The Whole Story Behind Alton Sterling's Death

Spoiler: it has nothing to do with Alton Sterling.

With every police shooting of a black person that sparks national outrage, I hear the same tired narrative from conservatives: we don't know the whole story. Or let's wait until we have all of the facts.

Of course, that used to mean things like video evidence which makes the skepticism of the Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile cell phone videos all the more ironic, but I digress.

In fairness, the accusation from conservatives is actually true: most of us don't know the whole story behind each of these shootings. But the whole story isn't as simple or isolated as we might imagine. While most white Americans will consider each shooting individually, a complete understanding requires a broader knowledge of some key points in history.

Slave Castles

Americans got their first taste of African slavery in 1619, but the European slave trade was already thriving thanks to slave castles that dotted the West African coastline. For a hundred and fifty years, Ghana in particular had been packing hundreds of human beings like sardines into these dark dungeons. No bathrooms, no room to lie down, and no chance of escape. Those who survived the filthy castles could look forward to dying from other diseases once aboard slave traders' ships.

Africans were literally treated like animals and not by coincidence. Articulating a common myth at the time, 16th century French philosopher, Jean Bodin, said that the hot climate was responsible for causing humans to rape animals thereby birthing "monsters in Africa." In other words, America's first experience with Africans came with the belief that they were depraved, sub-human chimeras. Which means that African-American history has not been a process of remembering that they're people but proving that they're not animals.

Dred Scott

Slavery may have been an American institution for much of its early years, but it wasn't widely accepted by the new territories as the United States expanded west. Many of the new states were free states that actually prohibited it. That came to a head when Dred Scott, a slave who had spent time in such places, sued for his freedom based on his residence.

In 1857, a stacked Supreme Court ruled against Scott by stating that slaves were not American citizens and had no right to sue. It was later discovered that President-elect, James Buchanan, had pressured one of the justices. For his part, Buchanan thought that the Constitution overruled morality: "When the States became parties to the Federal compact, they entered into a solemn agreement that property in slaves should be as inviolable as any other property."

Jim Crow

Not long after slaves were emancipated in 1864, the infamous Jim Crow laws began to take effect throughout the states. Initially, they attempted to limit the voting power of a newly freed demographic, but by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, state-sponsored segregation was accepted as a Constitutional doctrine commonly known as "separate but equal."

However, the equal part of the doctrine was not faithfully executed as African-American schools, libraries, and most other amenities were usually underfunded. President Theodore Roosevelt, who openly supported sterilizing stupid people for the sake of society, exemplifies why their needs were never prioritized:
A perfectly stupid race can never rise to a very high plane; the negro, for instance, has been kept down as much by lack of intellectual development as by anything else.
It's not surprising, then, that President Woodrow Wilson thought he could convince African-Americans that segregation was, "not a humiliation but a benefit."

Stop-and-Frisk

Also known as "Terry Frisk", the practice has its roots in the 1968 Terry v. Ohio case that ruled probable cause unnecessary for police officers to stop and frisk people on the street. Rather, law enforcement was granted the power of reasonable suspicion so long as it could be articulated. Unfortunately, it's often articulated in the form of racial profiling.

Based on 2011 Justice Department statistics, the Washington Post reported that, "black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than whites; they are more than twice as likely to be subject to police searches as white drivers; and they are nearly twice as likely to not be given any reason for the traffic stop." Even worse, according to The Guardian, black men between the ages of 15-34 were nine times more likely to be shot by a police officer than other Americans in 2015.

Many will claim that African-Americans are disproportionately targeted because they commit a disproportionate amount of crime. But a number of different studies show that they're more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for the same crime as a white person.

They're not the problem. People who say things like this are: "Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?" Rush Limbaugh isn't the only person who equates African-Americans with criminals. The reason Philandro Castile was pulled over in the first place was recently discovered from police scanner audio: "The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just ‘cause of the wide set nose."

The whole story behind the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, and the many others has less to do with them as it does a history of systemic racism in America.

African-Americans haven't been fighting to be treated as people; they've been fighting to not be treated as animals, property, dullards, and criminals. Their entire history has been an uphill battle of one negative stereotype after another, and they wear that history every single day. So when another black person gets shot by a cop, justified or not, it's one more reminder that the default American sentiment towards them is that they're anything but people.

Cue the white outrage. We don't want to hear it because as far as we're concerned, the playing field was leveled decades ago. Black people have the 13th Amendment, the 14th Amendment, Brown v. the Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. They even have Affirmative Action which, if anything, shifts privilege in their favor. They have rights. But instead of taking responsibility for themselves, they're blaming us.

Many white people don't understand that systemic racism in America isn't about rights, it's about attitudes. The nerdy school kid doesn't go home hungry because he's denied access to the cafeteria but because bullies steal his lunch money. He doesn't lack rights; he's seen as less and treated accordingly.

The whole story won't be found by investigating his individual interactions with bigger kids but by identifying the prejudices against kids born with poor eyesight. And until we learn that the whole story involves more than a few isolated facts, we'll continue to repeat our nation's tragic history.

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