More Dangerous than Racism

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Repairing the System / Repairing The Systen

I once read a story about the Hollywood director John Huston. One of Huston’s drinking buddies was a jockey who worshiped Huston, but only received verbal abuse in return. The abuse got to be so extreme that one of Huston’s friends finally confronted him, asking why he was so cruel to a guy who had never harmed him. Huston gave an candid response: “Because I can.”

Huston felt that , unless he did something outrageous like killing someone, his celebrity immunized him from the fate of ever having to drink alone in Hollywood. Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke recently did Huston one better. He shot unarmed Laquan McDnald walking away from him 16 times.

The media portrays the incident as racial in nature. And, of course , it was. But I have a rival explanation for you consider. I think Van Dyke killed McDonald for the same reason John Huston abused the jockey. He thought he could.

Consciously or unconsciously, Van Dyke was depending on the support, willing or unwilling, of a whole social system that would protect a white police officer in a dispute over the shooting of a black underclass civilian. As Professor Craig Futterman of the University Chicago Law School said of another group of Chicago police accused of abuses, “What struck me was they walked around knowing that nothing was ever was going to happen to them for their behavior.”

Let’s consider why Van Dyke might have had such confidence. Soon after the McDonald slaying, the Police Department put out a statement describing the incident as involving an armed offender who refused to drop a knife as he approached officers. Five colleagues of Van Dyke’s who were at the scene confirmed this scenario. A police union rep added that McDonald “was coming at the officer.”

This “official” story was then protected by the department’s decision not to make public a police video that witnesses said would contradict the police story. This move might have been successful but for the efforts of independent journalist Jamie Kalven and law professor Craig Futterman who sued in federal court to make the video public. Their success has made the McDonald slaying a national issue.

This story in the NYT sets out the basic facts. It shows that Van Dyke’s enablers were not limited to people listed above. I would also add the police chief who maintained a willful ignorance of the department’s history of inaction on complaints of abuse, and even the lawyer representing McDonald’s family in the case who consented to the video being withheld as part of the settlement.

And let’s not forget mayor Rahm Emanuel who tried to keep the video from becoming public until after a close election– and the white voters in Chicago whose support the mayor feared he might lose if he were seen as being too tough on the police. I guess we might also add Clint Eastwood and his many imitators.

Are these people “racist?” That depends on your definition of the term; I would say some are, and more are not. But there is no doubt that they were all enablers of a legal system that routinely over-enforces the law against African-Americans (traffic stops and searches and seizures) and routinely under-enforces it against police officers who abuse civilians.

We can profitably look at this situation through both of two frames—racism and government lawlessness. I prefer the second for practical reasons. Framing an issue in terms of race does not seem to produce the desired results. We can’t even agree on what constitutes racism, much less how to cure it. The last time we were able to pass meaningful civil rights legislation was in the 1960’s and we should remember that while Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement set the stage for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it was president Lyndon Johnson‘s guileful urging of its passage as a fitting memorial to recently assassinated president John Kennedy that got it enacted. It’s not that whites don’t think that “Black Lives Matter;” they just seem to have other less idealistic priorities when it comes to voting.

The evil of lawless government is a much easier sell. Everyone agrees that the government should obey the law, and whites realize that a lawless police force need not limit its abuses to minorities. Just go to your local multiplex if you want more stories about unequal enforcement of the laws; Spotlight tells how the legal system in Boston failed to protect children from predatory priests and Truth reminds us that the rich and powerful have less need to obey the rules than the rest of us.

And, most importantly, it is neutral enforcement of existing laws that will most effectively combat racism. If John Huston had suddenly found himself drinking alone, his social skills would have quickly improved. So too if Jason Van Dyke had known that police officers who unnecessarily shoot civilians are quickly dismissed without pension, Laquan McDonald would be alive today.

Racism is an ugly thing, but not as dangerous as a lawless legal system. Racism is impotent until people feel entitled to act upon their prejudice, and they only feel so entitled if they, like Van Dyke , feel the law will not hold them responsible.

These are hard issues. If you have any ideas you would like to share, please send them along.


  1. Rhonda Magee says

    John, thanks. I would submit that the very fact that he could think that he could get away with it is what makes this a racist act. It’s perhaps (?) unconscious, definitely institutional and systemic racism. And it is a significant problem today, at least in part because people don’t recognize it for what it is. It is racism, and not “lawless government” precisely because the lawlessness which we admittedly witness all too often is not, in the end, “race neutral.” It is not evenly meted out regardless of the race or color of the parties involved (and this is so even when “minority” cops — who can also be racist, biased against and convinced of the likelihood of getting away with hyper-aggression against people of color — are involved). What is called for here is an update (again and again, as necessary) of our definitions of racism to meet the manifestations of this scourge in the 21st century — not a continued unwillingness to see it and name it for what, despite its disguises, it really is. The good news is that we can do this. And whatever the challenges, we who would be just-minded inheritors of the blessings and curses of America’s bloody histories owe our fellow Americans, their children and their grandchildren of all backgrounds and colors — (at the very least) this much.


    • Thanks Rhonda; You make a good and important point.. In America, racism and government lawlessness are more intertwined than my post suggests. Still I think they are also separate evils. Thinking yourself superior to a man because of race is different than lynching him. Since I am more than a little dissatisfied with the results of our half century discussion of racism (Isn’t the leading candidate for the Republican nomination running an expressly racist campaign?) I think we should also discuss this problem in terms government lawlessness.


  2. Doing something because you can = Arrogance. People of all races are guilty of it. What makes a human being not care? Maybe the better question is: What makes a human being?


  3. Wow, this is a complicated one, John. I can’t help thinking the lawlessness has its base in white supremacy, which ultimately comes from deep insecurity. I do think lawlessness has racism built into it, but from the the bottom up — not specifically hating people of color, but hating oneself and stepping on (even killing) marginalized folk in order to boost one’s position and self esteem. Maybe that’s what you’re saying — that Huston was mean because he was essentially weak and unstable.

    I agree that things aren’t changing quickly enough but I think they will — however, not because of the efforts of white/priviledged folk. Racism is too engrained and whites are too comfortable — there’s not enough incentive for them to force the change. The antidote to white supremecy is the giving up of white power, therefore giving up the idea that we can make the change — it’s more to play a supporting role in BLM, as folks did in the Civil Rights era.

    Also, if you disentangle lawlessness from racism it can deny a person of color’s reality. I can’t help but think the two are hopelessly entwined.

    Good stuff to think about… No easy answers. Not even sure I’m making any sense here!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sarah, you make a lot of sense. You share with Rhonda a belief that lawlessness and racism are so entangled in our society that talking about them separately is not helpful. As I say in my reply to Rhonda McGee, I respect that position, but don’t agree with it

      I especially like what you say about “change” because that is what we really really need. I think not allowing people to act on their racist feelings will fuel change. First, it will cure the harm done to innocent minorities by racist acts. But there is also social research that says if people are not permitted to act out on their racist or sexist feelings, they slowly drop them. Men who are not allowed to used sexist language in the work place end up with less sexist attitudes. That’ why I hope less lawlessness will result in less racism.



  4. Ken Donnelly says



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