Two outside reviews have concluded that Tamir Rice's murder was tragic, but justified. The officer's decision to gun him down because he posed a perceived threat was "objectively reasonable" - objective because, according to one of the reports, "a reasonable officer, confronting the exact same scenario under identical conditions could have concluded that deadly force was necessary." That being the measure, I have to say that I absolutely agree with the reports. In our society, 'objectively', a 'reasonable' officer absolutely would have gunned down a 12 year old black child playing with a pellet gun.
In our post-racial lexicon, words like "objective" and "reasonable" are the go-to rhetorical devices for erasing race from law and/or legal interpretations of lived reality. These words remove the "white" from "white is right" and advance a standard where what we perceive as objective (a word that can never really apply in the realm of human interaction) and what we deem reasonable (a quintessentially subjective concept) is in fact rooted in a standard that continues to privilege whiteness and devalue blackness. So yes, in this historical moment, it is 100% true that we live in a society where the officer's decision to gun down Tamir Rice was "objectively reasonable." That is precisely the problem. That is what motivates Black Lives Matter (the movement) and "black lives matter" (the phrase). Those of us who speak it recognize that in racially-mixed situations, black bodies are too often invisible in contexts that privilege visibility, and too often visible in contexts that privilege invisibility.
At one of my favorite restaurants in Berkeley, where I used to eat at least three times a week, I had the displeasure of waiting 30 minutes for the waitress (a young white woman) to take my order during a very slow uncrowded time of day. She looked at me numerous times. Each time I thought she would therefore come to take my order. But she did not. Instead she served three other parties who came in after I was seated, seemingly ignoring my attempts to get her attention. I finally went to the bar to ask if I could order my food - POLITELY, because god-forbid I come across as having an "attitude problem" (indeed, for anyone else who was not a black woman in that situation, to be annoyed would have been 'objectively reasonable'). I returned to my table with the promise that my waitress would be right over. After another 10 minutes, she came to my table, unapologetically asking for my order, avoiding eye contact, and offering none of the light and playful pleasantness for me that I witnessed with her other customers. I ordered, but then had to ask since she looked at me so many times during my 30 minute wait, "I was just wondering . . . what happened? Why didn't you come take my order before?" (again, politely - politeness in the face of ridiculousness is a skill I was conditioned to perfect as a young black child in racially mixed spaces). She suddenly got flustered, and responded matter of factly, but sincerely, "Huh? No, I - I'm sorry, it's not that - I just - I didn't see you. I didn't see you." Inwardly dejected, I forced a smile and said, "okay." When she returned to the bar, the bartender immediately walked over to her to see if she was okay and, throwing glances in my direction, wanted to know if I said anything to upset her. Still flustered, she disappeared into the kitchen.
SOME of you are probably wondering: if I was treated so poorly, why on earth didn't I just leave and eat somewhere else? Two answers. First, that restaurant (before it burned to the ground a few months later) served the best BLTA in the universe and to deny my body at least three of them per week would have resulted in sudden death or severe illness. Second, what happened that day was only slightly outside of the realm of normal when it comes to black peoples' experiences in racially-mixed spaces, restaurants notwithstanding. White people look at us numerous times but, like my waitress, are unable to See us. Had she Seen me, she would have seen a woman, a human being, who was just as entitled to shove a delicious BLTA into her face as any other patron - a possibility that could have been realized by her taking my order as promptly as any other patron. Her justification for doing none of those things because she didn't see me revealed a relationship with racism that many white people reveal in those situations - lack of intent. She didn't mean to not see me. She didn't see me but then intentionally decided to ignore me because I'm black. Ergo, this wasn't a race thing. Ergo, telling me that she did not see me felt to her like a satisfactory answer. To me, it was a stab in the heart. To once again be looked at and not Seen - to be invisible as a human being - hurts. Sometimes it Kills. My invisibility as a human being that day made my BLTA a little less tasty and ultimately ruined my day. On November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice's invisibility as a human being ensured that he would never taste his favorite food nor have a bad day ever again.
Had all of the adults involved in the events leading up to his murder truly Seen Tamir Rice on that fatal day, they would have seen a child. A young boy. A young human being with a lifetime of potential ahead of him. A young boy who, when given a pellet gun, pretended to use it, playing out the fantasies with which many children are inundated daily on TV and in video games. They would have seen a young black boy, playing with a pellet gun in precisely the same way that young white boys do, young white boys who are the primary demographic for using pellet guns, but who have thus far been able to do so without police intervention. But it is precisely the white/black adjective that is all the difference. Young white boys exist. Young black boys do not. Tamir Rice was not visible that day as a child, as a human child. But he was highly visible as something else entirely.
I was invisible as a human being when I was waiting to order my BLTA. But the moment I made myself visible by asking to be served, I was only visible as a threat - a potentially angry black woman, a subhuman half-cocked pistol, who needed to be (mis)treated as such. Thus, I was the bad guy. I who sat patiently and politely waiting to have my order taken for 30+ minutes. I was the potential threat. And the waitress responsible was my potential victim, afraid of me, and needing protection and reassurance from the bartender after interacting with me. Invisible as a human being. But highly visible as an Angry Black Woman.
The 911 caller who saw Tamir Rice did not See a young boy, but rather, "a male black" whom he later posited was a "juvenile." There is a world of humanity that gets stripped away when a 12-year old child is transformed into a black male juvenile. But then black male juvenile, thug, criminal, etc., are often the only way through which black boys are visible in our society, rarely offered the benefit of innocence afforded a child, but rather assumed to be adult criminals in the making, no matter how young they are. "Young black boy" is only what Tamir was when he was invisible. The moment Tamir became visible to the 911 caller, "young black boy" ceased to be a category available to him. That is why instead of referring to, "a young boy sitting on a swing and pointing a gun at people," in a city park, a statement that makes a lot more sense given the context, the caller instead referred to "a male black sitting on a swing and pointing a gun at people," in a city park. Even though the caller twice posited that the gun was likely fake, he nonetheless referred to Tamir as a "juvenile" by the end of the call. The dispatcher, upon twice clarifying whether Tamir was black or white, ended the call assured that it was a black male juvenile with a "gun" situation, which is all the information s/he relayed to the police officers before they responded to the scene. In our society, that is a death sentence.
The police response to black male juvenile with a gun = kill first, don't ask questions later, unless some jackass catches it on video. This is of course different from their white male juveniles/adults with guns, and white female juveniles/adults with guns response, in which case, time and again, the police response entails talking the person down and diffusing the situation without injury or loss of life - then possibly buying the person a meal at Burger King. But Tamir was neither a white male, nor a white female. So sure enough, Timothy Loehmann, one of the officers who responded to the dispatch, shot Tamir within seconds of arriving. No diffusing. No talking down. Because that's not what an "objectively reasonable" person does to young black boys in a society that can only See them as criminals.
Even after shooting Tamir, clearly eliminating the alleged "threat," neither Loehmann nor his senior partner Frank Garmback bothered to administer aid to the young boy who was dying at their feet. Two minutes later, however, they body-slammed and handcuffed Tamir's 14 year old sister after she ran over to her dying brother. They then locked this handcuffed young girl in their patrol vehicle, where helplessly, all she could do was watch her baby brother bleeding all over the ground, possibly dying, while the men responsible did nothing to assist him. For four minutes that seemed like an eternity, a twelve year old child lay dying on the ground like a worthless animal, and a terrified, hysterical, fourteen year old child saw someone she loved treated thusly, helpless to protect him, herself being assaulted and locked in a cage by the same people responsible for treating her brother like roadkill.
What would be an "objectively reasonable" response for a mother to have upon being told what happened to her young children, her tweens, her babies no matter how old they were? Tamir's mother was threatened with arrest if she did not calm down. When you are the mother of black juveniles, yourself an Angry Black Woman as it is, the reasonable response, it seems, is to remain calm. After all, the officers, as now supported by two outside expert reviews, did nothing wrong. Indeed, when we live in a society where black children are invisible as children, and can only be visible as criminally pathological, promiscuous, or belligerent, than clearly, it is "objectively reasonable" to gun them down, and/or assault, physically restrain, then confine them while they watch their loved one die.
So how do we make sense of this? Are Loehmann and Garmback racists? Was I a victim of that waitress's racism? Our society has succeeded in eliminating any English words to describe anything pertaining to race anymore. Racism? Racist? In post-racial America, it seems the most appropriate definition of "racism" has become: when someone from a marginalized racial or ethnic group talks about race and/or attempts to assert their lived experience as valid or worthy of consideration. Accordingly "racists" increasingly seem to be defined as: nonwhite people who talk about race in any way that makes white people uncomfortable. With that lexicon, it is "objectively reasonable" to conclude that what happened to Tamir Rice is not about race; I am thus racist for suggesting otherwise.
What happens in situations as small as my bad-BLTA service and as large as a black child being murdered by the police is rooted in something much deeper than our usual and insufficient go-to devices for unpacking racial dynamics. "Black lives matter" matters because our raceless, colorblind society has eliminated the salience of race from discourse, but not from lived experience, and most importantly, not from our cultural DNA.
In 2015, we recognize (but rarely speak about) the hypocrisy of those words written in 1776 in the midst of genocide and chattel slavery - words that nonetheless remain deeply etched into the core of American identity. At some point, the signers of the Declaration of Independence should turn a mirror to our 2015 selves, so that we can see how that hypocrisy endures.
What 2015 America has in common with 1776 America is a zealous commitment to the lie that ours is a nation of equality, in order to mask a truth that, inside our bodies at a cellular level remains a centuries-old American illness: a fundamental belief that black bodies are necessarily less than. Our nation is still infected with an enduring White Supremacy allele that permeates the American cultural gene pool no matter how successfully we convince ourselves otherwise. That remains the only truth that I experience daily as self-evident.
White supremacy has endured via numerous mutations since 1776. Its current "colorblind" manifestation emerged as follows: it started with "white is right" and "black is wrong"; removed 'race' discursively without also removing it in reality, leaving us with with, "wow, what is right just happens to overwhelmingly pertain to and benefit the experiences of white people," and "gee, what's wrong just happens to disproportionately pertain to the experiences of black people"; ergo "white must only end up being right because white people work hard, aren't criminals, pull up by their bootstraps, make good decisions etc.," and "black must only be wrong because black people are lazy, looking for handouts, criminals, make bad decisions, etc."; ipso facto, "white is right" and "black is wrong" but not because of anything having to do with race! Victory! Loehmann and Garmback, my waitress, racist? Who even knows what that means anymore. What I do know is that their actions are the "objectively reasonable" outcome of living in a racially infected society that refuses to acknowledge that it is sick.
For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.