Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Expendable Lives, Distorted Images: The Murder of Aiyanna Jones
By Sikivu Hutchinson
When a little white girl goes missing, online news, supermarket tabloids and cable network stations bombard us with up-to-the-minute dispatches on the crime, the victim, her shattered family and anguished community. When a little black girl is murdered in cold blood by a big city police department it is up to the community and those who care about social justice to ensure that the case doesn’t fade into the national obscurity that is usually reserved for the lives of people of color. The recent execution of 7 year-old Aiyanna Jones by the Detroit Police Department during a raid while she was sleeping in her home is the kind of atrocity that makes many people of color view the police as an occupying army. According to news reports, the Detroit Police were conducting a raid that was being filmed for an A&E reality show. Searching for a suspect who lived in another apartment unit, officers fired into the home from outside, then lobbed a grenade into the house, killing little Aiyanna.
By exercising a so-called “no knock” policy in poor neighborhoods, the Detroit Police’s criminal disregard for human life and the civil liberties of people of color have kept the community under siege. According to Ron Scott of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, the Detroit Police have been under a federal consent decree but continue to use military style raids that terrorize citizens in its poorest neighborhoods.
Of course, deeply ingrained racist stereotypes and biases against people of color are a major factor in racial profiling and police misconduct. Disturbingly, Aiyanna’s murder also comes in the wake of a recent CNN study about the impact of skin color bias on young children. CNN presented the findings of Margaret Beale Spencer, a psychologist who utilized the same “doll test” technique as that of psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1947. The Clarks’ research documented the destructive impact of racism on black children’s self-image and was used in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education suit.
Spencer asked black and white children to identify the child they believed had negative traits in a drawing featuring children of different skin colors. The majority of both black and white children found the darker skinned child to be the one which possessed negative traits, while they identified the lighter children as those possessing the most desirable traits. The association of whiteness with normalcy, power, attractiveness, worth and desirability is reinforced by mainstream media, the dominant culture, families, and children’s peers. So because there is often little in their home lives, school curricula or peer networks to counter this message, some children of color and most white children receive the constant message that whiteness is superior. White parents who claim that they are raising their children to be “colorblind,” and reflexively dismiss focus on racial or cultural difference as “promoting racism,” simply reinforce the dominant culture’s racist inscription of whiteness as the unspoken norm. Adults who ignore the very real and damaging overvaluation given to white or lighter skin in marketing and advertisements, as well as in film, video and TV shows with predominantly white casts (such as on the Disney Channel and the major networks), ensure that children will be ignorant of the power of white privilege.
Counter-programming children of color to believe that they are beautiful, capable, powerful and intelligent requires specific emphasis on the cultural richness of people of color. It requires school curricula that actively incorporate the contributions of people of color to every aspect of American social history, literature, science and mathematics. It requires that conscious white parents have conversations with their children about how race does confer social advantage onto whites and not people of color. And it requires that we continue to tear down the regime of white supremacy that fetishizes little white girls as the national ideal of innocence whilst disposing of little black girls as ghetto expendables.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org. She is working on a book entitled Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Atheism Question.