I’ve been deeply troubled by the multitude of shootings of unarmed black men by police all across the nation over the past few years. What I have been seeing are run of the mill killings by police, but now dash cam video, body cameras, and especially cell phone videos of bystanders show us what has been true in black America for hundreds of years.
Whether it is the beatings of slave owners on slaves, the lynchings of Jim Crow, or the traffic stops gone tragic, the message is clear: Black life is cheap and disposable.
The Black Lives Matter movement captures the problem perfectly, and white resistance to the movement betrays the state of denial most of white America remain in even now. Our society has a total default setting in favor of white skinned people over all others of color. It is systemic racism first set in place in 1619. Since then whites generally have been extremely protective of this privilege to the point of violence fatal to black bodies for a very long time in American history. It includes the Japanese, the Chinese, and Native Americans, along with Latinos with brown skins.
The Tulsa and Charlotte killings, for that is what they are, highlight as nothing else can the deep perceptual stereotype images of people of color that run through American domestic life to the point that white people often do not even see how different they are treated from people of color. Not just in traffic stops, but in so many aspects of American life deeply woven into a racially biased national fabric.
People of color have no difficulty noticing this because each waking moment they know their darker skins will provoke white people from little micro aggressions such as dirty looks or visually seeming frightened of a black man walking down a street, to what we have seen on video this past week. President Obama even noted it in the wake of previous shootings of black men who posed nothing like the level of threat they actually did.
We all witness how patient and careful police officers are with white perpetrators of violence. Then there is the case of police taking Dylan Roof to McDonalds first before jail since he said he was hungry after killing 9 black parishioners of a Charleston Black AME Church. The shooter at the Planned Parenthood clinic, a white man, shot and killed three people, including a police officer, and he was taken alive and faced trial. Don’t we have to ask if police can show this level of restraint to white people, why then cannot they do the same to those of color? And we all know the answer.
In Tulsa, Terrence Crutcher had been returning home from a music appreciation class at the local junior college when his van broke down and came to rest in the middle of the road. Presumably, Crutcher at least mentioned what the problem was when first confronted by Tulsa Police. Why didn’t police do what they do for practically all white people all the time and called a tow truck?
I myself have had a car broken down. Admittedly not in the highway, but when my transmission went, I almost did not get off the road just like Terrence Crutcher did not. Vehicles do stop suddenly and the engine quits. Especially on vehicles owned by people of color who may not have the money to get a new car every three or four years. Police gave me a warm and welcome ride to the shop the tow truck was hauling my car to. They did not tell me to raise my hands and to permit them to pat me down for guns. They did not become alarmed when I walked back closer to my car for a moment. They believed what I was telling them.
My encounter did not feature a police helicopter overhead with police commenting from above that I looked like a real bad white dude, and consequently deserved real tough treatment and severe commands, then tasering, and then a third officer there on the ground shooting me while I still had my hands up, and would be standing next to the car in a position to be frisked easily and cuffed if necessary.
This contrast of experience is the essence of white privilege. It even infects black police officers who need to fit in with the white narrative to become fully blue. White privilege stamps indelibly into the minds of whites and some people of various colors that indeed they must be dangerous as police always treat them as such.
It becomes a self- fulfilling and perpetual stereotype. I’ve seen dash cam videos of officers shot and killed, and the perpetrator who went into his vehicle was white, as Terrence Crutcher did not, and then proceed to draw out an automatic rifle or shotgun, prior to back up arriving for the police officer on scene. So police officers do have and have to have some real latitude to act carefully if they sense or see something that tells them they are in danger.
I’ve seen video where a white man stopped to argue with an officer, and then takes his gun away and shoots him. I worked as a university security officer closely with police for five years on the graveyard shift, and we know what kind of messed up people come out at night. “The police officer’s lot is indeed not an easy one.”
Yet this set in stone treatment of white people in traffic stops really does vary widely with those of color, for the precise reason that our society connects a black man or those of color as naturally more dangerous and beastly. They are the other. So many crime shows of my youth, and too often even today portray black men in urban settings as criminals.
There is the white privilege of a perceptual misunderstanding of the black experience among well- meaning white people. And the overt racism of those who simply do not like people of color being in the United States at all, unless they do menial work and do what whites tell them.
Going to a music appreciation class, and in the case of Kevin Scott in Charlotte waiting routinely for your kid to get off a school bus at the end of the school day in your truck ought not to end in death, even if you had a gun. The first two arriving officers were in plain clothes and rushed his truck. He may have been confused and afraid himself that he might be robbed, and that the officers were set out to hurt him. He would have been right on about that.
Policing in America has become so militarized, so devoid of real connection on a human level with the community they theoretically serve. That this traditional understanding of policing has gone away, especially in urban environments where people of color are involved. That is not a coincidence.
Police officers get via tax money their own salaries and a steady job, though at times dangerous, after all is what you get paid to do as a cop.
You get paid to show real courage to save a baby, or a person in distress. You get paid to confront situations where your concern with the potential dangers of someone involved with you in a routine traffic stop, sometimes fully justified, have to be balanced with some element of compassion for a man whose van broke down in the middle of the road, and another who was waiting for his kid, and who might have had a gun he had just taken out of the glove compartment as two men rushed him with guns drawn.
Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge was engaged in selling counterfeit CD’s. Often black men do deserve arrest for some petty offense. What they do not deserve is an immediate escalation of an encounter to deadly force. European police departments do a much better job of de-escalating situations calling for an arrest in handcuffs.
Simple patience in arresting a person shown so often to white people, some who may not even be cuffed, have to be exercised for all. And we must know that some officers have deep racial animus that permits them to escalate a situation into deadly force, and they will be backed up by others on that honorable blue line.
It is not just a police officer who kisses a wife or husband when going on shift each day or night, not knowing if they will come home that night. Black Americans, males in particular, live each day, sometimes each moment, not knowing if some little thing they do will produce deadly force from police.
I watched a video of both the Tamron Rice Shooting in Cleveland. And another of a black man who was known to be mentally ill with a knife outside a convenience store in St. Louis, where the police concerned drove right up in close to each victim and took just a couple of seconds to kill an 11-year-old kid by himself in the center of a small park with what proved to be a toy gun. In the other, they came close enough to be in danger from the knife wielding troubled man, but had gunned him down in less than 15 seconds. Both were black males.
No one could even imagine a scene where white men and even children would be killed so rapidly. What triggers this excessive use of force? How powerfully do racial stereotypes influence deadly decisions police officers make each day? Is your community a community policing type force with close connections to you, with service to citizens uppermost in mind? Or is it an occupying, oppressive force that showers people like you with tickets, and when you protest even mildly, you may be shot down like a dog.
The American people must now finally talk about the real racial divide that has been allowed to continue to exist in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave for so long, with such automatic instinctive, reflexive images one group has for the other. We must begin that long racial dialogue so many whites cringe from. If we shrink from that conversation about ID’ing white privilege to replace it with equal opportunity like we think we have, we will simply continue the violence, and it will curb black opportunity that is not as complete as whites imagine in the wake of the modern Civil Rights Movement of fifty years ago.
Oh yes, we must have this dialogue or live lives of hypocrisy and hate for generations to come.