By Michael Eric Dyson
Aug. 5, 2017
In the thick of “Detroit,” a new film by Kathryn Bigelow about the uprising in that city — my native city — 50 years ago, a white cop kills a black man. His partner then asks a witness, a black man, what he saw. The witness says he saw nothing. The partner puts the same question to another witness, a black teen, who refuses to play along.
“You killed him,” the teen responds.
“I don’t see anything,” the cop says.
“It’s a dead guy right there,” the black teen angrily insists. Moments later the cop shoots and kills the defiant witness.
The stakes are clear: There is a penalty for telling the truth about what we see of police brutality.
There is a depressing similarity between the racial trauma that this film faithfully revisits and the painful events of today caught on cellphones and police dashcams. The cost is staggering for black people, who are told that what we see with our own eyes is not true — the vicious toll of being repeatedly disbelieved.
Then a more vexing question arises: What will the country be unwilling or unable to see next?
Take what has happened in recent months.
In May, we learned that no federal charges would be filed against the two white officers responsible for the 2016 killing of Alton Sterling — a black man who, when he was shot by one of the officers, was already pinned to the ground. We saw it with our own eyes. A couple of weeks later, a jury in Oklahoma found a white female officer not guilty of a September 2016 shooting of an unarmed black man, an incident that was also recorded on camera.
In June, a Minnesota jury acquitted the former policeman Jeronimo Yanez of all charges in the killing of the black motorist Philando Castile. That death had been captured on film twice — in a Facebook live stream, taken by his girlfriend, and in police dashcam footage.
Last month, a white Australian, Justine Ruszczyk, was killed in Minnesota by a police officer. It’s a tragedy, and impossible not to see through the lens of race; the outrage on behalf of the white victim and the suspicion cast on the officer, of Somali descent, was markedly different from past deaths at the hands of the police.
Bias and distortion have also mangled the racial views of President Trump. What he seems to see is truly frightening. Last week in a speech to police officers in Long Island, Mr. Trump told them to be rougher with suspects. When cops put their hands over the heads of alleged assailants as they fit them into police cars, the president said, “You can take the hand away, O.K.?”
Mr. Trump’s logic informs the Justice Department’s new effort to scrutinize and probably contest affirmative action policies in college admissions. This gesture grows in part from the white nationalist resentments that helped put Mr. Trump in office. The irony is that affirmative action is like rap music: Originally intended for a black audience, it has been largely enjoyed by white America. White women are apparently the biggest beneficiaries of such policies at work.
The way the president sees black America is mirrored in the way many whites still see black folk: through a troubling lens of racial nostalgia. Such nostalgia can’t be literally evoked, though it can be symbolically re-enacted.
In recent months, the fearsome iconography of lynching visited our nation’s capital: Three museums in Washington, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, have had nooses left on or near their grounds.
Black bodies in the early to mid-20th century often swung from trees, offering the strange fruit Billie Holiday sang about. The optics of lynching were rooted in both seeing, and not seeing, black life. White people photographed themselves at the lynchings and made postcards of the mayhem.
White America is connected, whether it wishes to be or not, to a history that has shot and lynched black folk into silence. When visual evidence of police brutality circulates widely, it is a warning to black folk to keep in place.
Black life now more than ever is the visible invisible. That’s the sad effect of smartphone videos of police officers shooting black people without, it seems, ever really being held accountable.
It is society saying “I don’t see anything,” like that cop in Ms. Bigelow’s film. I had the chance this summer to speak with her about the project. She said the racial violence she re-created — a history that doesn’t feel too distant — was “a way of honoring the tragedies of our time.” Of the violence on screen, she said, “There’s potentially a valuable empathy that can be gleaned from the story.”
As a native Detroiter, I find the film rings true and haunts me. It aggressively captures the catastrophe that seared the city that, for decades, had been engulfed in racial misery. Some have accused the film of being torture porn or questioned whether it was Ms. Bigelow’s story to tell, since she is white.
Yet she has done what we black folk often demand white folk do: Take responsibility for your actions and a legacy of hate that is often silently transmitted.
In that way the film is more than catharsis; it attempts to show what happened, with the hope that it won’t be ignored. Our country must reckon with this history, our history, before we are all history.