Domesticity: Black Lives Matter 1
Roy Herndon Smith
I am writing today over a month after the white policemen, Derek Chauvin, murdered the African-American, George Floyd. Since then, Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the world have been daily events.
As a number of people have observed, the murder, the demonstrations, and the violence expose the systemic white racism that has destroyed and continues to destroy millions upon millions of lives since European conquerors and colonists set foot on the land now described as the United States of America almost five hundred years ago.
The events of the last month expose what we often turn away from even when we talk about systemic racism. Systemic racism destroys bodies, homes, families, and communities. Soon after Europeans came to North America, they began what became the genocide of indigenous peoples by killing them, destroying their homes and communities, and breaking up their families. These same Europeans brought with them African slaves, whose bodies they used and disposed of and whose homes and families they destroyed when they willed. Since the official end of slavery in the United States in 1865 and the last massacre of Indians at Wounded Knee in 1890, federal, state, and local governments, as well as corporations and informal groups, have continued practices that have maintained this institutionalized racism, directed not just at Blacks and indigenous peoples, but also other people of color and immigrants, especially poor immigrants.
Black Lives Matter exposes the systemic and highly destructive racism that characterizes our police and criminal justice institutions. Between 2015 and 2020, the rate of fatal police shootings of Black Americans, 30 per million, was more than twice the rate for White Americans, 13 per million (https://www.statista.com/statistics/1123070/police-shootings-rate-ethnicity-us/). In 2010, the rate of incarceration for Blacks was 2,306 per 100,000 people, for White non-Hispanics, the rate was 450 per 1000,000; put another way, Blacks, who were 13% of the total population, made up 40% of the incarcerated population, while non-Hispanic Whites, who were 64% of the total population, made up 39% of the prison population (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20U.S.%20Bureau,18%25%20of%20the%20female%20population). 60% of the people being held in prisons and jails were awaiting trial, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime.
Statistics alone don’t convey the destructive impact of police killings and mass incarceration. Police murders are, most obviously, the result of assaults on bodies: ‘Over the past decade, The New York Times found, at least 70 people have died in law enforcement custody after saying the same words — “I can’t breathe.” The dead ranged in age from 19 to 65. The majority of them had been stopped or held over nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behavior, or concerns about their mental health. More than half were black’ (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/28/us/i-cant-breathe-police-arrest.html). The number of police killings indicates that the number of police assaults is orders of magnitude higher. Being Black, and especially being Black and male, in America means being especially vulnerable to bodily assaults by the police.
Police assaults and killings disproportionately injure Black families and communities.They also, as in the killing, in her home, of Breonna Taylor, destroy what makes a home a shelter in which people nurture each other. These assaults and killings are thus not only on Black bodies, but on Black domesticity, their home and family life.
These acute assaults on Black domesticity grow out of and exacerbate chronic assaults on black domesticity that have been ongoing in this country for over 400 years. A current indication of this chronic assault is Black poverty. Poverty is both a strong predictor and an effect of incarceration (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20U.S.%20Bureau,18%25%20of%20the%20female%20population). The percentage of Whites in poverty (10.1%) is less than half than that of Blacks (20.8%) and indigenous peoples (25.4%) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20U.S.%20Bureau,18%25%20of%20the%20female%20population). Poverty weakens the ability of impoverished families, disproportionately Black families, to have and maintain homes and the members of such families to sustain each other. High incarceration rates of Blacks both reflect and exacerbates this poverty. Incarceration weakens and often breaks family bonds. Those who have been incarcerated, even when they are innocent and eventually released, have more difficultly getting and holding jobs. Incarceration thus increases the poverty that results in more incarceration. In poor Black communities, mass incarceration and poverty resulting from and in the destruction of homes and families, of domesticity, has persisted over generations.
This institutionalized direct, through police violence, and indirect, through impoverishment and incarceration, destruction of Black domesticity descends from the objectification and destruction of Black bodies, families, and homes under slavery. Slave owners valued slaves as labor, including reproductive labor, and sources of pleasure. Slave families were only valuable as means of maintaining and increasing the wealth of the owners. Slave homes were only valuable as places to keep and protect these assets. Owners broke up slaves’ families, say by selling one member, if doing so would increase their assets. They destroyed homes if they suspected the houses were sheltering escaped slaves. Especially in the South, the predecessors of police forces were slave patrols employed by owners to protect their assets by capturing escaped slaves and preventing and combatting slave revolts. Currently highlighted all-too-common police or vigilante practices that disporportionately target blacks, such as stop -and-frisk, and stopping, pursuing, and forcibly detaining and sometimes killing people, deemed to be out of place or engaging in “suspicious behavior,” such as running through a “White” neighborhood, and forcibly breaking into homes and arresting, and sometimes killing, residents, directly descend from the practices of these slave patrols. (https://time.com/4779112/police-history-origins/, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-ushistory1os2xmaster/chapter/wealth-and-culture-in-the-south/, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/slavery-capitalism.html