The ‘comma effect’ on bias and Black Lives…

This article by Doug Glanville, whom I’ve written about before, appeared in The Undefeated on June 29, 2020. I always find Doug’s writing and thinking compelling and worthwhile. Here, he demonstrates a subtlety in language that has significant impact.

The subtitle reads:

That grammatical pause helps explain how racism thrives

The comma effect.

It shapes the nuance of bias in America. A person is described and we look at the qualifiers that follow the comma: The victim of vigilante justice, who smoked weed in junior high. The man who shot up a movie theater, but was an altar boy at his church.

That comma wields great power. It can humanize, it can demonize, and although it takes a short breath to bring it to life, it can make a life lost seem inevitable or, most cruelly, a necessity. It is justice working in hindsight, hinting to us in code whether that grave outcome is deserved or if we should be sympathetic. Yet what comes after that comma often drips with bias in explaining what happened or what should happen.

That grammatical pause helps explain how racism can grow, even thrive, generations after slavery ended. It is the jump ball where the referee throws the ball slightly to one side, sometimes intentionally. It is the fastball on the edge of the strike zone where the right call is blurred so completely that bias is all that is left to decide whether it is a ball or strike.

But in this game of race in America, the stakes are truly life and death. The rules state that three strikes and you are out, but power is the true determinant of how those rules are enforced. And power is selective. Some get more than three strikes, others strike out before they even get up to the plate. And maybe worst of all, some get up to bat and every pitch is called a strike no matter where it crosses the zone.

In that case, you better start swinging. Assuming you even have a bat.

Consider Doug Glanville, comma, the ballplayer.

From left to right: Chicago Cubs scout Billy Blitzer, Cecil Glanville (Doug Glanville’s father), Doug Glanville and Mattie Glanville Clarke (his mother) in June 1991. The Cubs drafted Glanville with the 12th overall selection that year. DOUG GLANVILLE

Draft day changed my status in 1991 from a 20-year-old college baseball player to a professional. “Ballplayer” now carried weight and elevated my station in life. Once that comma pointed to becoming a professional, it might as well have been an exclamation point.

The phone rang only 15 minutes after the draft started. This was a good sign. The earlier the phone rings on draft day, the higher you are on the draft board. I picked up the receiver in my parents’ home in Teaneck, New Jersey, and in glancing at the clock on the wall, I knew I had to be the top selection for the team on the other line. The Chicago Cubs had chosen me 12th overall. My stock had risen even with the ballplayer label about to adorn my placard. Now I had become:

Doug Glanville, the first-round pick.

As a Black man in America, despite the ennobling narrative that is often told, Major League Baseball wasn’t saving me. In fact, part of the ensuing negotiation emphasized my return to college after the baseball season on their dime so I could complete my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania. My parents, both first-generation college graduates, insisted on this outcome, and so did I. I wanted to honor the sacrifices they made to make it possible, and I was only one semester away from an engineering degree that had required significant work. I also hoped that a new comma could save me from certain indignities in life:

Doug Glanville, Ivy League engineering graduate.

Off the field, being Black is a form of omnipresence, the inability to be invisible. It is the inability to just focus on your job, the inability to just “stick to sports” because you still have to play them in a black uniform, one that does not come off when you put the grass-stained uniform in the laundry.

But I was already suspicious of these labels. They can stoke elitism. They were still only a veneer when it came to color, even if someone holding the cards decided certain achievements made me a better person, that I was one of the “good” ones. But assessing the character of anyone, without that first impression in which race and all of the biases that come with it is front and center, is a tall order. An Ivy League degree doesn’t help us know the core of a person. But in the American game, checking certain boxes is sold as a grant of immunity or equal access, pushing the content of our character or at least the accouterments of achievement to the front of the discussion so that no racial identity comma would be needed.

Despite growing up in a town that voluntarily desegregated in the mid-’60s, I had enough experiences before the phone call on draft day to know my college degree would not be enough to counter the first adjective that the world sees when I enter the room:

Doug Glanville, Black man.

My parents made this a source of pride. My mother was our in-house activist. Setting up cottage parties and opening up Saturday schools to teach Black history and SAT prep. She was a unifier too, bringing people in our diverse town together to forge understanding, while always whispering to me about the subtleties of racism. As a young boy, I knew about unfairness well before I connected the dots to race. I remember being detained on a field trip while in New York City after getting separated from my class and being accused of breaking into the museum we were visiting. I remember a summer camp coach nastily kicking me off of the tennis court for wearing jeans, while the next day he let a blond-haired girl play in jeans right in front of me. It was less painful to chalk these up as favoritism, or security concerns, and much harder to dig deeper and see how race is always in play.

Still, I quickly learned about the explicit acts of racism that eliminated all ambiguity about intent. Walking home from elementary school in my idyllic hometown, I went by a house that I passed every single day. But this time, a young white man was outside on the porch. He flipped open his switchblade and dared me, the “N-word,” to come over to him. I kept walking and thankfully, he never got out of his chair. Would this guy have killed me, a fourth grader, because I was Black?


“As a Black man in America, despite the ennobling narrative that is often told, Major League Baseball wasn’t saving me,” writes Doug Glanville. JOE FARAONI/ ESPN IMAGES

Even with knowledge and awareness, I still hoped that my baseball comma would make me less threatening or less at risk in my own life. Maybe my fame would grant me more bandwidth. My parents knew better. They were skeptical from the first day pro scouts came calling. My mom’s aunts and uncles mostly settled in Philadelphia. They were big baseball fans, but also held a long-standing grudge against the Phillies for how they treated Jackie Robinson. My family was happy on draft day, but they also issued a number of warnings about the “good ol’ boy” system that props up baseball. I understood that, but I also loved the game and hoped that would be enough to endure whatever came my way.

We negotiated with the Cubs for weeks and finally, after I signed and reported to minor league baseball, my career began in earnest. I did not get the royal first-round treatment, maybe because of my tough negotiations. Instead of heading to Chicago to meet the city, I was sent to Niagara Falls, New York, to meet the minor league team on the road. Not long after the road trip ended, I was called into the office.

I could feel the strangeness in the air as I sat down.

There were four baseballs lined up on my coach’s desk. And the conversation went something like this …

“Are these your baseballs?”


“Well we don’t appreciate you stealing our baseballs.”


“We found them in your locker and all baseballs are property of this team and the Chicago Cubs.”

My mind was racing. Why are they talking about “stealing”? Why would I steal these baseballs and then leave them in my locker in plain view? I guess they had a problem with people taking baseballs home — in the minors there is a limited supply — but why the dramatic tribunal?

I had to figure out a way to call them out while respecting my coaches and not fully embarrassing them or expressing my pure outrage. So I played detective.

Doug Glanville of the Philadelphia Phillies prepares to bat during a game against the Chicago Cubs on June 25, 1999, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. TOM HAUCK/GETTY IMAGES

“Once again, those are my baseballs, and if I were stealing them, why would I leave them on the top shelf of my locker so that you could see that I was stealing them?”

That did not go over well.

Then I got specific.

“Let’s look at the labels on these baseballs.”

None were from this minor league or the Cubs. There was an NCAA ball, a Cape Cod ball, a ball from home and a typical one you would buy in a store. All with my initials on them. Their first reaction was that I “could have just written my initials on their baseballs, too.”

The comma effect exacerbates the doubt that comes with being Black in America. It is reinforced in the faux gray area that is still black and white under scrutiny. The kind of scrutiny that reveals that this neutral zone is never truly neutral. That for a Black person, it can turn a simple issue around a shortage of baseballs into a hearing, not a conversation.

Well, cross off Doug Glanville, the ballplayer, as a way to get the benefit of the doubt during a criminal inquiry. That was clearly not enough. Maybe when I become a big leaguer …

It took me time in my professional path to know how to embrace the Black man after that comma.

Off the field, being Black is a form of omnipresence, the inability to be invisible. It is the inability to just focus on your job, the inability to just “stick to sports” because you still have to play them in a black uniform, one that does not come off when you put the grass-stained uniform in the laundry.

It is also a source of pride and unity, a shared experience in the world that can create solidarity. But this comes with a simplistic way to be categorized, perpetually and dangerously fitting the generic “description” of a suspect or the worst-case imaginations of white society.

It took me time in my professional path to know how to embrace the Black man after that comma. It required patience to be able to celebrate being both individual and part of a collective body, even when your American individuality is always absorbed into the collective with or without your consent. A reminder of the constant fight to define yourself beyond the racialization of society’s scapegoating. I found I did have some say in what came next.

One of the biggest commas ever written in the Black experience was added in the codification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. On the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation, which strategically abolished slavery in only the Southern states in rebellion, President Abraham Lincoln and Congress sought a pragmatic approach to end slavery and unite the nation after the bitter Civil War. The comma was part of the compromise.

The amendment reads:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

That comma before “except” was used to rebuild the white South, a concession for the inconvenience of stripping them of their unpaid labor force. It sat in the hands of the enforcers of the law who decide what was a crime and what was not. We know enforcement of the law was used to essentially reenslave Black people with impunity, through Black codes and inescapable cycles of sharecropping.

We see this in the retroactive justification in a whole host of situations. We were jogging, renting, walking, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow or getting a cab. But we were “suspicious.” And that suspicion introduces the most powerful comma of all. The post-mortem comma, used to justify a deadly use of force. This punctuation is weaponized, unleashed retroactively to avoid introspection and accountability. It has the effect of making our deaths appear like an afterthought, or even mandatory out of a need for law and order.

And death is only one result. For the living, it fans indignity and invites other forms of nonlethal subjugation and pain.

But Doug Glanville, the major leaguer, would change that, right?

In the right circumstances, that pinstripe uniform was a refuge, even as I knew it couldn’t protect me from all racial animus. It couldn’t explain what life was like when I headed home and wasn’t recognized as a big leaguer, facing the Lexus dealer who would not let me test-drive a car because he had “lost the keys.”

When I retired on June 25, 2005, I was already engaged to be married and unsure of what was next in my professional life. Philadelphia offered a lot from my baseball career and my alma mater was nearby. But I was not sure how the world would view me when I took off that uniform. Now, I was:

Doug Glanville, the retired ballplayer.

But still I had some sway, some insulation, right? An ability to get the benefit of the doubt?

On a snowy day, I went out to shovel my driveway. The temperature was hovering around zero degrees, notable because in these circumstances I know I am zero degrees of separation from the Black man in the mug shot, the man embedded in America’s fear of itself.

I look up and see a police SUV pull up across the street. It is from the bordering town, not the city where I live, an unusual phenomenon in an area that is so provincial. The officer gets out of his cruiser. He’s a young white man, and he strolls across the street toward me as I stand up tall in my driveway. I tensely await the engagement. Is he lost? I have no ID, I haven’t shaved in days, so concern is rising, but I would find out as soon as he finishes crossing the street. Without introduction or explanation, his first words were …

“So, trying to make a few extra bucks shoveling people’s driveways around here?”

Of course. Still Doug Glanville, Black man.

Retirement is over. Now I’m adding a new comma.

Doug Glanville, writer.


Doug Glanville was a first-round draft pick by the Chicago Cubs and an outfielder with the Cubs, Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies. He is the author of The Game from Where I Stand: A Ballplayer’s Inside View. Glanville is currently a baseball analyst for both ESPN and Marquee Sports Network, co-hosts the baseball-focused podcast “Starkville” at The Athletic, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut.

In the Presence of John Lewis…

President Obama presents Congressman John Lewis with Presidential Medal of Freedom. Image

Last night, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, one of my personal heroes, died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80.

It was four years ago that I attended a political rally in a church in a neighboring community. Congressman Lewis had come to town to try to help a younger candidate win a seat to join him in the House of Representatives.

The church was packed with a heartwarmingly diverse crowd: all variations on the color spectrum, differing faiths or no faith, young and old, men and women.

I was thrilled to be so close to Lewis. Ever since seeing the video of the brutal beating he’d received on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which left him with a fractured skull but a resilient spirit, he’s been my ideal of the finest and bravest of Americans. He adhered to his belief and practice of nonviolence throughout his lifetime. 

That beating by state troopers in riot gear became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The images of the attacks led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law shortly thereafter. 

Lewis’s long and storied history as a leader in the civil rights movement began with lunch counter sit-ins that ultimately succeeded in desegregating public facilities in Nashville. That was the beginning. But the first time he was arrested, his family was ashamed, as they’d taught him “don’t get into trouble.”

However, once he’d met with Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, he knew what he had to do. He had to “get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” He paid a high personal price for that trouble, but his impact was huge.

It wasn’t just his bravery. It was his humility and generosity of spirit. To some, his willingness to forgive was unfathomable. 

Writes Michael Fletcher in The Undefeated:

“My apprehension was rooted in the mistaken notion that Lewis was not angry enough. Why did he not demand revenge for the unspeakable racism he fearlessly confronted? How could he accept an apology from former Alabama governor George Wallace, a longtime segregationist who ordered the infamous Bloody Sunday attack on the bridge? Or forgive the pathological Bull Connor, the former public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama? 

“Why would he forge a relationship with former Klansman Elwin Wilson, who was part of a mob that in 1961 beat down Lewis and other Freedom Riders outside the whites-only waiting room at the Rock Hill, South Carolina, bus station?

“But over the years my ambivalence melted into reverence as I came to better appreciate the power of Lewis’ grace. It armed him with undeniable moral authority that allowed him to change minds, and hearts. His willingness to forgive, along with his bravery and contempt for injustice were among the sturdiest pillars of his greatness.

“Wilson apologized to Lewis years after his crimes and sought to atone for them. Lewis accepted his apology, went on television with the former Klansman and even hosted him at his congressional office. After Wilson died in 2013, Lewis reflected kindly on his example.

‘Elwin Wilson shows us that people can change,’ Lewis said. ‘And when they put down the mechanisms of division and separation to pick up the tools of reconciliation, they can help build a greater sense of community in our society, even between the most unlikely people.”

Lewis had received similar vindication when he’d returned to Selma on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 1998, as he had every year. Selma’s mayor, Joseph T. Smitherman, who had been mayor when the attack occurred in 1965, gave Lewis a key to the city. 

Said Smitherman:

“Back then, I called him an outside rabble-rouser. Today I call him one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met.”

In his years in Congress, Lewis became known as the “conscience of the Congress.” He worked to create what Dr Martin Luther King had called “a beloved community”—a world free of racism, poverty, and war. He was identified with healthcare reform, justice, voting rights, immigration, and gun control.  

Another indelible image I have of him followed the mass shooting in an Orlando, Florida night club in 2016. To protest Congressional inaction after yet another gun massacre, he led a sit-in among Democratic members of Congress on the floor of the House of Representatives.

When we eventually do get the sensible gun legislation that the majority of Americans want, I hope it will bear his name. And I’m fairly sure that the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma will soon be renamed in his honor.

Lewis was gratified by the global demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd in May. He viewed the diverse actions against systemic racism as “a continuation of his life’s work,” reported The New York Times (which is the source of several items in this post).

He told an interviewer from CBS This Morning that:

“It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets—to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble.’ This feels and looks so different. It is so much more massive and all inclusive. There will be no turning back.”

In President Obama’s remarks on Lewis’s death, he wrote that when they’d last spoken after the demonstrations,

“I told him that all those young people — of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had heard of his courage only through history books. 

“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did. And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.”

In the church where I heard him speak four years ago, Lewis described his early life as the son of sharecroppers. He told us he’d gotten his start preaching to the chickens outside his modest home. He minced no words in describing the horrors he’d been subjected to as a young peaceful demonstrator. He made us smile, he made us laugh, he made us weep, and he inspired us. And his magic helped his candidate, who won in a largely Republican district.

I had brought with me a copy of March, the autobiographical graphic novel trilogy about the Civil Rights movement that he had written for young people with Andrew Aydin, which was illustrated by Nate Powell. I had bought it for my grandson and was hoping I could get Lewis to autograph it. I came close.

As he made his way out the side door, mobbed by well-wishers, I was one person away from shaking his hand and handing him the book. And then he was gone. 

Here is a video of John Lewis receiving The National Book Award for March–one of several awards it garnered.


Note: A documentary, “John Lewis; Good Trouble,” has just been released. 

Continue reading “In the Presence of John Lewis…”

Two Important Lessons About Our Silence in the Presence of Racist Jokes

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?


Continue reading “Two Important Lessons About Our Silence in the Presence of Racist Jokes”

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

Image courtesy of

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?

Image courtesy of

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

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


Image courtesy of


Justifiable outrage coalesces into
nity as we recoil from blue knee on black
eck in this repetitive horror to which we cry
his freedom anniversary should be one of
lation in a land revitalizing its promised
quality despite the backward steps—
ever forgetting Tulsa or Jim Crow or
he Klansmen et al stalking among us—we’ll
Hope/march/work/vote til we’re…


Emancipation Day Celebration. Image courtesy of