So You Want to Talk About Race (9 page)

BOOK: So You Want to Talk About Race
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Remember, while embracing intersectionality is vital for our efforts of fighting racism and other oppression, it applies to all aspects of our lives, not just our movements. Who gets to speak
at company meetings? Whom do you vote for? How is your child’s school curriculum developed? Who is considered when developing environmental policy? Everything we do publicly can be made more inclusive and uplifting with intersectionality, and everything we do can become exclusionary and oppressive without it. Intersectionality, and the recognition and confrontation of our privilege, can make us
better people with better lives.

| six |
Is police brutality really about race?

“J
UST GOT PULLED OVER FOR DRIVING WHILE BLACK.
Here’s hoping I get out of it safely”

This was a Tweet I sent out July of 2015, along with a photo of the officer who had pulled me over. I was driving with my two brothers on the freeway, moving with traffic, slightly over the speed limit (the ticket given put me at 1 mph over the speed limit). I
watched the motorcycle cop cross three lanes of traffic to pick my vehicle out of the crowd, slowing all traffic to guide me back to the other side of the busy freeway.

As we waited for the officer to walk up to the passenger side window, my brothers and I tried to calm ourselves down. “Just stay calm, don’t ask any questions. We’ll be okay,” my brother Aham repeated in a voice that betrayed
his fear, and also his determination to see us all get through this encounter intact. It was then that I sent the alert to friends and family.

The Tweet I sent once we were stopped on the side of the road is similar to what many of my black friends send out these days when they are pulled over. This message is sent out not so much to complain, but to notify friends and family that if something
should happen to you in the near future, this was the likely cause. As we’ve learned, witnesses are the only defense people of color seem to have against police brutality, and often even that isn’t enough.

Our encounter with the officer was over quickly, although it felt like an eternity. He was brusque and professional, while we silently sat in fear—watching our hands to make sure they didn’t
betray us with any sudden movements, any threatening gestures. Aham’s hands shook as he opened my glove compartment to get my vehicle registration, slowly and clearly telling the officer “I’m reaching into the glove compartment now” and waiting for the officer’s nod before moving.

Watching my brother carefully reach for the glove compartment I was reminded of one time when I was pulled over at
sixteen; I quickly reached for the glove compartment when asked for license and registration and the officer’s hand immediately went to his gun as he yelled “STOP!” As I sat there frozen in fear, he proceeded to lecture me to never reach for anything in front of a cop without saying what I was doing first. “That’s a good way to get yourself shot, young lady,” he said to me. Then he nodded and took
his hand off of his gun, satisfied with the favor he had done me by not shooting a sixteen-year-old girl for reaching for her identification.

But this officer did not shout or reach for his gun. He simply wrote out my ticket and then drove off. When the officer was gone, we sat for a moment and collected ourselves. We looked at each other, grateful that we were all okay. I sent out a quick Tweet
letting everyone know that we were okay, and then I started driving again, dreading the rest of the long trip that moments earlier we had been looking forward to and driving slowly enough to anger everyone else on the road.

When I got home, I had dozens of messages waiting for me from friends and community members, voicing concern at my first Tweet and relief at my second. Many of those messages
came from other black people, who related to the fear behind my initial Tweet and shared their own stories of their DWBs. But there were plenty of other messages from people wondering why I had brought race into it at all.

“Why do you assume it’s about race?”

“You have no proof it was anything other than a traffic stop.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to just assume good intentions on behalf of the
cop?”

“How do you know it’s about race?”

And the truth is, I didn’t know it was about race, and I still don’t. There’s a very good chance that I just won that horrible lottery and my car, with three black individuals, was the one car to be pulled over out of pure luck. Maybe we’re all just really unlucky, as a race.

And while I may have been pulled over due to luck of the draw, the thing is—I
can’t ask why. The last time my brother asked a cop why he’d been pulled over, the cop leaned into the vehicle and asked ominously, “Are we going to have a problem here?” So he doesn’t ask anymore, and after seeing what happened to Sandra Bland, I certainly don’t ask either.

If we don’t know if each individual encounter with police officers is truly about race, and if we can’t safely ask—why
do we talk about police brutality like it is about race? At its core, police brutality is about power and corruption. Police brutality is about the intersection of fear and guns. Police brutality is about accountability. And the power and corruption that enable police brutality put
all
citizens, of every race, at risk. But it does not put us at risk equally, and the numbers bear that out. My fear,
as a black driver, is real. The fact is that black drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers
1
, between 1.5 and 5 times more likely to be searched (while shown to be less likely than whites to turn up contraband in these searches),
2
and more likely to be ticketed
3
and arrested
4
in those stops. This increase in stops, searches, and arrests also leads to a 3.5–4 times
higher probability that black people will be killed by cops (this increase is the same for Native Americans interacting with police, a shamefully underreported statistic). Even when we aren’t arrested or killed, we are still more likely to be abused and dehumanized in our stops. A 2016 review of a thirteen-month period showed that Oakland police handcuffed 1,466 black people in nonarrest traffic
stops, and only 72 white people
5
, and a 2016 study by the Center for Policing Equity found that blacks were almost 4 times more likely to be subject to force from police—including force by hand (such as hitting and choking), pepper spray, tazer, and gun—than white people.
6

So maybe that time I got pulled over wasn’t about race. Maybe the time I’d been pulled over before that wasn’t about race.
Maybe even the time before that. But those who demand the smoking gun of a racial slur or swastika or burning cross before they will believe that an individual encounter with the police might be about race are ignoring what we know and what the numbers are bearing out: something is going on and it is not right. We are being targeted. And you can try to explain away one statistic due to geography,
one away due to income—you can find reasons for numbers all day. But the fact remains: all across the country, in every type of neighborhood, people of color are being disproportionately criminalized. This is not all in our heads.

When we first learn to drive it’s with the same excitement of anybody else newly behind the wheel. A bit of fear mixed with a sense of freedom and power. But while
our white friends quickly settle into the mundanity of the daily commute, we never get that sense of ease. The first time I was pulled over was at age sixteen, for going five miles over the speed limit in a wealthy white neighborhood. I explained that I hadn’t realized the speed limit had been recently lowered. But the cop wanted to know if I was drunk. If I was on drugs. What he would find if he
looked in my trunk (I believe I answered “snacks”). A few months later I was pulled over for not coming to a “complete stop” on a suburban road, empty of all traffic except for me and the officer. I’ve been stopped for having my vehicle tabs expired by one day (even though it was still within the month indicated on the tab, which meant that the officer was scanning my plates for the hell of it). Time
and time again the questions I was asked were along the same lines: “What are you doing in this neighborhood?” “Have you been drinking?” “Do I smell marijuana?” “Do you have any illegal substances or weapons in your car?” I know it sounds silly, but it surprised me every time. I’ve never been a big drinker; I’ve never driven drunk, and weed never did anything for me. I have no criminal record,
no past indication of dangerous driving or violence. And yet, by the age of eighteen I couldn’t shake the feeling that cops were out to get me. And this experience is even worse for many black men and for those who do have criminal records that give cops even more reason to harass them.

Like myself, most people of color I know do not enjoy driving. We have moments where we forget what our blackness
means behind the wheel, when we are enjoying a great song on the radio, or leaving a fun event. For a few moments, we are driving like any other carefree American. But then our pulses rise at the sight of an officer on the street. Will this be the time? The moment the lights on the police cruiser go on we know—that’s for us. We are watching our speed and using our turn signals and yet when
those lights go on we know that there is no other car that officer is going to pull up behind than ours. And we pray that our paperwork is all legit, and that the officer won’t be afraid of us, that we won’t make the wrong moves or say the wrong things. We hope that all we get out of this encounter is a ticket and a nervous stomach.

And I’m not sure what’s worse, the fear and anxiety and fatigue
brought on by yet another encounter with an officer that you are hoping and praying to make it out of intact, or the never-ending denial by the rest of society of the fear and anxiety and fatigue you experience as a valid response to the near-constant reminder that those assigned and empowered to protect you see your skin color as evidence of wrongdoing, and could take your freedom or even your
life at any time, with no recourse.

In this individualist nation we like to believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist. We like to believe that if there are racist cops, they are individual bad eggs acting on their own. And with this belief, we are forced to prove that each individual encounter with the police is definitively racist or it is tossed out completely as mere coincidence. And so,
instead of a system imbued with the racism and oppression of greater society, instead of a system plagued by unchecked implicit bias, inadequate training, lack of accountability, racist quotas, cultural insensitivity, lack of diversity, and lack of transparency—we are told we have a collection of individuals doing their best to serve and protect outside of a few bad apples acting completely on their
own, and there’s nothing we can do about it other than address those bad apples once it’s been thoroughly proven that the officer in question is indeed a bad apple.

So, acknowledging us, believing us, means challenging everything you believe about race in this country. And I know that this is a very big ask, I know that this is a painful and scary process. I know that it’s hard to believe that
the people you look to for safety and security are the same people who are causing us so much harm. But I’m not lying and I’m not delusional. I am scared and I am hurting and we are dying. And I really, really need you to believe me.

F
EW SUBJECTS SHED GREATER LIGHT ON THE RACIAL DIVIDE
in the US than the subject of police brutality. Gallup’s polls of white and black Americans on their opinions
of police in the US show that more than double the percentage of whites versus blacks have confidence in police or view them as honest and ethical, and whites are twice as likely as blacks to believe that police treat racial minorities fairly.
7

But this same racial disparity in our feelings about the police is matched by disparities in our encounters with police. As described earlier in this
chapter, people of color are more likely to be stopped by police, arrested by police, assaulted by police, and killed by police.

When we look at the difference in opinion towards and confidence in our police force, along with the difference in experiences with our police force, it’s easy to wonder how it’s possible that we all live in the same country.

If we want to understand how experiences
and sentiment between police and communities of different races could be so different, we must first understand the historical relationship between police forces and communities of color.

There has not been a time in American history where our police force has not had a contentious and often violent relationship with communities of color. Our police forces were born from Night Patrols, who had
the principal task of controlling black and Native American populations in New England, and Slave Patrols, who had the principal task of catching escaped black slaves and sending them back to slave masters.
8
After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, catching and reenslaving black people became the job of Night Patrols as well, and that job was continued on after the Night Patrols were turned into
the country’s first police forces. Our early American police forces existed not only to combat crime, but also to return black Americans to slavery and control and intimidate free black populations. Police were rightfully feared and loathed by black Americans in the North and South.

In the brutal and bloody horror of the post-Reconstruction South, local police sometimes joined in on the terrorizing
of black communities that left thousands of black Americans dead.
9
In the South, through the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement, it was well known locally that many police officers were also members of the Ku Klux Klan. Through much of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, American police forces were one of the greatest threats to the safety of black Americans.

Our
police force was not created to serve black Americans; it was created to police black Americans and serve white Americans. This is why even when police were donning white hoods and riding out at night to burn crosses on the lawns of black families, white families could still look at them with respect and trust. Our police forces had starkly different roles within the white community that they were
responsible to.

Police abuse and oppression of people of color has not stopped at black Americans. Hispanic and Native American populations have also long been the recipients of higher rates of arrest, assault, and death at the hands of police, and police have been used throughout history to intimidate, punish, and silence activists and protestors in all minority racial and ethnic groups.

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