The Crime of Being Black in Public



Thanks to Donald Trump, the 2016 election has become a referendum on racism. Many hoped that Barack Obama's presidency signaled denouement of white supremacy in America. For others, Barack Obama represented their worst nightmares: people of color being treated like citizens rather than deviants.

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Emile Durkheim, the modern founder of sociology, argued that every society constructs its own definitions of deviance. Deviance functions as a type of social glue by lionizing those who comply with social norms and stigmatizing those who don’t. The USA’s European founders incorporated an ethnocentric preference for white skin into the political substrate of American democracy.

Beginning in1790, the US made white skin a prerequisite for citizenship. This hateful pigment bias -- which afederal judge reaffirmed as recently as 2015 -- established white skin as the norm for US citizens. By making whiteness the norm, the founders categorized non-white skin as a type of deviance. This means that, for people of color, even the simple act of appearing in public constitutes a form of anti-normative criminality. People of color have often paid with their lives for committing no greater crime than being themselves. People of color are vastly overrepresented in US prisons because, having repeatedly committed the crime of being black in public, people of color are more likely to be perceived by law enforcement as “incorrigible recidivists.”

How could a nation that touts itself as “the world’s greatest democracy” equate non-white skin with criminal deviance?

Back in the day, European colonists had a problem. They wanted to claim ownership of an entire continent that was already fully occupied. If Europeans were going to make a home for themselves in North America, they would either have to share the continent with its original inhabitants, or they would have to murder millions of Injuns and steal their land. While Native Americans may have been willing to co-exist, Europeans weren’t keen on the idea of sharing. So, Europeans invented the ludicrous fiction of White Nativism, which is the self-evidently preposterous notion that light-skinned Europeans are North America’s true natives. White Nativists have treated people of color as the arch enemies of freedom ever since.

White Nativists have constructed imaginative prejudices for each group of pigmented peoples in the US. White Nativists enacted genocide against Native Americans, and instituted slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration for African Americans. White Nativists have alsoexcluded Chinese immigrants,interned Japanese Americans and hastreated Hispanic Americans as if they are all  illegal immigrants. More recently, White Nativists have openly contemplated anational ban on Muslims. The common denominator for all of these prejudices is white supremacy. The US has always celebrated whiteness and denigrated skin pigment.

It doesn’t have to be like this. White supremacists like Donald Trump take pleasure in fomenting racism. Given Trump’s enduring popularity as a 2016 presidential candidate, it is also obvious thatmany Americans share Trump’s White Nativist/supremacist hatreds. Since entering the 2016 presidential race, each timeTrump has uttered a despicably racist comment his popularity has increased.

Thanks to Trump,the 2016 presidential election has become a national referendum on racism. When Americans elected Barack Obama in 2008. many hoped that his presidency signaled the long-promised denouement of white supremacy. For others, Barack Obama’s presidency represented their worst nightmares realized: people of color being treated like citizens rather than deviants.

America’s much-beloved founding fathers gave Americans the gift of white supremacist racism. If Americans really love democracy, then they -- and by that I mean we -- can and must dismantle white supremacist racism. And we need to start dismantling racism today.*

Donald Trump wants to take America back to the good ol’ days when privileged white racists got their jollies by terrorizing people of color. Sadly, a small, but passionate cadre of fellow racists want to help Donald Trump set civil rights back a century. We can’t let that happen. Fortunately, the US operates on the principle of majority rule. The majority certainly has its work cut out. If America elects Donald Trump, the most foul-mouthed racist since Paula Deen, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Register. Vote. And tell your friends and family to do likewise.

The last thing we need is to re-energize the tradition of White Nativist racism in the White House.

*In A Formula for Eradicating Racism, Earl Smith and I argue that Americans can terminate the climate of sadism that inspires white supremacist racism by erasing the Three-Fifths Compromise from the US Constitution and replacing it with a universal declaration of human equality.  


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