As the country waits for a verdict on the Mike Brown case I am reminded of a discussion I had in my Intercultural Communication course this past summer. The students and I were discussing the BART shooting death of Oscar Grant by a White police officer, in which Oscar Grant — a Black male — was face down with his hands behind his back when a police officer shot him in the back, killing him. I asked the students to analyze the actions of both the police officer and Oscar Grant using Communication Accommodation Theory. After watching Fruitvale Station as well as the actual shooting on YouTube, the…
As the country waits for a verdict on the Mike Brown case I am reminded of a discussion I had in my Intercultural Communication course this past summer. The students and I were discussing the BART shooting death of Oscar Grant by a White police officer, in which Oscar Grant — a Black male — was face down with his hands behind his back when a police officer shot him in the back, killing him. I asked the students to analyze the actions of both the police officer and Oscar Grant using Communication Accommodation Theory. After watching Fruitvale Station as well as the actual shooting on YouTube, the class almost unanimously (with the exception of one Black female student), agreed that both Oscar Grant and the officer were at fault in the way they approached each other.
The students told me that despite the fatal shooting and the officers unlawful holding of Grant and his friends at the station, Grant should have remained calm, respected authority and complied with the officer’s requests. The students had similar reactions to other incidences we discussed, such as the force used to subdue ASU professor Dr. Ore, in which Dr. Ore refused to give a White police officer her ID, even though the officer was disrespectful and abusive in his interaction with Dr. Ore. The students came to the same conclusion; Black civilians in each of these cases should adjust their communication with police officers whether the police officer is in the right or wrong, because they are authority figures. If the police mistreat you, you should seek to press charges later.
These reductive conclusions are unfortunately the underpinnings of law enforcement and the court system, as time and time again we see officers and “authority” figures murder unarmed Black men and abuse the “authority” that their positions allow for. Many of which serve very light sentences, are not convicted of murder and return to their jobs after court proceedings end. History tells us, that Officer Darren Wilson will not be convicted of murder either and this will rightfully anger the Black community.
Incidences of unarmed Black men being abused and killed by law enforcement in this country result in the death of one citizen — the unarmed Black man. In the case of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman claimed to fear for his life, this is unfortunately the subtext in each case in which an unarmed Black man is killed — blackness intersected with maleness is a deadly threat. The Black cultural blogosphere has written loud and clear about this, however there is an alternative sense of meaning-making here; that is, despite the fact that the American justice system and political system has historically vilified African-Americans and justified the murder of Blacks, White cultural logic always expects the Black community to extend to them the understanding so lacking in themselves.
Even as verdict after verdict continues to excuse White authority figures of their wrongdoing, the Black community is expected to understand that police officers have a very hard job. The Black community is expected to understand that approximately 150 police officers are killed in the line of duty each year, the Black community is expected to understand that police officers are human too, the Black community is expected to understand that police officers are just doing their job and the Black community is expected to understand that even if a police officer is in the wrong, you are supposed to remain submissive and never talk back.
At the same time, White police officers that kill unarmed Black men are not expected or required to understand that racist ideologies and unconscious prejudice exist across law enforcement and the justice system no matter how liberal one claims to be and the White community at large is certainly not expected to understand that Black people are tired, angry and exhausted in the struggle to be treated with dignity and respect. Black families are hurt and suffer each and every time a Black man is murdered, the Black community is watching and they take these sentiments to work everyday — Black lawyers, doctors, professors, blue color workers, white collar workers carry the pain and suffering with them everyday and deal with it the best way they know how. The Black community deals whilst largely remaining disciplined and respectful because we know one misstep will result in another loss within the Black community. A misstep, such as the one Vinita Hegwood made when she posted inappropriate tweets on twitter in response to Ferguson, MO, which resulted in her being terminated from her job.
We are expected to respond appropriately and without anger in our communities, even though we have every right to be angry. Even though America teaches us that when someone attacks you, you attack back. The Black community can only attack back in ways deemed appropriate by those same authority figures that continue to kill us regardless of the ways in which Black people have been victimized by the justice system and law enforcement and regardless of the war on protestors launched on peaceful Ferguson protestors.
American cultural logic does not allow for an understanding of the anger and sadness felt throughout the Black community over the constant assault on our Black men and women, we are not permitted to understand the frustration of being pulled over by police over and over again because we are driving the wrong car or driving in the wrong neighborhood. American cultural logic does not allow for an understanding of the ways in which a Black person is mind fucked each time this happens — playing the game of giving the benefit of the doubt because aversive racism is hard to prove. Trying to debunk stereotypes is the tiring game Black people have to play each and everyday in public spaces.
There is no compassion or love on the part of the justice system or law enforcement when it comes to Black lives lost, but Black people through all facets of the justice system, whether we are mistreated on not, are supposed to be loving and compassionate in response to the mass murdering across this country of unarmed Black men and the racial injustice of the justice system. We are not supposed to act out or resist in methods deemed inappropriate because allegedly our bad behavior is what got us here (or killed) in the first place. American cultural logic avoids these Black observations by accusing us of being too ‘visceral.’
So here we are again, waiting, for America to do the right thing. Waiting for America to do what we hope will be the appropriate response to racism but knowing that the world is watching our reaction and amidst the anger of these verdicts that let police officers murder innocent men we are still expected to be calm, appreciate the due process we have been given by the justice system and extend to them an understanding, they themselves do not afford to us.