Tamir Rice and the rationalization of systemic racism

He should’ve just gotten on the sidewalk.

He shouldn’t have resisted.

He shouldn’t have been playing with a fake gun.

These are the excuses we use to rationalize the murder of unarmed black males by those sworn to protect. They’re the excuses we use to deny the systemic racism that pervades our society—a society where black teens are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than whites, a society where blacks receive longer prison sentences than whites for the SAME CRIMES (HT Qasim Rashid), a society where you can’t even get a grand jury indictment in a death the medical examiner ruled a homicide.

The double standard is breathtaking.

Like Tamir Rice, gunned down by police for playing with a fake gun. The police cruiser that came careening up to him (honestly, how would you have reacted?) barely came to a stop when Officer Timothy Loehmann opened fire, killing the 12 year-old boy.

As I watched the footage of Tamir’s murder (let’s call it what it is, shall we?), all I could think was, I played with fake guns as a kid. And I never had to fear for my life.

Of course I didn’t.

No police vehicles ever came charging at me, cops barreling out the door with guns blazing.

None of my neighbors ever entertained the possibility that the toy gun in my hands was anything but a toy.

None of them mistook me for a grown man, either. The police officer who killed Tamir Rice reported that he was 20 years old. (He was 12.) It’s a well-established fact that police officers routinely mistake black boys as older than they really are (HT Kristen Howerton). Because that’s what happens in a society that tolerates pervasive bias against blacks, mostly by pretending it doesn’t exist.

I never had to worry about someone mistaking my toy gun for a real one because I was a white kid living in a white neighborhood. White privilege meant my friends and I could brandish our toy guns (some of which looked real enough) in public without fear of being shot dead.

White privilege also means white gun lovers can brandish their weapons on streets and in restaurants, they can harass anyone who questions their right to do so, they can even plan marches through predominantly black neighborhoods—all without so much as a raised eyebrow from police. Some even laud these open carry zealots as heroes.

If you’re a black kid playing with a fake gun, it’s a capital offense. If you’re a white guy brandishing a loaded semiautomatic in public, it’s your constitutional right.

Do you still want to argue that systemic racism is a thing of the past?

It’s time we see the double standard for what it is. It’s time we acknowledge that racism doesn’t always wear a hood. Sometimes it comes dressed in a suit, to paraphrase Duke University sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. It’s time that those of us who are white realize that we benefit from an unjust system—one in which police can kill unarmed black males with impunity. And so long as we say and do nothing about it, we’re guilty of perpetuating that system.

Photos: Cleveland.com, Mother Jones

10 thoughts on “Tamir Rice and the rationalization of systemic racism

  1. I even had a fake gun that made a little blast noise. I’d put these little plastic things in them that popped when I ‘shot’. Circa 1985, I was 7, and an airport/customs officer looked at my gun and let me board a plane with it.

    It does make me wonder what life might have been had I been a different colour.

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    • It might have made a difference, but we also live in a time when children shoot up schools, and 911 happened. Those things have created rampant fear. There IS systemic racism that needs stamped out! However, I don’t think even white kids could get away with the antics we did in our youth today.

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      • It seems likely that there are more Black people killed by police each year when compared to white people. When 80% of violent crimes each year are committed by Black people its surprising this disparity is as small as it is. The main focus of the Black community should be on striving to improve the Black on Black crime in this country. There are hundreds of times more Black on Black violence than White on Black. I have a lot of Black friends who can’t believe that the media is portraying this as a systemic racism issue. Maybe we need to look deeper into the issue of why there is so much Black on Black violence.

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      • Yeah…slight problem with the “black-on-black” crime argument. Most violent crimes are interracial because most such crimes are committed by people who know the perpetrators. The rate of white-on-white violence is almost the same as that of black-on-black crime. But hey, let’s not allow facts to muddy the discussion.

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  2. I do think there is a problem with the police in this country, having my best friend killed in an illegal high speed chase (1989), and my uncle beaten to death (innocent – we won a case). A major problem – you can’t have justice when you don’t have witnesses maintaining the same story (our witnesses all said the same), or making things up to try to strengthen their case. We have recently seen how this pans out. I do understand, as in the Michael Brown case, those videos circulating of him in criminal behavior, do not show a great guy. I do agree that being a criminal does not mean he deserves to die. But I also maintain that police officers also deserve to not die, and to go home to their families at night. I myself have been harasses for absolutely no reason, and even gotten my car tagged for no brake lights, when I had gotten new brakes (and the lights were tested BY ME) earlier that same day. None of this made me riot, or spew racial hatred, or protest in the roads, or resist arrest.

    My kids grew up in the early ’90s and no way would I let my son have a toy gun. Even 20 years ago, I could not risk my son being mistaken for having a real gun. It was all over the news even back then. and the risk for a toy gun made no sense. 20 years later, with all the school shootings, and in general everyone desensitized towards violence, I can imagine that the cops are even more jumpy and on edge. This does not excuse anyone for shooting children with toy guns, and I don’t blame the parents either. I say we put more thought into what will keep our children safe.

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  3. Another tragic story that is happening weekly, my condolence to the family that lost the baby boy to soon . Reading this store I can’t help but think, If he was who they were looking for responding to a 911, what happen to Freeze drop the gun and show me your hands? I don’t see any police training here but something other than racism. This is the reason you can’t argue against racism or everyone would be shot by police and I mean everyone. I however do understand that it’s a pressure career and one of the biggest responsibility anyone can have and that’s making sure that people in our society is not breaking the law. There is a higher stander for that individual who were the badge because he or she has the authority to protect and serve us or arrest us. To mean tine order by reasonable easements and not breaking any laws or civic rights in the process. As a Black man in this country that never been arrested but have been pulled over but not issued and ticket or vehicle warning, detained in the back of a scud car for hours and then release for no reason, can never say that I feel I have rights as a citizen or safe in there custody for myself or my nephews and nieces from the police. Sorry but I can’t, not until I see some real changes from abusing authority to operating in it. I’m not saying that all officers are out of control but the ones that are is making it hard for the ones doing it right. The government department that issues legislature to state law enforcement need to act fast on how to get there house in order because this needs to stop NOW. The course that this is on nothing good can come from it. Thank You Ben Irwin for writing this peace and putting your name on it.

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  4. Pingback: The racism that killed Tamir Rice is more than just a “police problem” | Ben Irwin

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