Such analyses are patently unacceptable. And they are possible because white bodies, even those engaged in horrendously violent and reckless acts, are not viewed as “criminal.” Yes, some police officers referred to the acts of these killers in Waco as criminal acts and them as criminals, but in popular discourse, these men have not beencriminalized. Criminalization is a process that exists separate and apart from the acts one has committed. It’s why street protestors in Baltimore are referred to as violent thugs for burning buildings, but murderers in Waco get called “bikers.” And if thug is the new n-word (and I’m not sure that’s precise), then “biker” is the new “honky” or “cracker,” which is to say that while the term is used derisively and can communicate distaste, it does not have the devastating social effects or demand the same level of state engagement to suppress such “biker-ish” activity as we demand to suppress the activities of alleged “thugs” and “criminals.”
How we talk about and understand the problem of violence is actually critical to our ability to make any progress on solving the problem of racism in this country. We have turned the word “criminal” into a social category that acts a site of cultural refuse, where we can toss all of our anger, hatred, and resentment, on a group of people, disproportionately people of color, for abhorrent acts that they commit against us and the state. We get to view them as less than human and treat them as such, while acting as though our indignation is pure, righteous, and without hypocrisy. None of this is true.
With white citizens, officers feel it is their duty to protect the unsafe and de-escalate the situation. With Black citizens, officers, acting out of their own fear, escalate conflicts, antagonize citizens, and move swiftly to the use of tanks, tear gas, and billy clubs to subdue, even lawful and peaceful protests. What Malcolm X pointed to, and what we would do well to recapture on this week, as we, if we are brave enough, choose to remember his life, is that there is something fundamentally dishonest about a society that revels in the violence of one group while demanding non-violent compliance from another. That kind of thinking is unjust, unfair, and unproductive. And for those of us who are not white, white ignorance on these matters is not bliss.