“You can’t prove racism as a motive” is one of the more popular refrains from armchair defense lawyers arguing cases that history would suggest should be thrown out of court. The most recent example is the Columbia, South Carolina assault at Spring Valley High School of an as-yet unidentified Black teen girl by since-fired white police officer Ben Fields. The argumentative fallout of video footage of the assault has largely been business as usual: while most people agree that the whole incident was problematic on a base level of human interaction, some people say it wouldn’t have happened if the girl were white, and others say that you can’t prove race had anything to do with it. There are some other shades mixed into that ROY G BIV spectrum of finger-pointing, but those two sentiments are the prevailing schools of blame.
At this point in debates about cop abuse, I usually start memeing or Playstationing really hard, depending on how much self-care I need to apply to the ever-open wound of American Blackness that day. Today, I want to clarify, not so much the racism inherent in this specific case, but in the racism inherent in the request to constantly prove racial motive.
Do you know how people figured out there was a problem with police abuse in this country? They determined it the same way they determined that racism exists: they looked at the stats over time as we progressed through various cultural understandings and critical interpretations over time as we matured as a society. They did this in a lot of subject areas, but to focus here on the intersection of race and police abuse they looked at the numbers of people who weren’t white and said, “Wow, compared to the number of non-white people that exist in this space and time, that condition seems really out of whack. Like, evilly out of whack.” And unless they were a cultural determinist, they concluded that something was socially awry. Then they looked at all of the conditions and controls around the stats and they drew up possible causes and their likelihoods. Then they applied a dash of common sense and asked, politely, that we all labor to find a solution to the problem.
(For the record, the math here was really easy because the numbers have perpetually been out of whack since Black people were brought here. It’s kind of how we have Black Americans at all.)
In a hundred years, when whoever is left bothers to look back at this issue, they won’t say “Ten million Black people were abused or killed at the hands of police at a (sort-of reported) rate that is criminally out of whack with their population percentile, but since we can’t prove that 99% of the police involved were actual dyed-in-the-white-sheet racists, that number is probably more like, eh, two hundred verifiable hate crimes.” If you suggested something like that with the numbers we have right now you’d be run out of whatever library you were standing in to get that information.
Now, I can’t speak for all of your Black friends, but asking me to prove racism to you proves to me that you don’t know me, or at least you haven’t read a couple of key pieces on the subject I’ve become known for, or at least that you don’t care enough about me to do so. Being Black in America is exhausting on every level, and I’ve got it pretty good compared to most of the people who look like me. I have my health, I have a home and family, I have a job, I have a few engaging skills people seem to enjoy, and I have a Playstation. But still, the occasional Black Day Off is necessary, in a very concrete sense. You can’t escape racism if you’re not white, and the more you know about it and how it operates just makes the condition worse. It’s ever-present, even when white people aren’t around, and it multiplies like cancer. It’s a disease that, if you stay ignorant of it, you could possibly (though rarely) save yourself a lot of the day-to-day emotional and mental grind such an existence presses into you until something happens, like pissing off someone like Ben Fields. Then it’s like getting inoperable stage-4 cancer all at once while having no insurance and no hospital will take you in. Increasing your knowledge about racism increases stress and all its attendant effects. It makes you less comfortable with your existence. It taints your rewards and successes. It amplifies your failures as a person and suggests there is nothing worthwhile in your people. Please note, all of this is true whether we’re talking about whites or people of color. Such is the persistent vigor of racism.
So when I say something like “based on how I define racism, we don’t have anything to talk about” or “The chip count for you to enter this conversation is reading these three books”, that’s not me using a feint. That’s me opting not to go back to teach you what the symbols “A”, “B” and “blue” mean before we get into a debate about the merits of The Elements of Style. And while that might sound elitist, it’s not. I actually enjoy deconstructing racism because I very much want to live in a world without it. But suggesting to Black people that they can’t prove racism in a given scenario that looks like thousands of other scenarios that are eating Black people alive daily in a country not merely infused, but founded on racism is at best insulting, and at worst, generates more racism. It is demoralizing on a social, cultural and spiritual level that strikes at the very existence of the Black self.
But let me remove my spiritual raiment and put my scientist hat on. The issue is, after all, coming out a place of seeming objectivity. Which is, of course, utter tripe.
Here’s the deal: I don’t need to prove your motive if you contribute to a problem. I just need to put you in the problem pile. And if your contribution to society puts you in a pile full of racist behavior, guess what? I don’t have to prove you’re racist. You have to prove that you’re NOT. I’m not a detective. I’m a potential victim. I don’t have the luxury of Vulcan mind melds or time. I have history. I have statistics. I have black geniuses breaking it down from a hundred-plus years ago as if they were still with us, as if nothing has changed; genius so relevant that it’s become cliché. Do you know how un-advanced as a country you have to be to make Fredrick Douglass still seem relevant in 2015? The answer is, “Very.”
If you’re still shopping around for bigots to whack-a-mole back into the closet, you’re seeing racism at the lowest possible difficulty setting. If it’s systemic (and it is) then it has operatives. It has functions and formulas. There are gears and cogs and wheels. It has philosophies and values that manifest in every nook and cranny where those philosophies and values manifest. It doesn’t need compliance or membership cards or buy-in or self-awareness. It merely needs you to contribute to the problem. That’s what makes what Ben Fields did racist, and that’s why him having a black girlfriend doesn’t protect him from contributing to racism. When you – in a non-courtroom, non-legal capacity – see an act like what happened in Spring Valley High and demand of me – in a non-courtroom, non-legal capacity – that the racism be proven to you, you’re not only missing the machine, you’re missing the empathetic context. I’m not calling what he did racist to get him put in jail. That’s somebody in South Carolina’s job. I’m calling what he did racist because I’m a writer who deconstructs racism for people who need to know that there are levels to how the machine operates. One of the levels that the machine of racism is very good at implementing is taking something that almost everyone can agree is wrong and make them fight over it enough to stall their overall work ethic out. For the record, it’s not just racist; it’s also sexist, anti-intellectual and psychologically scarring. It’s allowed to be all of the bad things that, you know, it is.