Thursday, April 9, 2015

Driving While Black And White

By yesterday afternoon I knew what I wanted to blog about today, but I wasn't sure how to say it.

This morning it hit me, hard. While part of me is grateful for the sudden understanding, another part of me rather wishes it hadn't happened. It sucks to be knocked on the head with your own white privilege. It sucks to understand how far you still have to go.

I'll back up, for comprehension.

Everyone's heard by now about the murder of Walter Scott, a black man in North Charleston, South Carolina, who was pulled over by a white policeman, Michael Slager, because his car had a broken tail light. According to Mr. Slager's initial report, Scott became confrontational, Slager attempted to use his Taser on him, Scott grabbed the Taser, and Slager, feeling his life was in danger, shot him.

It seems as though this account would have been accepted, despite the fact that Slager fired no less than eight bullets, at least five of which hit Scott, all of them entering his back from medium range. Let's repeat: none of the bullets hit him on the front of his body or at close range, which is what you'd reasonably expect from the sort of struggle Slager reported. But it seems Slager's account was accepted, at least for the first two days.

What no one realized is that another man, Feidin Santana, had videotaped the entire episode.  Reportedly Mr. Santana was so sickened by what he saw happen that he nearly erased the tape. When he realized that Slager was going to get away with his actions, he gave the video to Scott's family, who then turned it over to the police. The police chief says he watched it once and was horrified by what he saw.

Because what actually happened was, after being stopped for a broken tail light, Scott got out of the car. There's a brief episode that looks like Slager is attempting to Tase him. Scott began to run. He's fifteen feet away, his back turned, running away, when Slager opens fire. Eight bullets. Then while Scott lays dying, Slager, who had told the department he immediately performed first aid and CPR, cuffs him and does nothing else for several minutes. No first aid, no CPR.

Slager's in jail on murder charges. It's very clear that without the video he would not be.

OK, that's all the facts. Sickening, heartbreaking. Then yesterday, as all this was surfacing on the internet, my friend Kristi, whom I've known for over 20 years, posted on Facebook. She'd gone to get the oil on one of her family's cars changed, and the attendant said, "Hey, you've got a broken tail light--should I fix that for you?"

Kristi burst into tears. She stood sobbing at the oil change place, blubbering to the guy to please, please fix the tail light. Because while Kristi is white, and her daughter is white, and her husband is white, her son, nine years old, is black. It hit Kristi all at once that for one black man in America this week, a broken tail light was a death sentence.

My friend Sheri also posted something about Walter Scott on Facebook. I've known Sheri for several years too. She's black. I wrote to her about Kristi, how she was heartbroken. Sheri wrote back, "Unfortunately, unless this stops, as her son grows into a teenager, she will be heartbroken and terrified. The day a black boy gets his own driver's license is a day of fear for his parents."

Here's the part that I realized this morning: I empathized with Kristi. When Kristi's heart broke at the Jiffy Lube, I understood on a visceral level her fears for her beloved son. But all black women are fearing for their beloved sons. Until this morning, I wasn't feeling their fear. I understood it with my head, but not my heart.  

I've written before about white privilege. Here's the best definition I can find right now, by a white guy named Jeremy Dorsett. " It’s not saying, “You’re a bad person because you’re white.” It’s saying, “The system is skewed in ways that you maybe haven’t realized or had to think about precisely because it’s skewed in your favor.”"

If you, reading this, are white, when's the last time you were stopped by a police officer because you had a broken tail light? When is the last time you got stopped by a police officer and he tried to use his Taser on you? If you're not white, when has this happened to you? I really do want to know.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure how we stop this, but I know we have to. There are an awful lot of mother's sons out there in this world.