Social Death and the Process of “Otherfication”
Recent events have called into question the soul of the nation. The City of Ferguson, Missouri is now embroiled in a clash between the police and its minority population. The immediate cause the conflict is the killing of yet another unarmed black male by yet another white police officer.
A recent USA article entitled “Local Police Involved in at Least 400 Killings per Year” underscores the problem. “According to the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide during a seven-year period ending in 2012 … a white police officer killed a black person nearly two times a week.
There is every reason to believe that the situation is materially worse than reported. When it comes to the use of deadly force, justifiable homicides are self reported and not all police departments participate in the reporting process. The numbers are not audited and are conflicted by independent measures of police related fatalities. The data base therefore under represents the actual number of these killings.
Additionally, the criminal justice system automatically assumes that the use of deadly force against an officer is almost never justified. Not surprisingly, the same system is persuaded that the use of deadly force by an officer is often if not always justified.
A partial listing of “justifiable” homicides and abuses of black males alone is considerable. They include not only Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri but: 1) Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American male who died from an illegal chokehold administered by the Staten Island, N.Y. Police Department, 2) Anthony Baez, killed by the New York City police also by way of a deadly chokehold, 3) Sean Bell, who was shot 50 times by the same police force the night before his wedding, 4) Noel Polanco, an unarmed National Guardsman who was shot and killed by a New York detective during a routine traffic stop, 5) Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old male who was gunned down by a New York police officer in his own home in front of his grandmother and 6-year-old brother, 6) Jordan Baker, a father and college student who shot and killed by an off duty Houston police officer, 7) James Boyd, a homeless man shot to death by the Albuquerque, New Mexico police, 8) Amadou Diallo, beaten and raped with a broom handle in a public bathroom by New York City police officers and 9) Oscar Grant shot and killed by a BART police officer in Oakland, California as he lay face down on a subway platform surrounded by other armed officers. Mr. Grant’s death was the subject of the movie “Fruitvale Station.”
Then there is Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, two unarmed black teens were shot and killed by George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn, two white males who felt threatened by their mere existence; Ranesha McBride a single black female was shot in the face with a shotgun by a white homeowner as she sought help after a car accident and the recent videotaping of a white police officer on top of a prone black woman repeatedly punching her in the face, full force with a closed fist. These types of deadly encounters occur with such frequency as to beg the question, ‘so what else is new?’
Some would argue that these acts of violence are prime examples of America’s lingering propensity towards racism. Race is certainly a factor here as is the moral bankruptcy of the criminal justice system and our own culpability in these matters.
But neither race nor its “ism” tells the whole story. Women, children, the elderly, the handicapped, immigrants and the LGBT community are routinely victimized, regardless of their ethnicity and horrendous acts are committed by every group against all groups. Something more is afoot. That something is what Blackacre calls “otherfication.”
Alternatively known as dehumanization, social death, social categorization or pseudo-speciation, “otherfication” is the process by which an individual or group is made something other than human. It is akin to forcing an entire class of people to check the “other box” on an application. And there is a well-practiced process and procedure for this occurrence.
First, an “us versus them” scenario is created by focusing on our differences rather than our similarities. This is usually accomplished by noting and emphasizing a clearly distinguishing characteristic of the target group, e. g., race, skin color, gender, appearance or disability. If no such distinguishing characteristic exist, one will be created. The Nazi’s did so by forcing the Jews to wear a yellow Star of David.
This situation can also be achieved via some status determination such as national origin, health consideration, physical, mental or emotional disability. A deeply held belief or practice like religion, political party or group affiliation will also suffice.
For example, from the very onset of the republic, the Constitution referred to African-Americans and Native American not as American citizens or persons but as “others”. Blacks were slave chattel and referred to as Apes, “Bootlips”, “Jigaboos” and the ever popular N-word. Native Americans were called savages and timber or forest Negroes. During the 1950’s the word Communist was a mark of condemnation while today, the terms Socialist, Terrorist or Muslim apply.
Whatever the means, the goal is to vilify and malign the target group; to attribute to them the absolute worst in human behavior and values; to paint them as vile, unclean, diseased, immoral, violent, hostile, dangerous, criminal, angry, sick, depraved, sexually irresponsible, ignorant, predatory, lazy, or just plain un-American, in order to breed suspicion, fear and contempt.
The process of dehumanization further requires the separation and isolation of the target group from the general population. This is usually accomplished by some physical barrier or demarcation, such as a wall, fence, gate, bridge, viaduct, railroad track, hill or body of water. Separation/isolation might also be achieved via a street, housing project or neighborhood. Jail cells and prison bars are also frequently used.
However, said separation and isolation need not be physical. It may well include a cultural seclusion. All that is necessary is that the target group be politically, socially or economically divorced from or shunned by the rest of society.
And when it comes to codifying and making permanent the social death of a people nothing is more useful than “the law”. Thus, the legal and political systems are brought to bear. Dubbed the “Terrible Transformation”, during the middle 1600”s with the passage of a series of laws by colonial state legislatures, the status of African-Americans gradually but inexorably changed from indentured servants to race chattel slaves.
Eventually, whether by law enforcement or the nation’s armed forces, military action is employed. The busting and rolling of heads is necessary to protect the general public, to keep the natives in line and to reinforce the social death of the target class. As the above examples illustrate, once a group losses their humanity, no mistreatment is too severe. The control and/or elimination of said group is not only defensible but is morally required by any means necessary.
In conclusion, the loss of Michael Brown, the subsequent militarization of Ferguson, Missouri, and the other “justifiable” homicides referenced above are deeper than simple ethnicity. They are instead examples of the dehumanization of an entire class of people. As such, the query is not whether we are seen as black. The question is whether we are viewed as human.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum