We are murdered, but there is no recourse because there is no crime. No death occurred because we are not human.
“Oregon started out being the only state in the nation with a Black exclusion law in its founding constitution.”
A few days ago, I was approached by a reporter from KOIN to discuss a potential interview about current events. The reporter wanted to discuss my views on violence. I stated that the United States government (city, state, county and federal) is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world and felt it is improper to condemn the violence of protesters that has no proportional equivalent to the utter destruction reeked on Black people in Portland, Oregon, the nation and the world. The reporter did not call me back for an interview.
So, getting back to the question of violence, it is important to define it. Violence cannot be defined as solely a physical thing and one could argue more violence is done through non-physical ways. Gentrification is violence. Racial and class disparate outcomes in health care are violence. Racial and class based disparate outcomes in education are violence. We can go on and make this claim in relation to every mainstream institution, i.e., incarceration system, employment, transportation etc. This does not even get at the psychological violence that Black people experience everyday walking, driving, social mediating and watching a movie or tv show, where these venues routinely benefit from the absence, death and suffering of Black people. But we should not diminish in any way the incredible power of physical violence. The US supported the 6 million deaths of the Congolese during the 1990s.
“The United States government is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
These disparate outcomes cause what is referred to as premature death. Black people die earlier because we are marked as Black and experience anti-Black racism in each of these institutions. And it is important to understand that the premature death is just the tip of the iceberg. Before we die, we suffer individually and collectively often in silence and shame. Anti-Black racism is the particular experience of Black people that deems us within civil society as not-human, we are abject. As a result we can be murdered, and at the same time, we are not murdered. No death occurred because we are not human. Thus, there is no recourse because there is no crime. That’s why white police officers and vigilantes who murder Black people almost never go to prison. One could argue no crime in fact occurred because in the eyes of the state no murder occurred. Just like the rape of Black women during slavery. There was no crime because an object cannot consent. The police, vigilante or rapist was in fact defending themselves. Similarly, our mainstream institutions act the same. That Black people experience amputation as a result of diabetes at three times the rate of non-Black people is not a crime. Health care is never held responsible. In fact, it’s the Black person’s fault. We just need to eat better.
I have often asked my students why we are not going crazy because of the million Black people in prison, millions more who are out of prison with no ability to participate in mainstream society because they have the felony charge, and the incredible discrepancies in education, health care, housing and employment. It’s because nothing is wrong. No crime has been committed. This demonstrates we are not part of society. We do not care. I know that many of us do care, but not enough of us do to act differently. Please be cognizant here that there are Black folk who do not think anything is wrong with the criminal injustice system. You do the crime you do the time. Not enough of us acknowledge the depth of anti-Black racism. And, more incredibly this is the normal many would like to return to.
Tthere are Black folk who do not think anything is wrong with the criminal injustice system.”
Let’s look at the facts in Oregon. Oregon started out being the only state in the nation with a Black exclusion law in its founding constitution. It wanted to be a white homeland. Thus, the Black population is no more than two percent and Portland is the whitest large city in America. Oregon has the highest drop/push out rate of Black high school students in the country. This means that many of these Black youth are destined for the incarceration system. It is no surprise than that Oregon has higher than national rates of incarceration for Black people. The Portland Metro Area has the largest proportion of Black people in the state, so it is the schools in this area that are doing the majority of this school to prison work. Gentrification of the Black community is relatively complete. There is no longer a physical space of contiguous city blocks that determines a Black community in Portland. If you look at health care and employment, Portland and Oregon are no different from the rest of the nation. I know this all sounds depressing, but it cannot be denied. I think it’s important to sit with and acknowledge the truth. We owe that to ourselves, our children friends and lovers at the very least. My dad, for example, never told me that the reason his family moved from New Orleans to the Bay Area in California was his uncle was murdered by a white man because he would not give up his job as a porter.
“Oregon has the highest drop/push out rate of Black high school students in the country.”
The solution. I offer none that could flip the above on its head. I could offer reform measures, but we already have these answers. They have been provided for centuries now. These are redistribution of wealth, free health care, reparations, free public higher education, ethnic studies curriculum and disarm the police. Tax the rich. These are each viable and would impact Black people’s quality of life, but we can’t even get there. For many people the reason is because no crime has occurred. I remember in graduate school this young white woman said to me if you want change just vote. The only option back then, it was the 1990s, was the democratic candidate. I voted for Clinton the first time, but then the book The Bell Curve came out and Clinton said nothing about this. His wife went on the affirm my suspicions with her comment of “Super Predator.” The Bell Curve was a huge success (the author still works at Harvard and is asked to speak) and argued Black people were genetically inferior so do not invest in them. When Obama came around, he did not seem like a good option, so I voted for Cynthia Mckinney of the Green party. Cynthia Mckinney, a Black woman, was a US Congressperson then and staunch advocate for Black and poor people. I knew she could not become president. Obama won the presidency largely because of Black people and then went on to successfully contribute to the destruction of three countries, Libya, Syria and Colombia. The first two counties are pretty obvious. The second not so much. The Plan Colombia started by president Bush killed 1 million Black Colombians. Obama took it on with enthusiasm.
I would suggest voting is not an option. This moment appears and has the weight of being more significant than a few days ago, before Breonna Taylor’s murder, before George Floyd’s. Was there any significant difference between a week and half ago and today? I’m not dismissing their death’s. I’m saying weighed against the last five centuries? Next week, two months from now, in a year, I am going to have to go back and work with the same mostly white people that got us here. I’m going to have to defer to their power. Many of these people act surprised, although we have been yelling and screaming for our whole lives that substantively little has changed. We remain slaves, abject, without honor, and gratuitously violated.
Dr. Ethan Johnson is Chair and Associate Professor of the Black Studies Department, School of Gender, Race and Nations at Portland State University.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]