I’ve had the last episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender sitting in my unwatched queue for literally years, because I couldn’t bear for it to be over (I did the same thing with Glen Cook’s Dark Company series in law school). But one episode sticks with me, as it does for most people: City of Walls and Secrets.
I won’t go too deep into the wherefores of the episode, but to understand what’s going on you need to know that before the episode begins, Our Heroes have prevented a mechanism of the great war from destroying the city of Ba Sing Se. But when they enter the city, they are told “there is no war in Ba Sing Se.” There’s a class of people that profits directly from ensuring that the folk of Ba Sing Se never know about the war going on just outside their walls, and anyone who finds out the truth and tries to tell them is reindoctrinated.
I’ve been trying to find a way to talk about Breonna Taylor for 202 days, and I think the best way to do it is not to talk about her at all, but to talk about how systemic racism functions in the absence of “racists.”
White people in the USA – no, I’ll say in America, which I usually don’t when I mean the USA – are taught that racists are people who openly believe that people of other races are inferior and should be harmed. But you don’t need anyone like that to perpetuate systemic racism.
KRS § 507.020(1)(a) states that in order to commit murder, you must: (a) With intent to cause the death of another person, [cause] the death of such person or of a third person.
Shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, Louisville police officers executing a search warrant used a battering ram to enter the apartment of Ms. Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician. The search warrant was granted by a judge. The search warrant named Ms. Taylor’s ex-boyfriend.
After police broke in, Kenneth Walker, who legally owned a gun for self-protection, fired. Officers fired back, killing Ms. Taylor.
On September 23, one officer was charged with wanton endangerment – of people in adjacent apartments. The officers who shot Ms. Taylor were not charged.
Break it down: There are no racists in Ba Sing Se.
Police and the judge thought it was likely that Breonna Taylor was involved in drug use because “blacks are 49% of persons arrested for drug selling and 36% of persons arrested for drug possession.” In fact, “in every year from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested nationwide on drug charges at rates relative to population that were 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.”
It was “reasonable” for officers to return fire in defense of their lives. After all, they were entering an apartment where a Black person lived, and in many jurisdictions Black men account for over half the arrests for violent crime. So obviously whoever was in that apartment was more likely to be dangerous than not.
And it was rational for the prosecutor to select only the charges that were likely to result in an indictment and possible conviction. Why waste everyone’s time with charges that the facts didn’t support?
There were no racists in
Ba Sing Se Louisville.
Break it up: The system provides racism in the absence of after-school special racism by any individual actor.
The statistics about arrest don’t reflect incidence of criminal activity. They reflect the overpolicing of Black and brown communities. Black men are far more likely than white men to be arrested for crimes they commit at the same rates – especially drug crimes. But that’s not racist, is it?
So the police entering Breonna Taylor’s apartment had been inappropriately primed to consider Black people dangerous. In fact, Kentucky law explicitly permits exactly the steps Kenneth Walker took to defend the apartment and its occupants. But that’s not racist, is it?
And surely there were no racists involved in writing laws that might be enforced unevenly. The law, after all, is neutral. Isn’t it? Despite the fact that we know that racial inequality in traffic stops drops to near-zero after dark? And that despite the fact that white drivers are more likely to be carrying contraband, Black drivers are searched twice as frequently? But all these stops are legal.
Because there are no racists in Ba Sing Se.