The first few days of this week have reminded me about two things that are true. We as a nation cannot have an honest conversation about how race works in the United States and social media is a terrible place to try to have that conversation we cannot have. Social media performs many good functions in society but the knee-jerk response time on the platforms means we engage at a level of blame and defensiveness. Someone says something that exposes our tensions over the topic and the blame and defensive stances harden. The reason this issue catches my attention this week is that I have an opportunity to talk this Sunday to two First Baptist congregations in Macon, GA about how racial construction created the two churches and maintained their separation.
How do we engage in honest conversation when the starting points in the conversation often appear so far apart? One answer may be for white people in the United States to recognized that our version of reality is not shared by everyone.
The second elephant in the room—race is the first—will be the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers. I have spent the better part of three days thinking about the death of two males—one a child. The fact that two males share a similar skin tone that in our system labels them black reveals the American problem. My Facebook and Twitter feeds have filled with outrage only to be turned into a series of excuses for why these people are dead. The historian in me says there were too many before these two, referring in part to the practice of enslavement and oppression that turned after Reconstruction to the brutal practices of lynching and unjust incarceration. My fear is that there will be more after these events, as another shooting in Charlotte exposed. The citizen in me says these killings should be enough to bring change but that would mean it is time for people not only to speak out against the injustice but also to follow through on holding our public officials accountable.
What has struck me from the beginning of these recent public killings is that almost every officer who pulled the trigger said they felt threatened. Are officers threatened? Yes, every day. And those willing to kill a law enforcement officer are not worried about the officer’s use of a firearm. In these cases, however, the fear of a threat justified the pulling of a trigger. We, the public, then learn that there was no gun, no threat except the “bad dude” looked like trouble. It is that moment when we make a judgment about a person—the split second we discern a threat—that reveals the ways we have been racialized. The racial prejudice of white people is built deep inside our judgments. Taught black males are dangerous from an early age and then holding those same black males at a safe distance means we don’t have to face how racism affects many of us. Non-whites adapt this same sensibility even if they share the same skin tone. The death of Tamir Rice three years ago echoed in the recent death of Tyre King. White America has to admit that we are treated differently. A white child carries a pellet gun or bb gun in the shape of a handgun and the initial assumption is that he or she is using it for fun. A lifetime of racial training means an officer—all of us—sees skin tone and makes a judgment about its use. A black or brown child carries a bb-handgun and the initial assumption is that he or she has an actual gun and intends to use it for harm. Even in that initial snap judgment, the second child’s life should still be safe if the gun does not point at the officer. Except the officer has already prejudged the child and gun as unsafe—a threat—and engages the trigger. The appearance of the threat occurred much earlier than the actual muscle twitch.
Why does this matter to me? My sons have both carried airsoft handguns out in public. While I can assume if they point one at an officer they might have been shot because they were perceived as a threat, I also know that they would have had to point the gun at the officer rather than possess it. The simple fact that they had a fake gun in hand would not have cost them their lives. That is my privilege and theirs; it is not my godson’s privilege.
Or what about a motorist whose vehicle breaks down in the road? Asking for help and distraught about the position of the vehicle on the road, the person might find two different responses based on skin tone and size. A white motorist whether larger or small, as long as he does not present other markers of threat like impoverished dress or actually wielding a gun at the officer, gets a passerby to call for help. The caller identifies the problem—car broken down—and the need for help. If the person is a black male of some size, the circumstance can be entirely the same but he is judged as a threat. When the man approaches the police car, the split second decision that he is a threat has nothing to do with the circumstances present but a long-formed suspicion that a large black male is a threat. Terence Crutcher is dead because he failed to follow commands we are told. Charles Kinsey followed directions and was still shot. The threat is not a weapon or action; it is the color of a black male’s skin.
Sadly, we have names for the above mentioned episodes but we have had names for centuries and chose to ignore them. Mentioning them today does not change that white people in America have for the better part of four centuries justified death and often execution of black people in America. We can cry enough! But until we address how we all are shaped by the racial categories we are taught as children there will be more names to call out. And more anger. And more justification of why the killing was appropriate. The cycle never ends.
I have also spent a good deal of time thinking about the protest of professional football and soccer players over the national anthem, joined now by high school players, bands, and pee-wee football players. I am glad they can exercise their right to protest and not be arrested or harmed by the state. There is, however, a problem with this form of protest. If it only sparks discussion, then we only debate its usefulness or a person’s patriotism not the actual events that started the protest—the actual brutality directed at a certain segment of society. Keep kneeling, but that does not change how officers make decisions about the use of deadly force. We need a movement that gets us to that point.
Why do we make snap judgements about someone based only of the visual evidence present? How do we help people understand where those decisions come from and frame almost all of their choices after the visual clue? As I tell students all the time, don’t be stupid. If they are threatened, take precautions. But many of us assume a threat long before a real one is present, so I ask them to think about where that racial characterization came from and whether it is legitimate.
I have been asked by students for the better part of ten years of teaching a survey course on race in the United States whether these situations will ever end. I often answer that I am hopeful but not optimistic. Events like these continue to occur. We have been talking about them and the injustice they enact for more than a century, and members of the African American community for much longer than that. It will only change, I think, when we confront our assumptions about people based on color of their skin.