By Rich Larson
Last week, I published a piece about civility and how Americans are losing the ability to communicate with each other. I received a comment on that article from a woman named Lisa J., who identified herself as a Black woman, and very politely asked this question: “I am from the intersection of two communities where politeness has meant the preservation of an oppressive status quo. Under what circumstances should the shouting begin and when?”
Yesterday morning, I was sitting in a recliner, drinking a cup of coffee with my MacBook Air on my lap. My wife was sitting next to me in another very comfortable chair scrolling through Facebook on her iPad. We had been discussing the case of Justine Damond, the white, Australian-born Minneapolis resident who was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer on Saturday night.
The Minneapolis StarTribune identified the officer who shot Damond as Mohamed Noor, “the first Somali police officer to patrol the 5th Precinct in southwest Minneapolis.”
What happened in that alley on Saturday night, based on the reports, defies explanation, reason, and understanding. I was reading an article, trying to get my head around the repercussions of this abhorrently tragic scene, when I just sort of looked at my wife and said out loud, “People are going to be afraid to call the cops now.”
And then it hit me. It all washed away. The coffee. The comfy chair. The electronic luxuries. The air-conditioned living room. The four secure walls in my comfortable neighborhood.
The white privilege. The class privilege. The male privilege.
I thought of Lisa J. and her question: Under what circumstances should the shouting begin and when? No question the shouting began long ago, but now, as white people, do we join in? Does it matter that Damond was white and the police officer who killed her is Somali?
Reading about Damond this morning, I understood, if just for a second, what it means to have the benefit of not having brown skin. I have to say, I’m embarrassed that this is what it takes for me to get it. It takes the death murder of a beautiful white woman to really understand just what it is we, as white people, take for granted.
I, of course, had initially made the assumption that the police officer was white. I’m not even sure I thought about the race of the officer as much as I thought of the police as an extension of the power that privileged people, and yeah I’ll say it, White People, have in society. While the officer’s race, nationality and religion will all be thrown into the conversation, it’s really immaterial. It wasn’t a Somali man who killed Justine Damond. It wasn’t a Muslim man who killed her. She was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.
A lot of you are going to disagree with me on the importance of that, which just reinforces my point. A woman called the police when she thought she heard an assault happening, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. The police arrived and shot her dead. If you can’t see beyond the fact that the victim was white and the killer was black, then you aren’t trying hard enough. The headline is “Innocent Woman Killed by Minneapolis Cop.” The African-American community has been dealing with this headline for decades. Centuries. Forever.
I sit in my air-conditioned living room, in my comfortable home, in a middle-class neighborhood, and I watch what’s happening. I’ve seen the dashboard camera footage of the Philando Castile shooting, and I am outraged. I see footage of young black men being shot in South Carolina, Mississippi, Missouri, Chicago and seemingly everywhere else in the country, and I am sickened. I hear the voices that hate the Somali community in Minneapolis and I’m disgusted. I read about President Trump’s travel ban and I seethe. And then I think “I’m not dealing with this right now.” So, I click on the sports section, or turn on Netflix for an episode of 30 Rock.
I can do that.
I watch Straight Outta Compton, and I feel like I get it. Watching the movie about “Gangsta” rappers N.W.A., I see the abuse of police power through the Hollywood lens, and I think that the rise of hip-hop was inevitable. I feel thankful that those guys could channel their anger into highly-profitable art. I watch the HBO documentary The Defiant Ones, which goes into more detail about how Andre “Dr. Dre” Young was able to become a billionaire, and I feel proud and inspired. He picked himself up out of Compton, and I think to myself “he worked his way out.”
I sit in my comfy chair, drinking coffee in my air-conditioned living room in a middle-class neighborhood, and I think to myself, “He did it. So can I.”
Seriously. I have the audacity to compare myself to Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, and every other poet from South Central L.A. I’m a white man from affluent privilege, and I think I can identify with the things these people have seen and experienced? I can somehow relate my own experiences to theirs? Really? Honestly, what did I learn on the mean streets of Edina, Minnesota? My “hood” was Southdale, for Christ’s sake.
When Lisa J. sent me her comment, I did not have an answer for her. I felt a little naïve for the assertions I had made without taking into consideration the struggles of other people. I meekly apologized to her, confessed my embarrassment, threw in a little thing about Dr. King (you know, to prove to her that I support the cause), and thanked her for reading.
Lisa, I will tell you publicly right now, that I don’t have a clue. I stand behind my call for peace among us all, but I absolutely must acknowledge that there is no way I can begin to understand how complicated the problem really is.
And today, I sit in my white, male, middle-class privilege thinking to myself, “Well, now people are going to be afraid to call the police.”
What is it like to live in that world? What does it mean to a community when the very people who are paid to “serve and protect” are the enemy? As a parent, how do you raise your kids? As you come of age, what do you do with the passion of youth? As a human being, what do you do to survive? It’s a world without institutional justice.
God, I feel stupid. It’s all been right there in front of me for who-knows-how-long. The black community has been trying to tell us what kind of a problem this is, and still it literally took the tragedy of a beautiful white woman being gunned down in cold blood to even give me a glimpse of reality.
Every person of color should cross their arms and roll their eyes right now. White people, we are being judged.
And for good reason.