Race & Power: A Resurgence of White Skin Privilege in the Post-Obama Era?

police car“A single police officer walking the beat is the most profound symbol of the power of the state.”

I read those words when I was in law school. They were the opening sentence of a book I was using as research for a thesis on Race and Policing. I remember thinking that I wasn’t sure I agreed with the sentence. At the time, I was inclined to view the “single police officer walking the beat” as the vulnerable party, voluntarily exposing him or herself to those elements in society that most of us seek to be protected from.

But I was younger, and more naive then.

As I read on, the book (whose name I forget now) went on to explain that the police officer is in that “profound” and extraordinary position because he, like no one else is imputed with the power of “the state” and can unilaterally decide to deprive persons of their liberty by setting into motion a complex series of events that are not easily halted–arrest, charge, arraignment, etc. In the moment, when a police officer engages, there are no checks and balances such as exist at almost every other instance of the state’s power being exerted. I don’t recall whether the book mentioned the most significant power that a police officer on the beat has–the power to deprive a person not just of their liberty, but their very life.

In recent months, we have seen police officers use that power in questionable ways against boys and men of color, which is nothing new, sadly. And there is something else that’s old but new again–we’re starting to notice the pattern and decide that something has to be done about it. People are taking to the streets in a show of civil disobedience such as we’ve not seen for a very long time. Unlike the nebulous goals of ‘Occupy Wall Street’, this movement is espousing values and rights that every person in America should be able to relate to–the right to be free from the arbitrary use of deadly force by agents of the state.

hands upThe demonstrations, and the frustration they represent are both heartening and depressing. And when I’m faced with emotion, I try to move very quickly to action, so now that I’ve grieved the place where we’ve found ourselves, I’m looking  to find solutions. But I fear it’s too soon–yesterday when I tried to pivot a conversation to ‘how do we solve this?’ a friend of mine who’s a social activist said, “We’re not there yet. The pain is too raw. People need to express that for awhile.” Point taken.

So my preferred mode of expression is this: I analyze. Last night my mind was teeming after seeing thousands of people around the country expressing their sense of injustice. I wondered whether they all have coalesced around a sense of what the injustice is. I believe, for most people, the narrative goes something like this: black men have been killed by police under sketchy circumstances, and the police all got off. And we have more than an inkling that they should not have.

I think, though, that there is a larger narrative at work, because let’s face it. Black men have been killed by police under sketchy circumstances for a long, long time. And they often get off when we have more than an inking that they should not have. I think what is simmering beneath these recent cases is a glimmer of a sense that something different and more insidious is at work.

Now, don’t get excited–I’m not a conspiracy theorist. But here’s what I believe. It all started with Trayvon Martin. No duh, right? But stay with me. That case was different. It was a bellwether and here’s why. In the Trayvon Martin case, we saw the resurgence of white skin privilege in a stark and unmistakable way–we imputed the power of the state to deprive a person of their life and liberty, not to a police officer (as is appropriate under most circumstances) but to a private citizen of dubious reputation. And not only was he cloaked in the power of the state, though he was brown, he was ascribed white skin privilege as well.

What does that even mean? In that case we saw how the very fact of Trayvon Martin’s blackness assigned him the role of aggressor, one that was believable only if one views the world through the lens of white skin privilege. (Who the hell is this Black kid walking in the rain in my neighborhood with a hood on just drinking iced tea and eating Skittles like he has a right to be here?!)  And George Zimmerman was necessarily cast in the role of the anti-aggressor, defending the rights of all (white) citizens to feel free from fear of … Blackness.

But the most significant takeaway from the Trayvon Martin case, apart from the tragedy of his loss, is this: that profound and extraordinary power I mentioned in my opening? It now no longer belonged just to police officers, the verdict gave that power to any average Joe or Jane who would take it upon him or herself to act as an agent of the state. But here’s the thing: only average White Joes or Janes.

ConstitutionGiven the result of that case, is it any surprise that if average citizens now have the discretion to curb the perceived threat posed by Black boys and men, that the actual police would be given even broader and deeper discretion in that regard? Viewed in that way, we can begin to see why some people consider what happened to Michael Brown and Eric Garner to be non-criminal, appropriate exercises of police power. And even if not “appropriate”, certainly understandable when one considers the threat they faced.

It was no accident that in all the cases I mentioned, supporters of George Zimmerman and the police officers emphasized the size, the sound, the almost bestial nature of the Black boys and men involved, with the implication: What does anyone do when confronted with a wild animal on the attack? You put it down, of course.

Now you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with the so-called post-Obama era. He’s still the President after all, and still doing pretty transformative things on his good days. And on his bad ones, is more than ably holding down the fort. Make no mistake, the post-Obama period is now. His assuming the office of the President is often spoken of derisively by his critics as an ‘ascendancy’, you know, like a king assuming a throne. The psychology of the use of that word is fascinating. Either consciously, or unconsciously, they realize that the assumption of the Presidency by a Black man, is the end of the reign of something. Of what though?

Say it with me: White supremacy.

I know. We all think we know what white supremacy looks like. That phrase conjures up remote militarized “compounds” out West, swastikas, skinheads and men in hoods. But those images are actually the tip of the iceberg and in many ways the less consequential manifestations of a system that goes far wider and deeper. It’s a system that requires us to name our history “African American history” rather than just recognize it as “history”; that requires us to reassure ourselves of our self-love by singing and saying, “I’m Black and I’m Proud” over and over again in our songs, dress and mannerisms–highlighting our ‘otherness’ rather than just living our authentic lives whether or not we fit that mold.

White supremacy is not just a system, it’s a consciousness. One that makes us turn hair choices into religion, driving wedges between those of us who are “natural” and those who chemically process; it makes us marginalize those of us who identify as Black but just aren’t Black enough–too light to know the struggle is what some folks say; it’s a consciousness that drives us to fetishize our skin tone, hair texture and the fullness of our lips and bodies by creating fictional tropes of BWWM, and BWWM-with-pretty-biracial-baby obsessive love.

From where I sit at least, that’s what white supremacy looks like.

Barack Obama is sworn in as 44th US presBut back to President Obama. I think the undeniable competency of this President has changed America. And not just because of his policy positions either–not because of Obamacare, or immigration reform; not because of the Lily Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, not because he “got Bin Laden.”  All that is of some historical significance, but more importantly, he has refuted once and for all the myth of Black inferiority–the myth that many of us (not all White, some of us Black too) have only pretended to disbelieve. He’s opened up the floodgates of possibilities for Black men and boys long after he is no longer President. As I like to say, even to Blacks who didn’t support this President, it almost doesn’t matter from a historical standpoint what he did while he was in office. What mattered most was that he was there at all.

I say “men and boys” because Black women … sometimes we fly under the radar. By virtue of being female and Black, sometimes we’re running some shit before people even notice. We’re in the struggle, but its not the same one as that’s faced by Black men. Now, I’m not attaching a qualitative difference, just saying, ‘it ain’t the same.’  In some ways, though, the notable perception of a threat has always been of the power of Black men. The Obama presidency makes this threat no longer the quiet, unspoken fear in the heart of the white, male hegemony; it is a reality. And once Obama’s presidency is over, the world must be made right again.

On a broader, sociological level, I think that’s what these cases of police abuse of power are about–the white, male hegemony re-exerting its prerogative to assign power to those it deems worthy of having it. I’m not saying the police officers in question were thinking about President Obama and the need to reinvigorate white supremacy; I’m saying that the need to reinvigorate white supremacy–either consciously or unconsciously–is motivating the decision to find their actions above reproach, particularly because that action was taken to subjugate a Black male.

Now this is where some people might start using that word: racist; claiming my views are not race-positive, and that they’re divisive, etc. To those people I say this: there is no way to remedy a race-based wrong with a race-neutral solution. And there is certainly no way to have a race-neutral conversation in the face of racially-charged circumstances. If nothing else, I hope we can all agree on that.



11 thoughts on “Race & Power: A Resurgence of White Skin Privilege in the Post-Obama Era?

  1. Yep. “He’s opened up the floodgates of possibilities for Black men and boys long after he is no longer President. As I like to say, even to Blacks who didn’t support this President, it almost doesn’t matter from a historical standpoint what he did while he was in office. What mattered most was that he was there at all.” I’ve been saying this for a while—before he got into office, actually. And I think your breakdown on the concept of white supremacy, what it means, what it looks like and how it plays a role in these cases is pretty spot on.

  2. This is so good Nia , your point of view is interesting , I definitely agree. Thanks for taking the time to write about it instead of sharing a post written by someone else.

  3. I know that it probably wasn’t your intention, but this piece is making me look at the GOP with renewed disdain. What our president has faced in the way of opposition has had more to do with what he looks like and less to do with his political affiliation. No doubt the level of hatred and disrespect had to astound even him. What I wonder is how our consciousness now as a nation will influence our justice system and with our flaws exposed not just to our citizens, but to the rest of the world will affect our respectability – what little we have left? If we will lose what is left of our credibility in the international forum of civil rights integrity? I also wonder what kind of President will follow?

    1. All good questions. And I agree that the President himself must be somewhat surprised that some people are less concerned with solving the problems than with making sure he isn’t the guy who gets credit for doing it. It will be an interesting decade that follows his presidency for sure. And I for one am eager to read his reflections on his presidency once it’s done.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. White supremacy is a “consciousness” that lives in the hearts of those who aren’t even white. It’s been reeking havoc in this country for centuries and now that it’s ending (and I believe it is irrevocably ending) there is no way it will go quietly. Recent events ARE depressing and painful so much so it IS difficult to even think in a solution oriented way. So I appreciate your well thought out analysis Nia, because it reminded me of what I’d been thinking and saying years before. When there was just an inkling in most people’s minds that Obama could even be president, the social flailing around that happened around birth certificates and false citizenship, was a cartoon version of that “quiet, unspoken fear” you’re talking about. And I’m no optimist but I do believe knowing what the real problem is brings us one step closer to solving it.

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