This time it was President Barack Obama who used the formula “because of the color of their skin,” after a police officer killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop for a broken taillight: “When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our citizenry that feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being
treated the same.”
He was not the first and will not be the last to cast matters in that topsy-turvy way. Martin Luther King Jr’s reference to “the color of their skin” in his “I Have a Dream” speech has normalized the formula in Americans’ ears, though King probably considered it a reductio ad absurdum rather than an explanation.
Because the formula is habitual in American common speech, few
reflect on its weird reversal of cause and effect. “Racecraft” is our
term for it. Skin color cannot, in fact, cause a club to land, a gun to
discharge, or a Taser to electrocute, any more than skin color can
deny a job application or bank loan or locate a highway or toxic
waste dump near a residential area. The “because” in each instance
is not the victim’s skin color but a deliberate action by one or more
The human aggressors need not be driven by malice, though they
often are. Nor need they be the authors or originators of the double
standard — in other words, racism — by which wearing a hoodie,
selling loose cigarettes (or having done so in the past), talking back
to a police officer, playing music too loudly, running from a traffic
stop, or having a broken taillight subjects some but not others to
instant capital punishment.
Indeed, when the double standard of racism results in obvious and
irretrievable error — for example, when Afro- or Latino-American
police officers working while off duty die at the hands of white
officers who mistook them for criminals — the officers who killed
them pay a heavy and probably lifelong emotional toll.
The point is this: skin color has no capacity to act, either for good or
for ill. In police shootings, the harm is not done by the victims’ skin
color, but by the training, decisions, and actions of the people
wielding the clubs, guns, or Tasers, as well as their superiors (who
usually escape the consequences). The formula “because of the color
of their skin” shifts responsibility from the aggressor to the target.
The ironic tags “driving while black” and “walking while black”
originally underscored the absurdity of the incidents they
characterized. But the tags quickly lost their ironic edge with a
public inured to the belief that a driver or pedestrian’s skin color is
what determines a police officer’s action, rather than the officer’s
training, judgment, mental stability, or instructions from
Beyond shifting responsibility away from the actual aggressor,
“because of the color of their skin” conceals a reality that ought to
alarm even those who expect their white skin color to stand between
them and injury or death as a result of misconduct by police.
Zachary Hammond, an unarmed white teenager, died in August
2015 at the hands of a police officer in Seneca, South Carolina, for
no greater offense, it seems, than the presence in his car of
marijuana that may not even have been his. Only through the efforts
of Black Lives Matter activists did the episode come to widespread
public notice. Not even the Hammond family’s white neighbors felt
moved to support them publicly.
In Frederick, Maryland, in 2011, a twenty-six-year-old white man
with Down’s syndrome, Robert Ethan Saylor, died of suffocation in
an eerie preview of Eric Garner’s death. (Like Garner, Saylor was
hefty.) Sheriff’s deputies moonlighting as bouncers put three sets of
handcuffs on him, laid him face-down, and sat on him. They were
trying to arrest him because he would not leave a movie theater after
the feature ended.
Advocates for disabled persons spoke up for Mr Saylor and his
family, but only on the rather narrow grounds that police should be
better trained in handling the mentally disabled. The real question is
why the moonlighting deputies decided to handle him at all, let
alone manhandle him, over such a trivial matter. In a world of
ordinary human decency, might not someone — the theater’s
managers, the officers, or a member of the public — have offered to
pay the trifling cost of a ticket and let him watch the feature again
while he waited for his mother to arrive with the money?
The color of Zachary Hammond’s or Robert Ethan Saylor’s skin did
not save their lives, any more than the color of Philando Castile’s
skin took his. The double standard of racism did not single
Hammond and Saylor out as targets.
But the fact is that militarized police habituated to the shoot-first,
command-presence mentality of an occupying army cannot
ultimately be confined to the neighborhoods, environs, and persons
against whom such conduct has long been deployed with impunity.
It is time to stop fooling ourselves with the racecraft of “because of
the color of their skin” and acknowledge the emotional instability,
poor judgment, inadequate training, and ill-considered policies that
turn human beings, not the victims’ skin color, into killers.
Barbara J. Fields teaches history at Columbia University. Karen E. Fields is
an independent sociologist. They are the authors of Racecraft: The Soul of
Inequality in American Life.
*The article was published by Jacobin