This week, white America learned the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, for the same reason it learned the names of so many black men it would otherwise be content with avoiding, ignoring, or beating down upon: because Sterling and Castile met some police officers, and the police officers treated them without mercy.
Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five in Baton Rouge, was executed by one officer late Monday night, at point-blank range, as another held him down like an animal. Castile, a 32-year-old employee of the St. Paul, Minn., public school system, was killed two days later as he reached for his license and registration during a traffic stop for a broken tail light. They join the ranks of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, and countless others before them—black men and boys, who, through generations of poverty and structural violence against them and their forebears that stretch back to the founding of this country, are pushed into encounters with a system of law enforcement that views them as something less than human.
Many of the specifics of Sterling’s final moments remain unclear. We know that the police approached him as he was selling CDs outside of a grocery store. We know that the police were responding to a call about a man threatening bystanders with a gun—a homeless man called 911 after he asked Sterling for money and Sterling showed him the gun in response, a law enforcement source told CNN. A man who knew Sterling told the Advocate he began carrying the weapon after a friend was mugged and he began fearing for his safety. A video published by the Daily Beast Thursday morning shows both of Sterling’s hands, after he was killed, neither of which seems to be holding a gun. If he was carrying one, he likely was carrying it in his pocket.
Thanks to a devastating video that Castile’s girlfriend streamed to Facebook after his death, the circumstances of his final moments appear less ambiguous. An officer pulled him over for a routine traffic stop and asked him to produce his license and registration. Before doing so, Castile told the officer that he was carrying a handgun, and that he was licensed to carry it. Perhaps he was worried that the officer would see the handgun, mistakenly believe he was reaching for it, and kill him. Despite Castile’s warning, as he went for his wallet, the officer did just that.
Specifics like these are important, and we will learn more of them eventually, through the machinations of justice on behalf black men that spring to work only after black men have been killed: the federal civil rights investigations, the internal police department probes. But weighed against the immense gravity of the loss of Sterling and Castile, against the son who will struggle to remember how his father’s face looked when he wasn’t composing it for photographs, against the unshakeable feeling black Americans must have that they live and die according to the whims of a system that hates them and fears them, those questions are immaterial. The fact is that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are dead, and it is the United States that buried them.
People will say that Sterling put himself in danger. People will place utmost importance on the question of what Sterling was doing with the gun that cops reportedly retrieved from his body, and will construct elaborate, twisted knots of logic to argue that Castile was menacing the officer with his. If it turns out that Sterling did threaten someone with his gun, or gestured toward it when the police arrived, people will think of his death as a settled matter. It’s true that it’s difficult to place the entire blame for killing him on an individual officer who may have feared for his own life, his own children’s futures.
But real justice for victims like Sterling and Castile, and for every other black American, cannot concern itself solely with the faults and responsibilities of individual police officers. Killer cops have been fired, or resigned and taken shelter from the media, and their departments and cities have not become appreciably less violent in their absences.
The American culture of state-approved violence against black people is as deeply ingrained in our national fabric as rock and roll music or the automobile. America was founded on a system of racial subjugation, and white America has spent centuries buttressing that system. Real justice for the sorry brotherhood into which these two men were forced will require white Americans to reckon with that system of subjugation in a way I’m not sure we’re capable of. Our country was founded on racism; eliminating racism will require us to destroy it and rebuild something that will necessarily be unrecognizable to us. “Many of us, I think, both long to see this happen and are terrified of it, for though this transformation contains hope of liberation, it also imposes a necessity for great change,” James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, taking stock of this conundrum. “But in order to deal with the untapped and dormant force of the previously subjugated, in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred.”
White Americans put Sterling’s and Castile’s ancestors on a slave ship across the Atlantic Ocean, bringing them into a life of ceaseless toil. White Americans bought them and whipped them and sold them, torturing them in ways that would be called appalling today were they applied to a chicken or dog. White Americans promised them freedom in 1863, only to deliver them 100 more years of legally enforced segregation, with lynch mobs pitching in when the letter of the law didn’t enforce their subjugation mightily enough.
These centuries of hatred and violence were the overture for Sterling’s 37 years in America, the music that sets the stage for the action to follow and contains in its chords the seeds of every later melody and theme. I won’t deign to know anything about those years beyond the facts that have trickled through the media so far: that he sold CDs for a living, that he had children, that he lived in a transitional shelter, that he had a criminal record. “Alton Sterling, regardless of whether you knew him or not, he is not what the mass media is making him out to be,” Quinyetta McMillan, the mother of Sterling’s eldest son, said at a press conference Wednesday, choking back tears, as her son wailed beside her.
Neither can Castile’s 32 years be evaluated wholly without considering the forced labor and ritualistic public hangings that came before them. In a nation soaked at the roots with his ancestors’ blood, he made a life that will be more difficult than Sterling’s to pigeonhole as wasted and criminal. He worked as a cafeteria supervisor in a local elementary school, where he gave kids fist bumps and snuck them extra graham crackers. He was a licensed gun owner. As he lay dying, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, pled with officers that he had no criminal record, grasping at straws to put the senselessness of his killing in terms they’d understand.
I don’t know very much about these men’s lives, but I do know what history shows us about the lives of black men in places like Sterling’s Baton Rouge, described by one local reporter as a city “where there are clear dividing lines separating the affluent white population from sprawling neighborhoods of African-Americans living in poverty.” As a black man in American cities like these, you are far less likely than your white counterparts to have a job, and if you’ve found one, it likely doesn’t pay well. Perhaps you have a kid, or there’s a housing shortage and your rent is getting out of control. You sell a little weed to make ends meet, and eventually get arrested and are branded a felon, torpedoing your housing and employment prospects for the rest of your life. Faced with the loss of your chief income, you start selling more weed. (Sterling himself did time for pot possession with intent to distribute.) Maybe that cycle of imprisonment and poverty repeats a few more times, probably it’s been going on in your family since long before you were born, and it’s going on in every other household on your block and in your neighborhood as well, and you’re surrounded by men who feel just as desperate and hated and hungry and afraid as you do, who are just as determined to get by for their families as you are, and at some point it starts to seem like a rational decision to carry a gun.
Certainly, many white people are driven to carry firearms as well, whether for reasons of recreation, paranoia, or an abstract sense of liberty; they are rarely punished by instantaneous death without trial for exercising this constitutional right.
All of the factors described above—the hunger, the poverty, the criminalization—are the legacies of policies and ideas that white America cherishes, that it fought to enact and in some cases is still actively carrying out. Slavery and Jim Crow set black America back economically in ways from which it still has not recovered. The drug war specifically targets black neighborhoods for crimes that are committed freely in white ones, stunting bright young black minds with jail sentences and the horror and lifelong stigmatization that come along with them. In Sterling’s Louisiana, tax cuts that largely benefit wealthy people have created budget crises in both public schools and the public defender system, leaving kids without a meaningful way out of the ghetto, and in some cases, without the legal representation they are constitutionally entitled to if they are ensnared by the crime that breeds there. Castile’s Minnesota is in better shape than Louisiana, but the Twin Cities where he lived are plagued by de facto racial segregation and inequality, driven in part by well-off white residents who resisted the construction of affordable housing in their neighborhoods. Castile’s killer worked in one of the nearly all-white suburbs that ring the more diverse, but deeply segregated cities. Castile worked in a school system that has almost wholly re-segregated over the last 16 years. These are the systems that must be dismantled if we want people like Sterling and Castile to stop dying.
Maybe the officer who killed Philando Castile really did fear for his life. Maybe Castile’s admission that he was carrying a gun shocked the officer and set his adrenal glands pumping, and when Castile reached for his wallet, the officer really believed a deadly weapon would come out. But it is less likely that the officer would have panicked were Castile a white gun owner, like those who freely walked the streets of Ferguson carrying automatic rifles after Michael Brown, a teenager who carried no weapon, was shot dead. Maybe, considering the documented racial bias in automobile stops in cities across the country and the fact that Castile himself was stopped 31 times in 14 years, he would not have been pulled over in the first place were he a white man.
Maybe Alton Sterling was a criminal. Maybe he did have a weapon. But if the same mind, the same soul, were born into a body in one of Baton Rouge’s affluent white neighborhoods, or a respectable suburb outside of the city, he almost certainly would not have been carrying it. If Alton Sterling is guilty of holding a gun in his pocket, white America is guilty of putting it there.
[There was a video here]