On September 6, an off-duty white police officer, Amber Guyger, entered the apartment of a young black man, Botham Jean, and shot and killed him. The officer claims she walked into an apartment that she thought was her own, saw a black stranger in it, and shot the intruder, who almost immediately turned out to be not in her apartment. She was not where she thought she was. She was the stranger. It was just one big mistake. Mistakes happen all of the time. Though many are questioning this story, the facts remain the same: an unarmed black man was shot and killed in his apartment by a white Dallas police officer. Yet, even here, American racism could not spare the obvious innocence of the black victim.
Yesterday, September 13, a Fox television affiliate in Dallas posted on Twitter a report not about the cop, not about her mind-boggling "error," not about her past, her record as an officer. No. Nothing like that. It instead reported that a small amount of marijuana was found in the dead man's apartment, along with two spent shells. Fox: "10.4 grams of marijuana in ziplock bags. 1 metal marijuana grinder." The other items on the list appear to be owned by the Dallas police officer.
According to Joe Setyon of Reason, "a warrant signed by 292nd District Court Judge Brandon Birmingham says police intended to search Jean's apartment for 'any contraband, such as narcotics,' that could 'constitut[e] evidence of a criminal offense.'" The findings of this search were made public, and Fox News wasted no time twitting: "DEVELOPING: Search warrant: Marijuana found in Botham Jean’s apartment after deadly shooting." Clearly, this is an attempt to demonize the black victim.
But the question we must ask, and one the libertarian journal Reason can only ignore or mis-recognize, is: Why did the judge and Fox think, considering the circumstances—the obvious facts of the incident (unarmed black man shot in his own apartment by a white police officer who, according to her own account, turned out to be the intruder)—that the demonization of Botham Jean might actually work? What is the structure (the abstract background) not only of the incident but the judge's and Fox News' response? It is one that has been a part of American culture since the birth of the nation, which was largely made possible by the free labor of black Africans and their descendants.
There were two ways to justify this original robbery. One was to say: The slaves were better off in the US than back in Africa. This notion has by no means died. Recall that even this week a Louisiana teacher who, in response to the Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who is hated by parts of the right for instigating the national anthem protests by NFL players, said on Facebook: "They [the blacks] don't have to live in that country. They could go back. But it was their own people selling them into slavery to begin with and t[reat]ing them even worse in those countries of origin.” It's 2018. Justification number one is, as you can see, alive and well.
The second part of the structure of justification was to demonize blacks. This kind of thinking said: Blacks deserve enslavement because they are so awful, so sinful, so godless. It is here that the irrelevant Fox News pot story has its roots. It's also how the mass incarceration of black males was initiated in the early 1970s. Before that period, black incarceration rates were bad, for sure, but not that abnormal. After the 1970s, they exploded like never before. Demonization worked on slaves, worked on working-class and poor black men in the 1970s, and, it was believed by Fox News and a Dallas judge, could also work again on a black man who did nothing but get shot in his own apartment.
Lastly, and here I can point to something that came to my mind while listening to the ninth lecture, "Abolition of the Slavery and the Slave Trade" in the Patrick N. Allitt's series "The Rise and Fall of the British Empire." At one point of the lecture, Allitt explains that, in the British Empire, slavery went into decline with the rise of free trade as an ideology and a practice. What this meant was the sugar produced by wage labor in, say, Asia was, by the early 19th century, competitive with the sugar produced by slave labor in the Caribbean world. It is at this time, and under these circumstances, that the slave trade, which everyone knew was immoral (despite the standard justifications: black people bad; black people had it worse back in Africa), became vulnerable. The abolition of the institution had less to do with the full realization of human rights than the presentation of a form of exploitation (cheap wage labor) that was more palatable (potentially more profitable) than slave labor.