American News

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: The Curse of Being a Precursor

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Portland, OR © Diego G. Diaz

July 04, 2018 10:04 EDT

Why doesn’t the United States as a nation simply admit that its culture is racist?

As June ended, three incidents illustrated the daily reality of life in the US for anyone with black skin. In the first, a resident called the police on a 12-year-old boy who was mowing a neighbor’s lawn and may, at one point, have encroached on a small part of the caller’s lawn.

In Portland, the campus police fatally shot a black man trying to break up a brawl. In the third incident, the police in Pennsylvania tasered an unarmed black man seated on the curb trying to obey the confusing instructions the officers shouted at him. The police report, justifying the extreme action of its officer, explained, “Noncompliance is often a precursor to someone that is preparing to flee or fight with officers.” The choice of the word “precursor” and the phrase “precursor to someone” is odd, but it serves a clear bureaucratic purpose.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Precursor (as used by the Pennsylvania police):

A theoretical stage in a prewritten scenario that enables law enforcement officers to predict the kind of behavior that will enable them subsequently to justify violence against black suspects

Contextual note

The police have a difficult job. They deal with situations in which fear is often a factor. US police have become particularly adept at adding their own dose of fear to the situations in which they are called upon to re-establish or maintain order. Their bureaucracy has supplied them not only with physical tools — guns, tasers, clubs and, increasingly, military combat equipment — but also a range of conceptual tools that help them restore or impose order. They depend, for example, on notions such as “compliance” — reading the behavior of suspects and witnesses — of which they are the sole judge, but also on an inculcated notion of procedural logic enabling them to identify “precursors.”

Lying can be helpful as well, as in this case they claimed that the suspect, Sean Williams, was threatening people “with a bat” that the people threatened and other witnesses apparently failed to notice. And, of course, at the moment the officer tasered Williams, he had no weapon of any kind in his hands or within reaching distance, unlike the man in Portland — a registered gun owner — whose gun had fallen to the ground.

We can conclude from these three incidents that white policemen, but also white neighbors, see being black as a “precursor” to violence or flight from the law. The customer of the 12-year-old lawn service entrepreneur, analyzing the white neighbor’s reaction, correctly remarked, “If the kids were white, they would not have called.” 

Cultural note 

Two of these cases — the youngster and the man shot by campus police — present an interesting paradox with regard to American cultural values. White racists consistently complain that blacks are lazy. If they are poor and underprivileged, it is their own fault. According to their often unspoken logic, blacks are also trying to challenge — and get even with — the white culture that once enslaved them and has ever since reduced them to a neglected underclass.

How ironic that the 12-year-old was realizing the “American Dream” of success through self-reliance, entrepreneurship, hard work and salesmanship! Very few white children do this, possibly because they don’t need to. But the idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps remains an archetype of US culture and underlies the largely irrational belief in the divinely ordained merits of capitalism.

According to witnesses, the man killed in Portland was a former serviceman trying to break up a fight. Like the police themselves, he was legally armed but showed no inclination to use his gun, which in the course of the brawl fell to the ground. The police apparently saw the gun on the ground as a “precursor” to his using it against them and shot him dead.

The moral of the story? Blacks who identify with and adopt the white American myths are still more likely to be branded as precursors than as citizens deserving the community’s protection.

When Mel Gibson, stopped by the police for a traffic offense, launched a drunken diatribe against Jewish people, the media and the rest of American society branded him a racist and forced him to go into rehab as well as meet with Jewish leaders. We see on a daily basis the proof that racism against blacks is sewn into the fabric of US culture. Whatever the consciously expressed “inclusive” feelings or intentions of people — in all walks of life, from the President to the cop on the beat or the next-door neighbor — racism is a fundamental, unconscious reflex built into everyone’s understanding of the “logical processes” of human interaction.

When will US society be sufficiently shamed to go into its collective rehab?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Diego G. Diaz /

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