The video released offered no clear evidence that Scott was holding a gun when he was shot. Angry protesters have filled the streets of Charlotte every day since the Tuesday killing of Keith Scott, 43, whom police said was armed when officers shot him. The fast-growing Sun Belt city, a banking centre, became the latest flashpoint in two years of tense protests over U.S. police killings of black men, many of them unarmed.
Keith Scott is the latest name in a long list of black men and women who have perished at the hands of police. Keith Scott's killing and other are not personal issues or isolated incidents: they are tragic reflections of deeply broken system.
The persistence of racial discrimination in America is only news to those of us who have never been on the receiving end. For many African-Americans and other minorities, it’s a pervasive reality rather than a newsworthy aberration. Yet for some time, and especially since the 2008 election, the rhetoric of the “post-racial age” has provided some comfort to liberals for whom civil rights are the stuff of history lessons.
With a black president, it appeared to be merely a matter of mopping up the last residue of the country’s ugly past. In some circles, the focus has already shifted towards dismantling the legislative instruments of the civil rights era – affirmative action is increasingly framed as outdated, and as a mechanism of reverse discrimination – or towards a framing of social problems as the result of an indigenous culture of poverty that can be separated from the legacy of segregation and racial prejudice. Statistically, being older, conservative and white makes you significantly more likely to see racial discrimination in the criminal justice system as non-existent.
The idea of a post-racial society is not only factually misleading, but amounts to a collective denial of the realities of contemporary America and to a thinly veiled defense of the status quo. Everyday discrimination happens to a substantial minority of the American population, often in plain sight. It is not something that has to be “discovered”, but something that has to be consciously “unseen”.
Ask any African-American, and they will probably have a story to tell about sour interactions with police officers, about being told by parents to never throw away shopping receipts (lest they be accused of stealing) and to never wear a hooded sweatshirt after dark (because police might stop-and-frisk them), about being mistaken for the valet attendant at an upscale restaurant, and about the justified anger they might harbor as a result of those experiences.
Indeed, what’s so outrageous about Charlotte is not the fact that a single police officer deliberately shot an unarmed citizen, but that being black still makes you 21 times more likely to be killed by an officer of the law. What’s so upsetting is not the rioting by angry crowds but the persistence of discrimination and disadvantage that becomes a fertile ground for anger.
This is not to deny the progress that America has made since the days of Jim Crow. But to confuse reality with the lofty ideal of a post-racial society amounts to a of denial of the present that threatens the achievements of the past. The fight against racial prejudice is always a fight for collective vigilance, and against entrenched systems of power and privilege.
One of the tasks for White America today is to confront the Black experience and the “frustrations rooted in reality” instead of falling prey to familiar tropes about Black men. Such a confrontation requires navel-gazing over one’s own privilege, but it also requires an engagement with voices from the Black community.
There’s still an unfortunate and pervasive tendency to sideline the voices of African-American writers and thinkers – many literature and sociology syllabi still throw together all Black writers in dedicated weeks on “race”, as if racial issues did not permeate most of American history and culture –, and to examine the experience of being Black from the vantage point of white privilege. That’s stupid. Many of the most compelling, insightful, and urgent accounts come to from the pens and pulpits of people for whom discrimination was and is a fact of life.
Blacks plainly still suffer prejudice across America: they account for 86% of the vehicle stops made by police in Charlotte. But America’s race problem is increasingly one of class. Blacks’ biggest problem is now poverty, which is most visible in places such as Charlotte. Solving the problems of places like Charlotte is less about passing more anti-discrimination laws than about rekindling economic growth and spreading the proceeds. But there are also ways of making politics and policing work better that would contribute greatly to racial harmony in America.
If there is one lesson from the killing of Keith Scott, it is that police officers should behave like civilians, not an occupying army. Above all, America must rethink its rhetoric of ''America Post Racial Age''.
Prof Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert
Photo-Credit: Reuters' photo of protest in Charlotte, for the killing of Keith Scott