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Even with the increased visibility of specific police officers killing unarmed black and brown people, the wide-scale demonstrations of outrage and protest traveling throughout the country like those currently underway in St. Louis, and investigations by the Justice Department under the Obama administration into allegations of racial bias in policing, and while many law enforcement agencies are assessing procedures in an attempt to improve relations with the communities in which they are meant to serve, the killing continues.
Allegations of racism in the hiring practices, policies, and attitudes in police departments, however, represent in microcosm much larger forces evident in our country. We must not and cannot dismiss police killings of black and brown people as simply the actions of a few individuals or “bad cops,” for oppression exists on multiple levels in multiple forms.
These officers live in a society that subtly and not-so-subtly promotes intolerance, imposes stigma, and perpetuates violence. We must see these incidents as symptoms of larger systemic national problems.
Stigmata Imposed on the Body
Officials in 17th-century C.E. Puritan Boston coerced Hester Prynne into permanently affixing the stigma of the scarlet letter onto her garments to forever socially castigate her for her so-called “crime” of conceiving a daughter in an adulterous affair.
Stigmata include symbols, piercings, or brands used throughout recorded history to mark an outsider, offender, outcast, slave, or an animal.
Though Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is a work of fiction, members of several minoritized communities continue to suffer the sting of metaphoric stigmata forced onto their skin, birth sex, sexual and gender identities and expressions, religious beliefs and affiliations, countries of origin and linguistic backgrounds, disabilities, ages, and many other areas of their identities.
Many overt forms of oppression are obvious when dominant groups tyrannize minoritized communities. Prime examples include the horrific treatment of people of color under the system of apartheid in South Africa and Black Africans in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the mass slaughter of Jews and other stigmatized and marginalized groups in Nazi Germany, and the merciless killing of Muslims during the Christian “Crusades.”
Many forms of oppression and enforced stigmata (as well as dominant group privileges), however, are not as apparent, especially to members of dominant groups. Oppression in its fullest sense also refers to the structural or systemic constraints imposed on groups even within constitutional democracies like the United States.
Stigmatized groups live with the constant fear of random and unprovoked systematic violence directed against them simply because their social identities. The intent of this xenophobic (fear and hatred of anyone of anything seeming “foreign”) violence is to harm, humiliate, and destroy the “Other” for the purpose of maintaining hierarchical power dynamics and attendant privileges of the dominant group over minoritized groups.
For example, on February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch leader in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Martin was walking on the sidewalk talking on a cell phone to his girlfriend and carrying a can of ice tea and a small bag of Skittles when Zimmerman confronted and shot him, and then he claimed self-defense. By most reports, Martin’s “crime” was walking while being black in a predominantly white gated community visiting family and friends. His stigmata included his black skin and his youth while wearing a “hoody.”
Black parents from all walks of life throughout the country engage with their children in what they refer to as “the talk” once they reach the age of 13 or 14 instructing them how to respond with calm if ever confronted by police officers. Parents of these young people know full well the stigmata embedded into their children by a racist society marking them as the expression of criminality, which perennially consigns them to the endangered species list.
There is a long-standing tradition in our western states of ranchers killing a coyote and tying it to a fence to scare off other coyotes, and to keep them from coming out of their hiding places. That’s what Matthew Shepard’s killers did to him in 1998 outside Laramie, Wyoming.
Black parents from all walks of life throughout the country engage with their children in what they refer to as “the talk” once they reach the age of 13 or 14 instructing them how to respond with calm if ever confronted by police officers.
Shepard’s convicted murderers, Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, smashed his skull and tied him to a fence as if he were a lifeless scarecrow, where he was bound for over 18 hours in near freezing temperatures. The message to the rest of us LGBTQ people from these killers was quite clear: stay locked away in your suffocating and dank closets, and don’t ever come out.
Though 2016 marked the highest number of trans people killed in the United State with 27 known instances, with the vast majority being trans women of color, at the current rate, 2017 portends to be even worse. Murderers of trans people react in extreme and fanatical ways at the direction of the larger coercive societal battalions bent on destroying all signs of gender transgression in young and old alike in the maintenance of socially constructed gender norms, with stigmata imposed on all who transgress.
In these times of declining social mobility, and as the gap between the rich and the poor ever increases, dominant groups attempt to divide the dispossessed by pointing to scapegoats to blame. For example, vigilantes sometimes calling themselves members of the so-called “Minutemen” movement target and hunt down anyone suspected of being undocumented.
We are living in an environment in which property rights hold precedence over human rights. In this environment, the political, corporate, and theocratic right are waging a war to turn back all the gains progressive people have made over the years. One tactic they use is to inhibit the development of coalitions between marginalized groups.
To disengage and reverse stigmata once imposed can be difficult but certainly not impossible. Whenever white LGBT people, however, view black and Latinx people through the stigma of criminality, whenever heterosexual black and Latinx people view LGBT people through the stigmata of sin and abuse of youth, whenever we view Muslims through the stigma of terrorism, whenever any group views any other through lenses of stigmata, this horizontal stigmatization and oppression only further entrenches the vertical hierarchical power structures.
Metaphorically, oppression operates like a wheel with many spokes. If we work to dismantle only one or a few specific spokes, the wheel will continue to roll over people. Let us, then, also work on dismantling all the many spokes in conquering all the many forms of stigmatized oppression in all their many forms.
In the final analysis, whenever anyone of us is diminished, we are all demeaned, when anyone or any group remains institutionally and socially stigmatized, marginalized, excluded, or disenfranchised, when violence comes down upon any of us, the possibility for authentic community cannot be realized unless and until we become involved, to challenge, to question, and to act in truly transformational ways.
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