When one is explaining white supremacy, it is sometimes useful to have an understanding of the historical effects of policies and practices such as redlining, Jim Crow laws, implicit segregation, the criminal-injustice system and individual racism. It is impossible to comprehend the far-reaching effects of the all-American tradition of racism without a holistic examination.
Or you can just look at what happened this week.
During his Wednesday Senate confirmation hearings, Michael Brennan, a white lawyer who has been nominated to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, repeatedly dodged questions from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) about racial bias in the justice system.
“Do you think implicit racial bias exists in our criminal-justice system?” Booker asked the Wisconsin lawyer.
“I would indicate only that I would do my very best as a judge to ensure that no biases came in,” Brennan replied caucasianally. Booker asked him again:
You’re aware that African Americans are stopped more than whites for drug searches in this country? That there’s no difference between blacks and whites for using drugs or dealing drugs, but [blacks] are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for it? You’re aware of the data, I imagine, that says African Americans are more likely to get mandatory minimum sentences for the same crime? You’re probably aware of the data that African Americans are more likely to serve more time for similar crimes ...
You’re a judge in the United States of America and you have not looked at issues of race in sentencing and the criminal-justice system? I find this astonishing.
If confirmed, Brennan would have a lifetime appointment to a court that has heard cases concerning sanctuary cities, voting rights, police brutality and the deportation of immigrants in this month alone. Brennan also served as a trial judge on a Milwaukee circuit court for nine years.
A recent study shows bias in the criminal-justice system at every level. The study collected years of data on convictions, arrests, pleas and sentencing from—you guessed it—Wisconsin.
Since 1990, white supremacists and far-right extremists have killed 50 law-enforcement officers in the U.S., according to a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League. The report notes that left-wing groups, including “black identity extremists,” have killed 11 officers during that period.
Yet the FBI issued an August 2017 report entitled, “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers” (pdf), warning 18,000 local and state agencies around the country of the threat posed by black groups. It has not issued an equivalent report for the far more dangerous right-wing groups, but, to be fair, the FBI doesn’t have an equivalent designation for white identity extremists.
“This document essentially says we don’t care about your ideology, we care about your black identity,” Michael German, a former FBI agent who worked in the counterterrorism division, told the Miami Herald. “It’s an enormous classification that could encompass any violence by a black person.”
Although the FBI says it does not monitor groups based on speech, German notes that the threshold for surveillance is so low that the agency’s report can be used to justify watching black organizations and monitoring black protests more closely.
A sergeant at the Santa Clara County, Calif., Sheriff’s Office is waiting for an arbitrator to decide whether he should have been removed from his job for not reporting racist texts and emails from corrections officers in the county jail.
According to the Mercury News, Don Morrissey worked at the facility and did nothing to stop a group of about eight officers and one deputy from exchanging messages that included calling Jews “kikes” and black people “niggers” and “yard apes.” In one text, an officer said, “We could hang a nigger in Haiti for about 75 bucks tops.” Another officer texted, “Cops have already killed 550 people in 2015,” to which another responded, “If they’re black, it doesn’t count.”
The case is significant because the officer never sent any of the racial epithets (although he joined in on the conversations), but tolerated a racist environment. Morrissey argues that many of the texts were sent while the officers were not on duty. He added that—even though he knew about the texts—he should not be responsible for the conduct of others, which is a valid point, except for one thing:
Morrissey is president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association of Santa Clara County!
This is how institutional racism works. It is not about crosses on lawns or marches in Charlottesville, Va. However despicable those things might seem, they are far less impactful than the subtle tyranny of unseen bias.
To be black in America is to walk a minefield of white supremacy, never knowing where racism might explode and rip you apart. It is buried in at least one teacher in every school. It sits behind the benches of courtrooms across the country. It is in chambered in the guns and hearts of police officers everywhere.
Institutional racism is not a problem that can be cured with a “conversation about race.” It is an American contagion for which there is no cure—an unseen microscopic virus that infects white people and kills black people.
It is not being called a “nigger.”
It is the everlasting, invisible scourge of being treated like one.