As the curtain opens on another school year and on the start of another course on race and law, I have pondered the mournful plethora of real life examples to present to students about the nature of race, racism and law. We start the course by talking about how the black-white binary, the notion that issues of race in the United States are framed around a two-tiered hierarchy wherein blacks are diminished and whites are exalted, is still very much useful for understanding both historic and contemporary United States racism. Yes, there are other people of color. And of course their voices count. But at the beginning and at the end of the day, some of the most pernicious, ongoing, and intractable race prejudice is that perpetrated against black people.
We need not look far for examples. There is, of course, the fatal shooting of an unarmed black youth named Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. There is also the choke hold death of an unarmed man named Eric Garner by a white police officer in Staten Island, New York, a choking that persisted even though Garner called out, “I can’t breathe.” A few weeks ago a Dearborn Heights, Michigan white homeowner was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to a minimum 17 years in prison for shooting in the face and killing Renisha McBride, a 19 year old black woman who knocked on the man’s door for help after an auto accident. The New Yorker magazine, in describing McBride’s death, related it to the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a white vigilante and recounted how McBride’s killing, even in all of its horror, was “a cliché with a casualty,” another all too commonplace killing of an unarmed black person by an armed white civilian or white police officer.
These are, of course, examples of some of the worse cases in black-white relations. Cases that involve racist practices but do not result in deaths would have to be, by necessity, classified as less bad. As we see situations such as the revelation that yet another NBA owner has engaged in racially “insensitive” comments about black people, we are left to feel grateful that nobody’s dead. If an owner feels comfortable enough to write in an e-mail to numerous people that his “theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites,” or that he wants some white cheerleaders or that he “balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black,” this is merely an example of his “subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race.” I suppose anything less subtle would have to involve signs at the game saying “No blacks allowed.”
In the middle of all of this is the continuous insistence by some people that we are living in a “post-racial” climate where diversity is a given. But what goes under-discussed and un-discussed is the specious nature of these claims. Even in neighborhoods and institutions boasting racial diversity, there are often gaping divides. There is the careful, cool exclusion of non-white families from neighborhood events and activities (“Oh, you didn’t get the flyer for the block party? Maybe it blew away; it was so windy….”). There are the school-within-a-school strategies that result in virtually all-white classrooms in overwhelmingly minority schools. There are the stony silences when black people pass by on the street or arrive in all-white settings, the absent greetings not because of forgetting who you are but choosing not to demonstrate remembrance. Sometimes it feels like child’s play, really. In fact, my 12 year old recently laughingly observed that only one of her numerous white former classmates acknowledged knowing her after her recent few years’ absence. That she laughs instead of cries about it instills a sad sense of pride in my wounded parent heart. She knows already to look beyond the game being played if she expects to be happy. But this bitter game is played by children and adults alike, this faux diversity. It’s a game with sometimes fatal consequences.