Peniel Joseph: Crutcher's death is exactly the kind of state-sanctioned violence protesters are demonstrating against
Whoever the next president is, he or she must protect and prioritize the lives of black people, writes Joseph
Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.
Americans have become numb to the spectacle of racially tinged violence that lights up social media with unnerving frequency. The latest videotaped police killing of an unarmed black American occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Friday, when officer Betty Shelby shot 40-year-old Terence Crutcher after his SUV broke down.
Since the shooting, Shelby has since been placed on paid administrative leave. The Justice Department has launched an investigation into the shooting to see if Crutcher’s federal civil rights were violated and Tulsa’s police chief has promised a full investigation with complete transparency. Meanwhile, the Crutcher family is left to protest and grieve over the latest example of anti-black violence by law enforcement.
As the Crutcher family mourns in Tulsa, violence erupted in Charlotte, North Carolina on Tuesday night after police shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, a black man, while attempting to serve a warrant on a different person. Police contend this latest victim brandished a gun. His family insists he was simply reading a book as he sat in a car.
In Tulsa, Terence Crutcher’s senseless death, captured by an officer’s dash cam and a police helicopter, is exactly the kind of state-sanctioned violence against black bodies that protesters have been demonstrating against in the streets and on football fields. But the responsibility for addressing Crutcher’s death and preventing future such deaths lies as much with the citizens actively protesting the injustice as it does with the politicians currently in and running for office.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, recognizing her campaign’s vital need for a massive black turnout in November’s election, discussed the shooting on Tuesday, calling Crutcher’s death an “unbearable” act that should be “intolerable.” “Maybe I can, by directly speaking to white people,” Clinton continued, “say, look this is not who we are,” and enact police reforms to end these killings.
Unfortunately, for much of American history, unjustified and unavenged murder of black people has been exactly who we are. Civil rights activists reimagined the contours of American democracy by seeking legal, legislative and policy changes capable of promoting racial justice, economic equality and black citizenship, but their lofty ambitions bumped squarely into the nation’s long history of violence and exploitation of black bodies.
The criminal justice system that Clinton acknowledges needs to be dramatically transformed remains a gateway to multiple forms of racial oppression. For poor black Americans, police presence in public schools, the disproportionate punishment of black school children and zero-tolerance policies all provide communities with evidence that they reside in another country.
Black America is frequently discussed as a cautionary tale or a fever dream out of Donald Trump’s imagination, a land plagued by “black on black crime,” poverty, violence and social ills that are somehow always disconnected from the institutional racism, economic violence, racial profiling and policy decisions that gave rise to them in the first place.
Inspired by #BlackLivesMatter protests, the police killing of African Americans and her genuine need to stoke black voter turnout, Hillary Clinton has openly discussed the existence of institutional racism, offering policy changes that place her to the left of the Obama administration on issues of criminal justice reform.
All the while, Crutcher’s death in Tulsa competes for oxygen in a media landscape dominated by a presidential election, fears of domestic terrorism that have gripped the nation, and efforts to discredit Black Lives Matter protests. This is both unfortunate and in keeping with longstanding practice.
America’s racial justice movements have always confronted the forces of denial that proclaim racism to be a thing of the past, a figment of the wild imaginings of unpatriotic grievance peddlers, the modern day counterparts of the communist and socialist ghosts of a now forgotten era.
Fatigue over the very idea of racial justice continues to haunt the American soul. Black Lives Matter activists, like their civil rights era predecessors, did not invent the politics and practices of white supremacy that have shaped virtually every facet of the national past and present. They have only tried, through non-violent demonstrations, social media actions and a bold policy agenda, to ensure that America’s future breaks with its profoundly dispiriting legacies of slavery, Jim Crow and racial discrimination.
President Barack Obama recently proclaimed that if black people did not turn out to vote in robust numbers for Clinton, he would take it as “a personal insult” against his political legacy as the nation’s first black president. Noting that “our progress is on the ballot,” Obama urged African Americans to view the 2016 election in very personal terms. Black voters have been Obama’s most loyal constituency, sometimes to a fault, turning an extraordinary 2008 turnout into historic levels of participation four years later.
Yet Obama’s victory, perhaps not surprisingly but still disappointingly, proved insufficient to confront the systemic and structural nature of racial oppression in America. The Age of Ferguson, Baltimore and Milwaukee happened not because, but in spite of Obama’s presence in the White House.
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It’s certainly understandable that Obama seeks to protect his remarkable legacy. But placing the onus on black voters is the wrong formula. In a democracy, citizenship is a sacred trust based on mutual responsibility of active citizens and responsive and accountable politicians, circumstances that blacks have never been afforded.
I believe another world is possible, though. One where a president, irrespective of color, prioritizes the lives of black people and ensures no more Terence Crutchers are shot down in the street for breathing while black in America.