-explored one, and I don’t really need to reiterate it.
But what I would like to note here is that our notions of who is committing crime and who is a victim of it are deeply mistaken. Until we figure out how to deprogram ourselves, or at least learn to recognize the voice of lazy racist inculcation is speaking in the place of fact, these stories will continue.
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