#HLSUntaped: The Psychopathy of American Symbolism

On October 20th, 2014 Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black Chicago citizen was killed by Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. By now many of us have seen the disturbing video. This homicide has sparked a great deal of controversy in Chicago, but here I focus on what Van Dyke’s actions reveal about his mindset and its relationship to the racialized culture of American psychopathy. What could cause a police officer to value a life so little that he would murder a teenager who was simply walking past him? The answer lies closer to home than many of us realize.

No one disputes that advertisements can be a powerful tool to mobilize a populace. Car companies know that their advertisements are not going to convince you to go out and buy a car every single time they run an ad. The point of that ad is to induce you to remember their product when you need a car. In other words car companies rely on planting stories or images in your mind which cause you to modify your behavior in the future. Racism in this country works in a similar manner. Mythology justifying the subjugation of Blacks is a national advertising tradition in this country. Every symbol carries with it a story of how black Americans are worth less than white Americans.

A few examples of these myths are that black men are more impulsive and violent. Black women are sexually promiscuous and angry – et cetera. A recent example of this includes the CNN gaffe where Freddy Grey was characterized as “the son of an illiterate heroin addict.” This information, while true, was entirely irrelevant to the rest of the article and served only to degrade Grey by implication of his father’s drug addiction. Thus racial “advertisements” that devalue black lives reside in our mass media coverage, our books, our movies, our television, and even our symbology.

Many of you are aware of my involvement in the Royall Must Fall movement. One question I often receive about the movement is “Aren’t there more important things you could be focusing on? Why this crest?” The answer is that symbols like the crest that mask their racist legacies in plain sight, serve to perpetuate the age old myths about Black people upon which this country bases its terrible violence. The message the crest sends is that we, as a Law School, are proud of our morally bankrupt benefactor. We do not care if he enslaved people, tortured them, murdered them, or sold them. We do not care that this subjugation was justified by skin color. This is activity of which we are proud. We are proud enough of this activity that we believe it can represent our entire school.

Therein lies the psychopathy. My argument is not that the Harvard Law crest directly causes police violence in America. My argument is that the crest and symbols like it enshrine violence against black bodies and contribute to a mindset that inherently devalues black life. There can be little doubt that as Laquan McDonald’s body fell to the ground on that October night in a grotesque pirouette, Officer James Van Dyke was making a decision based on the advertisements that our society had for years pumped into his brain. His life matters less. His life matters less. His life matters not at all.  

AJ Clayborne is a 3L at Harvard Law School and a co-organizer of #RoyallMustFall.

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