Lesson From the Woke Dentist–and Questions From Other Stories We Need to Keep Reconsidering…

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Image courtesy of freesvg.org

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.

In 1974, according to The New York Times, the late great Richard Pryor (whom I’ve quoted before in this blog) enunciated it as follows:

“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?

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Image courtesy of peakpx.com

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?

Annie

Note: Steve Locke does very compelling work on racial themes. You can view them at http://www.stevelocke.com.

Continue reading “Lesson From the Woke Dentist–and Questions From Other Stories We Need to Keep Reconsidering…”

Are We–at Last–Ready to Let the Sun Shine In?

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Image courtesy of public domains.com

I have written several times on my blog about Doug Glanville, a friend of my daughter’s since childhood who is a multitalented and lovely individual: former Major League baseball player, ESPN sports analyst, writer and New York Times contributor, educator on sports and social justice, etc, etc. (He currently has a sports-related podcast called Starkville in collaboration with baseball writer Jayson Stark—I am happy to give that a plug!)

Doug Glanville was raised by a psychiatrist father and educator mother, and he graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He developed and taught a course at the University of Pennsylvania and at Yale on Communication, Sports, and Social Justice. He has been successful in just about any endeavor he’s undertaken. He is a bridge builder.

And yet…and yet. He has written about some of the racial affronts he has had to endure–and their terrible toll. (Links to his articles appear in my previous posts, linked above.)

He was racially profiled by a white police officer from the next town while shoveling snow from his own driveway. (That led him to take action that resulted in a change of Connecticut law and a gubernatorial appointment to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council.)

He’s been turned away by a white cab driver claiming not to know the way to the Los Angeles airport. And when he was on air as an NBC baseball game analyst, a fan in the audience made a white power sign in back of his head, visible on camera.

Each time Doug is confronted with such situations, he seeks remedies. He told me he always tries to take the lemons and make lemonade.

Doug sent me a copy of the video below, “Enough!,” which he wrote and narrated and ESPN produced. I find his “personal call to action” powerful, searing, and eventually hopeful–another chance for us all. Please join me in watching it. If you’ve seen it before, I think it merits another viewing.

Here, he unflinchingly leads us toward our hoped-for better future.

If that better future is to become a reality, we’re all needed. This morning, one of the insights I gleaned from Twitter was from Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, whom I respect a great deal.

He wrote:

“There is a set of reforms that white people who support the protests will broadly cheer (police reform, for instance).

Then there are reforms (housing/zoning reform, school funding equity, for instance) that will test just how supportive white allies are prepared to be.”

To me, this is the crux of the issue: how much will we white folks accept the fact that we will experience changes in our own lives to facilitate better conditions for all?

Will NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), which has so often successfully walled off black people’s access to our schools, neighborhoods, employment opportunities, lives, finally cease to be the operative sentiment?

I don’t profess to have a lot of answers to the multifaceted problems we must address if we’re determined not to have to bear witness to more of the cataclysms revealed by the shocking police violence most recently perpetrated on George Floyd. We also saw senseless brutality in attacks on peaceful protesters, both black and white, old and young.

I lived through the painful 1960s and remember our joy when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and said “We SHALL overcome!”

Surely, we thought then, we were making real progress. And in some ways, we have. But finally, most Americans who aren’t people of color realize that that progress hasn’t been nearly enough.

And the regressions in important areas–not just policing but schools, health care, and voting rights, among others–have led to the use of the same word in a vastly different context, as Doug Glanville reminds us:  ENOUGH!

Now I derive hope from the fact that Black Lives Matter, whose rightness was so evident to me when Colin Kaepernick first bravely took a knee, has morphed from being perceived as a “radical” concept to a blazing mural in Washington, DC, and the name of a street whose sign is visible to everyone approaching and leaving the White House.

But I think it’s clear that we white people will have to undergo a fair amount of discomfort as we search our minds, hearts, communities, and institutions to make substantial inroads toward a more just society.

And this time, in the interests of equity, humanity, and our own self-interests, we must work to ensure that our progression toward that more perfect union approaches a straight line–no detours, no backward maneuvers–with the vast majority of Americans marching together.

Annie

Continue reading “Are We–at Last–Ready to Let the Sun Shine In?”

“You Broke It; You Fix It!”

Image courtesy of The Guardian

When I ran a series of posts on my blog last year in the hope of encouraging dialogue about how we talk about race in America, the comment above was made by a woman I worked with years ago who became a friend.

She’s an African American who has risen high in her chosen field—despite not having a college degree—by virtue of her extraordinary intelligence and diligence.

Her view was that she was tired of having to explain stuff to white people; it was our turn now.

I saw an identical comment on Twitter yesterday from another African American woman.

And yet the people demonstrating on the streets of Minneapolis and other communities throughout the United States—justifiably infuriated by the murder of yet another unarmed black man by a police officer who was arrested only Friday—are predominantly people of color.

Yes, there are a goodly number of white people demonstrating as well, but there should be more of us.

(Though during this pandemic, everyone demonstrating has to know the health risk of those crowds.)

It’s time we white people acknowledged that this problem is ours to fix—all of ours, as a country, but it will never happen if white people don’t recognize our role and responsibility.

First some facts. The video made it clear that Derek Chauvin is guilty of a serious crime. The Minneapolis police officer held his knee on the neck of George Floyd, who was not only unarmed but handcuffed, for nearly nine minutes.

Chauvin ignored Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe—and his cry for his “mama.”

Chauvin and the three fellow officers who stood by and did nothing to stop him were quickly fired.

That was good because otherwise actions against them would have taken even longer due to union processes.

Yet it still took days of protests before Chauvin was charged with third degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Floyd’s family wants a charge of first-degree murder, and one can hardly blame them.

The charges against Chauvin don’t require an “intent to kill,” though Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than two minutes after he’d become unresponsive.

As the increasingly angry crowds called for their arrests, the Hennepin County Attorney, Mike Freeman, said the investigation will take time because “We have to do this right.”

(The fact that there was violence by some protesters, which I’d never condone, is too lengthy to discuss here, but may be related to the increasing militarization of police departments, now equipped with the weapons of war for use against civilians. This does not look like America to me.)

Although Freeman agreed that the video is “graphic, and horrific and terrible and no person should do that,” he insisted that “there is other evidence that does not support a criminal charge.”

Freeman’s office later explained he was simply saying they wanted to uncover all the evidence that might come up in trial so that they’d be prepared because they faced a heavy burden to convict the officer.

Why is the burden so heavy? There are several reasons, but a major one is that in a 1967 ruling, the Supreme Court—in response to police violence against Mississippi civil rights demonstrators—specified that the officers had “qualified immunity”: protection against legal liability for law enforcement conducted “in good faith and with probable cause.”

A New York Times editorial, well worth reading, called that a “high standard to meet” and said each case had to clearly establish the violation of rights by relating it to another case with the same circumstances in which an officer hadn’t been found immune.

In practice, the editorial states, “it has meant that police officers prevail virtually every time” and there’s a “Catch-22” because plaintiffs have to find precedents—but there aren’t any because the plaintiffs always lose.

Do you find this situation bizarre and wrong? So do Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas. If those two justices agree, one can hope that there’s some way to redress this judicial wrong.

And so, we repeatedly see these gross injustices, which seem to be increasing. (There’s no official data on the numbers, which is itself surprising and concerning).

Our country has been awash with innocent blood from unpunished crimes like these for years.

And Minnesota has had more than its share. It was only four years ago that Philando Castile was killed during a traffic stop while his horrified girlfriend videotaped the encounter. The officer who killed him was acquitted.

That officer’s attorney is now representing Chauvin, who had received at least 12 complaints over his career but no disciplinary actions apart from a “letter of reprimand.” He had, in fact, been praised for his valor.

In what I think may be unprecedented, police elsewhere in the country weighed in with condemnations. David Roddy, the Police Chief in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, said this:

“There is no need to see more video. There is no need to wait to see how ‘it plays out.’ There is no need to put a knee on someone’s neck for NINE minutes. There IS a need to DO something. If you wear a badge and you don’t have an issue with this…turn it in.”

Sheriff Jonny Moats of Polk County, Georgia was similarly unequivocal.

“I am deeply disturbed by the video of Mr. Floyd being murdered in the street with other officers there letting it go on…This kind of brutality is terrible and it needs to stop. All Officers involved need to be arrested and charged immediately. Praying for the family.”

But some civil rights advocates immediately pointed out that these words alone aren’t enough; what’s needed are substantial reforms to prevent such fatal use of force by police.

Though this outrage against black men—and some black women—has been going on for years—and gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which I believe is in the finest tradition of nonviolent protest—it should be noted that under our current President, both the law and the bully pulpit have made things worse.

Just before former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired in 2018, he “drastically limited the ability of federal law enforcement officials to use court-enforced agreements to overhaul local police departments accused of abuses and civil rights violations,” according to the Justice Department.

Under the Obama Administration, the Justice Department and certain local governments had entered into “consent decrees” to facilitate law enforcement changes when police abuses were observed.

But as soon as Sessions took office, he said he’d review agreements that had been reached with Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson (Missouri) police departments following the deaths of black men by police officers.

Sessions’ changes “imposed three stringent requirements” reported The New York Times.

First, in place of the career lawyers who had previously signed off on these decrees, high-level political appointees would do so. (No surprise there; this is the Trump administration’s modus operandi.)

Second, evidence had to go beyond violations of unconstitutional behavior. (I’m not a lawyer, but that sounds pretty wacky to me).

Third, the deals had to have a “sunset” or ending date—instead of continuing until real improvements in police or other law enforcement agencies had been documented.

The other issue is, of course, the President, who struck a match a while back by telling an assemblage of police officers in a jocular tone: “Please don’t be too nice’ to suspects.”

And now, with the tinderbox already ignited in Minneapolis, Trump called the protesters THUGS, suggested military intervention, and warned “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

That phrase was directed against civil rights activists in the darkest days of the 20th century fight for racial equality. Trump later denied his tweet harkened back to that era.

Interestingly, his til-this-week beloved Twitter, which is now watching the President’s tweets, flagged that one for “glorifying violence.”

It is clear that we need systemic change in this country that will not come quickly but must emphatically receive a commitment from the public, law enforcement, and elected officials alike.

We know what to do; it’s all been laid out before. We simply must do it.

Congresswoman Val Demings, a former police chief, wrote an excellent article in The Washington Post titled: “My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?”

She specified what’s needed quite succinctly.

“As a nation, we must conduct a serious review of hiring standards and practices, diversity, training, use-of-force policies, pay and benefits (remember, you get what you pay for), early warning programs, and recruit training programs.

“Remember, officers who train police recruits are setting the standard for what is acceptable and unacceptable on the street…

And she observed:

“Law enforcement officers are granted remarkable power and authority. They are placed in complicated and dangerous situations. They respond to calls from people with their own biases and motives.

“In New York, we’ve recently seen past pains of the Central Park Five dredged up in a new attempt to misuse law enforcement against an African American man. When you see people differently, you treat them differently. And when power is in the mix, tragedy can result.

“As law enforcement officers, we took an oath to protect and serve. And those who forgot — or who never understood that oath in the first place — must go. That includes those who would stand by as they witness misconduct by a fellow officer.”

Even if George Floyd had been forging a check, his act did not warrant force at all—and certainly not the death penalty he received.

Importantly, in addition to proper screening and training, those police officers who violate the law and use excessive force must be swiftly, consistently brought to justice.

We’ve got to address the nearly impossible legal hurdles that have protected too many officers who were obviously guilty.

And no black parents should ever, ever have to feel they must give their young sons “the talk” to protect them from unintentionally provoking police who are too ready to reach for their guns.

We white folks must make it clear that these black men (and women) who have been senselessly murdered over the years are as important to us as are our own families.

Until we start seeing each other beyond color lines, we’ll never escape the cruelty of our checkered history:

Slavery—Reconstruction…Jim Crow—Civil rights acts…Voter suppression—Police violence—White supremacy.

The arc of justice may be moving in the right direction, but it sure doesn’t feel that way to me now. So I can’t imagine how it must feel to my brothers and sisters of color.

Some police incidents occur when white people, irrationally frightened of a black person for no clear reason, call the police. Once again, this is on all us white folks. Please spend the few minutes to watch the video below. I think it’s important.

 

And we’re not even talking at the moment about how we must address inequality in the job market, health care, and other major issues. Or all the deliberate or careless remarks or acts that sap the souls of people of color, who must endure them day after day.

We’re talking about life and death…sudden, senseless, irreversible.

These outrages simply must stop. We must, collectively, stop them. No more of these. Not…one…more.

Annie

Continue reading ““You Broke It; You Fix It!””