Last year during the Ferguson riots, former basketball player Charles Barkley expressed more outrage at the protestors than the actions of police officers that invoked such protests in the first place. Sheriff David Clarke of Wisconsin has been a very vocal critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, referring to the activists involved as “slime” that should be “eradicated.” Like Barkley, Sheriff Clarke expressed more outrage over the Black Lives Matter protestors than the fact that African Americans have been and are continued to be senselessly killed. Presidential candidate Ben Carson reportedly stated that he had not seen “evidence” of police bias against African Americans. Although Dr. Carson claimed not to be aware of the evidence of the very thing that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, he seemed informed enough of the movement to come to conclusion that the movement was “sickening” and that the Black Lives Matter movement was bullying people.
All of these examples of African Americans that have decidedly ignored the issue of police violence against African Americans have a historical precedent. The enslavement of African people was justified in a number of ways; all of which were based on demeaning stereotypes of African people. The literature defending slavery usually depicted Africans as being savages and cannibals. Africans were uncivilized and were heathens. The slave trade then was seen as a way to rescue these unfortunate people from this savage land and to introduce them to Christianity to save their souls. The defenders of slavery did not view slavery itself as being the problem. For them the problem was the slaves that rebelled or resisted being enslaved. Such rebellious slaves were often described as being ingrates. Samuel A. Cartwright supposed that slaves that ran away suffered from a mental illness called “drapetomania.”
What is interesting about this is that many Africans came to internalize these views. They began to see their enslavement as a benefit. The most dramatic example of this was Jacobus Capitein. Capitein was born in what is present day Ghana and was enslaved. He was brought to Holland, which he would later describe as the will of God. Capitein then became a defender of slavery himself. The famed educator Booker T. Washington held the view that slavery brought some benefits to Africans such as teaching them to wear clothes and live in houses, rather than in huts. Washington was by no means a defender of slavery, but his views were clearly influenced by racist propaganda that depicted Africans as being lazy and uncivilized.
Regardless of how bad the treatment of enslaved Africans was on the slave plantations, many Africans simply could not bring themselves to see the reality of their situation for what it was. Some tried to justify it, as Washington and Capitein did, by pointing to the benefits of slavery. Others felt that it was their duty to defend their slave masters against potentially rebellious slaves. The slave revolts of Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser in the United States are just two of the many examples of slave uprisings being exposed and betrayed by other slaves. In her autobiography, Harriet Jacobs, who ran away from the plantation, noted her dislike of a particular light-skinned slave who attempted to pass himself off as white and was among the people that were hunting Jacobs down.
Many slaves on the plantations internalized the justifications used to argue in favor of slavery. These same slaves often became a hindrance to the other slaves that were struggling for freedom. This is what we find in today’s struggle against police violence towards African Americans. There are activists in the community that recognize the existence of this problem and are seeking solutions to the problem. Others have internalized the justifications used to defend unnecessary police aggression against African Americans. Such people claim not to recognize the problem or they argue that the real problem is not the police violence, but that the problem is those who respond to such violence through protesting, marching, and even at times rioting. Denying the brutal nature of slavery did not alter the reality of the situation and eventually slavery as an institution had to be overthrown largely through the efforts of the those Africans who recognize the evils of slavery. Likewise, denying the reality of police aggression against African Americans does not change it. The situation must be changed, but change will not come from those who fail to recognize the problem for what it is.
-Dwayne Wong (Omowale)