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George Floyd: The Shameful Psychosocial Dynamics of ‘Race’, Violence and Hatred

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Dr David Jones writes about the dynamics of shame, hatred and fear that have been repeatedly noted, yet still continue.

The current global attention being brought to the problems of ‘race’ and criminal justice by the callous killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, prompts me to write as a white academic who has struggled to write about ‘race’.  I actually struggled to write that first sentence;  I really wanted to precede ‘callous’ with something like ‘inexplicable’, or ‘shocking’. Yet I could not quite do that, as the killing was horrific but in many ways not shocking or inexplicable. It has happened far too many times before for us to seek that comfort.  And the inability of many of us to really think about this shameful topic is perhaps the most difficult and hideous thing we have to think about now. 

In 2008, I published a book that set out to use ‘psychosocial perspectives’ to ‘understanding criminal behaviour’. It had no section discussing the role that ‘race’ played in the criminal justice system, indeed  barely any mention of the topic. I think that I believed that to refer to ‘race’ was somehow dangerous. It was perhaps a shameful topic and one I was not qualified to write about because I am white. The recently published 2ndedition of the book has a chapter devoted to ‘race’.  What changed over the ten year period that ‘allowed’ or ‘prompted’ me to write a chapter on ‘‘race’ and crime’’?  The honest answer, I think, is that I spent substantial parts of that period teaching  psychosocial perspectives on criminal behaviour to students at the University of East London, the vast majority of whom were ‘black’ or other minority. I would sometimes be the only white person in the room and it was this perspective, alongside their kind curiosity, that helped me to think about what it is to be white and how ‘race’ is, at the very least, every bit as much my responsibility to think and write about as theirs.  The facts of the over-representation of black people amongst criminal justice statistics about victims, perpetrators,  stop and search, miscarriages of justice, incarceration, and police brutality are overwhelming, despite the supposedly colour-blind nature of much social science enquiry. Post-colonial claims like Biko Agozoni’s  (2003) accusation that social science, and criminology in particular, are through their obfuscations,  simply tools of colonialism,  look difficult to entirely refute.

I am drawn back to my feeling a lack of surprise at the killing of George Floyd. I began the book chapter on ‘’Race’ and crime’ with the killing in 2016 of Philando Castile by a police officer in Minnesota, a town only about 150 miles north of Minneapolis. Castile was driving with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds and her 4 year old daughter, when they were pulled over as his brake light was supposedly not working. The casual racism of the traffic stop was to be overshadowed by the subsequent events that were captured on film  - on the dashcam of the police car as well as the mobile phone footage taken by Reynolds herself.  Officer Yanez requests to see Castile’s licence and insurance. Castile hands over his licence and calmly and politely informs the officer that he has a gun in his glove compartment (as he is licenced to do). Within seconds Officer Yanez, somehow in a fog of anxiety, fear and hatred fires seven bullets and kills Castile. If the killing is not dreadful enough, the  reaction of Diamond Reynold surely adds to the dismay. Her icy calm demeanour as she tried to contain the anxiety of the police and her daughter – despite her horror at having her boyfriend shot dead besides her  - is testimony to her fear  that she and her daughter are still in grave danger. She is then handcuffed as if she were a perpetrator in such a way that she cannot comfort her daughter who is confused and terrified. Officer Yanez was tried for manslaughter and his verdict of not guilty sparked widespread protest (Jones 2020).

I put this scene near the beginning of the chapter as it seemed to distil something that demands to be understood. It was difficult to view the footage of this killing without feeling a profound sense of upset and anger. At the same time, it also highlighted the importance of trying to think about the dynamics of fear, panic and hatred that have seemed to grip Officer Yanez. It was impossible to imagine that race had not inflamed the encounter, or to avoid the thought that Castile was shot in a fog of anxiety and confusion because he was black. Just as it is impossible to imagine that George Floyd might have been killed the way that he was had he been white.  

I will not attempt to summarise the book chapter here, beyond saying that to understand the dynamics of race, it is necessary to think through the fog created by the shameful  history of European colonisation and slavery and the power of the Americanisation of those dynamics. One striking finding for me was the sheer quality and prescience of the work of the American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), the first black person to be awarded a doctorate at Harvard. His work includes his 1899 study The Philadelphia Negro: A social study. He examined the problems suffered by a largely black neighbourhood of Philadelphia notorious for crime and its poverty. His meticulous study emphasised that you could not understand the contemporary dynamics of poverty, crime, educational failure, familial dysfunction and civic organisation without understanding the historical impacts of slavery, and the psychosocial dynamics created by those in the US. In later work, he wrote about the ’disastrous effects’’ that cultures of slavery had on those doing the dominating. Overall, he presents a brilliant psychosocial analysis and we can wonder why his work is not more celebrated (Morris 2015). Again, of course the problem is really that we don’t have to wonder too much. 

It is fitting to finish with the words of Du Bois as he, in a moving  reflexive piece,  describes his own feelings of torment provoked by living in a society dominated by white people’s precarious feelings of superiority, that lead them to view the very being of a black person as ‘a problem’.  Du Bois describes how he was able to use his feelings of anger and of contempt at this situation to drive his distinguished career.  For those without the advantages that he had, however: 

their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, ‘Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?’ The "shades of the prison-house" closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above (Du Bois 1903 p1-2;  Chapter 1, Of our spiritual Strivings.)

The fact that this was written over 100 years ago might be reason to celebrate the work of W. E. Du Bois, but also to lament the fact that the same dynamics of shame, hatred and fear have been allowed to continue and that we should have any need for a slogan like ‘Black lives matter’. Far too often to be black, and particularly young, male and black, and growing up in London, Minneapolis, Philadelphia or Paris can mean living amidst the debris of the legacy of colonisation and slavery as well as being subject to the anxieties and projections of the culture that surrounds us all. 

References

Agozoni, B. (2003) Counter-Culture Criminology: A critique of Imperialist Reason.  London: Pluto Press. 

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1899) The Philadelphia Negro:  A Social Study.The University of Pennsylvania Press: Pennsylvania 

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903)  The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches.AC McClurg: Chicago

Jones, D.W. (2020) Understanding Criminal Behaviour: Psychosocial Perspectives on Criminality and Violence..Abingdon: Routledge

Morris, A (2015) The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology.University of California: Oaklands

 

Read about David Jones here:http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dwj88
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