What does it mean to be a black man and a patriot in America in the 21st century? I have served this country but being black racializes me and thereby “colors” every aspect of my being. When meeting new people, if I say that I am a veteran, I am thanked for my service as is the convention. But when I introduce myself without using the veteran “calling card,” I am just another black male occupying the space. In a more complex way, black police officers, like my brother, are faced with navigating a conundrum – they are often vilified by communities of color and their loyalty is challenged by fellow white officers. Black masculinity in all of its iterations remains contrasted with white masculinity. I learned this a long time ago, but the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis drives this topic home. Weeks earlier the public learned that white vigilantes murdered a black man while he was jogging. The extent to which black males are dehumanized in contemporary America is more than staggering. Black men are literally dying at the hands of police officers and private citizens when their humanity has not been recognized.
When serving on the San Diego Citizens Review Board on Police Practices – which is now called the Community Review Board on Police Practices – from 2013 to 2015, I was shaken by the effect video recordings had on the process of interpreting facts in a case. Like the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, without the video evidence these incidents would fall into the word of the public versus the word of the officers. In circumstances like the George Floyd murder, investigations have given wide latitude to law enforcement officers. The challenge with this is the underlying psychology which shapes the lens through which many officers make life and death decisions. The culture of law enforcement is intertwined within the culture of patriotism in America – a culture that reinforces a culturally hegemonic frame of reference.
How did our society arrive at the point where the humanity of black males is so devalued? Being a police officer is a tough assignment. However, this profession – no matter how tough or no matter how important – does not give license to separate man from humanity. I will also add that no privilege should be afforded to individuals due to their status as an officer, particularly when being an officer is intertwined within a hegemonic framework which promotes a patriotic ideal that others black men. When that privilege is afforded what results is a psychology in which there is us versus them and whoever is not me is less than human.
Why are black men more likely to die from contact with law enforcement? Moreover, why are black males subject to vigilantism and being shot while jogging? Whiteness has been radicalized and weaponized in 21st century America. Moreover, patriotism in America is intertwined with a white frame of reference that reinforces racial and gendered hierarchies. When a profession like law enforcement is closely aligned with both whiteness within the lens of patriotism, we can begin to see why black men are not only othered but are reduced to less than their humanity. Weaponized and radicalized whiteness is why armed white Americans can show up protesting at the governor’s mansion in Michigan and not be considered a threat but any black male with or without a weapon is considered a threat. Weaponized and radicalized whiteness is why a white officer feels that escalation in his use of force is always justified. Weaponized and radicalized whiteness is why a white officer will put his knee on the neck of a handcuffed black man long after any threat that black man was neutralized. Illiberal democratic perspectives such as these illustrate the psychology which shapes cross cultural contact on the streets in our neighborhoods. Unless the fundamental matters related to why and how choices are made is addressed, our society will only treat symptoms and not the illness itself. Shifting patriotic identity – unhinging law enforcement from an unassailable position of authority within an identity composition which is strongly aligned with a white frame of reference – is among the first steps to having critical conversations on cross cultural contact between law enforcement and communities of color. Weaponizing and radicalizing whiteness in response to perceived victimhood from an increasingly multicultural community will only make matters worse.
I am a black man. I am human. I have served my country as did my father. I served my community as does my brother, a police officer. I vote and pay taxes. I have a right to exist in this country without it being an existential threat to me. I, too, am a patriot in America in the 21st century. If these truths cannot be taken as fact, then this is no longer America.