The Murder of Walter Scott and the Boogeyman of Whiteness

I went on a Twitter rant in the following hours of the release of the bystander camera phone video of the death of Walter Scott of North Charleston, South Carolina.  By now, most have seen or at least heard of the incident where a white police office, Michael Slager, shoots his service arm eight times and a reported five of them land on the body of Walter Scott–namely in his back.  The police reports alleged that the officer feared for his life, the video shows a man running away, presumably resisting arrest, but certainly not posing a mortal threat to the officer.  Summarily, Michael Slager was charged with murder.   My social media rant lamented the very simple fact that Walter Scott’s name has to not only be added to the litany of slain black and brown folk by the police, but that I will have to muster up the energy and emotional fortitude to remember yet one more name.

I am fatigued.

Ron Heifeitz, the leadership guru, simplifies the gist of my fatigue when he illuminates what it means to have technical and adaptive challenges.  For example, if the heat in your office isn’t working, you approach simply as a technical challenge: you call someone and they fix it.  It becomes an adaptive challenge when you’re told that no one can fix the heat and you therefore find innovative ways to keep warm: wear layers, buy a space heater, install weather stripping around the door etc.  The fatigue comes when you call for an HVAC technician who tells you the heat is working and the thermometer in the office during winter is a chilly 55º with no warmth in sight because you’ve spent energy vacillating between an adaptive challenge and a technical challenge.

Black folk in this country exist in a perpetual state of this fatigue.  Many of us find ourselves always tired.  It is existentially draining.  This fatigue manifests itself in fits of anger and even rage.  It can carry itself out on a national stage like the riotous behaviour following the no-bill issue of Darren Wilson, or in the personal relationships (or lack thereof) of individuals with boots on the ground.  Sleepless nights, weight gain, weight loss, general mood disorder, hair loss, alcoholism, drug use can all be a direct cause of being perpetually angry, fatigued and enraged.  It’s a wholly unhealthy state of being.

I felt that the court of black public opinion summarily took the likes of Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart to task when he took the public opportunity to pillory those who hung their social justice Super(wo)man capes on the hook of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” in the early days of protest following the death of Mike Brown.  Capehart’s column formed the triad of Common’s apologetic approach to racism that black folk should just be more loving, and the awful image of black elected and civic leaders standing around Levi Petit of the Oklahoma University fraternity of ill-gotten fame, and willingly accepting his apology.  Capehart’s article functioned as a liberal blackface for impassioned whites who either lived in a white bubble of liberalism that operates from defensiveness or self-exoneration or for the white conservative ilk who simply think the only racists in the world are Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.  Ronald Kuykendall in a recent article aptly entitled “The Logic of Whiteness” says that the nature of whiteness is antidialogical.  He asserts that “antidialogue is a means of dominance which disposses the other of their testimony and their expressiveness.  It is an indispensable tool in the preservation of dominance and oppression, and consequently the preservation of whiteness.”  Capehart’s column performs whiteness by devaluing the testimony of protesters behind “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and measuring the standard of truth against a DOJ report.  The death of Walter Scott changes all of this.

For generations whenever a case of police brutality manifested itself, where the existence of racism and racial bias had an immediate and lethal component, black folk were gaslighted into believing that their perception wasn’t real, that in fact there was a boogeyman who was making us believe this.  Performed whiteness shuffled responsibility from themselves as a group and as individuals and it played out in complex forms of victim blaming and pathologizing anything from poverty to drug-use to welfare abuse.  Ever since the Moynihan report this tactic has been a staple in addressing the problem of racism.  However, approaching the conversation from this angle, as Kuykendall says, is antidialogical.  This boogeyman often, not always, had a white face that had a near perfect clearance rate as far as the police officer either not facing charges, or ultimately facing acquittal.  The death of Walter Scott, so far, is proof that this boogeyman exists and that the boogeyman is a murderer with a white face.

As the use of body cameras is still debated, and even in what many see as an open and shut case with the death of Eric Garner, it is clear and present that a video tape doesn’t mean anything.  Just ask Rodney King.  However, with an immediate charge of murder against Michael Slager, bypassing the grandstanding and prosecutorial brinksmanship surrounding Darren Wilson, for me, it vindicates the position of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”  With the Department of Justice (DOJ) finding no fault against Darren Wilson, yet finding reasons to lay into the Ferguson Police Department, for many, myself included, the two findings just didn’t line up.  How could the finding of a police department so corrupt with racial bias, ergo racism, somehow find Darren Wilson as the shining exemplar free and clear from the muck the rest of his comrades were now so deeply mired?  Capehart’s column was this finger-wagging tale toward the black community that took his plea almost to the edge stopping short of requiring those black protesters to apologize to white America.  The DOJ’s finding gave legitimate legal support to the cries of white Americans that the boogeyman of bad policemen really didn’t exist.   Capehart is entitled to his opinion, that’s his right, but I hope he and his supporters can see the ways in which that point of view rests on a power systems that favors those already in the position of power.  The power of facts and of what is perceived as a singular truth literally rests in the hands of the ones who have both a gun and who can legally put you to death.

The standard of truth, unfortunately, is determined by who has the power.  “Never the twain shall meet” is a refrain often echoed by those who are torchbearers of the marginalized truth in the face of tyrannical power.  Part of the narrative surrounding the Bill Cosby rape allegations and why it has proven to be such a divisive issue is rooted in the fact that the standard of truth does not rest with the word of the women.  The knee-jerk reaction is that the word of the women can only be substantiated by some form of perceived truth.  The same is the case in many police brutality cases, or cases where the police officer actually kills the alleged perpetrator.  Unfortunately, it becomes a one-sided story because the other story is now locked behind the eternal and immutable veil of deadness.  Dead people tell no tales.

Power brokers dictate the narrative of truth over those whom they hold power.  But, these power brokers are a boogeyman of sorts.  It’s never just one person.  Take the Ferguson Police Department for instance.  While the police chief may have resigned, doing so doesn’t automatically mitigate the situation to being fair and just.  The boogeyman of whiteness is everyone and no one all at the same time, it can present itself as a technical problem–forcing a police chief to resign who oversaw a department rife with racism, but also an adaptive problem–addressing diversity hiring on the force, racial bias, police stops, arrest rates for blacks versus that of whites.  This boogeyman of whiteness is a non-specific but very real embodiment of fear.  The fear exists in the intangible systemic realm that a black man would not receive a fair trial in the criminal justice system to a black parent’s fear about their child’s classroom behavior being seen in a criminal light.  The acquittal of George Zimmerman and the failure to return a bill of indictment by a St. Louis grand jury all embody this fear and send a signal that the boogeyman is real.  Students in Meridian, Mississippi that were sent to the juvenile detention center over tardies, and failure to notify a teacher to go to the bathroom are all real-life incidents that tell everyone in black America that the boogeyman is real.

Those are current realities for many whose phenotype tells the world that they are black.  The statistics along the gender lines for the ways in which black women or black men, boys or girls suffer any given horror is a burden that no demographic singularity should have to face.  The reason why “the Man” always existed in American Negro folklore because it was always understood that not all white people, as individuals, are bad, but that the evilness of racism can permeate through any and everything all at once.  When black folk would get a so-called “good job” they were working for “the Man” was a existential gut check that freedom was relative and that they understood the ways in which they were a small, albeit real, part of the larger system that was not always kind to them.  While “the Man” exists beyond racial boundaries, within the Black experience, we’ve always been clear that the faceless boogeyman that terrorized our existence was always white, and always male.

The cruel paradox that the boogeyman presents is that is a tool that parents (power holders) use to get their children to behave a certain way.  This basic fear tactic that exists in many forms across global cultures presents the standard of behavior that blacks are expected to perform based on whiteness, to not live up to these standards will invoke the wrath of the boogeyman.  This dynamic produced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 restricting the movement of runaway slaves and threatening the lives of free persons of color, the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws.  The extralegal occurrence of lynching was the way in which the boogeyman was unleashed on people who failed to “act” a certain way and perform forwhiteness in a way that was acceptable.  In the 20th century, we saw this played out through restrictive housing covenants and for blacks to break those so-called rules could result in the boogeyman enacting property vandalism and other terrorist-like attempts to force the family out of the neighborhood.

walter-scottThe boogeyman exists for two reasons: fear and the unwavering fact that no one believes it exists.  There is a legitimate fear of police officers within the black community.  Many black men know the knot of dread that forms in their stomach when they see blue lights in their rearview mirror, or that ever so slightly leery look one may give a police officer passing by the street simply because you know that the power rests in their hands and they may decide to stop and frisk you simply because.  The boogeyman, however, is able to exist mostly because no one ever believe that it exists, much like a parent telling their child that the boogeyman isn’t real.  For the lives of black folks in this country, American life has been one continual horror story in which no one in power ever believes what we are saying.

The parent-child dynamic is important to understand in this case.  In the folklore about the boogeyman, it is completely dependent on the child insisting and searching fervently for proof to show their parent that the boogeyman is real and parents either simply not believing their children or parents willfully ignoring the signs.  There’s also the power play that is extremely crucial to understanding why this boogeyman is the transmogrified personification of evil–white people have the power (some may say privilege) to ignore the signs.  While no, white people aren’t some parental force over the child-like black people of this country, they do occupy the positions of power to enforce rules and mete out their truths.  For them, their truth does not include the existence of the boogeyman.

The truth of white America is overwhelmingly interpreted through that lens of self-exoneration and defensiveness that allows individual whites to say “I’m part of the problem, but I’m also not part of the problem.”  It also allows whites to peer through rose-colored glasses and often dismiss black claims of racist sentiments and institutional racism as being hypersensitive.  Because for them, the boogeyman simply does not exist, so why entertain any discussion in which that is real.  To admit that complexities of racism permeate not just institutions but daily life, even police departments, would almost naturally connect the need for reparations.  For many whites, that is seen as a slippery slope no one wants to explore.

To admit something exists in the intangible is something that most people don’t do well–except when it comes to faith and spirituality.  That is to say, white Americans have not been required to do much work when it comes to deconstructing their framework of reality; they have not been required to adopt multiple consciousnesses for the sake of weaving in and out of the intricacies and levels of societies that exist here in America.  Black folk have been required to have that “double consciousness” because our actual lives depended on it.  That vacillation has been trying to thread the needle between appealing to white sensibilities and trying to preserve our own life.  The results have not always ended well.  To risk upsetting white sensibilities, or white fragilities, can in fact be perilous in and of itself.  Walking down the street dressed with baggy jeans and hands in your pocket seems to be enough to be stopped by cops, or enough to warrant neighbors to call the police, or even for a rabid citizen to follow a young unarmed teenager, shoot and kill him and be acquitted.

As the family of Walter Scott prepared for a funeral, the story of Eric Harris emerged in the last week, yet another name to the seemingly endless list of unarmed black men killed by over-zealous white cops, evidence emerged that the boogeyman exists.  As the law enforcement officer shot Harris in the back, and Harris mustered the words that he couldn’t catch his breath, the ancient devilment of a racist past rose up in Robert Bates as he said “Fuck your breath” displaying the cold-blooded, heartless and evil sentiments the comprise the boogeyman.

[Originally posted at The Uppity Negro Network]