This is the second prologue I’ve written in two days, on a post I started five nights ago. I was about to start making final edits last night when I saw, in Monday’s New York Times, a story called “Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings.” It’s about a study run by Harvard economist Roland Fryer that demonstrates that while black suspects are treated more roughly and subject to more non-lethal abuse by the police, it is white suspects that are shot at a higher rate. Police are more likely, apparently, “to fire their weapons without having first been attacked when the suspects [are] white.”
While the study is officially limited and incomplete, it covered thousands of reports from ten cities over the past 15 years. Pretty good sample size. And it appears to undercut the assumption at the heart of much of civil unrest this country has seen over the past two years: that blacks are killed by police at a disproportionately higher rate than whites or even other minorities.
I have to admit to having adopted that assumption, years ago.
So had Fryer, who called the study “the most surprising result of my career.”
So where does that leave the protests that are still underway? Where does it leave the Black Lives Matters movement, which is founded on the assumption that blacks are brutalized and killed by the police, which they assert as a fact of American life about which the legal system and the general public are indifferent? Does the study assert or imply that what we have here is not a race problem, as black civil rights leadership has made it out to seem, but rather, as many people have been shouting, a police problem? Or maybe the problem is something else entirely?
Fryer’s conclusion—or, rather, his anecdotal gloss of his own study—is that, despite the by this point almost counterintuitive conclusion regarding lethal force, the higher incidence of non-lethal force carried out against blacks is still an important datum in described the contemporary black experience in America:
…the failure to punish excessive everyday force is an important contributor to young black disillusionment.
“Who the hell wants to have a police officer put their hand on them or yell and scream at them? It’s an awful experience,” he said. “Every black man I know has had this experience. Every one of them. It is hard to believe that the world is your oyster if the police can rough you up without punishment. And when I talked to minority youth, almost every single one of them mentions lower-level uses of force as the reason why they believe the world is corrupt.” [emphasis mine]
The ubiquity of mistreatment and the expectation of it substantiate the assertion underlying the claims made by BLM and likeminded people and organizations: American culture values white life over, and often at the expense of, black life.
While Fryer’s study conditions from a statistical perspective the interpretation of “life” as body count, it does not take into account context and lived experience. It can’t. If you start conditioning each result, and start trying to code too many different kinds of interactions, you end up with too many variables, and statistics become sociology. Hence Fryer’s reliance, for the application of his study to real life, on anecdote and personal knowledge and experience.
# # #
Chris Lebron, a philosophy professor at Yale wrote an opinion about what contributes to the great divide between the ways whites and blacks experience our shared society, which ran the Times on the same day the Fryer bit. Lebron applies the correspondence theory of truth—the notion that “a proposal is true if it corresponds to an observation in the world”—to the “race problem” and concludes that there is such a divide because in general whites and blacks observe the world from such different perspectives that “our basis for correspondence is mismatched.”
The direction I was looking toward was the internal life of a black person in America. The very real anxieties and fears we have in whether our ambitions are as secure as any other Americans’. Whether our opportunities are equal. Whether our health care is of sufficient quality. Whether our college degrees are of equal worth. Whether our spouses will make it home from the grocery store. Whether our children will one day counsel a parent that everything will be O.K. while someone is slumped over in the car seat in front of her, bleeding to death after being shot by a police officer.
You were looking in an altogether different direction. You were looking in the direction of your own innocence.
Of course it matters what the actual statistics about police violence are, but lived experience is equally—some would even say more—consequential when it comes to getting people on the same page about what “the race question” means and entails in 2016 America. And as I get into further on this essay, guilt and fault and innocence are to some degree beside the point, and the majority of us—“us” here being white folks—are wasting time and burning up the conversation defending ourselves against observations about aspects about American life that, in our fear or fragility or shame or own anxieties, we interpret as attacks.
So. Despite emerging evidence that, statistically speaking, blacks are not killed by police at any higher rate than whites, my motivation for scrabbling together the following pages: the “race problem” is not one-sided. The “race problem” is about friction between races. We white folks are in it—party to and responsible for—and we have to figure out how to deal.
# # #
I started writing this the day Alton Sterling and Philando Castile met their deaths, many miles from one another and under somewhat different but strikingly similar and dishearteningly familiar circumstances, at the end of government-issued firearms. I was working on it the next night when Dallas started showing up in my Twitter feed, and the assassination of five police officers rather put a damper on my enthusiasm for writing what at that point was little more than a catalog of my experiences.
But Friday morning, anti-violence protesters were back on the streets in Dallas, undeterred by the heinous acts of an individual psychopath. They were out in New York and Los Angeles and Baton Rouge and the Twin Cities and many other places across the country, too, throughout the weekend, to demonstrate their collective pain and grievances. And I figure if folks can get it together to do that, I can sit down and write a few hundred words.
And anyway, what I have to say isn’t directed at police. It concerns them, both generally and specifically, but is not in any way “anti-”police. Being about something and against something are two very different things—a distinction that has all but disappeared in much of the discourse surrounding the Black Lives Matters movement. BLM is about violence, and about police, and you could say it’s against police violence, in particular as it relates to black folks. But it’s not an “anti-police” movement.
If you’re confused about this, I highly recommend reading this letter to a law professor and her response.
What I have to say may not be much, in the grand scheme of things, but it’s what I have to offer. My 34 years as a straight, white, middle-class Southern Californian male brought me to where I am now, and are the only things I have to hold up to the light.
Trawling Facebook, I’m often amazed at the disparity of opinion and worldview among the people that are, to some extent or another, my friends, but rarely has this been in sharper relief than over the last few days. I’m under no illusion that I’m going to change the hearts and minds, with this or anything else I might say, of those who are dead set against even the possibility of what I see as obvious facts of American society. But my life experience mirrors that of many of those people—hell, it includes some of those people—and I write in the hope that even one of them might catch a glimpse of themselves, and pause for even one second, and maybe think, “Huh.”
Because if enough of us put up enough mirrors, maybe someday that “real” America that feels it needs to take its country “back” or make it great “again” will see our shared history from enough angles to know that if greatness is possible it doesn’t lie behind us, or even somewhere straight ahead along the trajectory we’re on, but in some radically new direction.
I can see it out there, peeking over the horizon, even on the darkest days, but it’s going to take all of us to figure out how to bridge the distance.
Anyway. The following is what I thought to say about Sterling and Castile, and what I’ve thought in the wake of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and John Crawford and Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and too many other times over the last couple years—to list here, for one, but also, period.
# # #
My son turned one a few weeks ago. There’s a lot to worry about that first year, some of which is practical (is that dresser secure?), some premature (where’s he gonna go to college?), and oh, so much of it beyond control. There are also the existential questions, like how will I get this human to appreciate what I think is important in life? and how will I teach him right and wrong? and will I be able to at all? and what is “right,” anyway? and who am I now? and, on those days when you can’t stop the news getting past the optimism barrier you work your ass off to keep intact, what was I thinking bringing a brand-new innocent soul into this world?
That’s all stuff every parent deals with, in some form, to some extent.
Among the things I will never have to worry about with my son, though, is when and how to have The Talk.
Sure, I’ll tell him in general terms not to be dumb, and if he’s pulled over for speeding to stay in the car and lower the window and put the keys on the dash and your hands on the wheel and if it’s dark out turn the light on. I’ll tell him, generally, “be respectful.” But I won’t imbue it with the urgency of life and death, and if I tried to it would ring false. I won’t, because I don’t need to. He doesn’t need me to.
I can tell him, like my dad told me, that it matters how he acts and interacts, that being good and being respectful is probably going to be enough, and if it’s not you probably did something wrong, and take responsibility, kid, owning up is part of life. Don’t give any lip but don’t take any shit and call me if you need me to come bail you out.
# # #
When I was 16, some friends and I broke into a friend’s house to do some drinking. His family was away and he left us a key, but we didn’t have permission to be there. Not long after we arrived, the phone started ringing. It rang a dozen times, if I remember—long enough, anyway, for us to get the picture that someone knew we were there. We didn’t answer. Then someone started knocking on the door. Also didn’t answer. Then that someone—the neighbor, we found out later, who only wanted to tell us to scram—called the cops. They came in three squad cars, lights flashing, and ordered us out of the house with bullhorns and shouts. We were on the second floor, and came out on to the deck to find two men at the bottom of the stairs, guns drawn and trained up at us, and a German Sheppard dying to be let off its lead. They put cuffs on us and read us our rights.
But once their adrenaline wore off, they started making small talk, and told jokes as they poured out our Jägermeister. They took off our cuffs and let us ride two together to the station, where our parents were waiting and where they bade us goodnight.
Even after that, it didn’t occur to my folks to have The Talk. I got a talking-to, all right, believe that, but really they thought the cops did their job.
I’d probably think the same thing.
# # #
A decade later, I bounded over train tracks to blow through a yellow-basically-red light after 1:00 A.M. and caught the attention of the Suffolk County cops waiting at the cross street. I put the window down and the keys on the dash and the dome light on—and chucked the tall boy of Ice House sitting in cupholder into the back. Which can the cops saw as they came up alongside the car sweeping their Maglites through the interior.
“You been drinking?” one cop asked, while I fished out my ID and the other cop chuckled knowingly.
“Had a schlift drink after work,” I said. And by “schlift drink” I meant a couple-three pint-sized extra-dry Grey Goose L’Orange martinis. Not that I elaborated.
“And a tall boy?” the other cop said.
“Huh? Oh. No. Not mine.” It sounded ridiculous but I was already going with it. “I give the kitchen guys a ride home, one of them must have left it. I shouldn’t do that, I know, but, you know…”
“Where you going?” the one cop asked. I told him home, and said it was around the corner. “You don’t live in the City?”
“Huh?” He held up my ID—my California ID—which still had my Upper East Side address on it. The ID that, though legit, had been rejected by a few bouncers and intensely scrutinized by too many more to count. “Oh. Naw, moved back a couple years ago.”
He shrugged and handed it back. “Look, man. Just be careful, all right?”
“Safe home,” the other cop said.
# # #
I could enumerate half a dozen other instances where despite unlawful activity on my part my interactions with the police were calm, civil, and ultimately inconsequential.
I know plenty of white folks do get arrested for this kind of stuff (and much less), and that black kids have also gotten away with it (and much more). But if you surveyed enough Americans, what do you think the result would be? Why do you think that one in five black men goes to jail (and one in nine black kids is fatherless because Dad’s in jail), primarily for nonviolent offenses like the ones I got out of?
Ask yourself why it is that black males are more than ten times likely to be in state or federal prison than whites.
Ask yourself how well you’d sleep at night if that was the world you were sending your kid off into.
# # #
It didn’t occur to my parents to give me The Talk because I didn’t need it. It wasn’t pertinent. Plenty of white people are abused by cops, yes, and of course some have been tortured and murdered, but by and large the assumption among white Americans that the police are there to protect and serve is correct.
But that is simply not the case for people of color in this country, black folks in particular, and more black parents than not have a sitdown with their sons at some point in their sons’ teenage years to tell them that, for them, the presumption of innocence does not extend to the street. That if they’re looking for a criminal, they’re looking for you, or will take you in just to be safe. That if they can’t find the criminal they’re looking for, they’ll take you and make it work. That once they’ve arrested you, they can, and very well may, hit you or beat you or even kill you, with impunity. That standing up for your constitutional rights can and often will be interpreted as resisting arrest, after which, basically, all bets are off. That not even absolute compliance can protect you.
The optimistic conclusion to these facts of American life is to be “twice as good.” This is called respectability politics and its basic tenets are to work twice as hard, be twice as smart, behave twice as well, think four times about anything you might think to say or do before doing it. This is Bill Cosby yelling at black kids to pull their pants up and Charles Barkley saying that black folks keep one another down through their own irresponsibility and President Obama’s subtle double standard when it comes to family values. (Or goddamn Rudy Giuliani just the other day, but that’s another blog post altogether…)
The pessimistic—some might call it realistic—conclusion is that nothing can save a black man from American racism. No amount of money, no amount of education, no amount of respect.
And more and more it seems like the second conclusion is closer to the truth.
# # #
Philando Castile’s mom stressed the importance of respectability and compliance in The Talk she repeatedly gave her son. Last Friday, she told CNN that her son knew that “the key thing in order to try to survive being stopped by the police is to comply.”
If you’re white and you’re struggling with this whole thing and you’re still with me, take a moment to parse that sentence. “The key thing in order to try to survive being stopped by the police…”
Not “being arrested,” which would be bad enough, or “incarceration,” which would be understandable, but simply “being stopped.”
…try to survive…
Not just “survive.” Definitely not, “to have the best outcome possible,” like my dad told me about getting pulled over.
But to try to survive.
Think about the gravity that a routine traffic stop—a broken tail light, failing to signal, sporting an expired registration tag—must present to construct your warnings with such conditions. Think about the chance.
“You can do your best,” try says, “but it’s not up to you.”
# # #
And probably it’s not “more and more” that it’s like this. Probably this has always been the case, it’s just that in the age of the ubiquitous smart phone and streaming video and social media they can’t so easily hide it and we can’t so easily pretend like it doesn’t exist. “The violence isn’t getting worse,” as someone said on Twitter a few months ago, the last time we went through this. “It’s that the cameras are getting better.”
The effect of all this is the limitation of what black folks feel comfortable doing. I have friends, peers, and mentors, professional black men and women who are well educated and make good money and live in good neighborhoods and send their kids to good schools and go to church—who do, in short, all the “right” things—who are afraid to send their kids on the simplest errands. They are scared to let them get a driver’s license not (only) because 16-year-old drivers are terrifying but because Philando Castile got pulled over because he looked like a suspect, kind of. If their sons do drive, they’re afraid to let them have too nice a car. They prefer their kids to avoid certain parts of town—not the diciest, but the wealthiest.
This—the hesitancy and fear to carry out the simplest daily tasks of civilian life, to enjoy life, experience liberty, and pursue happiness—is what people mean when we equate racial injustice in this country with domestic terrorism.
Imagine calculating the risk to your life and/or liberty of being a good neighbor, of riding the train, of driving your car or going shopping or heading to church.
Imagine not doing those things, and not because of terrorists or criminals, but rather because of how easy it is for cops to mistake your son for one of those things.
Imagine explaining this to your son when he asked why he can’t do these things.
Imagine that son. He’s 11 or seven or four or, like mine, barely one. Think about all the assumptions he’s made about life in 21st century America. Got a lot of fun and interesting things to do and play with, lot of cool places to go. He’s curious and fun-loving and energetic and opinionated. He’s got ideas about the world. He’s got plans. In general, he feels good about going places, doing his thing, sharing his opinions. People are good to him, for the most part, and when they’re not, you’ve taught him how to stand up for himself, how to figure out how to deal with it. “They’re probably having a hard day,” you’ve said to him. “You don’t know what’s going on with them.” Your son feels safe. He sleeps at night. You sleep at night.
Now, imagine feeling compelled, from what you knew of American life, to tell that boy that people might kill him for going where he wants to go and doing what he wants to do and saying what he wants to say. For sticking up for himself. For having plans. And not just anyone, but the very people he’d always thought were the ones who made it safe to go and do and say what he wanted. Imagine telling him, when he’s 12, or 22, that he shouldn’t play in the park with the same kinds of toys his white friends play with. That he shouldn’t even buy those toys in a store.
# # #
There’s still a part of me that’s a little antsy around police, but that’s left over from the bad old days when I carried incriminating substances in my pockets and/or bloodstream. And I still get that sour sink in my stomach when I see lights in the rearview, even before I can tell whether they’re for me, but that’s because I don’t want to fork out the cost of a ticket and have my insurance go up.
It’s not because I’m afraid the man with the badge might—however small the likelihood but still for whatever reason or even none at all—beat or abuse or kill me.
And I won’t have to be afraid that they’ll beat or abuse or kill my son.
This is a fact of American life for white people.
# # #
I may not sleep until my son’s home, once he’s old enough to go out, and I’ll worry about him making the same idiotic and dangerous mistakes that I made. But I won’t have to worry that maybe he’s late because the police killed him.
There are a thousand-thousand things that make up the differences between being white in this country and being black.
This is only one of them.
But it’s a pretty big one.
# # #
I’m not even sure I want to make this caveat, but just to preempt any comments: Of course many people become police to serve their communities. Many of them, I’m sure, are decent people. I know a couple dozen cops, and by and large they’re good men. Even of those cops that are scumbags it’s probably ultimately pretty few who signed up and are actively looking to use their firearms in the line of duty. And of those that did and are, it can’t be more than a handful in a million that wake up thinking, “Ima kill me a black dude today.”
I don’t imagine that the cops whose names we know—Darrel Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, Tim Loehmann—were among that latter group. Their actions were not premeditated, or in cold blood. But the fact remains that the murders they did, the killing of black men they undertook, is condoned by our legal system and our culture at large.
If they weren’t, these things would not continue to happen.
I understand that cops have to make a thousand calculations on the fly in dicey situations. I understand that their jobs are dangerous. And I don’t know that I wouldn’t have made the same mistakes if I’d been in their shoes. I like to think I would have, but it’s been shown time and again that racial bias is operative in even the most well-intentioned Americans, so who really knows.
# # #
That there is a twisted something endemic in American culture, a cancer rooted in the marrow of our society’s bones, fundamental as DNA, is part of what BLM and other groups and pretty much every individual black person I know are trying to get us white folks to understand.
And all we white folks have to do, at first, is say, “Yeah, okay, I get that. I acknowledge that that’s the state of affairs.”
# # #
It’s not even your fault that this is how the world works. And when I say “you” now, in this paragraph, I mean you, that white person whose hackles are up and who feels attacked by this entire essay and who’s just dying to finish reading this so you can start in on the comment thread. You who consider yourself a good person and a good Christian, who has black friends and feels bad for Philando Castile’s mom, who doesn’t wish harm on anyone, but…
…but not all cops are bad.
…but all lives matter.
…but it doesn’t give them the right…
…but he wasn’t innocent.
…but he did x, y, or z.
You who writes or says “[comma] but” after the deaths of any of the men and women this essay is really about.
It’s not (y)our fault. So you can stop with the defensiveness about “sins of the fathers” and “my ancestors weren’t even here during slavery!” and “Family values! Deadbeat dads! Thugs!” and all the other specious and circular arguments about whose fault it really is.
It’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility.
Who-/whatever made the world this way, we inherited it.
We’re part of it now, and we can choose to keep the world right on its same old terrible track by not even listening to the people who suffer because of it, or we can set our fragile little egos aside and ask, “All right, then, what’s the problem?”