“I fixed the problem with your car,” the mechanic told my dad. “You can pick it up now.”
It was the mid-1990s. I was a junior in high school. My dad and I drove to the auto shop to pick up my new car. Well, it wasn’t new per se. It was used, very used, but it was new to me.
Needless to say, I was very excited. And my dad was excited for me. I remember him being very proud of me. He has always been a proud, patient, and joyful father. I can only remember him getting angry twice during my childhood: once at my brother, and once at a police officer.
He had to make a left-hand turn across traffic to enter the auto-body shop. There was a median in the road, marked by solid double yellow lines. My dad crossed the lines, entered the median, and when it was safe, he turned into the parking lot so that I could drive home my new car.
That’s when we heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights.
The police officer followed us into the parking lot. My dad stopped and the police officer knocked on his window.
“Sir,” the officer began. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“I have no idea,” Dad replied as he shook his head with frustration.
“You crossed the double yellow lines. I’m going to have to give you a ticket.”
“For crossing a double yellow line?!?” My dad asked incredulously.
“Yes sir. It’s against the law,” the officer responded as he walked back to his car. After a few minutes, he returned with the ticket. “Here you go sir. You have a month to pay the fee or contest in court.”
By now my dad had turned into a different person. He was filled with anger like I’ve rarely seen. “This is ridiculous,” he complained. “People make that turn all the time. I can’t believe you gave me a ticket for that!”
“Sorry sir,” the officer impassively replied. Then he simply walked away.
I’ve learned two things since that day. First, I’ve learned that any encounter with a police officer doesn’t define who a person is. My dad thought the police officer was abusing his power, and my dad responded with uncharacteristic, but understandable, anger.
Second, I’ve learned to be grateful that my dad isn’t black. Because if my white father had been born black, the officer may not have simply walked away. Things might have escalated very quickly into a yelling match and my dad might have been arrested for “assaulting” a police officer or for “resisting arrest.” And it would have been my dad’s fault.
For example, take a look at the 52-minute video in the Sandra Bland case. Sandra was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. For the first few minutes of the encounter, Sandra was just like my dad – irritated but compliant. She answered every question the officer asked. Then the officer asked her to put out her cigarette.
“Do you mind putting out your cigarette, please?”
Sandra responded with a natural question, “I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?”
The officer didn’t answer Sandra’s question. Instead, he demanded that she step out of the car. “You can step on out now.” Then he threatened her with a Taser.
Why? A police officer can demand that someone exit a vehicle when the officer thinks there is a threat. You know, a lit cigarette can be used as a dangerous weapon .
Sandra was subsequently arrested and died in her jail cell.
How could this happen? Ask many white people and they will tell you it was Sandra’s fault. According to CNN law enforcement analyst Harry Houk, Sandra was the problem. “The whole thing here is that she was arrogant from the beginning. Very dismissive of the officer. She was uncooperative.”
Once again we find white people blaming a black victim of violence. She’s to blame because she was “irritated.” She’s to blame because she refused to put out her cigarette. She’s to blame because she’s black.
A white response that blames Sandra Bland is a racist response. White people can get away with being irritated at police. We don’t have to be kind to officers. We can express our anger and not fear arrest.
A black person though? If a black person shows any anger, they will likely be arrested or possibly killed. And it will be construed as their fault.
White Americans can no longer live in denial of the racism that infects us. Yes, racism infects police culture, but white America cannot simply blame police culture. Racist attitudes and structures are everywhere – from politics to education to mass incarceration to economics to housing.
Racism is a particularly pernicious form of scapegoating in America. Robert Hammerton-Kelly states in his book The Gospel and the Sacred that, “Scapegoating … is the psychosocial propensity to relieve frustration by lashing out at someone defenseless, or to avoid responsibility by blaming someone …”
The police officer was clearly frustrated that Sandra didn’t bow down to his demands and so he relieved his frustration by lashing out at a defenseless Sandra Bland, whose only “weapon” was a lit cigarette. Since smoking a cigarette in a car isn’t illegal, Sandra had every right to ask why the officer requested that she put it out. Asking the question isn’t resisting arrest, nor is it a threat to the police officer’s safety.
But no matter. Case after case after case shows that an officer can make up any excuse to accuse a black person of resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer and treat them with brutal force. The point is that Sandra’s arrest and subsequent death never should have happened. And those events never would have happened if Sandra was white. That’s because to be black in America is to be America’s national scapegoat. From the very beginning, white America has relieved our collective frustration by uniting against black people, lashing out at them with impunity because the power structures lean heavily in our favor.
White denial of this fact only leads us to avoid taking personal responsibility for the racism that infects each of us. Blaming black victims of police violence is indicative of our denial that we are racists. “It’s her fault,” we say. “She was arrogant.” Well, my dad was “arrogant,” too. He was “irritated.” But he’s still alive. Despite his arrogance and anger, his encounter with the police didn’t escalate into imprisonment or death. That’s because he was born with the privilege of being white in America.
It’s time for white people to stop our personal and collective denial of racism. It’s time for us to recognize that racism and white privilege have infected our country since the beginning of its history. That recognition is the first of many steps we must make to help dismantle the racism that continues to infect America.