How the Peck Peck Peck of Racism Kills Us

Philando Castile was stopped over 52 times for driving misdemeanors prior to his being shot and killed, while a 4 or 5 year old girl, and his girlfriend witnessed the execution.

In essence, he was pecked, pecked, pecked to death by a system that engaged in blatant, socially sanctioned, discriminatory behavior. He was killed by a negligent system bolstered by several interlocking events.

Once he broke the law, he became criminal, and his car, its make and model and where he drove it, also became a marker of his criminality. Criminals who are unable to pay their fines are eventually woven more deeply into our criminal justice system. We never really question how prisoners truly become prisoners but instead ascribe their imprisonment as a psychological failing, something that they could have avoided if they had only followed the rules. Philando, and a host of other people of color who live at the brinks of extreme poverty are often unable to pay these fines. The narrative of how our criminal justice system works bolsters a simplistic view; follow the law, pay your fines and you will always be an outstanding citizen.

Philando, and too many others to name in this writing, were killed by a system that grossly undervalues the lived and daily experience of people of color. By this I mean, the system appears to be designed to incarcerate, alienate, and penalize low income people of color. And by extension, the mass incarceration system then serves as a ghost form of social and psychological threat to all people of color.

As a psychologist, I know how experiencing repeated levels of trauma can become life altering. Living in a racist society decreases our quality of life and may very well be a prime factor in health and mental health decline. The psychological impact of coping with longstanding, historically rooted, structural inequities, coping with white supremacy and benign neglect erodes a sense of self and undermines collective group efficacy.

Racism, prejudice, and discrimination are chronic and impact people of color throughout our lifespans. We are constantly forced to describe how the levels and frequency of encountering micro aggression, and micro invalidation have effected us. In a nutshell, this “complicated experience of living while being Black (or any other stigmatized group for that matter)” is what happened to Philando, he would get stopped for one thing or another, then fined, and then because he was unable to pay the fine, he would drive with a suspended license because he had to get to work, and then the cycle would repeat itself over and over again.

According to various reports, about 6 of those 52 stops, which happened across 12 or more years, officers stopped him for externally visual reason (e.g., broken tail light, not turning on a signal, etc), without them having to run his license plate. Another way to think of this data is that Philando was racially profiled, his skin color and car marked him as a repeat offender. He became an easy target for the police, who after running his plates, became confident that someone with the number of misdemeanors must have criminal intent. Misdemeanors once used in the broken window criminal justice theory then moves people of color into the larger criminal justice system. He was trapped by his skin color and to a lesser degree his license plate.

Peck Peck Peck is a part of Surveillance

In 2000, my first published peer reviewed journal article (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12111-000-1013-8) about this phenomena of being surveilled as an African American man, while I was a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Rhode Island. I tried to describe a psychological phenomenon that I entitled surveillance of African American men. I tried to elucidate how language of geographic spaces become different when Black men reside in certain neighborhoods, and how are physical bodies are watched in real time and the negative psychological effects of what it does to us after being constantly watched.

I can not tell you how many times I have stood at a store counter purchasing an item and could feel White people staring at me, and then when I turned to catch them, would see their heads turn very quickly. Having these experiences over and over leads to a form of paranoia, or discomfort in feeling at ease in a society that continually watches me, policing my body and its action as if every action that I make expresses some form of criminality or reason to be suspect.

Although I may not have had the levels of state sanctioned surveillance that Philando or Alton or others have had, I too know the feeling of what it is like to be pecked, pecked, pecked by racism. This persistent form of being pecked is real and palatable. The forms of pecking may change from having to answer constant barrages of question of how I know some event happened to me because of my race, or why I was being too sensitive, or learning how to better choose my battles so I wouldn’t become so frustrated. Being Black is considered to be a personal problem, and as long as I treat it as such, I will be listened to and respected. How jacked up is this? However, if I connect my lived experience with others as so brilliantly expressed in #BlackLivesMatter, this historical recognition then places my experience in a metaphysical realm, across time and space. I find it ironic that my self love can be attributed to so many social ills.

If hatred of Black people can be sustained across centuries then why can’t Black love?

I am pecked pecked pecked as close to a psychological death that a person can come, and so, when I learn more about how these men and transwomen of color die, I notice a familiar pattern — that no matter what they may have done or tried to do to get out of the vicious cycle of pecking, or what they may have tried to do to reclaim their humanity, ultimately their quests were met with the same result: tragic, horrible, death.

And for those of us who do not physically die, I believe we suffer from a slow whittling away of our humanity through facing the drip drip drip of racism, prejudice, and discrimination.

I know that I will eventually die with pecking scars. To endure these various levels of boundary violations, dismissals, and marginalization, to wrestle with these twisted forms of existential violence, is the hardest part of being a person of color.

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