On Philando Castile, Akai Gurley, and Non-Black People of Color’s Complicity in Anti-Blackness
Non-Black people of color, along with white people, are benefiting from and perpetuating state-sanctioned terrorism against the Black community.
The term “people of color,” once an umbrella term used to encompass all people who identify as non-white, has become increasingly unuseful. Particularly when it comes to state-sanctioned violence — specifically police violence — statistics show time and again that not all “people of color” are treated equally under the law. Compared to other groups, and in proportion to their representation in the overall population, Black and Indigenous people are far more likely not only to be stopped by law enforcement but to be murdered by them, even when they are unarmed or pose no significant threat to police officers on-duty.
More recently, anti-racist organizers and activists have been shifting their language in order to reflect this discrepancy, acknowledging the ways in which white supremacy unevenly impacts different groups of people of color, especially when it comes to police violence. The term BIPOC, for instance — acronym for Black, Indigenous, and people of color — recognizes that Black and Indigenous people specifically endured the brunt of the violence that founded this country in the form of stolen labor and land, respectively. Unsurprisingly, then, it is Black and Indigenous people who, more than any other groups of people in the U.S., continue to bear the brunt of state violence in the form of poverty, incarceration, and police brutality.
Non-Black people of color who immigrated to the U.S. after the abolition of slavery and indigenous genocide implicitly benefit from anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity, despite experiencing discrimination and social barriers in other forms. In Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, Black cultural theorist Frank Wilderson argues that the U.S. was originally constructed as a racial triangle, which he calls the triangle of the Settler/Savage/Slave: it was only by using the slave labor of kidnapped Africans, he argues, that white settlers were able to launch a full-scale genocide against Indigenous people in North America. It was this foundational racial order that determined how the rest of U.S. history unfolded.
Which brings me to the topic of this article: not only do non-Black people of color benefit from anti-Blackness, but they can and do actively participate in the brutalization and oppression of Black people. For example: Philando Castile, a 32-year old Black man, was pulled over by a police officer for a broken taillight last year. When the police officer asked to see Castile’s driver’s license and registration, Castile reached into his pocket to retrieve it, after notifying the officer that he was a licensed gun carrier — and was immediately shot by the officer in cold blood.
Castile’s partner, Diamond Reynolds, who had been sitting in the passenger’s seat of the car at the time of his murder, was later asked about the race of the police officer who killed her partner. “He was Asian,” she said. In fact, the officer turned out to be Latinx: later, his name was revealed as Jeronimo Yanez, an officer of Mexican descent. Reynolds’ confusion about the officer’s race, I think, is not only understandable, but perfectly logical. It seemed to reflect, in a tragic way, the staggering degree to which non-Black people of color have come to participate in anti-Blackness and police brutality — to the point of becoming indistinguishable in the eyes of their Black victims.
Perhaps, in that brief moment when she looked into the eyes of her partner’s killer, Reynolds’ mind flashed back to images of another police officer (also a non-Black person of color) charged with the murder of yet another Black man two years prior. In late 2014, 28-year old Akai Gurley was walking up the stairs to his apartment complex in Brooklyn on an ordinary night, when an NYPD police officer with little experience — in fact, he was just one year younger than Gurley himself — became frightened by a noise and unthinkingly fired into the stairwell, striking and killing Gurley on the spot.
The officer who killed Gurley was Asian-American, specifically of Chinese descent, and this mattered in the events that followed Gurley’s murder. Overwhelmingly, the Asian-American community (particularly older generation Chinese-Americans) took to the streets when Liang was eventually convicted of manslaughter. The fact that Liang was Asian, they argued, unfairly biased the courts against him. Had he been white, he would have been acquitted on all counts, just like other white officers involved in police killings against Black Americans.
Translated another way: the Asian-American community was outraged because their model minority status was now being arbitrarily revoked by white America. “White people kill Black people all the time. Why shouldn’t we be allowed the same?”–was, essentially, their argument. What the case really revealed, however, was that assimilation into whiteness fundamentally relies on anti-Blackness. And Peter Liang’s murder of Akai Gurley was only the most recent illustration of this.
All this is to say: perhaps Diamond Reynolds’ mistaken attribution of an Asian identity to the Latinx police officer who murdered her partner points to an important and under-discussed topic in the ongoing cases of police brutality against Black people: the extent to which non-Black people of color uphold and participate in anti-Blackness across all social institutions, but especially within American police departments. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that, among police officers overall, roughly a third of all black officers (32%) characterize relations with blacks in their community as either excellent or good, while majorities of white and Hispanic officers (60% for both) offer a positive assessment.
A majority of black officers (57%) say that deadly encounters between police and Black people are evidence of a broader problem between police and Black people, a view held by only about a quarter of all white (27%) and Hispanic (26%) officers. Of note is the fact that, over the past twenty years, the share of Black officers only increased from 9% to 12%, while the Hispanic share more than doubled, from 5% to 13%.
The end goal is to abolish the institution of policing altogether, which continues to uphold the system of slavery — and private property — that it was originally designed to protect. Making police departments more “diverse” by employing more people of color and/or women, statistics show, has not substantially decreased the alarming rates at which Black and Indigenous people continue to be murdered by them.
At a recent event I attended that centered the stories of trans women of color, I was struck by the words of one Black trans women when she half-heartedly joked: “There are too many divisions between us. Black against Black…and everyone else against Black.” Non-Black people of color, along with white people, are benefiting from and perpetuating state-sanctioned terrorism against the Black community. It’s past time we step up.