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Why black lives should matter

Hands Up, Don’t Shoot by Jennifer E Cobbina, New York University Press, US $25.00, Pp 236, July 2019, ISBN 978-1479874415

When a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot eighteen-year-old Black Michael Brown and his friend dead in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, the whole black population of the town of Ferguson rose in protest. This was followed by nation-wide protests for several months. The killing of Michael Brown and his friend is seen as an act of racist violence against black people. It was not an incident in isolation. Such incidents have been taking place before and after the shooting of Michael Brown, though not all of them attract such attention. In Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, Jennifer E. Cobbina argues that these incidents represent only a small fraction of the deaths of unnamed black people who have been killed by the police — mostly white police officers. She writes, “These killings, however, are hardly outliers. Rather, they are examples of racial hostility, racial bias, legalized racial subordination, and a normative police practice that targets black individuals. But the issue of racially motivated police killings is not simply a product of individual discriminatory police officers. It is the result of deep historical forces that follow a pattern of social control over black people that is entwined in the very fabric of the United States.”

Jennifer E. Cobbina says that not enough attention has been paid to the poisonous legacy of racism that infects not only Ferguson but communities all over the countries and is visible in America’s criminal justice system. She argues that the United States has been rightly called the United States of Amnesia because of its failure to confront and repair the damage created by America’s history of racial injustice. America’s racialized past influences the way the others perceive black people, including their treatment by the criminal justice system and the police. Without attention to this history, attempts to control crime and improve police-citizen relations will fail or be mediocre at best. In the wake of ignoring or diminishing America’s history and legacy of legally sanctioned racial subordination, cities like Ferguson bear witness to this unacknowledged continuity between past and present.

Jennifer E. Cobbina argues that the systemic legacy of slavery and Jim Crow continue to this day to shape black people’s position in society and how they are perceived and treated by individuals and institutions including the police. She highlights parallels between modern police practices and the over-policing that occurred in earlier eras of overt discrimination. In addition to making historical and contemporary linkages, he details what gave rise to the uprisings that occurred in places like Fergusson as well as the conditions that can lead to or stop future unrest. Jennifer E Cobbina concludes that ending the killing of black people requires doubling down on investments in communities — not the police or the criminal justice system. Redistributing resources from the criminal justice system into cultivating institutions within poor communities is vital. When we break these structural systems of oppression and seek an alternative vision for safety that takes power away from the hands of police and puts it into communities, we will begin to put an end to denying many marginalized people their humanity.

Hands Up, Don’t Shoot is a very important addition to the scholarly literature on the question of racism in the United States. Jennifer E Cobbina argues that violence against the black people shows that legacy of slavery and Jim Crow still survive. It is a meticulously researched and passionately written book that provides new and creative perspectives on racism. Jennifer E Cobbina redefines the historical and cultural context of racial violence and powerfully argues that we need to invest in black communities instead of wasting scarce resources on the criminal justice system and police to end violence against black people. It is a must-read to understand race relations in the United States.

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