The Eyes of Our Whites: Racial Perceptions and Racial Reality in Ferguson and Beyond

You really can’t have it both ways.

You cannot praise the Justice Department for, in effect, exonerating officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown—and argue how that report proves that the black community’s outrage over police racism was manufactured—and yet ignore the Department’s companion report (or even worse, criticize it as the work of “black radicals and Marxists”), which found a pattern of racist abuse on the part of the Ferguson P.D. over many years.

You cannot presume that the Department was thorough in its investigation of Wilson but sloppy in its larger undertaking—at least not if intellectual honesty is a commodity for which you have any regard. If they did their job well in the first instance, it is likely the case that they did their job well in both.

Yet, for much of white America (and especially its more conservative set), we are to believe the one and not the other; we should use the one as a weapon with which to beat the #BlackLivesMatter movement over the head—“see, he didn’t have his hands up, that was all a lie!”—while ignoring the daily abuses of power meted out against black Ferguson residents, who were being regularly stopped, ticketed, fined, arrested and even attacked by police dogs for minor infractions. That black folks were paying, in effect, a racial tax means nothing apparently, even to the kinds of people who normally rail against taxes. That they were subjected to blatantly unconstitutional treatment means nothing, even to those who claim to love the constitution above all (at least when their Second Amendment rights are concerned). All that matters to some is that their presumptions about Michael Brown’s actions (which, and let’s just be honest about it, were fixed well in advance of any evidence) turned out to be sufficiently confirmed by the Justice Department.

And yes, I know the retort: By the same logic, so too must we who backed the original “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” narrative accept both reports, and as such, accept that our presumptions about what happened that August day were also concretized ahead of the facts, and in the end, largely unsustainable.

Fine. I can’t speak for others, but I can certainly speak for myself. I am willing to accept both reports, having read them from beginning to end. I am willing to accept that so far as the bulk of available evidence indicates, Officer Wilson reasonably felt endangered that day (or at least could not be proved a liar when he claimed so, which is the burden the feds had to consider), and as such was justified in using force against Brown. I am willing to accept that so far as the bulk of available evidence is concerned, Brown’s hands were not up and he was not in the act of clearly surrendering when he was shot. And I am willing to accept that Brown was moving towards Wilson: that much is proved by multiple eyewitness testimony as well as the location of his blood, twenty feet behind where his body ultimately fell. Note please, that doesn’t mean he was “charging” Wilson as some claim. After all, prior to the fatal shot Brown had been hit in the middle of the forehead by a bullet that blew out his facial bones, as well as two shots that punctured his lungs, so it seems unlikely he could have been moving very fast. Yet if he was moving forward and those shots hadn’t fully stopped him, one can understand why Wilson might reasonably have felt that he was in danger.

Like I said, fine.

But what does that really mean? And more to the point what does it not mean?

One thing it clearly demonstrates is this: when it comes to white people who kill black people, the system ultimately works, and quickly. Darren Wilson was not jailed for his actions. He will not spend a day in prison.

How nice it would be if we could say the same for Glenn Ford, imprisoned for thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit, but for which he was convicted by an all-white jury.

How nice it would be if we could say the same for Darryl Hunt, convicted and imprisoned for two decades for the rape and murder of a white woman, despite his innocence—also convicted by an all-white jury.

How nice it would be if we could say the same for Ronald Cotton, convicted and imprisoned for ten years for a rape of a white woman that he did not commit, only exonerated after DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Or for Marvin Anderson.

Or for Herman Atkins.

Or for Bennett Barbour.

How nice it would be for the hundreds of black men, falsely accused, prosecuted and convicted of crimes they did not commit over the last several years, none of whom were able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from strangers for their defense, the way Darren Wilson was. Though ultimately exonerated—and so one could say, if given to a particularly generous definition of success, that the system “worked” for them too—would it be untoward to point out the obvious? That for every Darren Wilson, whose life though disrupted has not been destroyed in the fashion of these men, there are hundreds of black men not so lucky; men who are railroaded to prison on the basis of witness testimony far flimsier than that against Officer Wilson?

And no, this is not changing the subject. It is the subject. For at least two reasons.

First, because white America by and large sheds no tears, spills no ink, and exudes no anger on our Facebook walls about the injustices done to these black folks. Just as most of us say nothing about those killed by police in cases where even video evidence suggests it was the cops who lied, and where the killings were self-evidently unjustified, as with Tamir Rice or John Crawford or Eric Garner, just to name a few. So long as most white folks turn a blind eye towards even those cases where the injustice is apparent, even proven (as in the case of the exonerations), it will be hard for folks of color, or for some whites among us who are committed to fighting racism, to view the concerns about Darren Wilson as anything but white racial bonding and smug supremacy. Especially when at least some among us are not only insufficiently upset about such incidents, but even giddily express admiration for police who kill blacks in such cases, as happened at a rally last year in Beavercreek, Ohio (where John Crawford was killed at Walmart).

And second, because it is precisely the fact of those myriad injustices—the false convictions, the racial profiling, the stop-and-frisk policies, the police brutality, the planting of evidence after said brutality (as happened last week in Michigan), the fabrication by cops about black assaults against them, as in Portland recently, and the ticky-tack harassment of blacks by the Ferguson police—which explains the pain, hurt and even rage that seems so irrational to so many whites. To not attend to these daily indignities, generation in and generation out—to not be as outraged about them as we seem to be about those who rise up to challenge them—is to miss the story entirely. And it is to ensure that there can be no healing, no justice and no peace for any of us, ever.

The reason it was so easy for black Ferguson and black America writ large to presume the worst about Officer Wilson was because black Ferguson and black America has seen this movie before, and rarely does it offer much in the way of a surprise ending. Does it appear that the facts in this case might have been an example of that rare plot twist? Yes. But it was nothing if not rational for the African American community, given the typical script, to have felt as they did. The same was true with the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. Most black folks felt O.J.’s acquittal was just (even though many believed he was guilty), because questions about the racist history of the lead investigator in the case set off alarm bells about planted evidence and misconduct by the LAPD. While most of white America thought such concerns irrational, even paranoid, black suspicions on that matter were borne out a few years later when the Ramparts Division scandal broke, during which it was revealed that LAPD officers had indeed engaged in a pattern of evidence-planting and fraud to procure convictions. In other words, systemic abuse by law enforcement, about which black America is all too aware (and with which they have lived for generations), is the cause of black suspicion in individual cases like that of Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, or for that matter, Mark Furhman and O.J. Simpson. Solve the first, and you’ll no longer need worry much about the second of these.

But for far too many of us, our only angst is directed at people of color. It is their feelings about cops we can’t abide, their anger and hostility towards law enforcement, and their defiant demands that their lives matter and ought not be snuffed as readily as they so often are, which manage to set us on edge. Yet if white folks have a hard time dealing with how black folks feel about the system—and how willing they are to criticize it—we might do well to consider how much harder a time black folks are having actually living with that system. Black perceptions are rooted in black experience, which is to say that if we would like the perception gap to be narrowed, the experiential one must be narrowed first. Because right now, that gap is cavernous. And while we may not know just how expansive is the divide between the way we experience that system and the way they do, make no mistake—black folks know it all too well.

Black America knows that black males are twenty-one times more likely than white males to be killed by police, not because they commit crime twenty-one times more often or resist arrest at a rate that is twenty-one times greater than the rate for whites, but because they are perceived as dangerous in ways that white men are not. Even when they are unarmed and posing no threat to police at all. In places like New York, this tragic reality has been evident for a long time and in case after case for decades.

They know that white folks can parade around with guns (real ones, with actual bullets, unlike the toy possessed by Tamir Rice or the air rifle held by John Crawford) and not be shot, tased or in any way abused by officers. Even when they threaten those officers. Even when they verbally taunt and abuse those officers outside a school. Even when they bring that weapon to a park between the White House and Capitol building, and proceed to issue political threats.

They know that a white man can actually point his weapon at officers, refuse to drop that weapon when told to do so, and even demand that the officers “drop their fucking guns,” as happened last year in New Orleans and still remain a breathing, carbon-based life form.

They know that a white man can actually take an officer’s gun from him and manage to get a shot off without being killed or beaten to a bloody pulp, as recently happened in Beaverton, Oregon.

They know that a white guy can shoot at cops with a BB gun and not be violently beaten or killed for his actions, as happened in Concord, New Hampshire last year. Or that white guys can shoot up a Walmart in Idaho and be taken into custody without injury. Or point a gun at cops in Pennsylvania and not be killed or injured. Or point a gun at firefighters in Phoenix and not get shot when the cops arrive.

They know that a white man like Cliven Bundy, who is in violation of federal law can hold law enforcement officers at bay with the help of his family and random scores of supporters, who point weapons at the federal agents and threaten to kill them if need be, and not be shot or arrested.

They know a white woman can shoot up a neighborhood and lead cops on a car chase during which she also shoots at them, as happened last year outside Chattanooga, and still live to tell the story, all while black women who are posing no threat to police at all are killed with frightening regularity by the cops.

They know that white men and women who kill or threaten to kill police will never be viewed as politically-motivated or engaging in such acts due to whiteness, or because of right-wing ideology, even as the shooting of officers by black men (in Brooklyn or more recently in Ferguson) will be immediately ascribed to left-wing, even racist anti-cop hatred stoked by civil rights protesters.

They know white folks can literally assault police and not only remain alive but actually manage to run away after the fact without a shot being fired at them.

Black America knows that no matter what white folks do and no matter how we behave, those behaviors will never be discussed as evidence of some race-based group pathology. And so when white men brawl in the streets at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York, as was recently captured on video, not only will none of the violent men in question be arrested, but it will fail to register even a blip in the media culture that was so quick to discuss the recent fight amongst black girls at a Brooklyn McDonalds. And needless to say, when covered, it won’t lead to pronouncements about the cultural dysfunction of white men and their tendency to over-consume alcohol, even as the fight involving African American youth was met with just such a culturally-inscribed narrative. So too, when a white family in Idaho initiates a deadly brawl at the local Walmart, as happened recently, no one in FOX News-land will opine as to the white cultural or genetic rot at the heart of such behavior.

Black America knows that white males can pummel each other senseless in a hockey rink and not worry that such violence might be viewed as a reflection of white people’s lack of impulse control or thuggish natures, unlike the way brawls involving black athletes are often viewed, especially on a basketball court.

Black America knows that a white frat boy can fire a weapon at a rival fraternity and not have it seen as evidence of something inherent to preppy white kids and their penchant for gunplay.

Black America knows that when white folks riot, overturning cars, starting fires and throwing rocks and beer cans at police—either because it’s “Pumpkin Fest” time in Keene, New Hampshire, or because of the results of a sporting event, or a sporting event, or a sporting event, or a sporting event, or perhaps yet another sporting event, or maybe yet another sporting event, or because what else is there to do in Iowa? or because of a surfer festival—there will be no long exegetical ruminations about the brokenness of white families, the pathology of our communities, or the need for whites as a group to “take personal responsibility” for our savage young people.

Black America knows that media in places like New York over-represent black criminals in their news coverage of crime, relative to the actual share of crimes committed by blacks there, and what effect this has on public perceptions of danger as well as police treatment of African American communities.

Black America knows that police racism, whether or not it animated the actions of Darren Wilson that hot August day in Ferguson, is all too common across the country, no matter how white America may find that nearly impossible to believe. They know it from the recent cases in which white officers were found to have been sending around or posting blatantly racist e-mails, videos or text messages, as in Florida and San Francisco, or, for that matter, in Ferguson. Or posting racist updates on their Facebook walls in case after case after case after case after case after case after case after case after case after case.

They know it from the way police manage to justify any killing of a person of color, even blaming a twelve year old like Tamir Rice for his own death at the hands of a Cleveland officer who was previously found unfit for service.

They know it from the way police recently assaulted a black student at the University of Virginia for no reason at all, slamming him to the ground for supposedly drinking underage (something white people do all the time without being beaten by cops as a result, and which, in any event, he had not done). Or the way police in Philadelphia viciously assaulted Najee Rivera and then lied about the incident to cover up their brutality.

They know it from the way that police even treat white protesters differently (and better) than black protesters, when both are engaged in speaking out against police misconduct, as was evident late last year during protests in New York regarding the death of Eric Garner.

They know it from the outrageous conduct of the Cleveland Police Department over many years, whose officers have engaged in such over-the-top abuses as to make the Ferguson P.D. look like amateurs—and yet, there has been almost no media coverage of the Department of Justice report in that case.

They know it from the way cops also have been shown to use such disproportionate force against non-threatening Latinos and South Asians, in incidents that, were it not for the video evidence, would never have come to light at all.

In short, to be black in America is to have a highly-sensitive racism detector, not because one is irrational but because one’s life so often depends on it. It is to have little choice but to see the patterns in the incidents that white America would so prefer to see as isolated, no matter how often they occur. It is to have little choice but to consume the red pill (to borrow imagery from The Matrix), so as to see what’s going on behind the curtain of the larger society, even as their white compatriots have the luxury of walking around, firmly and indelibly attached to a blue pill IV drip, the reliance on which renders us equally unable to see what’s happening.

And just because every now and then that red pill shows its consumers an image that isn’t quite accurate, doesn’t change the fact that in general it provides insights far deeper than those afforded the rest of us. Rather than bashing black people for seeing the connections and presuming them present, perhaps we would do well to remove the blue pill IV and substitute the red for a while. Maybe then we could begin to see what folks of color see. Perhaps then we could understand their rage. Most of all, perhaps then we could be a little less smug about the exoneration of an officer who, whatever his crime or lack thereof, still took a young man’s life.

As a nation, the eyes of our whites are misleading us. Time for some new lenses.

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