It’s Not New, It’s Just New to You

Something about Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, has struck a chord with white women bloggers because I sure have seen a lot of ‘I can’t believe how horrible racism is’ posts as if this is the first time they’ve realized that racism can have fatal consequences.

If I wasn’t so busy being enraged about the police shooting of an African American man in my own town last April or the death by neglect a few years ago of an African American man handcuffed in the back seat of a squad car while police officers in the front seat listened to him gasping for breath, I’d probably jump on this bandwagon myself. It seems, in Milwaukee, racism has become a very deep river that runs through everything. Our schools, our jobs, our neighborhoods, how people are seen, how they are treated, how important their lives are. Is it cynical to say, oh, Ferguson, we get it? This is what we’ve been talking about for a long time here. Racism doesn’t just influence who you invite to dinner. It also determines who gets shot by police officers.

It isn’t new, my white blogger friends. But somehow, it seems to be new to you. The breathless indignation, the astonished realization that Black parents actually have to coach their children, especially their sons, in how to act in public, comport themselves in stores, interact with law enforcement so as to avoid trouble or worse, your posts seem better suited to racial discussions of decades ago. Is this really the first time you’ve heard about this?

I’m sorry to tell you this but you are very late to the party. What happened to Michael Brown has been going on for a very long time. Lesser versions of it, exemplified best by the law enforcement practice of hyper-attending to those who are ‘driving while Black,’ are going on this very minute probably right around the corner or at least across town from where you are sitting right now. On any given day, if I see a squad having pulled over a car on our city’s lovely Lake Drive, the street that meanders through the northern suburbs, then along the shore of Lake Michigan, I can close my eyes and feel confident in winning a $100 bet that the driver is Black. The driver will be Black. You can count on that.

Driving while Black leads to a lot of other problems like arguing while Black and having an expired drivers license while Black and being where you shouldn’t be while Black. It’s a slippery slope, you see. A risky thing being Black. You could end up in jail. Or shot. It happens.

I can’t remember how old I was when I first learned that Black parents train their sons in how to respond to law enforcement. Gee, I must have been in my twenties, working in an anti-poverty agency. In other words, it was a long, long time ago. It impressed me enough that when I, myself, ended up, not with Black sons but with Hispanic ones, it occurred to me that they needed a similar lecture. But, of course, we were ill-prepared to give it to them. We tried anyway. Don’t argue, be respectful, call us as soon as you can. Under all this was my nutty mother’s prayer that somehow police officers would know they were my children, not just your run of the mill Hispanic guys. Do you want to shake hands with white privilege? It’s not just about getting better parking spaces. It’s about magical thinking.

Several years ago when one of my sons was a teenager, he got in an accident on the freeway. He called and said that the police were there and the other person in the accident, a white middle-aged guy, was yelling and banging on the hood of the car.

“Can you or Dad come here?” His voice was steady but pretty urgent. He needed reinforcements.

He didn’t have to tell me why. I knew. My son wanted the angry white man and the police officers to know he had white parents. And I wanted them to know this as well so I sent my husband, he of the suit and tie, the calm, in charge demeanor. I sent him so the white guy didn’t go completely nuts on my son and the police officers didn’t cuff him and put him in the back of a squad car and then I pulled my own car over to the side of the road and put my head in my hands and waited for my husband to call me and tell me that he had saved our boy.

Is that overmuch? I don’t want to be one of those bloggers who use a wee shred of experience to show solidarity with what happened in Ferguson. Or maybe I do.

I know that everything in this American life has an element of disproportionality to it, that some people are more equal than others, and that people get treated differently in the most mundane situations and the most consequential. I know a white person will go to prison for a couple of years for an offense that will send a Black man to prison for decades. The disproportionality is real and it’s everywhere. We are reminded by the tragedy of Michael Brown but it’s just a reminder.

What lies under the rock is grotesque. Every time we look.


#71/100: 71st in a series of 100 in 100

6 Comments on “It’s Not New, It’s Just New to You

  1. Yes. What’s under the rock is grotesque. But really, you can’t see it unless you pick up the rock. And the way we live in Milwaukee, in our racial ghettos, we only pick up the rocks that are inside the walls.

    I once heard a doctor trying to teach medical students to ask patients about domestic violence. They were resistant. “But how do we know which ones to ask,” they’d say. “You ask EVERYONE,” she said. Still they resisted. Doesn’t happen to (white, affluent, PLUs — people like us). So she asked them how many had felt threatened or abused in the power relationship that is medical education, by a teacher or attending? All hands raised. They gave some examples. Finally they got it, the domestic violence thing, the many shapes power abuse can take, by connecting with their own experience.

    I’m amazed that more people our age don’t remember when the militarized police turned on us on our college campuses. That makes me understand better how the crowds in Ferguson responded, makes me think that even if I don’t understand how deep the racism goes in this country, I should worry about police responses for my own selfish white skin, my children’s skin whatever color it is.

  2. Thanks for writing this. Very well done. I used to show a video on child development to my human behavior class where a Black mother from a well educated family states that the Black adolescent is an endangered species. This hit me between the eyes and has stuck there. But you understand.

    • That is such a chilling phrase – endangered species. I can’t imagine what it takes to get a Black son to adulthood in one safe, good piece. So difficult.

      • I watched the video many times, and each time that was my response. My heart ached for that mother and all others who knew what their sons faced every time they left the house. But of course you knew that.

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