You are here

A Larger Pattern of Institutional Racism

The multiple dimensions of state-sanctioned violence against black and brown youth

By Michael Hanchard Published 2015

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Protesting in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in 2014

I first met Emery Robinson at Albert Leonard Junior High School in New Rochelle, New York. He was two grades behind me, a seventh grader when I was in the ninth grade. He was known as a manchild, not only in terms of size, because he was much bigger than most ninth graders even then, but because he had the physicality and presence of a young man. He could have easily passed for seventeen or eighteen years old when, by my recollection, he could not have been much more than eleven or twelve.

His face, however, betrayed his youth; cherubic, at times shy, an easy laugh and mischievous smile, he was what one would refer to as “not a bad kid,” to indicate someone who was a bit mischievous but not malicious. Because of his size he made the basketball team, though it did not seem as if he had a great interest in basketball. He gravitated to kids who were a little older, bolder, and who occasionally got into trouble, petty theft, but no violence to my knowledge. In my hometown, junior high school was a pivotal point in the lives of many poor and not so poor, black, brown, and working class kids from many diverse backgrounds.

By the time I entered high school and then college, I had not seen nor heard about Emery in years, until one day during the summer between my junior and senior years of college I heard and read about his shooting by a Pelham police officer. Pelham Manor is a relatively affluent bedroom community just north of the Bronx with a much smaller black population than the nearby towns of New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, or Yonkers. Emery was eighteen years old when he was shot on July 19, 1979.

According to both police and newspaper reports, Emery was driving a car into Pelham when he was stopped by a police officer on the suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle. Officer John B. Robbins claimed in court and police deposition that he had attempted to arrest Emery, but Emery broke free and ran away from him. After ordering him to stop and unable to chase him across a church parking lot, the officer fired a warning shot into the air and when Emery kept running, fired a shot into the young man’s back. Then and now, I can envision Emery in all his youth, athleticism, and long legs, creating distance between himself and the police officer, until the bullet felled him, in the parking lot of a church.

During the subsequent trial, Robbins claimed that he saw a shiny instrument in Emery's hands, which made him fearful for his life. Emery did, in fact, have something in his hand at the moment he was shot. It was the keys to the car he was driving. I do not know whether Emery was, in fact, driving a stolen vehicle. We do know, however, that the police ballistics expert who testified during the trial stated that he found nitrite particles on the back of Emery's shirt, which was consistent with someone who was shot in the back.

An image of Emery from my junior high school basketball team came to mind as I was preparing this brief article, so I decided to begin with him in remembrance, not only of his life, but the thousands of black and brown youth, women and men, who have ended up at the intersection of white anxiety, state power, and spatial segregation. My goal is not to personalize or gain some vicarious access to the shock, furor, and horror over the deaths of Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, and Michael Brown, but to remind or inform readers that these recent killings are all too common in black and brown communities among societies that have developed robust economies built on slave and poorly remunerated labor.

In the aftermath of slavery and abolition, disproportionately high levels of unemployment and incarceration rates, poor education, spatial segregation, and capricious doses of state violence structure the conditions of marginality that make violence against these populations not only plausible but banal. These structuring conditions affect labor markets and access to education, professional and personal networks, friends, mates, and lovers—economies in the fullest sense of the term. Black and brown members of the middle class and even the elite in various societies have experienced racially coded harassment, state and para-state violence as they walk, talk, shop, and drive, part of a larger pattern and history of formal and informal institutional racism.

Well before 9/11 in the United States and recurrent terrorist attacks in the European Union beginning in the 1990s, populations ranging from the Maghrebi in France, blacks and Latinos in the United States, and Afrodescendentes in Colombia and Brazil have been considered, in various ways, threats to national and local security. Ferguson, Missouri, which exploded on national and international media last summer, provided a glimpse of the black experience in the United States rarely encountered, much less remembered, by the bulk of the U.S. population. Most black and brown people I know, whether in the United States, Brazil, France, Colombia, Britain, or many other nation-states, have an Emery Robinson in their lives. Most whites, with the exception of those who have intimate relations with black and brown people in predominantly white societies, do not have an Emery Robinson in their memories. Recalling a passage from the writings of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, we are our memories.

France: The Charlie Hebdo attacks in France earlier this year have helped highlight the legacies of discrimination and exclusion of French nationals of African descent. In October–November 2005, largely immigrant communities in northeast Paris rioted in response to the deaths of two youths of North African origin who were electrocuted in an electricity substation after being chased by the police. This led to rioting in Paris suburbs and in various parts of France, underscoring the precarious relations between the police and Maghrebi/North African communities. When the unrest escalated and spread to other cities, the French government introduced emergency measures to try to restore order. Nicolas Sarkozy, former prime minister and interior minister in 2005, referred to the two youths as thugs, and the rioters in the suburbs as the scum of French society.

Brazil: In Brazil, research conducted by the Instituto de Pesquisa Economia Aplicada determined in 2013 that black and brown male (não-branco, negro) youth are 3.7 times more likely to die violently. Two of every three people assassinated in Brazil are black men, and blacks have a higher incidence of experiencing police aggression (6.5 percent) compared to whites (3.7 percent). Brazil has one of the highest rates of youth killings by police in the entire world. Scholars such as Almir de Oliveira Júnior, Verônica Couto de Araújo Lima, and Waisal have concluded that to be negro no Brasil means to be at risk, living in a state of public insecurity. A recent incident in Rio de Janeiro provides a graphic example of the extinguished lives embedded in this statistic. On February 21, three boys were standing on a street corner, two on bicycle, in Favela de Palmeirinha, a neighborhood in the Baixada Fluminense of Rio de Janeiro, joking around, recording each other’s gestures with their cell phones. A police car drove by and, without warning, police officers began firing gunshots at the three boys. Two were wounded, one mortally. Predictably, the police account claims that the boys were shot in an exchange of gunfire. The phone of the dead boy, which kept recording while he lay on the ground, told a different story of adolescents simply being adolescents. The boy who survived a gunshot wound to his left arm and stomach also recorded the incident on his cell phone. According to reports, there is no evidence of a weapon of any sort in the possession of any of the boys, other than the claims made by police officers in the police report. “Exchange of gunfire” is common phrasing by police in these situations to justify their brutality on the streets of Rio, to be more specific, in the favelas of Rio.

Colombia: In Colombia, scholars of public health have discovered that ethno-racial identification is a social determinant of public health. In the city of Cali, for example, Afrodescendentes are more likely to die violently and prematurely than the total population in the Cauca Valley (17.8 vs. 8.8 percent) and in Cali (63.8 vs. 56.1 percent). Fernando Urrea-Giraldo, Gustavo Bergonzoli Pelaez, and Victor Hugo Muñoz Villa describe the production mechanism for social phenomena as the dynamic interaction between phenotype (external appearance) and genotype (resistance and susceptibility) to attenuate or minimize physical, social, chemical, and biological characteristics of individuals, making them more or less susceptible to various diseases.

How do we make sense of the history of gendered, racialized violence in societies that have transitioned from slave labor to industrial and in some instances post-industrial and increasingly technological economies? Although the techniques and technologies of violence and surveillance have certainly changed, amplified, and transformed over the past several hundred years, perhaps it is the assumptions and symbolic associations that have not changed over these years. In societies such as Colombia, France, the United States, and Brazil, police officials often have difficulty considering blacks and members of other non-white minority groups as victims of crime or as law-abiding citizens because of the construction of suspicion and assumptions of their criminality.

To reiterate, it is important to situate these practices in a comparative, multinational framework. These and other instances are empirical examples of what I have referred to as racial regimes, which encompass negative identification, state and popular surveillance, and coercion, coupled with exclusion from preferred dimensions of society and polity: education and employment. One of the key ideational components of racial regimes is the construction of suspicion, deployed not only by representatives of state, but by common citizens who have also been socialized to believe that black and brown populations represent dangers to the public good, to the public sphere.

How does it feel to be a threat? How does it feel to know that your life is less valued? How does it feel to know that there are people in your midst who feel and are more privileged than you by the accident of phenotype? How can the privileged be made to understand that it is the most feared members of the national population who are among the most vulnerable? For those interested in global public health and being a responsible citizen in so many different countries, the answers to these questions begin with empathy and have—thank goodness for so many enraged and organized youth—resulted in politics.

Now would be a good time for anti-racist activists in various parts of the world to compare notes and confer with each other in virtual and real space across national and regional boundaries, to force national governments and multinational organizations to acknowledge the transnational dimensions of this phenomenon. Hopefully, transnational mobilization can serve as a call to action against racist state violence in various parts of the world.

Michael Hanchard, Member (2014–15) in the School of Social Science, is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor in the Political Science Department of Johns Hopkins University and a founding Director of the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship Program. His research and teaching interests combine a specialization in comparative politics with an interest in contemporary political theory, encompassing themes of nationalism, racism and xenophobia, and citizenship. This article first appeared on the Huffington Post.

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2015