Michael Brown and America’s structural racism

As news coverage intensifies over the supposed ‘violence’ in Ferguson’s streets, we are once again are asked to focus on the people’s response to the murder of another young black man and rather than the structural causes behind it. It is certain that we can not begin to understand the history of America without taking a clear and unmistaken understanding of racism, as an epistemic structure and organizing principle, that permeates every aspect of society. When we speak of racism often the concept is reduced to skin color, which is an important aspect, but in reality racism is a far more encompassing epistemic structure that has religious, political, economic, social and scientific rationalizations. Institutional and structural racism is the type of racism perpetrated by larger systems than only individual people expressing discriminatory or prejudice against an individual or a group. Structural racism speaks of discriminatory attitudes and perspectives that are mobilized and sets at the intersection of several layers of societal institutions that have and able to use power to back-up racist practices and the way that racism becomes normal and part of accepted daily life.

To begin the discussion about structural racism, it is important at the onset to make an immediate ontological connection to the Biblical text when speaking of racism since the racist postulate has a theological origin for racial hierarchies based on a literal reading of Genesis 9:25: “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” Some downplay the text’s significance in the development of racism; however evidence points to its utilization in the early Reconquista and it was constitutive of the Inquisition. Indeed, race theory emerges critically on the scene in pre and post 1492 and the affirmation of a racial hierarchy shapes the articulation of European identity. To be a ‘civilized’ European meant to be White, Christian and possess pure blood that was not mixed with that of Muslims and Jews, the majority of whom were of African and Arab background.

This conceptualization was implanted within the Americas’ after the Columbian arrival and becomes constitutive of the articulation of identity in the New World. Being an American in the US meant White and Protestant Christian with everyone else forced, pressured, and educated to assimilate into it. Native Americans faced genocide and those who remained were relegated to be present in reservations, but absent from America’s consciousness.

The slaves brought to America as a labor force, due to the genocide of the indigenous population, were deemed sub-human and were thought to deserve no recognition other than such. In order for the institution of slavery to function, it needed rationalization via religious text on the one hand, and pseudo scientific arguments on human evolution on the other. With the Africans placed at the lower end of the developmental scale, it was possible to rationalize their treatment as a commodity in an already existing economic market. Thus, racism, which gave force to the slave institution in the New World, was centered on economics and the need for a labor force at the plantation after the genocide of the natives was enabled and rationalized by religion and pseudo science.

Fast forward to today, we find that since the demise of religious and biological racism the vogue became the deployment of culture differences as the basis for racist structures. In place of color we have racism centered on modes of behavior and cultural markers that are the signposts for racism; thus we can see the deployment of otherness, separation and regulation of racial, ethnic and religious groups on this basis.

Yes, we have made a few strides, but we are in a marathon and we have just come out of on the starting gate. Furthermore, we cannot begin to untangle domestic, internal colonial structures without making the necessary connection to the global and external colonial structures, for they are both self-reinforcing and constitute the epistemic foundation of the modern. The internal colonial city and power distribution is built and organized on a similar basis as the external one including the type of weapons used, the clothing and training of police as well as defining the relations with these communities on the basis of warfare.

African Americans in today’s America are among the poorest, living in the most economically depressed areas in the country, have the largest prison population per-capita anywhere in the world and are far more likely to die young from violence, crime and drugs than make it to college, get a good paying job and build a home and raise a family. Anyone looking at these conditions will quickly, like many racists do, blame the cultural traits or particular behaviors of African American and use it to rationalize the further repressive measures directed at them individually or collectively.

Indeed, the murder of Michael Brown represents the normative experiences and the structural positioning of African Americans in contemporary America: a country deeply seeped in structural racism yet blinded by a self-promoting narrative of color blindness and progress. This narrative, in essence, assigns blame to African Americans for the contemporary conditions they find themselves in and assert they are incapable of lifting the community out of these self-inflicted wounds of violence, drugs and crime.

What America does in this context is take the symptoms of structural racism and make it into the disease that needs to be eradicated. Thus and in this racist ‘logic’ the problem is located in African American themselves and the offered remedy is more police, prison and rehabilitation programs intended to ‘civilize’ the savage. We must locate and understand this murder correctly otherwise we go back to the same starting point of blaming the victim one more time by misunderstanding the conditions that brought about their murder in the first place. The police officer shot Michael but America’s racism is the guilty party that reloads the gun on a daily basis and directs it at African Americans and communities of color at home and abroad.

America, as a whole, is responsible for the murder of Michael Brown and countless other African Americans young and old, men and women. How you ask is America to be blamed? America is seeped to its ears with racism and is structurally organized around it from media productions, economic resources, social indicators and for sure the political arena despite having an African American president in the White House.

What we have in America today is a public housing industrial complex, food stamps agribusiness industrial complex, prison industrial complex, police and security industrial complex, social services industrial complex, sports industrial complex, medical industrial complex and music and entertainment industrial complex: all live-off the structural racism and the generationally constructed misery of African Americans, communities of color and poor and middle class whites.

Yes, we do allocate funds to ‘help’ African Americans and the poor, but one has to see it differently and accurately and treat it as a massive transfer of wealth to the rich by using the constructed poverty in communities of color as a racist signpost to rationalize these programs. At the end of the day, massive wealth is made off the back of African Americans, communities of color and poor and middle class white. Furthermore, this supposed aid to African Americans and communities of color gets utilized once again in fomenting divisions with poor and middle class whites so as to bring them inline and into supporting structural racism by shifting the blame away from the white oligarchy and into black and brown at home and abroad. For sure poor and middle class whites do get benefits from their white privilege but at the same time they are victimized by the same elite structure that seeks to mobilize them on a racist basis and against their collective interest.

Slavery was an economic institution in the past and today’s racism directed again at African Americans and communities of color is no different. It is situated to use black and brown bodies to drive economic benefits to white elites while blaming the victims by pointing to the residual conditions accrued from this most demonic enterprise.

Some will point to cases of success and for sure they exist, but it was not the generosity of the racist or sudden awakening of consciousness in white America that made it possible; rather it was despite the shackles, mis-education, prison walls, and violence that African Americans and communities of color were able to overcome racism and there still is a long way to go. Furthermore, the over emphasis and exposure in media of the few who made it but are wasting or abusing their success mostly in music and sports arena serve the purpose of stoking the resentment of poor and middle class whites, which is yet again mobilized to support racist political discourses directed at African Americans. In essence it gets used to illustrate the basic epistemic racist notions of ‘un-civilized’ African Americans due to their inability to even manage success for they are constructed more as a child like than fully developed human beings.

Considering what African Americans (past and present) have been through they continue to love and struggle for a better world. We should remember the past while honoring the dignity, perseverance, struggle, and creativity of the people. Judge not what you see of the African American today for they had to live with iron masks, collars, leg shackles and spurs not only in the past but in the modern system that inflicts upon them similar punishment in so many ways. For African Americans are still facing the iron masks of mis-education, collars of economic commodification, leg shackles in the modern prison industrial complex, and spears of all types to maintain America’s racial structure. Indeed, only a mighty people can go through this and continue to live, love, laugh, teach, grow families and be a global creative force like no other!