The Parasite of Racism That Lives Inside You
There is systemic racism, and then there are modern-day lynchings.
Posted Jun 03, 2020
Civil rights activists like Jesse Jackson and Van Jones have called the George Floyd killing a modern-day lynching. In the video of the brutal murder, which was recorded by a young bystander, police officer Derek Chauvin is seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck, compressing his airway. In a deja vu of the police killing of Eric Garner in 2014, Floyd repeatedly gasps “I can’t breathe,” and then, “I’m about to die.”
Almost eight minutes into the video, Floyd’s pleas for help go quiet, and a person nearby can be heard saying, “They just killed him.” The whole time, Chauvin looks complacent and self-righteous, one hand in his pocket. It’s almost as if he derives erotic pleasure from causing a black man to suffer and die.
The same look of pleasure and smugness could be seen in the faces of the executioners and spectators at the spectacle lynchings of Jim Crow America. In his short story “Going to Meet the Man” (1965), Black writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin masterly demonstrated the perverted nature of Jim Crow racism.
At the outset of the story, Jesse, a racist deputy sheriff, is lying in bed with his wife Grace, initially unable to achieve an erection. Jesse’s mind wanders back to a lynching he witnessed as a young child. The black victim—who is viewed by young Jesse as “the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then”—is approached by a knife-wielding chieftain, who erotically weighs, cradles, stretches and caresses his testicles before he proceeds to brutally castrate him.
By recounting the horrifying and violent racist acts that he has witnessed and participated in both as a child and as an adult deputy sheriff, Jesse eventually becomes so sexually aroused that he forces himself on his wife, whispering, “Come on, sugar, I’m going to do you like a n****r; just like a n****r, come on, sugar, and love me like you love a n****r.” While raping his wife, “labor[ing] harder than he ever had before,” his mind wanders back to the morning after the lynching, once again hearing the sounds of “the first cock crow, and the dogs bark, and the tires on the gravel road.”
Before the civil rights movement, black people did not have human status or inherent worth; their value resided in their utility as a tool for satisfying the abnormal, sexual fetishes of white men.
Unfortunately, this is not just a dark chapter of American history. It is modern-day horror. In the video of the Floyd killing, Derek Chauvin, Floyd’s main executioner, seems to experience a similar kind of almost erotic thrill from his position of supremacy while kneeling on Floyd’s neck, torturing him to death.
We all have the parasite of racism living inside of us but we are not all active executioners. Some are remote spectators, passively deriving thrill and pleasure from watching black bodies being violated. Others take to the streets, risking their lives in the hope that White America eventually will listen.
America’s most unseemly stain arguably is the systemic racism infiltrating every corner of its towns and cities. But Floyd wasn’t murdered by systemic racism. The most egregious acts of violence against blacks are perpetrated by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the lynch mob of Jim Crow America and the onlookers who went on a picnic to watch a black man get tortured and die.
Systemic racism needs to end, but at this moment in time it’s even more urgent that the modern-day lynch mob be brought to justice.
This post is based on work in progress with Aleks Hernandez.
James Baldwin (1965) “Going to Meet the Man.” Going to Meet the Man: Stories. Vintage International, 229-249.