Paul Scanlon is a motivational speaker in England.
While I’m sure that few of us actually tell racist jokes at this point, how do/would we react if we were in a situation where we realized that one was about to be told? The importance of Scanlon’s message can’t be sufficiently underscored as we grapple with the systemic racism that has finally become more widely apparent at this pivotal juncture in our national life.
In speaking of white solidarity and white social capital, Scanlon makes observations that I find critically important. We must not be silent. We must speak up–knowing we will feel uncomfortable and may lose “social capital.”
Scanlon’s talk brought me back a few decades to another instance of harmful humor, albeit not racial in nature. At that time, I sat with a group of office colleagues who were making “gay” jokes. I recall my discomfort at remaining silent.
Not long after that, one of our colleagues “came out” publicly, and I felt ashamed that I hadn’t ended a conversation that must have been deeply hurtful to him.
I feel confident that it doesn’t dilute the focus on the heinous original sin of slavery that still haunts us and demands redress at last to expand the discussion of what I view as the abusive application of humor.
It seems obvious that there is also personal harm–and often different but important historical relevance–applicable to any “joke” that is designed to depict the “other” and to separate the joke’s target from the rest of us mortals in a derogatory way: anti-gay jokes, anti-Semitic jokes, anti-Muslim jokes, anti-immigrant jokes, anti-Asian jokes, anti-Native American jokes, anti-women jokes, anti-people with disabilities jokes…
None of these jokes can be considered benign when we know that hate crimes are rising–and people are hurting. And as long as our nation is divided into “us” versus “them,” we are diminished–individually, nationally, internationally.
I am not talking about “in” jokes that people of a particular group tell one another, well aware that they are stereotyping themselves and their group.
Some may feel this sentiment is political correctness carried too far. But can’t we be funny without being cruel?
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 outsetthat 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.
Justifiable outrage coalesces into
Unity as we recoil from blue knee on black
Neck in this repetitive horror to which we cry
This freedom anniversary should be one of
Elation in a land revitalizing its promised
Equality despite the backward steps—
Never forgetting Tulsa or Jim Crow or
The Klansmen et al stalking among us—we’ll
Hope/march/work/vote til we’re…
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.
“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.
I noted in my previous post that the title I used above was a response from my friend, an African American woman, to my efforts last year to encourage dialogue on race in America.
She sent me her reactions to the events described in Wednesday’s post via email, and I feel her words are yet another important message for us white folks to hear. We hear them, but do we reallyhear them?
Can we feel them? Can we picture ourselves in the situations she describes? And how will–or will–any of this affect our actions going forward?
Can we transform the outrage we feel now to effect changes, staying the course, because it won’t be quick or easy?
Here’s my friend’s response:
I would say what’s happening now is no more an awful time in America than it has ever been.
It’s awful for a huge percentage of black people and people of colour ALL OF THE TIME because of poverty, institutional racism, disparities in healthcare, lack of basic clean drinking water, healthy affordable food in our own communities, disproportionately high incarceration rates…I could go on.
It’s only when something so heinous happens to us (as though that laundry list wasn’t already enough) and we take to the streets in protest, that people really talk about what must change in America.
I worked with Christian Cooper for 5 1/2 years. [Note: She describes what happened to Cooper below.]
He’s a Harvard graduate and worked in the Editorial Department of a medical education company. Chris is one of the sweetest human beings on the planet. The trauma (and yes–it’s a trauma) that he sustained grieves me more than I can express.
This one hit home and saddens me as much as it terrifies me. It saddens me because that woman injured my friend and altered his life. Will he ever be able to quietly go about bird watching–something he loves?
It also terrifies me because it makes me realize just how lucky I am every day that my family members and I have managed to survive in racist America.
I’m lucky that my son–who was pulled over twice in one night for speeding on his way back to college–wasn’t shot by those police officers.
I will not excuse him driving well beyond the speed limit both times. He was wrong; however, as a young black man, being pulled over for something as minor as speeding can get you killed. HAS gotten them killed.
I’m fortunate that I wasn’t dragged from my car and thrown onto the ground with a knee placed on the back of my neck, when I raced up the turnpike in my BMW M2 trying to make it to Hermès in Short Hills to drop off a watch for repair before the store closed.
I’m lucky that when my husband and I pulled into the service area behind a restaurant just outside of Barton Springs, Texas, and a cop raced in right behind us, that we weren’t shot and killed.
We were returning from my husband’s tennis tournament in January. It was after 10 pm and dark. We didn’t know the area well but were simply trying to coordinate where to grab a late dinner.
The cop thought we were about to conduct a drug deal. What saved us was our age (50+) so we “didn’t fit the typical profile,” he said before driving away.
It’s THIS. Every. Day. Of. Our. Lives. It’s exhausting. It’s exasperating. It’s maddening. We always have to look over our shoulders.
We always have to be prepared to justify our presence in spaces that white people still believe are theirs alone: luxury stores, exclusive neighbourhoods, first-class lounges in the airport, and apparently, Central Park.
We continue to be vilified. We are labeled as thugs when armed white men with assault rifles are called patriots for protesting being quarantined during a global pandemic.
Police (and without riot gear, I might add) simply stand while angry white people, armed to the teeth, scream in their faces on the steps of State Courthouses.
The white college student, accused of double murder, was taken into custody “without incident” this week.
What if that suspect had been black? Just being suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bank note was apparently enough to get a black man killed.
The image of that police THUG with his knee on George Floyd’s neck harkened back to segregation and slavery. It was an everyday occurrence to have white men violently putting us “in our place.” The glee they had knowing they had power over our very lives and deaths.
The white woman who threatened to call the police on my friend Christian had the same glee in her voice. “I’m going to call the police and tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”
This was a potential Emmett Till scénario, and it’s 2020 and this was in New York City, not Mississippi.
What does that say?
I’ve stopped watching the news or even reading it online. I’m not on much social media either because it’s all, more of the same information about the hatefulness in this country and the spreading cancer of nationalism and racism that is infecting as many people as the coronavirus pandemic.
I simply don’t want to expose myself to that because I don’t want to be infected by the level of hatred–which is easy when you are angry.
Believe me, I AM angry. I just am too tired to keep fighting a problem that will never change.
I wanted to give my friend a real hug–not a virtual hug–and to tell her please don’t despair; things will get better. But how could I do that?
Months ago, I had an encounter with a police officer when I didn’t realize I was passing a stopped truck by crossing into a “no passing zone.” I apologized profusely and handed over my license. The officer took it, went to his car, and returned.
He said, “This license is expired. Do you have a new one?” I searched frantically through my bag and said, “I know I have it; I must have left it at home.”
He smiled pleasantly, told me to make sure I use my new license, and to drive carefully. I smiled sweetly, thanked him, and drove off.
He might have just been a nice police officer; there are surely plenty of them. But I can’t help wondering how he would have reacted if he’d stopped my friend…
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.
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.
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.
In these highly partisan and polarized times, there’s been a fair amount of talk denigrating what’s referred to as identity politics. Why should we be talking about the needs of individual groups when we really should be finding ways to unite us as a country?
Many well-meaning people stake out this position, and as my blog is devoted to finding common ground, I understand that sentiment—and feel we must pursue both goals simultaneously. I long for the time when we are all so comfortable with one another that we embrace our differences, while those differences recede in importance in the ways we respond to each other. But we sure aren’t there yet.
In Part 2 of my exploration, “How Do We Talk About Race in America?,” I spoke with Doug Glanville, a friend of my daughter’s whom I’ve known since they were children. After graduating as an engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, Glanville has gone on to do great things in his life: his rich and varied career, which included nine years of playing major league baseball (twice with the Chicago Cubs), now involves being a sports commentator, writer, podcast co-star, and lecturer at Yale University, teaching a course titled “Athletes, Activism, Public Policy, and the Media.” He is a uniter and optimist by nature—confronting racial injustice when needed but always trying to put it into perspective and not overreact.
In my previous post, we discussed his being profiled by a police officer from a neighboring town while shoveling the snow off the driveway of his Connecticut home. His response was to work toward what eventually led to a change in state law governing police jurisdictions. He received an apology from the governor, who appointed him to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council.
Somehow, due to his largeness of spirit, he retained no animus toward the police officer who confronted him, viewing the episode instead as an opportunity to work with the police to improve their procedures. He told me when we spoke that he likes to “take lemons and make lemonade.”
Well, life just handed him another big lemon, which he described in The New York Times Sunday Review. (He’s also a contributing opinion writer for the Times.) I hope everyone will read his entire Op-Ed: it’s a powerful, nuanced, sophisticated view from a very thoughtful person about issues we should all be aware of and thinking about. Here’s the beginning:
“Ambiguity has always been a friend to racism.
On May 7, during a television broadcast of a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field, I was on camera doing in-game commentary for NBC Sports Chicago when, unbeknown to me, a fan behind me wearing a Cubs sweatshirt made an upside-down ‘O.K.’ sign with his hand. The meaning of this hand gesture can be ambiguous. It has long been used to simply say, ‘O.K.’ Some people also use it to play the ‘circle game,’ where you hold your hand below your waist and try to get others to look at it. And most recently it has been co-opted to express support for white supremacy. The man accused of committing the New Zealand mosque massacres flashed this sign during his first court appearance.
Because I am a person of color, the fan’s gesture suggested its sinister meaning.”
He wasn’t aware of what had happened until after the game, when he noticed his Twitter feed “overrun by strange avatars, unrecognizable handles, aggressive trolls and a heated debate about racist imagery.” There was considerable discussion about whether the man’s actions were or were not sinister.
And that ambiguity is precisely the point, Glanville writes.
“According to the Anti-Defamation League, users of the online message board 4chan originally introduced the idea that the ‘O.K.’ sign was a white supremacist prank to get the media to overreact to innocuous gestures—but the sign soon morphed into a genuine expression of white supremacy as well.”
In other words, we are all being gaslighted by the most racially extreme elements among us. But for people of color, including those like Glanville who still manage to be optimistic about race in America, this gaslighting is particularly odious and exhausting—the degree of fatigue varying with the extent of racism they’ve experienced in their lives.
Glanville seeks to explain what it’s like by depicting a coordinate graph in which people of color might plot the various episodes that could be racist that have either happened to them or they’ve heard about.
“The x-axis represents the passage of time and the y-axis represents the degree of racism of an episode—from someone’s assumption that you’re a valet when you’re parking your own car to the burning of a cross on your lawn. For each experience, you mark a dot.”
The pattern that emerges when those dots are connected, Glanville says “allows you to notice correlations, to make predictions. You are learning from evidence, in part for your self-preservation.”
Then comes the tricky part, when someone who has learned from such evidence meets with an individual who hasn’t had similar exposure.
“He sees evidence of racism only from time to time, and when he does, it tends to be stark and unambiguous—the use of racial slurs, an explicit avowal of hate.”
To this person, “racism seems to be a rarity, maybe even invented.”
Glanville, who teaches courses focused on communication, wonders how he can convince such a person of the pattern he sees, when the listener is inclined, based on his own experiences, to depict subtle racism as an “isolated incident” and even accuse Glanville of “playing the race card.”
How often have we heard that phrase in our political rhetoric?
Equally troubling, the person may say all this talk about racism is just making things worse.
Glanville stresses that he, and most people of color, continually look for the innocuous explanation, trying not to think the worst of people. He recognizes that despite the overwhelming evidence from the data he’s experienced, he can be wrong in a particular instance.
“An ‘O.K.’ sign means nothing on its own. But racism thrives in ambiguity, in shadows. In this form, it is cowardly with double meanings.”
Despite his instincts, he didn’t immediately condemn the Cubs fan who made the gesture. He waited until the facts were in. Indeed, the Cubs quickly did an investigation, found that the fan’s intent was malicious, and banned him from Wrigley Field.
The Washington Post (May 8) quoted the Cubs’ president, Theo Epstein: “We’ve made clear how egregious and unacceptable that behavior is, and there’s no place for it in our society, in baseball, and certainly no place in Wrigley Field.”
Said Tim Elfrink, the Post writer:
“The case marks the latest high-profile emergence of the hand symbol and suggests yet again how thoroughly troubling language and memes pushed by the alt-right and adopted by hate groups have infiltrated American culture. But such gestures, which can run the gamut from ironic jokes to long-running games to outright symbols of intolerance, are also notoriously difficult to interpret.”
It bears repeating that ambiguity is precisely the point. The Post quotes Salon writer Amanda Marcotte, who observed that the O.K. sign was to serve as both white supremacist symbol “and also one that is just ordinary enough looking that when liberals expressed outrage, the white supremacist could play the victim of liberal hysteria.”
And as Glanville points out, the impact of ambiguity on people of color can be profound, making them feel…
“That their sanity hinges on a single verdict. If the Cubs fan was flashing a white nationalist sign, we are in danger; if he was not, we are ‘politicizing’ things or ‘race-baiting.’ This is an incapacitating position to find yourself in, especially when you are just an innocent bystander. You are thrust into the public eye and forced to relitigate the existence of racism. Before you know what has happened, you find yourself on the defensive.”
And Glanville draws the very straight line from such soul-bashing episodes of racism as symbol to racism as system:
“…institutional power that can crush neighborhoods, generations of children, stripping people of validation, self-worth and opportunity. Those who have been on the losing end of this power are never certain that they will be O.K.”
Still, he holds out hope that we as a society will “choose the path of empathy and hope.” pointing out that baseball “is played by teams of people from all walks of life, following universal rules, competing on a level playing field.” Acknowledging that this image may be part mythology, he still sees it as an “aspirational ideal, a goal for us as a society.”
But only if we are willing to acknowledge
“that racism operates not only with fire hoses and police dogs but also in whispers, in fine print, in invisible ink, in coded language. Until we are fully against it, we are letting it fester, and while we try to sort out the ambiguities, people are suffering.”
His closing sentence: “They will still suffer once we have our answers, no matter what we find out.”
Though that is more hard truth than optimistic conclusion, I know Doug Glanville will continue his work of building bridges, teaching and writing about social justice, guiding his own children to focus on the good around them and rise above the rest.
Of course we’ve made progress since the Jim Crow era, but with the current trends, including deliberate attempts to deny or make it nearly impossible for people of color to vote, and the far too numerous killings of unarmed black people by police officers—many of whom are not held accountable—how can we possibly expect people of color to ignore racial slights or “put them in perspective” when, regardless of their accomplishments, they know how close they are to the next indignity—or worse?
How does it feel to hear TV commentators focus on how important it is for Democratic candidates to appeal to the white voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, etc., when the water situation in Flint, Michigan, has still not been fully resolved five years later, and we don’t even know how many other predominantly black cities are similarly affected? What will it take for us to care—as if they are our own—about the children being poorly educated and poisoned by environmental pollutants that are getting worse as the EPA standards are lessened or removed?
And why does the shocking data that African-American women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women—regardless of their income and education levels—not cry out for national attention?
With so many hate crimes and “anti-isms” against various groups on the rise in this country, some may be tempted to belittle the kind of assault Doug Glanville recently experienced. After all, he wasn’t physically injured.
I don’t use the word “assault” lightly: when someone so accomplished—a good-hearted, caring individual with a long history of trying to ease tensions among groups—lets us in on how devastating the accretion of these insults can become, we dare not ignore his words.
Yes, we must strive to overcome our differences and reduce the terrible polarization that threatens us now. We must always seek those things that unite us, rather than divide us.
But we’ll never do so until we realize that the original sin of slavery still hovers over us, and in 2019, we have much more work to do. I am grateful to Doug Glanville for so eloquently sharing his pain with us. He’s still ready to do the hard work to make our country better for us all. Are those of us whose lives aren’t disrupted by the types of incidents Glanville and so many others continually experience ready to do the same?
I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories.
NOTE: You can hear an audio interview in which Glanville describes the episode and its aftermath on WBUR’s Here and Now (May 29). Notice that he ends with a positive observation, as he always tries to do.
Greetings, welcome back, and best wishes to everyone for a very happy and healthy New Year.
I hadn’t planned this additional post on race, but I came across what I feel is a wonderful piece of Op-Art on the topic in The New York Times. Some of you may recall it, but even if you do, I hope you’ll use the link above to revisit it. It’s worth several readings, I believe.
And it’s followed by another serendipitous example that I find enriches the topic.
Writer and illustrator Henry James Garrett has created a wise and amusing morality tail/tale that’s titled “The Kernel of Human (or Rodent) Kindness.” I’m pretty sure the fair use police will prevent me from reprinting the piece in its entirety, as I would love to do, so I’m including a few screen shots (if they work–I’m getting better at this technical stuff, but each new challenge is fraught with the fear of mishap).
Please keep in mind that this is just a sampling, probably unfair to the creator because it doesn’t capture the richness of the artwork and messaging in its entirety. But here we go…
Please do click on the green New York Times link above to see Garrett’s entire work. It will just take you a minute, and I really think you’ll enjoy it.
Before we leave the topic of race for now, I’d like to add the second serendipitous piece. One of a number of special friends I’ve reconnected with as a result of this blog is a Master Gardener. I was unfamiliar with this term, but I’ve learned that Master Gardeners are volunteers who have undertaken considerable training in the science and art of gardening. They, in turn, share their expertise by educating the public on gardening and horticulture.
My friend had the additional responsibilities involved in serving on the Board of Directors of the Master Gardeners organization in the area in which he lived. He had a lot of experience in organizational work as well, having had a long and successful career as a Manufacturing Manager for a major US corporation, where his responsibilities included diversity training.
But my friend, who is African-American, grew tired of his fellow board members’ failure to listen to his ideas (as well as impatient with their lack of organization).
He was comfortable with what he had to offer but felt his presence on the board was that of a “token”: he was there for show, but not for substance. So he resigned his position–and received a very gracious letter from one of the few board members who clearly recognized that his absence would be felt.
In an email explaining to me what had happened, he wrote of the other board members: “I really don’t think they know the difference between Affirmative Action and Diversity. Gardeners generally practice diversity every time they plant a flower, but they probably wouldn’t make the connection. There are a number of reasons we plant a diverse garden.”
I found his words both poetic and a fine metaphor for why our society is strengthened by our growing diversity.
So from rodents to gardens, I feel we’re surrounded by lessons about how much we have to gain by being empathetic toward one another and celebrating both our differences and our commonality as human beings.
I hope to hear from you about whether my serendipitous finds resonate. As always, I depend upon your thoughts, experiences, and stories…For those of you who are new to this blog, you must go way down the page to find the comment box in which I hope you’ll enter your response. Thank you!
As soon as I determined to address this topic in my blog, I knew the person I should turn to for guidance. Doug Glanville, who’s been a friend of my daughter’s since childhood, is one of those all-around amazing people. It was evident when he was young:academically gifted, terrifically athletic, warm, funny, and friendly, he was clearly destined to make his mark in the world.
And so he has. After graduating as an engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, he had an illustrious nine-year career as a major league baseball player—a center fielder for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. From there he became a commentator for ESPN. He wrote a book, The Game From Where I Stand, contributes frequently to The New York Times, and has written for The Atlantic.
Recently, he’s added “college professor” to his personal biography. Returning to Penn, he researched, developed, and taught a course on Communication, Sports, and Social Justice. He’s now refining the course to teach it at Yale in a combined political science and African American Studies effort that may also involve Women’s Studies and Yale Law School.
And yet…and yet. In the winter of 2014, shoveling the walk of his home in Hartford, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Tiffany, an attorney and Hartford Board of Education member, and their four children, Glanville was stunned to be approached by a police officer from the next town.
A woman had complained that a man who had shoveled her walk had been menacing her for money, and Glanville fit the description: a black man in his 40s with a shovel, wearing a brown coat (though his coat was black). The officer approached Glanville with the words: “So, you trying to make a few extra bucks, shoveling people’s driveways around here?”
Glanville has written about the experience in The Atlantic, (“I Was Racially Profiled in My Own Driveway”), and it’s well worth reading the entire article. Here’s a bit of it:
Instead of providing the officer with his impressive personal and family background,
“I tried to take his question at face value, explaining that the Old Tudor house behind me was my own. The more I talked, the more senseless it seemed that I was even answering the question…After a few minutes, he headed back to his vehicle. He offered no apology, just an empty encouragement to enjoy my shoveling. And then he was gone.”
That episode eventually led to the passage of a new Connecticut law that prevents local police from crossing into another jurisdiction to pursue what they believe are violations of local ordinances. (A good description of the law’s broad impact appears in The Huffington Post.) At the signing ceremony, the Governor issued Glanville an apology.
Glanville explains his motivation for shepherding the legislation through to passage:
If I hadn’t been careful and deferential—if I’d expressed any kind of justifiable outrage—I couldn’t have been sure of the officer’s next question, or his next move. But the problem went even deeper than that. I found myself thinking of the many times I had hired a man who looked like me to shovel my driveway. Would the officer have been any more justified in questioning that man without offering an explanation? I also couldn’t help projecting into the future and imagining my son as a teenager, shoveling our driveway in my place. How could I be sure he would have responded to the officer in the same conciliatory way?
He has since been appointed by the Governor to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council, where they deal with accreditation issues, certify and decertify police officers, and develop and adopt “a comprehensive standards program for local law enforcement units.” Glanville says: “I am proud to serve on the curriculum committee.”
And although he never received an apology from the police officer, rather than demonizing him, he saw him as presenting an opportunity—to help build bridges between communities of color and law enforcement through open engagement about the pitfalls of bias in community policing.
“We all have bias,” Glanville says, “but the stakes are exceptionally high in law enforcement. It is critical that we all invest in managing bias in our policing.”
He attributes his ability to work with police—and his broad social vision—to his upbringing in Teaneck, New Jersey, the first community in the United States to voluntarily integrate its schools. “It was such a validating experience to live in a community where people from all walks of life saw each other in a united camp.” He went to plenty of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, he recalls. “In Teaneck, you had real embedded experiences.”
A white police officer, with whom he became close, was his summer league baseball coach, and his father, a psychiatrist who was well-loved in the community, often treated police in various places for the stresses of their jobs. When his father died, “They paid their respects to him as if he was one of them.”
A large contingent of police, in uniform, did a walkthrough at his funeral to greet his family, waiting in line to pay their respects. Three police cars accompanied the hearse to the cemetery, where they stopped traffic to allow the procession to enter.
Those experiences enabled Glanville to be “caring and collaborative” in working with the police in Connecticut to formulate the legislation.
As a result of those formative years, as well as his close relationships with his fellow baseball players, he says, “As a black man, I see the power in the “#Me Too” movement,” for example. “We all want to be validated, treated fairly, given opportunities, have our pain recognized—to overcome generation after generation in the land of opportunity.”
But achieving social justice takes effort. “It’s easy to want to take your ball and go home,” he acknowledges. “That’s concerning: how can we grow when we’re in our own echo chambers? We need to be brave and step across the aisle and realize we have common work to do.”
In getting the Connecticut legislation through, “I took lemons and made lemonade. But that requires patience, and where is patience? It goes hand in hand with the way we digest information. There’s not a lot of patience to digest the long form. It’s more like: ‘If I didn’t see it, it isn’t real.’”
He has criticisms of social media for creating more doubt and manipulation, and he wishes there were greater balance in the television commentary programs. Bias is profitable, he notes.
“Where is the show with people who have different suggestions talking with one another? I do think at times the media business is not helpful; it just reinforces opinions.”
Referring to the current political divide, he observes: “For starters, I’m not a fan of the blanket political labels, conservative/liberal. We all can be better.
“In the realm of social justice, conservatives get wholly painted as intolerant, just as we tend to overlook the arrogance in people who consider themselves liberal and believe they are completely right. Guess what? No one gets a hall pass here. Holier than thou is not effective in this climate. When the only counter-argument is ‘I’m right,’ we get nowhere.”
When he teaches his course, he stresses the importance of communication. “How you say things and present things matters. You have to have a message and tell stories to engage the listeners.”
For example, he discusses the impact of newspaper racial bias, citing a Huffington Post article that underscored how “white suspects and killers often get positive media spins, while black victims get more negative spins. Words truly matter,” he emphasizes. He also brings in both conservative and liberal views because he feels we all need more measured perspectives.
Is it ever helpful to call someone a racist? “Probably not,” he says. “Some people may be beyond repair. But there are ways to approach others.” When he hailed a cab in Washington, DC, to go to the Washington Nationals Stadium and the driver said, “I don’t know where that is,” he responded: “It’s 2018; you have a GPS.” But, he acknowledges, you have to assess the threat. “I do dive into things that aren’t comfortable—when I’m in a safe space.“
Glanville speaks of the different types of energy required to make the societal changes we need: marching, organizing, people working on policy—all of which he calls “slow work.”
We need both community development and social action, he stresses—“to understand how the game is played, how the system works, at the same time that we challenge the systemic issues needing bold change.”
And then, “It starts at the ballot box,” finding leadership that help us heal as a people and address hate, “but not with armed guards.” He underscores the importance of legislatively backing up the words on those pieces of paper with action.
Acknowledging the abuses in our history concerning the vote—the disenfranchisement, marginalization, and lack of follow-through in behalf of people of color—he points hopefully to the newly elected class of Congress: “There is something to be said about having people more representative of our country. It matters to get into the room, to be engaged in the process to make the system more fair and representative.”
If there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s that we’re in challenging times. To Glanville, the challenges provide everyone with “the opportunity to be their better self for the collective good. We must think about the positive things and organize around them. We must find ways to be constructive.”
Please let me know your response to Doug Glanville’s challenging ideas and hopeful message. Can you relate to them? Do they encourage you to act? Do they generate stories or ideas from your own life? I am eager to hear from you.
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