One day, I ran into a woman I knew in Target. I wouldn’t call her a friend – more of a friend of a friend. We’d been in the same social situations many times and were cordial, but neither of us ever went beyond that in developing a relationship. Still, I figured I knew her well enough that I should say “hi” when I saw her in the shoe section.
In typical polite Southern style, I said, “Your hair looks great! When did you get it cut?”
“Nigger day,” she answered.
“Huh?” Or maybe I said “What?” or “Excuse me?”
“Martin Luther King day. I was off work anyway so I treated myself to a hair cut and a pedicure.”
Did this woman know my children were people of color? Yes, I’m sure she did. She’d been in the same room with them. So, did it still not occur to her that what she said might be offensive? Or did she not care? I tucked it away – I had all the information about this woman I needed.
Fast forward several years and her child has returned from Afghanistan and is looking for a job. They apply to the local Police Department and I’m asked to be a reference. I’d seen this person really struggle since returning from deployment. Explosive anger. Excessive drinking. When the PD called for a reference check, I told them there was no way I would put a gun in this person’s hand*.
I’ve been thinking about what I would have done if the person had not exhibited symptoms of PTSD – would I have given a glowing recommendation? This person had always been respectful and kind to me. Would knowing that they came from a family that referred to Martin Luther King Day as “Nigger Day” have sent off similar red flags for me?
As I watch the number of police shootings of unarmed black people scroll before me on social media, I wonder what the difference is between those officers who proudly and ethically serve their communities for 20-30-40 years without shooting an unarmed person and those that don’t. Since research has shown that white people are more likely to perceive a black person as dangerous than another white person, that may be part of the puzzle. (You can take a version of that study here.) When you add on a family history where racism is not only the norm but proudly flaunted and military training to dehumanize people seen as the enemy, does that create perfect storm for shooting first and asking questions later?
Add this story to the storm: In Baltimore, where Lt. Brian Rice has been charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office due to the death of Freddie Gray, allegations have been made that Psychology Consultants Associates (PCA), the firm that is the sole provider of pre-employment psychological screenings and “fitness for duty” evaluations for officers seeking to return to active duty after an incident, may not have been doing the job they were contracted to do.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been accused of being anti-police. Someone said that people who encourage hatred of police by posting the shootings of unarmed people were responsible for the death of a Memphis Police Officer (Sean Bolton). I believe that in America, there is a perfect storm brewing and we are all contributing to it. White people who can’t even consider that they may harbor implicit bias that makes them more likely to perceive a threat from a black person, much less take any action to fix it. The “unfinished business of slavery” that looms over us and limits the rights of people of color by gerrymandering voting districts and passing voting laws that – intentionally or not – keep poor people and people of color from exercising their voting rights. Unethical organizations (like PCA mentioned above) after the dolla-dolla-bill instead of performing the work they were hired to do. Officers who see other officers exhibiting behaviors that are questionable without reporting them (and worse, corroborating false stories after a tragedy happens). Draining money out of inner cities so that children grow less and less educated and more and more poor (and thus, more likely to commit crime).
Let me be clear that if I’m angry at police, I’m equally angry at myself. I’m angry at my fellow white American who isn’t outraged that my grandson could be sitting in a playground with a pellet gun, be perceived as a threat and shot to death. I’m angry at politicians who worry more about two women marrying than about the safety and liberty of our citizenry.
And I’m tired.
*I’m happy to say that the person is doing much better now – at least from where I stand in their life.