Did you see the look on the face of Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin as he killed George Floyd by kneeling relentlessly on his neck? He seemed certain that Floyd belonged to him, and was his to do with as he pleased. I suspect that the three white plainclothes cops who broke into the Louisville home of Breonna Taylor, a Black EMT, and killed her with eight bullets, wore the same look on their faces.
The private citizens who hunted down and killed Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia wore similar expressions in their police mug shots after finally being apprehended. And old postcards show that the white crowds who watched the lynchings of Blacks decades ago wore the same look, as doubtlessly did white overseers as they killed Black runaways during slavery.
It is a look of complete comfort in the knowledge that their whiteness is the ultimate advantage. But the look also hints at bewilderment, as if they are wondering, “What else am I supposed to do?”
The job of police is to maintain law and order. Ever since a Black person first fought for freedom or demanded equality or sought to avoid violence, police and their predecessors have endeavored to do so by ensuring that Black people in America do not escape their oppression. The police don’t have to ask why. They know it’s their duty, and that in doing so, they are complicit with the source of their own oppression.
They obey bosses who wear bland expressions of confidence. Those masters are healthy-looking and well-groomed, like historical images of George Washington, who controlled hundreds of slaves through the actions of a few underpaid white overseers. They look self-assured, like modern-day bosses John Walton and Jeff Bezos, whose white managers control the lives of thousands of Black and brown workers, and who appear certain that the financial desperation of their employees will supply enough labor to satisfy their greed and secure the privilege of their whiteness.
Their privilege is also accompanied by fear, however. The fear that when enough people are forced to gasp for air, people will fight back. The masters, in turn, will call out the police, the National Guard, and the Army to allay their fears. Ultimately people die, and more Black people are put in jail. But quiet is restored, and the privileged return to the halls of their earthly power.
Our cities are boiling over with racial discontent. Our citizens are deeply distressed by broken promises. They are unable to turn away from the shattering of the American dream as it exposes an ugly truth: too few have too much, while too many suffer. The flames in America’s cities are fanned by the power of wealth, the advantages of whiteness, and the oppression of Blacks — the three legs of white supremacy. That is the foundation upon which America is built — a foundation that must crumble if the idea of America, that all are created equal, is to be.
Perhaps the civil unrest we are witnessing, of and by young, old, Black, brown and white people, is the labor pain as our nation is born anew —one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Ronald Mason Jr. is president of the University of the District of Columbia, the nation’s only exclusively urban land-grant university and public HBCU in Washington, D.C.