When You’re Black In America, You Can Never Be Innocent Enough

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botham shem jean

Man Shot In Own Apartment Sang In Church Choir

The shooting of St. Lucia native Botham Shem Jean, in his own apartment by an off-duty cop last Thursday, 6th September 2018, was less shocking than it should have been.

Were it not for the fact that a innocent man just starting out in life has had his life cut short, this latest killing of an unarmed black man by someone sworn to uphold the peace veers dangerously close to farce.

In a direct reversal of potent, historical cultural tropes, in which black men were said to menace white women, the armed and dangerous home invader in this scenario was white police officer Amber Guyger.

Her victim was a devout Christian and respected young professional, who had been home alone when he was gunned down in his own apartment.

As of Sunday, Guyger has been charged with manslaughter in relation to the shooting. She has been bailed from Kaufman County Jail, having posted a $300,000 bond.

The story so far feels wearyingly familiar.

What We Don’t Know, What We Think We Know, What We’re Sure We’ve Heard Already

At present little is known about Amber Guyger, the four-year veteran of the Dallas police force who carried out last Thursday’s shooting.

We do know that the 30-year-old officer had just come off a twelve hour shift, when she fatally shot Botham Shem Jean before realizing she had entered the wrong apartment.

We also know she was tested for drugs and alcohol at the scene, but the results of those tests are yet to be made public.

Botham Jean’s mother, Allison, has suggested that had her son been white the situation may have not escalated into a killing.

Her feelings are reflected by many others, who feel that Botham Jean’s death is not an isolated tragedy, but a symptom of the deep racial bias that causes black men in America to be perceived as inherently more threatening, or even potentially criminal, than others in the community.

Nothing that has come to light so far suggests that Amber Guyger was motivated by conscious racism. As the case makes it’s way through the courts, more details may come out which may provide context for this tragedy-masquerading-as-farce.

But unconscious bias undoubtedly does effect the way in which black people – and black men in particular – are perceived in America. And these biases can be so insidious that black Americans themselves are not immune from them.

Police Shootings Of Unarmed Black Men Have Gone Down Since 2015

According to a review of the data available, commissioned by the Washington Post and carried out by academics from the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina in May this year, police shootings of unarmed individuals have declined significantly in the last three years.

This includes fatal shootings of unarmed black men.

If this comes as a surprise, then it also gives some insight into how cultural biases come to be formed.

A glut of stories in the media, pushed into the spotlight by the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement and other anti-racist campaigners, have increased awareness of sometimes fatal consequences of police bias in the lives of black Americans.

The success of campaigners in making these individual stories part of the overall cultural narrative around the role of the police in relation to the public, may even be part of what has contributed to this decline in police killings.

But it’s also a powerful demonstration that the stories we tell about how our society looks in the moment, may tell us more about the shape of the future and the nature of its past, than what’s actually happening in the present.

How Did A Choir Boy Come To Look Like A Criminal To This Cop?

The history of American racism is long and exhausting.

Slavery in America is older than American democracy. Many of ideological underpinnings of American racism double up as the psychological tools that allowed otherwise sane, compassionate and even idealistic individuals, to justify the exploitation and legal torture of millions of their fellow human beings.

Unlike the slave economies of antiquity, in which the boundary between slave, slave owner and free citizen were more porous and less fixed, American slavery was built on the visible and unbreachable division between slave and non-slave.

In order to thrive in a system built on such brutality, powerful stories about the inferiority of black Africans were necessary.

At the same time, white Europeans were formulating scientific theories of racial classification and hierarchy, which helped to bolster imperialist justifications for direct colonial governance in Africa and parts of Asia.

These stories have outlasted the systems they supported, but for as long as the balance of power in the world today still rests in the hands of the storytellers’ descendants, their influence will still be felt.

Murdered Man Is Put On Trial For His Life

The Abolitionist movement, both in America and earlier in Britain, understood the power of the individual story to challenge pre-existing cultural narratives.

Memoirs of both former slaves and of educated free blacks were put out by anti-slavery activists, to counter the idea that black Africans were less sensitive, less intelligent or simply less desirous of liberty than white Europeans.

A century later the Black Civil Rights Movement used similar tactics to prove to white Americans the ‘respectability’ of their black counterparts. These methods were effective enough that the CIA attempted to discredit black civil rights leaders, by digging up dirt on their personal lives as a way to muddy the civil rights story.

But two hundred years of negative and defamatory cultural narratives about black Americans have produced a set of stories so potent, that even though these days almost no-one publicly admits to believing in them, there is no way of being for a black man in America, that is sufficiently innocent that it protects him from their malevolent influence.

Which is not to say that countering stories about the inferiority, criminality or irresponsibility of black Americans, with shining examples of black achievement is a wasted effort.

These are important stories that need to be told.

But we should never forget, that while it may politically important to do so, putting an innocent man on trial for his life after he has already been executed is a grim way to tell his story.

Whatever the outcome of the court case against Officer Guyger, she has unwittingly written Botham Jean into narrative far uglier than the story he was writing so capably for himself.

Who Was Botham Shem Jean?

Botham Shem Jean was a 26-year-old St. Lucia native, who had relocated to Dallas, Texas in order to take up a job in Risk Assurance at prestigious accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

He studied at the Harding University, Searcy Arkansas, where he graduated in 2016 with a Bachelors degree in Business Administration, Accounting and Management Information Systems.

Well-known on campus for his outgoing personality and his involvement in student government, Botham Shem Jean was also a committed member of the Church of Christ.

His powerful singing voice had made him a valuable member of his university’s singing group, the Good News Singers and he was a popular worship leader and resident assistant at the small, private Christian college.

Since moving to Dallas, he had quickly become a well-loved member of the the Dallas West Church of Christ congregation, where he was known for his kindness, intelligence and commitment to social justice.

He is survived by his mother Allison Jean, his father Bertram Jean and his brothers Brandt and Grant Jean.

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