Jordan Neely’s killer doesn’t have hate in his heart. It’s in his hands.

Penny shouldn't be offered up as a scapegoat for a society that treats Black people as disposable.

FILE - A group of several hundred people protest the death of Jordan Neely, Friday, May 5, 2023, at Washington Square Park in New York. Manhattan prosecutors said Thursday, May 11, that they will bring criminal charges against Daniel Penny, the man who used a deadly chokehold on Neely, an unruly passenger, aboard a New York City subway train. The incident stirred outrage and debates about the response to mental illness in the nation’s largest transit system. (AP Photo/Brooke Lansdale, File)

(RNS) — Daniel Penny wants us to believe he isn’t a white supremacist. The fact that he choked Jordan Neely, an unhoused Black man, to death on a New York City subway in public is only coincidental.

“Everybody who’s ever met me can tell you, I love all people, I love all cultures,” Penny told the New York Post, after denying the killing had anything to do with race. “You can tell by my past and all my travels and adventures around the world. I was actually planning a road trip through Africa before this happened.”

He added, “I mean, it’s, it’s a little bit comical.”

Behind this weak defense I hear echoes of a common misconception in white America: That when we speak about anti-Black violence, we’re only speaking about what the perpetrator feels in their heart toward Black people. Almost every time a police killing provoked a Black Lives Matter protest, during the heyday of the movement, I would encounter some white person asking, “How do we know race had anything to do with it?”

But that question misses the point. When Black Americans are outraged about another Black life carelessly taken, we’re not talking about what a police officer — or in this case, an ex-Marine — felt in their heart when they did it. Instead, we’re talking about the social, political and cultural conditions in America that make killings like that of Jordan Neely more likely for Black people than others.

Personal passions do matter, of course, and deserve contemplation: We could dwell on the support that rises up to defend those who kill Black people: the Christian organization for instance, that raised $2 million for Penny’s legal fees but not a dime for Neely’s funeral expenses. But what we care about is not how America feels but how it acts.  

If, as the popular adage says, “Love is an action verb,” then so is hate. Holding an unhoused, distressed person desperately pleading for charity in a fatal chokehold for 15 minutes — longer, even, than Minneapolis police officer Daniel Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck — is a hateful thing to do. While we can never know what thoughts Penny has about Black people in general, his actions showed hate for Jordan Neely.

Yet Penny shouldn’t be offered up as a scapegoat. He is but one agent of a social structure that hates poor, mentally ill people. The loving thing to do for New York City’s thousands of unhoused people would be to innovate policies for permanent housing and mental health support, as was once promised by Mayor Eric Adams. Instead, Adams has responded to New York City’s unhoused with more police sweeps, ticketing and enforcing a state law that permits the involuntary committing of  “those who cannot fulfill their own basic needs” to the hospital. That is policy violence. That is hate.

It is often difficult to see the racism in policy, which of course does not make its racist fallout explicit. We know it’s racism instead by its outcomes: Black people as a group represent one of the highest poverty demographics in the U.S. “Among all racial groups, Black Americans are second most likely to experience poverty, with 21% living below the poverty threshold, following Native Americans at 25%,” the National Alliance to End Homelessness reported in 2021.

If the protests of the last few years have been successful, it has been to inject into the national conversation the idea that poverty among Black and Indigenous populations has direct ties to the history of violent, racist exploitation on which this country was founded. They have led many Americans to come to terms with the fact that that violence impacts a wide range of interactions, including and perhaps especially those that involve life and death.

What Penny says he feels about Black people in general is no more relevant in this conversation than where he likes to go on vacation, any more than we need to fasten on the personal feelings of the killers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner or George Floyd. Their feelings don’t answer the statistical fact that society as a whole continues to treat Black bodies as though they’re disposable.

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