Current Events

If Philando Castile Was a Threat, Then Black People are Never Safe

Jemar Tisby

The recent not guilty verdict of the officer who killed Philando Castile has added to the pain of being black in America. As I’ve pondered the events, as well as the dashcam footage that authorities released after the decision, I thought, “If Philando Castile was a threat, then black people are never safe.”

To recap, on July 6, 2016, Jeronimo Yanez and another officer pulled over Castile. He was with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds and her four-year old daughter. The traffic stop ended with Castile slumped over in the seat, dying from gunshot wounds. Reynolds captured the immediate aftermath of the shooting in live cell phone video, streamed on Facebook.

Castile had a firearm in the car. He also had a valid license to carry it. He informed the police officer that he had the gun which he was licensed to carry. Castile was complying with the officer’s request to get his ID, and insisted he wasn’t reaching for his gun. Yanez, felt threatened. He fired seven bullets into the car.

The Scary Black Man and Respectability

As an African American man, I can’t get over the fact that Philando Castile’s girlfriend and her daughter were with him, but the cop still thought he was a threat. I had always nurtured the hope that if I got pulled over with my wife and child in the car, then the “scary black man” trope wouldn’t apply as much. After what happened to Philando Castile, though, I can’t imagine a scenario in which my blackness would not be perceived as a threat. That means I’m never safe. It means black people are never safe.

Black people have been sold the lie of respectability. The white power structure has always told us that if we conduct ourselves responsibly, then we’ll be fine: Pull up those sagging pants, speak “standard” English, work hard, don’t blame the system. This endless list of boxes to check makes it easy to blame black people for their own deaths. If any marker of respectability is absent, then the victims deserve what they get.

White supremacy has always found a way to make black people culpable for their own persecution. The bloody history of lynching proves the point. Black people, both men and women, could find themselves judged and executed for any transgression of the racial caste system. Become too successful in your job, fight back against your abusers, don’t say “sir” or “ma’am”, look at a white woman too long, try to vote, or simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time—any reason would suffice for stringing up more “strange fruit” and saying the victims put the nooses around their own necks.

Pulling Triggers, Pointing Fingers

More recently, a string of non-indictments and acquittals in police encounters with unarmed black people has reminded us we are never free from the presumption of guilt.

  • Dropped charges or not guilty verdicts rendered for several officers who oversaw Freddie Gray’s arrest the night his spine was nearly severed at the neck.
  • Not guilty for Betty Shelby who shot and killed Terence Crutcher on a street where his vehicle had stalled.
  • No conviction for Raymond Tensing who shot and killed Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black motorist.

All these cases have their own details and levels of ambiguity, but all of them pivot on one factor—the officers felt their lives were in danger. No matter how unreasonable that fear, no matter whether the person was armed or unarmed, no matter if the victim followed the officer’s directions, death was the outcome. And the only person responsible was the person who got killed.

This is not an accusation against all police officers. It’s indictment against bad policing and the structures enabling the perpetrators to avoid prosecution.

What happens when the hope of justice is repeatedly frustrated? What happens when the desire for recompense goes unsatisfied? What happens when the system continually works against righteousness? What happens when a cop kills the next unarmed black person who was following directions, and the one who pulled the trigger walks free?

Oppression, Comfort, and Dignity

The march of injustice has taught me at least this much—how to lament.

Ecclesiastes 4:1 says, “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.”

The courts cater to the oppressors. Those who murder have the power. In the America, the criminal justice system offers no comfort for black people; it promises only tears. There is a bit of comfort in acknowledging life as it really is.

If anyone should be alive today, it is Philando Castile. He did everything white society tells black people to do. He volunteered the information that he legally possessed a gun. He didn’t reach for the gun. Why would he announce he had a weapon if he intended to use it? His girlfriend and a child were in the car with him. What criminal intent did he have while returning from the grocery store?

Castile’s death makes no sense. It can only be rationalized by assuming the criminality of a person of color.

If Philando Castile couldn’t make it out of a routine traffic stop alive, then when is any black person safe? No level of achievement, conformity, or deference exempts black people from brutality.

I don’t feel safe in this country as a black man. A stroll around my neighborhood could possibly result in an arrest or worse. I could be driving to the bank and never come home again. I might reach for my wallet and catch a clip full of bullets for my trouble. All because being black in America comes with the presumption of guilt.

The lack of a conviction in the Philando Castile case once again demonstrates that black people can never give up the struggle for dignity. We can never rest on the advances that our ancestors have secured. Emancipation has not yet fully been realized for us in America.

But no matter how much this country continues to hate, I will not be shamed or intimidated into hating my black skin. We are fearfully and wonderfully made in all of our melanated marvelousness. No matter how many times the American criminal justice system fails us, I continue to believe black is beautiful, and I will remind myself, my family, and this nation of it every chance I get.

16 thoughts on “If Philando Castile Was a Threat, Then Black People are Never Safe

  1. 911 Dispatch

    Hi there, I read through a few of your articles here.

    I did have a question though that I hope you could answer.

    I was wondering, What happens when a police officer shoots someone in the
    line of duty? I’m pursuing a career in law enforcement and it’s something I’ve
    always worried about. I would really appreciate any help you could give me!

  2. Sharon

    Here’s what I don’t understand: there are some states that have capital punishment for heinous crimes – but it takes
    years and years on death row before a person is ever executed. So HOW can ANY police officer dish out capital punishment
    to a person for stealing, illegally selling cigarettes, so-called lack of cooperation, whether it’s running away in fear or not doing the exact right thing in a car. None of those things are capital punishment offenses. Nobody should have been shot.

  3. Skip

    Brother, please look up George Soros.

    He’s a globalist billionaire who loves to tear down countries’ economies and rebuild them to his liking. He saw the murders of black people as a “great opportunity” to push his agenda.

    Black Lives Matter is not a grassroots movement. It is funded by George Soros. Have you noticed that the signs of protest are often ready to go immediately, and the same font/color/style? He was also the person behind the wall street protests in 2011.

    Lately, we don’t hear much about #blacklivesmatter because he has shifted funding away from it (after donating millions).

    Do you remember when race was not as big of an issue as it is now? Who do you think meddled with our minds (through the media, music, ads, etc)? Nowadays, EVERYTHING is about race.

    Police brutality IS an issue, and it is a great tragedy that Philando’s life was lost. However, it doesn’t only impact black lives. It is only portrayed that way by the media. Those in power of the media want to divide us over race issues. We must unite and remember what is right. Look at the facts. Don’t be fooled by the wolves in sheep’s clothing.

  4. Robw

    One thing stuck out to me, no one mentions. That girl in the back seat. Did anyone notice, the Mother was more concerned about doing her video than she was for her daughter who just faced a trauma that will affect her the rest of her life? The girl got out of the car on her own. The Mother never once thought about her.
    Second, watching the Police car video is disturbing but shows how the situation played out.
    Ask yourself, if you are a cop and you tell someone not to reach and then they do? How do you respond? You have a split second decision.
    And although the author has valid points, to say the oppressor was not prosecuted is incorrect. The oppressor was, he was just found not guilty of the charges brought. Why was that? What evidence was presented or not presented?
    Third, the Officer was fired. The Police department will face civil litigation.
    Lastly, it is human sinful nature to classify people. If it is not one way it will be another. I read an article earlier today from a BLM Philadelphia leader. It was hateful and frankly racist. How does that solve anything to turn the tables?
    Real change is acknowledging that change has to come from understanding human nature. That without real change from inside in many people, society cannot change. In fact, we know the world is not going to get better but worse as people grow more and more selfish. One hate will be traded for another or another. In this very issue we see it happen. Hate of Police has produced more frequent violence on Police over the last year. We didn’t solve a problem, just created another one on top.

  5. John

    Lets not forget the stress these men are under day in and day out. Officers are not the only people who profile. Every human instinctively profiles an exponential number of situations.
    From How stuff works
    So are humans wired to survive? It sure seems like it. There are many examples of hard-wired human instincts that help keep us alive. Perhaps the most obvious case is the fight-or-flight response, coined by Harvard University physiologist Walter Cannon in 1915. When humans are faced with danger or stress, a biological trigger helps us decide whether to stay and fight or get the heck out of there — flight.

    When we’re stressed or staring danger in the face, the brain’s hypothalamus is activated. It initiates a series of chemical releases and nerve cell responses that gets us ready for the impending scenario.Adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, our heart rate increases, blood is pumped more quickly into our muscles and limbs. Our awareness, sight and impulses all intensify and quicken.

    When an officer sees people who look and act like the deceased, it would be natural for the fight or flight responce to kick in. For all you know the officer had a buddy get shot by a man who fit the deceaseds discription.

    From the Harvard Business review
    Thus, we are hardwired to avoid loss when comfortable but to scramble madly when threatened…

    Besides being aware that people are hardwired to act desperately when directly threatened, managers must heed another message. You can ask people to think outside the box and engage in entrepreneurial endeavors all you want, but don’t expect too much. Both are risky behaviors. Indeed, any kind of change is risky when you are comfortable with the status quo. And evolutionary psychologists are not surprised at all by the fact that, despite the excellent press that change is given, almost everyone resists it—except when they are dissatisfied…
    And so classification before calculus remains with us today. People naturally sort others into in-groups and out-groups—just by their looks and actions. We subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) label other people—“She’s a snob” or “He’s a flirt.” Managers are not exempt. In fact, research has shown that managers sort their employees into winners and losers as early as three weeks after starting to work with them.

    That such propensity to classify is human nature doesn’t make it right. People are complex and many sided. But it is illuminating to know that we are actually programmed not to see them that way. This perhaps helps to explain why, despite the best efforts of managers, some groups within organizations find it hard to mix.

    From the
    Investigative psychology, Canter says, includes many areas where psychology can contribute to investigations–including profiling. The goal of investigative psychology’s form of profiling, like all profiling, is to infer characteristics of a criminal based on his or her behavior during the crime.

    I guess my point is, if you see enough thugs who are black, its hard for a cop not to be edgy when a black acts like a thug. Even if that black person is not a thug.

  6. Wes Holmes

    I’m no economist, but the article was instantly refuted by many professionals in the field for having faulty methods. I’d read them on the subject as well.

  7. Larry B.

    You may be right about the license reinstatement – I was referring to details in an article I read earlier. It’s an interesting read if you Google “Blue Lives Matter, Justified, and Castile.”

    Maybe they have their facts wrong.

    The point of mentioning that he was high on marijuana is that he was high on marijuana. Driving while impaired is illegal for a reason.

    I agree that it’s different than alcohol and certain prescription drugs, but it would be tough to argue successfully that smoking pot doesn’t alter/impair your reasoning – that’s kind of the point of marijuana.

    I’m sure we both agree that this is worthy of debate – again, your fact regarding his license may be right. Maybe the BLM writer got it wrong.

    Thanks for reply!

  8. Melissa

    Sir, a friend shared this article on Facebook, which is how I stumbled upon it. Thank you for putting this out there. I have no words to describe my sorrow at the state of America.

    Thank you for sharing your heart.

  9. Melissa

    Actually, his license had been reinstated months before in November 2015.

    Additionally, being high on marijuana SLOWS ones movements. It’s not like meth or something. Illegal in some states, yes. Dangerous? Highly unlikely.

  10. Larry B.

    Well said. I couldn’t agree more.

    In fact, I may be wrong. The facts I state are in summary if you Google “Blue Lives Matter” and “Castile.”

    But I’d rather appreciate people and the way they see and feel current events than be right any day.

    Bless you, brother.

    Thank you for honoring me (and us!) with a respectful reply

  11. Wes Holmes

    Even accepting your analysis as correct (I don’t think it is) it was still manslaughter at least. The facts are important. The travesty of justice is important as well. We don’t need to lose one for the other.

  12. Peter

    Jemar, have you read the article by Harvard’s economic’s professor Roland Fryer that states that police officers are more likely to shoot a white suspect over a black one? Fryer’s empirical data states that officers are much less likely to kill a black man than when facing a white man. If that’s the case, factually, how do you correspond that with your premise that blacks are more threatened than whites?

  13. Paul Duggan

    Hi. I agree that the castile decision is a travesty of justice. But I don’t know what to do with 2 of your claims in the article. Maybe they work as laments, but not as programs for action.

    you write

    “It’s indictment against bad policing and the structures enabling the perpetrators to avoid prosecution”


    “The courts cater to the oppressors.”

    What are the structures that enable the persecutors to avoid prosecution? (leaving aside the fact all of the cases you mention the perps did get prosecuted) Can you name the structures? Is it juries? Do we need proportional racial representation for juries? is it the burden of proof?

    Also, what ways do courts cater to oppressors? What would courts have to do to stop catering to oppressors? Give them less rights in court? Give juries better instructions? what?

    I lament with you, but I’m also looking crticially for more substance to the question of what courts should do differently.

  14. George Canady

    Thank you Jemar for your thoughtful piece. Let us all pray that Christians will pick up and read the suggested material by men like Ligon Duncan. May God open our eyes to end the partial treatment within the church first so that when we see it in the world empathy will replace our seared conscience. May many Christians read the new book by Jarvis Williams on removing the stain of racism from the church. Praying for us now.

  15. Frederick Lowe

    Where is this guy getting his information? Castile was not reaching for his gun. His gun was found in his right front pocket, according to court documents. The gun did not have any bullets in the chamber.
    Castile and Diamond Reynolds, his girlfriend, told the cop that he wasn’t reaching for his gun.

  16. Larry B.

    I do not wish to counter the whole of this article. It is well written, timely, and honest.


    The facts you failed to share include:

    He had no license to hand over because it was suspended – he was about to be arrested and he knew it. Again, he was about to be arrested and he knew it.

    He had already handed over the only document he had to hand over – he was reaching for his gun – again, he had no driver license to hand over.

    Most certainly, the accounting of events by his girlfriend were proven false on many counts – unfortunately those who viewed her post believe them to be true. In whole, they simply were not.

    The point is that he continued to reach when he was instructed not to reach – yes, they will shoot a white person who continues to reach when instructed not to reach.

    He was high on marijuana, likely impairing his ability and judgement.

    If these are not, in fact, true – please let me know.


    Larry B.

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