Black skin, blue suits: A Few Thoughts on Black Officers
“But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that’s shown as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before him.”
-Barack Obama, 2004
Something I vaguely remember: Black women spilling “hell no’s” to George Bush’s re-election campaign, reluctantly championing the Democratic party—black momma, black auntie, black grandma. Television on, the electric bill going up, a lanky black man walks onto the stage, crowd cheering, it’s summer, there’s political sh*t going on. My folks probably voted for him for Illinois Senate and U.S Senate. And although I didn’t know it, President Barack Obama was about to give what would come to be perhaps one of the most important speeches of the 21st century. This was the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, MA. The grown folks were watching it. My sister and I were just at the crib.
Perhaps Mr. Obama had an inkling that his image would hang in barbershops and beauty salons next to Harold Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. He cited ideas regarding the notion of two Americas. He then went on to make the claim that such an idea was a farce. I was 8 years old in 2004—I’d go to school starry-eyed, …dreams… wrapped …in a silken cloth… My teacher would take the class to the library as I’d eye my classmate’s Spider-Man lunch box and grip my state-sponsored brown cardboard one. We’d sit cross-legged at the foot of a utility belt and a firearm and listen to Officer Friendly talk. And as I grew up and …cut my teeth like the black raccoon— // for instruments of battle, the veil got porous. Anyone could see that there are two Americas—and police seem to be in the position of only protecting the white one. And though I was living in the predominately white suburb of Alsip, IL, I “was not from around here.” I was too far west on 119th street.
Something I definitely don’t remember: Eddie Murphy’s 1984 Saturday Night Live skit, White Like Me. This was in Ronald Reagan’s America—the conservative redux America. Eddie Murphy played a black man that became a white man for the day. Of course, this satire didn’t come out of nowhere—people could find humor in the truth of the piece, that Eddie Murphy had access to many more resources for the one day he became white. He entered into a different America.
Now, I don’t by any means mean to belabor the obvious, or even beat a dead horse and piss off PETA. There are two Americas. Most of us understand this. But what I do want to center on is that Eddie Murphy’s satirical rendition of a black man becoming white for a day is not too far removed from reality. Black police officers exist. And I’d like to offer a socio-philosophical analysis of the condition that is being socio-politically aware and being a police officer. In regards to the aforementioned, perhaps this may be a purely theoretical analysis, but I don’t want to be so quick to claim that. Perhaps this analysis can apply to our present reality as Mayor Rahm Emanuel bestows upon the good people of Chicago, Illinois, a black interim superintendent by the name of Eddie Johnson.
In the summer of 2015, just after the first Movement for Black Lives conference in Cleveland, OH, we de-arrested a young black boy. This moment stuck out to me not only because of the radical love of community it took to endure pepper spray repeatedly, but because of one moment I had while recording the happening. In the midst of that chaotic milieu, I happened upon a Black police officer—stone-faced, black shades on. I wonder what was going through his head. He heard us. He heard the “f*ck 12s” and the “black lives matter.” He heard the “it is our duty to fight for our free-” (right before those people were pepper sprayed). Cue the screams. Cue the running to go get milk—the not having much milk. The comrade using her breast milk to soothe the searing eyes of another comrade.
What was this officer thinking? Was he of the “I’m just following orders,” camp? Or was he occupied with keeping an internal tension at bay long enough to collect his paycheck? Was he wrestling with the complete understanding that as a police officer, when he puts on that blue uniform, he participates in maintaining a system that wants to see his body buried and his children hopeless? Could that officer feel his “two-ness?”
Allow me to unpack that a bit. W.E.B DuBois, in his essay, “On Spiritual Strivings” articulates this notion of the double-consciousness—a sort of seeing oneself through the gaze of the other. DuBois writes:
“The Negro is …gifted with second-sight in this American World—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
To be black in America is to be a problem. DuBois predicates his statement on this – that the problematic black is the ad-hoc consciousness of the Black body for it is the perception of the white hegemony (and those that fit into the construction of whiteness) on the Black Body. For the black person in America, there exists more than one consciousness: The conscious-prima-facie and the ad-hoc—the perception of the other (that other occupying a higher space in the White hegemonic structure) on the subject. DuBois argues that this ad-hoc consciousness is also the notion of value predicated on the subject’s proximity to whiteness (a similar notion articulated by Frantz Fanon in “Black Skin, White Masks’) writing that: “Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the natural defense of culture against barbarism… the ‘higher’ against the ‘lower’ races. To which the Negro cries amen!”
There exists that “tension” between consciousness-prima-facie and the ad-hoc conglomerate consciousness. One finds themselves prima-facie an autonomous person. Then, one finds oneself ad-hoc occupying the space of a black person in the hegemonic structure. The Black officer might just be in the business of crying “amen!”
What more than of the black officer? Allow me to posit this—when I write the title’s “blue suit,” I am positioning blueness as the state. Blueness is the colonizing force, the empire, the legal structures. Whiteness is the beneficiary of the former. Whiteness is teleologically positioned in our mainstream ethics—our “thou shalts”—our aesthetics. Blueness is the tool of the positioning.
The difference between whiteness and blueness is that white people can choose to dismantle the system that benefits them. The system is blue. White people benefit and often maintain the system. Whereas blue is the system. White people are subjects that fit into the construction of whiteness. Blue solidifies the construction. Blue is the state, is the system, is the prison-industrial complex or the military-industrial complex. Blue is the occupying force. White benefits from the aforementioned. People choose to be Blue. There is a different sort of..culpability.
When an officer puts on that uniform, not only does he benefit from the system (steady pay, health benefits) he is the system—for the black cop, the same system that is made to destroy his communities, his unveiled self and his family.
And when we think about this tension, the “…dogged strength…” and all—perhaps this sort of dualism is more potent.
As a child, I was the subject of a state-sponsored brainwashing. George Bush and all of the inheritors of empire hitherto stepped to my relatively blank canvas and proceeded to overlay it with blue. No matter how “friendly” this badge-clad white man was when off the clock, he was still badge-clad and blue. He was still Officer Friendly. The same for Jerome. Jerome breaks bread—2 p.m., Sunday, on the west-side. Jerome clocks in on Monday morning. How does Jerome feel?
Something I remember well: A Black mother’s proverb. “Don’t reach for anything when the officer stops you.” Momma made no color distinction.