Christen A. Smith Become a fan
Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin
The grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson in theAug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown was not a failure of the U.S. justice system. To the contrary, the system is working just fine. In fact, it has worked exactly how it is supposed to work for generations (Emmett Till, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Marissa Alexander). The system is not broken. This nation’s morals are broken. Our children do not matter because they do not humanly exist.
Like many of us, I was pained to numb after the Ferguson verdict was announced on Nov. 24. We knew this was going to happen, but that did not make it any less excruciating. What we may not have realized however was the extent to which the details of the case would repeat history. Shortly after the verdict was released, the twitterverse lit up with the stories of Darren Wilson’s testimony. Apparently, Wilson described Michael Brown like a cross between a demon and Hulk Hogan, drudging up uncomfortable memories of police testimony after the Rodney King case for many of us.
We need only remember the testimonies of sergeant Stacey Koon and officers Laurence Powell and Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind, who stated that they feared for their lives when they were beating King senseless. Powell even made comments that referred to “gorillas in the mist.” Police officers who have demonic visions that prompt them to severely beat and/or kill black people are not a new phenomenon. No. Humans. Involved.
Social psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff demonstrates that the cognitive association between black people and apes directly leads to the sanctioning of extreme violence against black people, including police violence and the death penalty. Scholar Sylvia Wynter also reminded us back in 1992 in her essay “No. Humans. Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues” that the ease with which police officers associate black victims with apes (… demons, Hulk Hogan) has everything to do with the historical exclusion of black people from the concept of the human in Western society. In other words, they do not perceive our humanity.
When we cry for justice in this nation we appeal to a moral logic that the United States has been bereft of since before the Rev. Martin Luther King walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Some have argued that we are living in a new era of lynching. I would argue that the era of lynching never ended. Throughout the 19th-century black activists appealed to United States government to pass the Anti-Lynching Law to no avail. The gradual ground we have gained regarding our civil rights should not be confused with the literal stalemate we have had with the U.S. justice system regarding our human rights for more than 200 years. The right to shop, drink water at any water fountain and sit at the front of the bus is a concession this nation was willing to cede. The right to survive has never been on that list.