In 2012 I was shot five times by Pittsburgh police. Although I survived, I was paralyzed and, soon thereafter, charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest, charges that were thrown out three years later.
Since that fateful incident, which began as a “routine” traffic stop, I’ve chosen to use my platform as an activist and a motivational speaker to promote greater police accountability, and to call for an end to racist policing practices that continue to keep black and brown communities under siege.
This is one of many reasons that I find Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ latest dog-whistling to be so alarming.
This week, Sessions spoke before a meeting at the National Sheriffs’ Association, where he praised the office’s “Anglo-American heritage.” His remarks were a thinly veiled reference to law enforcement’s well-documented and persisting link to the Ku Klux Klan and its history of suppressing black Americans and other people of color through physical and systemic violence.
The deeply problematic context behind his words was best summed up in a tweet sent out later that morning by Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, who vocally opposed Sessions’ judgeship back in 1986.
Predictably, a Department of Justice spokesperson attempted to convince the public otherwise, saying that Sessions was merely using an antiquated legal term used by lawyers and legal scholars. Perhaps that explanation would have flown if Sessions’ comments were not the latest in a long string of examples demonstrating his use of the attorney general’s office to promote a white supremacist agenda.
Interestingly, Sessions’ mention of Anglo-Americanism as separate from other aspects of American heritage was obviously intended to celebrate only white sheriffs and police officers.
The auspicious timing of Sessions’ remarks is also telling. Just last week, Mapping Police Violence and Boston University published new data highlighting the connection between structural racism and racial disparities in fatal police shootings. Key findings from the first-of-its-kind study show that:
- Of 1,147 people killed by police in the U.S. in 2017, 25 percent, or 282 people, were black, despite making up only 13 percent of the population.
- 30 percent of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, compared with 21 percent of white victims.
- A strong association was found between the racial disparity in fatal police shootings of unarmed people and structural racism in states.
This data drives home the inherent truth behind Sessions’ speech: Black and brown communities are being disproportionately targeted and killed because America’s justice system continues to be governed by people with a vast lineage of racial subjugation and violence. The attorney general’s comments only reinforce the dangerous notion that law enforcement is bound not just by duty but also by racial and ethnic heritage to exert power in any way it sees fit, while using racial profiling, intimidation and abuse as its tried-and-true policing tools.
This is the legacy that allows structural inequities to persist, and for cases like mine and countless others across the country to happen. Despite Sessions’ romanticized interpretation of history, racism and white supremacy are firmly baked in our nation’s DNA. To accomplish real, lasting transformation of our deeply flawed criminal-justice system, other lawmakers and the whole of society must meet this hard truth head-on and break all ties with the torchbearers of America’s racist past.