How Many Black Bodies Does It Take?

You know those old light bulb jokes, like “How many [insert group name/racial slur] does it take to screw in a light bulb?” It’s a venerable old joke because it can be altered to fit any situation, any ethnicity, any race, any political affiliation, and even any college. My favorite, when I was in graduate school, was:

Question: “How many Dartmouth students does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

Answer: “They have electricity in Hanover?”

That variation was more a joke on the lack of rural development in New Hampshire than a direct swipe at Dartmouth students (which I was not), but it demonstrates the point nonetheless: the light bulb joke has worked for decades because it is elastic enough to fit many situations.

I think of the light bulb joke when I read my social media feeds every single time another black American is killed by police or so-called “vigilantes.” My feed is flooded with news articles about the murders, solidarity posts with Black Lives Matter, informational articles and diagrams about how to identify and categorize our own levels of racism, educator resources for the classroom, passionate (and I’ve no doubt sincere) calls for tolerance and love, invocations of Martin Luther King, Jr. …the list goes on. I’ve certainly engaged in this, and have noticed that these posts come from my white contacts at far higher frequency than from my black and Latino friends and acquaintances.

In other words, every time a black American is killed, my social media feed reads like racism is a sudden discovery to white Americans, “news” of the most urgent kind.

But it’s hardly news to anyone else.

This dynamic occurred after the murders of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Michael Brown, Jr., John Crawford III, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, all in 2014, and so many more it hurts to just type their names. Images of inspirational quotes, the altering of one’s photo in a trendy new “awareness” frame, pleas for donations (or announcements of donations, a particularly insidious form of social justice bragging), and more flood the Internet. Everyone vows to make changes, to stop the violence, to end racism.

And then within a few weeks it all just dissipates from social media feeds like smoke after a fire — or tear gas used on peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters exercising their constitutional rights. Those memes are soon replaced once again with the smiling faces of one’s children, travels, meals, etc., only to reappear the next time a black American’s right to live in their own country is violated. It’s the cycle of what I refer to as “passive white outrage.”

In my head, this creates a new variation of the light bulb joke:

“How many black bodies will it take before white people see the light?”

As a historian, I specialize in the history of Constitutional civil rights and civil liberties, as well as Nazi Germany and genocide, topics connected by my shared interest in and commitment to building a world rooted in basic human rights. My 30 years of study enable me to explain why and how white violence against black Americans has been tolerated and even encouraged throughout our nation’s fraught history. I teach it in every one of my college courses, where I make sure my students understand that white violence against black and brown Americans and indigenous peoples has been part of the pattern of daily life in the United States since before there even was a United States, and in many ways made the creation of the United States possible. It’s not new information, and hardly unknown.

That’s why I cannot understand, despite my education, research, and personal experience, why any white person today is still so seemingly shocked every single time another black American is killed by police, or somehow mysteriously “dies in police custody,” or is chased down and slaughtered by a self-righteous white person who claims “self-defense.”

Apparently, we not only do not learn from our history, we don’t even learn from the more recent atrocities we post about with such passion every time they happen.

And that’s no joke.

What Can White Americans Do?

White Americans (and I obviously include myself in this category) need to stop limiting our outrage to individual incidents and start thinking seriously about the ingrained social, economic, legal and political structures and practices that shape the way we live every day in the United States. Those structures and practices are what allow these murders to happen — and for the murderers to escape justice time and time again.

Here’s how we can start:

· We need to ask about our policing structures and strategies and our own relationship to the police. We need to examine the ways we use our whiteness to “protect” ourselves from non-threats (as demonstrated in the recent Central Park incident when a white woman called the police on a black male birdwatcher) instead of to protect our fellow Americans of color.

· We need to ask about police training, oversight, and the increasing militarization of the police, including the preferential hiring of veterans by police forces. We need to ask why, according to the Marshall Project, “only 6 percent of the population at large has served in the military, but 19 percent of police officers are veterans,” and if the military training of those veterans is appropriate to police work. We need to ask whether that military training causes officers to treat the citizens they are supposed to protect as if they are enemy combatants, instead of people merely accused of something, like George Floyd, or people who might simply be suffering from mental illness, like unarmed Tanisha Anderson, who was murdered by Cleveland police while she experienced a mental health crisis in 2014.

· We need to ask about how our tax money is used, political funding and how the same kinds of people — rich white men — get elected over and over again, undermining our national ideals of representative democracy, and preventing significant reforms in the federal budget that will aid our society and address the maldistribution of wealth.

· We need to ask about school funding, and why there is a vast literacy gap between children from low-income families and children of color (often one and the same), and white middle- and upper-class students. We then need to understand how such literacy and education gaps disempower low-income, black and Latino citizens.

· We need to ask about housing costs, wage rates, job availability, gentrification, inequities in access to appropriate medical care, and so many more issues.

To support our fellow black, brown, and indigenous citizens, we white people need to ask all of these questions and work with the disenfranchised in our society to make permanent changes. This is the only thing that will prevent black Americans and others from being so unempowered that they live their lives literally at the mercy of white power structures, unable to effectively represent themselves and fight against those structures.

I’m not saying we do not have work to do as individuals. I’ve spent years examining my own internal biases, behaviors, and beliefs, and recognize that combating racism in oneself is an ongoing project: one that is not easy, one that is painful, and one that is necessary. There is no straight line to racial enlightenment, and there have been, and will continue to be, moments when I fail and moments when I succeed. This very article may be viewed by some readers as an example of either my success or my failure in this ongoing work of self-examination.

I’m also not saying we shouldn’t be outraged at the deaths of black Americans at the hands of police each and every time it happens. We should be. Every single time.

But until all white Americans recognize that there are fundamental flaws in our nation’s underlying societal, legal, economic, and political structures, and commit to fixing those flaws by participating in a national interrogation of the way that white privilege is ingrained into the way our entire society functions, we will continue to have many more opportunities to flaunt our outrage on social media, because the murders will not stop.

Making History, Law, and Political Theory relevant.

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