You cannot know that which you have never been taught.
And in this country — a place where reciting the pledge of allegiance and setting off fireworks every July 4th is what passes for historical memory — it goes without saying there is a lot we haven’t learned.
Or perhaps we were taught it but conveniently pushed it aside to the deepest recesses of our mind, having elevated amnesia to the level of a religious sacrament.
Either way, whether from genuine ignorance or selective memory, there is much about our nation which does not currently register with the vast majority of white Americans.
The truth of this statement is inarguable. And we know it because whenever another black body lies dead at the hands of a police officer — whether by gunshot, chokehold or a knee to the neck for eight minutes — their families are met by white assurances that it was tragic but ultimately an isolated event. Bad apples, we insist.
This is something we reflexively say while studiously ignoring the other apples standing around watching and doing nothing to intervene against the actions of the bad one.
Bad apples we insist, even as we stare upon the orchard whence the bad ones come, unable or unwilling to note the rot presently eating away at the base of the trees.
White America has had the luxury of viewing our society this way — as a place where things happen, but there are no broader patterns — especially as regards law enforcement. We have had the privilege of obliviousness, which is more significant than all the other privileges afforded white people in this country because it is the one that keeps all the others in place, unseen and thus unchallenged by whatever remains of our collective conscience.
It is time we relinquish that privilege — indeed, smash it to pieces in the interest not only of our country but of humanity.
Most of white America has experienced police as helpful, as protectors of our lives and property. But that is not the black experience, and black people know this, however much we don’t. The history of law enforcement for black folks has been one of unremitting oppression.
This is neither hyperbole nor debatable. It is an indisputable fact.
From slave patrols to overseers to the Black Codes to lynching, it is a fact. From dozens of white-on-black riots that marked the first half of the twentieth century (in which cops participated actively) to Watts to Rodney King to Abner Louima to Amadou Diallo to the railroading of the Central Park 5, it is a fact.
From the New Orleans Police Department’s killings of Adolph Archie to Henry Glover to the Danziger Bridge shootings there in the wake of Katrina to stop-and-frisk in places like New York, it’s a fact.
And the fact that white people don’t know this history, have never been required to learn it and can be considered even remotely informed citizens without understanding it, explains a lot about what’s wrong with America. The fact that some of you will have to now Google the names and incidents I mentioned above — because you didn’t know of them already — makes the point nicely.
And not knowing that history then contributes directly to racial tension and misunderstanding.
Think back to the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson verdict in 1995. When most of black America responded to that verdict with cathartic relief — not because they necessarily thought Simpson innocent but because they felt there were enough questions raised about police in the case to sow reasonable doubt — most white folks concluded that black America had lost its mind. How could they possibly believe the LAPD would plant evidence in an attempt to frame or sweeten the case against a criminal defendant?
A few years later, had we been paying attention, we would have had our answer. It was then that the scandal in the city’s Ramparts division broke. And what had happened in Ramparts? Dozens of police had been implicated in over a hundred cases of misconduct, including, in one incident, shooting a gang member at point-blank range and then planting a weapon on him to make the event appear as self-defense. So putting aside the guilt or innocence of O.J., it was not irrational for black Angelenos (and Americans) to give one the likes of Mark Fuhrman side-eye after his racism was revealed in that case.
This, as much as anything, is the source of our trouble when it comes to racial division in this country. The inability of white people to hear black reality — to not even know that there is one and that it differs from our own — makes it nearly impossible to move forward. But how can we expect black folks to trust law enforcement or to view it in the same heroic terms that so many of us do? The law has been a weapon used against black bodies, not a shield intended to defend them, and for a very long time.
In his contribution to Jill Nelson’s 2000 anthology on police brutality, scholar Robin D.G Kelley reminds us of the bill of particulars. As Kelley notes, in the colonial period, early law enforcement not only looked the other way at the commission of brutality against black folks but actively engaged in the forcible suppression of slave uprisings and insurrections.
Later, after abolition, law enforcement regularly released black prisoners into the hands of lynch mobs and stood by as their bodies were hanged from trees, burned with blowtorches, body parts amputated, and given out as souvenirs.
In city after city, north, and south, police either stood by or actively participated in pogroms against African American communities. In one particularly egregious anti-black rampage in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917, police shot blacks dead in the street as part of an orgy of violence aimed at African Americans who had moved from the Deep South in search of jobs. One hundred and fifty were killed, including 39 children whose skulls were crushed and whose bodies were thrown into bonfires set by white mobs.
In 1943 white police in Detroit joined with others of their racial compatriots, attacking blacks who had dared to move into previously all-white public housing, killing seventeen. In the 1960s and early ’70s, police killed over two dozen members of the Black Panther Party, including Mark Clark and Fred Hampton in Chicago, asleep in their beds at the time. In 1985, Philadelphia law enforcement perpetrated an all-out assault on members of the MOVE organization, bombing their row houses from state police helicopters, killing eleven, including five children, destroying sixty-one homes and leaving hundreds homeless.
It was the police who pulled protesters off of sit-in stools. It was the police who have enforced the war on drugs, in which black and brown folks have been disproportionately snared despite equal rates of drug use and dealing by whites.
These are just a few of the pieces of history which Kelley and others have described, and for most whites, we are without real knowledge of any of them. But they and others like them are incidents burned into the cell memory of black America.
Bull Connor, Sheriff Jim Clark, Deputy Cecil Price: these are not far-away characters for most black folks. How could they be? After all, more than a few still carry the scars inflicted by men such as they. Though few would ridicule Jews for still harboring cold feelings for Germans 75 years later — we would understand the lack of trust, even the anger — we reject the same historically-embedded logic of black trepidation and contempt for law enforcement in this country. And this is so, even as black folks’ negative experiences with police have extended well beyond the time frame of Hitler’s twelve-year Reich, and even as those experiences did not stop 75 years ago, or even 75 days ago, or 75 minutes.
One wonders what it will take for us to not merely listen but actually to hear the voices of black parents, fearful that the next time their child walks out the door may be the last, and all because someone — an officer or a self-appointed vigilante — sees them as dangerous, as disrespectful, as reaching for their gun?
Can we just put aside all the rationalizations and deflections to which we reflexively pivot and instead imagine what it must feel like to walk through life having to always think about how to behave so as not to scare white people, or so as not to trigger our contempt?
And can we appreciate how exhausting it must be to have to constantly second guess how to dress, and how to walk and how to talk and how to respond to a cop, not because you’re merely trying to be polite, but because you’d like to see your mother again?
All that is work, and I dare say it is harder than any job any white person has ever had in this country. To be seen as a font of cultural contagion is equivalent to being a modern-day leper.
Perhaps we might spend a few minutes considering what this does to a young black child, and how it differs from how white children grow up. Think about how you would respond to the world if that world told you every day and in a million ways before lunch how awful you were, how horrible your community was, and how pathological your family. Because that’s what we’re telling black folks daily: that they are uniquely flawed, uniquely pathological, a cancerous mass of moral decrepitude to be feared, scorned, surveilled, incarcerated, and discarded.
The constant drumbeat of negativity is so normalized that it forms the backdrop of every conversation about black people held in white spaces when black folks themselves are not around. It is like the way your knee jumps when the doctor taps it with that little hammer thing during a check-up: a reflex by now instinctual, automatic, unthinking.
But we can’t afford the obliviousness anymore. It has claimed too many lives and continues to heap insult upon injury whenever another one takes their last breath.
It is in moments like these when the chasm between our respective understandings of the world — itself opened up by the equally cavernous differences in the way we’ve experienced it — seems almost impossible to bridge. But bridge it we must, before the strain of our racial repetitive motion disorder does permanent and untreatable damage to our collective national body.
Nothing less than the future of this country is at stake. If you love it the way you swear you do white folks, it is time to act like it.