A friend (white) who likes and respects his dentist (also white) questioned the dentist about his reactions to our nation’s turmoil in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by the police.
The dentist responded:
“I finally get it. My son’s been working on me for a while, but now it’s really clear.”
But, my friend persisted, since the media coverage has largely lost its intensity, is he still as focused on the issue?
“Yes,” said the dentist.
And he provided what my friend and I agreed was an apt description of racist thinking, even in well-meaning white folks like us.
“It’s like grinding your teeth. I’ll ask a patient if he grinds his teeth, and he’ll say ‘no.’ He’s sure he doesn’t grind his teeth. But I look at his molars, and it’s obvious he’s been grinding them.”
The impact of that perpetual grinding—arising from insults/actions large and small, many possibly unintended—erodes self-respect and dampens the life experiences of even the strongest individuals.
And it’s clear that it’s deeply embedded not just in us as individuals, but in all our nation’s institutions.
As my friend reminded me, enough grinding can actually kill the tooth. That’s why tens of thousands of diverse Americans have finally taken to the streets.
I’m aware of the growing body of what I believe are also well-meaning white people who think “woke” or identity politics are destroying this country.
They long for the Kumbaya of us all embracing in color-blind fashion, and/or they think that we should be talking about class and not about race.
But like my friend’s dentist, many Americans have finally awakened, and are saying that—among other things—we need to define the meaning of police work and the role of police officers in a democracy.
I, too, long for a nation/world in which Martin Luther King’s words are the reality: we’re all judged “not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.” And I wish we could resolve our problems by economic means alone.
Economics is, of course, a vital part of the equation, but it doesn’t per se erase the inequities that have arisen from our brutal history toward people of color—from before the first Thanksgiving to the current day.
It doesn’t touch the sense of vulnerability and fear of life-threatening acts arising from adversarial encounters with many white people, particularly those with authority.
So I think it’s naive and destructive to pretend that we can approach the ideal without making a deliberate attempt to root out every single vestige of race-based inequities in our institutions—and that we white people must keep educating ourselves so that we become aware of when we’re grinding—and that we cut it out.
As the brilliant author Ta-Nehisi Coates has said: “racism is the father of race.”
We may never reach the point where we don’t “see” color, but we have to keep striving to remove all the negative baggage that we attach to it.
At this time, people of color, especially black people, know they can’t escape it—no matter how accomplished they are and how exemplary their lives.
Consider Christian Cooper, bird-watching in Central Park, who had the temerity to ask a white woman to obey park rules and leash her dog, only to have her say, “I’m calling the police to tell them an African American man is threatening me.”
We know the consequences could have been more dire than they were, but what impact did the confrontation have on a quiet man simply bird-watching?
And what about James Juanillo, chalking “Black Lives Matter” on his own property in San Francisco, who was approached by a white couple insisting he didn’t belong there, who told him he had to stop and filed a police report against him for vandalism?
Then there’s Steve Locke, whose story I recently learned, though the episode took place in 2015. I think it is most instructive to anyone who’s not black and can’t possibly understand the ramifications of a black man’s being subject to police scrutiny.
Locke is an artist and art professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design who posted his soul-sapping encounter on his blog.
He titled it “I fit the description.”
On his way to buy a burrito before teaching his 1:30 class one day, he found himself surrounded by police cars. “We had someone matching your description just try to break into a woman’s home,” he was told. The description: “Black male, knit cap, puffy coat.”
“You fit the description.”
Locke describes how carefully he reached for his ID as instructed, first requesting permission to put his hand into his pocket.
Imagine feeling you have to ask permission to reach into your pocket! This humiliation is such a well-established survival mechanism that it’s become a part of black comedians’ repertoires.
“I. Am Reaching. Into. My Pocket. For. My License.”
And just recently, Michael Che adapted it for his routine:
“My brother is a cop. I only see him on Thanksgiving, and even then, I’m like: I’m. Reaching. For. The. Potatoes.”
Obviously, this was no laughing matter for Locke. His hands were shaking. He told the police he was a college professor, pointing to his faculty photo ID that hung around his neck in full sight.
His knitted cap, he wrote later, multi-colored and handmade for him, was unlike any other. It couldn’t have fit the description, but that fact didn’t matter.
The police said they would take him to be identified by the woman who’d reported the crime.
And here’s where I found the account of this art professor on his way to buy a burrito so revelatory.
“It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die. I am not being dramatic when I say this. I was not going to get into a police car…
“I was not going to let them take me anywhere because if they did, the chance I was going to be accused of something I did not do rose exponentially. I knew this in my heart.
“I was not going anywhere with these cops and I was not going to let some white woman decide whether or not I was a criminal, especially after I told them that I was not a criminal. This meant that I was going to resist arrest. This meant that I was not going to let the police put their hands on me.
“If you are wondering why people don’t go with the police, I hope this explains it for you.”
Eventually, they let him go. He described the impact of this episode as he left to teach his class.
“I forgot the lesson I had planned. I forgot the schedule. I couldn’t think about how to do my job. I thought about the fact my word counted for nothing, they didn’t believe that I wasn’t a criminal. They had to find out.
“My word was not enough for them. My ID was not enough for them. My handmade one-of-a-kind knit hat was an object of suspicion. My Ralph Lauren quilted blazer was only a ‘puffy coat.’
“… The cops were probably deeply satisfied with how they handled the interaction, how they didn’t escalate the situation, how they were respectful and polite.
“I imagined sitting in the back of a police car while a white woman decides if I am a criminal or not. If I looked guilty being detained by the cops, imagine how vile I become sitting in a cruiser? I knew I could not let that happen to me. I knew if that were to happen, I would be dead.
“Nothing I am, nothing I do, nothing I have means anything because I fit the description.”
I am thinking of Rayshard Brooks, the black man in Atlanta who fell asleep in a Wendy’s drive-thru and was subsequently shot in the back running away from the police.
In the lengthy first part of the video, he is shown politely conversing and cooperating with one of the police officers who was ultimately arrested for his murder.
It appears from the video that it was not until the second police officer handcuffed him that he tried to get away. Why the dramatic change in his behavior?
We’ll never know.
We do know about the fight-or-flight-or-freeze instinct—our brain’s primitive survival mechanism that makes us react when we feel endangered. It’s so strong when we’re anxious that it affords little opportunity for rational thinking.
Among all the talk about better police training, I hope there’s emphasis on ensuring that the police understand this very basic reaction—and how it operates in both themselves and the people they encounter. We know from the experiences of so many black people that being approached by the police makes them feel they’re in danger.
Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but with all the talk about the need for better police training, in part because police believe themselves to be warriors who are always endangered, is there some emphasis on basic neuroscience? If not, maybe adding it could lead to life-saving insights.
Running away from the police should not be automatically viewed as evidence of guilt. It shouldn’t take much metaphorical teeth grinding to make us realize that—and to demand policies aligned accordingly.
Let’s consider a scenario in which it’s clear the police must detain a suspect. Let’s assume the police officers are well-meaning.
Is there any way these police can assure the potential detainee at the outset that he won’t be harmed or misjudged? Might community policing, in which the officers are required to live where they work, be a good possibility here?
If the suspect knows the police officers and has seen them in everyday circumstances—even being helpful to members of the community—perhaps he would be less likely to assume they are out to get him. And as importantly, they may know him.
Or have we passed the point where any black man can have confidence that the police will treat him fairly?
May this be the hopeful time in which greater clarity becomes possible, leading to meaningful reforms.
What do you think? Do you have ideas to suggest?
Note: Steve Locke does very compelling work on racial themes. You can view them at http://www.stevelocke.com.