In the past two years, this country has held events commemorating 50 years since the triumphs and key struggles of the civil rights movement: the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act and, most recently, the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala.
Yet the glory of the past runs up against the gory details of the present.
The killing this month of Walter L. Scott by Officer Michael T. Slager highlights two interlocking truths: Social protest forces us to see realities we would rather avoid, and blacks live in mortal fear for our lives in a manner that most whites don’t see or understand.
Americans are bad at viewing race in real time; we prefer rose-tinted lenses and slow-motion replays in which we can control the narrative and minimize our complicity in the horrors of our history. The racial present is messy and upends bland racial optimism about how far we’ve come.
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Protests calling for police reform took place this week in New York and in Scott’s home, North Charleston, S.C., where some participants came from Ferguson, Mo., to remind anyone in earshot, in their familiar chant, that “Black Lives Matter.” These actions echo a past when blacks and their allies forced the nation to grapple with its racist legacy through acts of civil disobedience that were heavily criticized and resisted.
In our not-so-distant history, many Americans conceded the legitimacy of black struggle only because its leaders brilliantly staged protests for the world to see. White citizens struggled to digest their meals in peace as scenes from Selma’s blood bath, for instance, flashed on their television screens.
But the optics of race are tricky. Today, the proliferation of social media may allow us to see more, but it doesn’t necessarily allow us to see more clearly. For example, with the exception of interracial dating, polls show that millennials hold many of the same racially warped views as generation Xers and baby boomers do. Stereotypical representations of blackness, some authored by blacks and disseminated on reality TV, are still accepted as the norm.
Problems arise when images of blackness contradict a received racial script. That’s why it was easier for some to believe that the video footage of Michael Brown stealing cigarillos before he died in Ferguson more accurately communicated his character as a “thug” than to believe that the last gasps of Eric Garner were the pleas of an unjustly assaulted man. We can’t believe what we see because it contradicts what we’ve been led to believe is true.
Another truth lies in plain sight, echoing through videos of the last moments of a man’s life and hashtags of protest: The lived experience of race often feels like terror for black folk, whether that terror is fast or slow. Fast terror is explosive and explicit; it is the spectacle of unwarranted black death at the hands of the state, or displays of violence directed against defenseless bodies.
Slow terror is masked yet malignant; it stalks black people in denied opportunities that others take for granted. Slow terror seeps into every nook and cranny of black existence: black boys and girls being expelled from school at higher rates than their white peers; being harassed by unjust fines by local municipalities; having billions of dollars of black wealth drained off because of shady financial instruments sold to blacks during the mortgage crisis; and being imprisoned out of proportion to our percentage in the population.
The last moments of Scott’s life, captured on video and widely watched, are classic fast terror. Watching the video made me sick; it was, perhaps, the breathtaking indifference to moral consequence that seemed to grip Slager as he fired at an unarmed black man in broad daylight. A frozen frame from the video shows a police officer, gun drawn, in pursuit. Fifty years earlier, a lawman, in pursuit, pulled his gun and shot dead the Selma protester Jimmie Lee Jackson, whom the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “a martyred hero of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”
The failure to be seen as human unites black people across time in a fellowship of fear as we share black terror, at both speeds, in common.
The way we see race plays a role in these terrors: Fast terror is often seen and serves as a warning; slow terror is often not seen and reinforces the invisibility of black suffering. Fast terror scares us; slow terror scars us.
The New York Times
Michael Eric Dyson, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of sociology at Georgetown and is writing a book on President Obama and race.