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Philando Castile and the Wisdom of James Baldwin

Philando Castile is now the latest murder victim to be denied justice by a system designed with racism as its foundation. Castile did everything right, yet he was tacitly presumed to be a criminal for having a “wide nose,” and looking like a suspect. Throughout his life, Castile, at only 32 years old, was stopped by Police 42 times, only six of which were for anything a police officer would actually notice outside of a vehicle.

On the day of his murder, he informed the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, he legally had a firearm in his vehicle, with his fiance and daughter. At that point, the officer lost his cool and within seconds fired seven shots at Castile, killing him. “I don’t know where the gun was,” Yanez said on his body microphone after he fired his weapon. Castile’s fiance then livestreamed on Facebook the aftermath of the shooting, with Yanez nervously shaking throughout the video on the side of the car continuing to give commands to Castile and his fiance.

On June 16, a majority-white jury acquitted Yanez on all charges, a scene far too common in a country where police officers are repeatedly granted impunity for murdering innocent black men and women. In a 1968 interview with Esquire, James Baldwin said:

I really have no quarrel particularly with the policemen. I can see the trouble they’re in. They’re hopelessly ignorant and terribly frightened. They believe everything they see on television, as most people in this country do. They are endlessly respectable, which means to say they are Saturday-night sinners. The country has got the police force it deserves and of course if a policeman sees a black cat in what he considers a strange place he’s going to stop him; and you know of course the black cat is going to get angry. And then somebody may die. But it’s one of the results of the cultivation in this country of ignorance. Those cats in the Harlem street, those white cops; they are scared to death and they should be scared to death. But that’s how black boys die, because the police are scared. And it’s not the policemen’s fault; it’s the country’s fault.

Nearly 50 years since that interview and nothing has changed. Black people are still viewed as guilty while the criminal justice system operates under the presumption of innocence for those who are privileged enough to be afforded this societal perception. On juries, all it takes is one juror to operate under this fear enabled by the structural racism embedded and maintained within American society to cause justice in cases like Philando Castile to be elusive, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The responsibility for this perpetuation of injustice in America, where a Philando Castile is murdered and denied justice over and over again, it can be argued lies with every American, especially white Americans, no matter where they geographically reside or what political ideology they affiliate with. As Richard Wright wrote in his 1945 non-fiction memoir Black Boy, America:

insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness.

This cloak of self-righteousness provides a shield for white America to have to face the prejudices and historical biases in which American society functions on, while excusing victims like Philando Castile as unfortunate anomalies, without analyzing the systems that place black people in these situations where death is a real possibility. This is where disingenuous slogans like “Blue Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter” stem from in response to criticisms and protests incited by these police murders. These slogans insinuate the racial inequities that produce police forces that are antagonistic toward black communities either don’t exist or should be diluted into irrelevance. All lives matter has never been true in America, yet rather than address racial inequality, millions of Americans are complicit in allowing a Philando Castile to be murdered repeatedly without reprimand and without justice or calls to action.

I suggest that the mayor of every city and the President of this nation go on the air and address the white people for a change. Tell them to cool it,” James Baldwin added in that 1968 Esquire interview. Those in power, from the institutions to the politicians, have provided meaningless rhetoric of condolences, apologies, and even promises of criminal justice reform. Yet the prevalence of these police murders continues at an alarming rate as America does nothing to change the climate that forces these innocent black people to die.

“Racism kills people,” said Dr. David Chae in an interview with the Huffington Post. Dr. Chae is a University of Maryland Professor who co-authored a 2015 study that found a direct correlation between Google searches of racial epithets and higher mortality rates among African-Americans around the country. “That’s not breaking news at all.”

Written by Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a freelance journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has been featured in the Guardian, Miami Herald, Denver Post, The Hill, Observer, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @msainat1.

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Philando Castile and the Wisdom of James Baldwin