Racist Reflex

I think if you’re an American, you have to watch the video. So I did. Here it is. Terence Crutcher getting shot while the emergency lights on his car are flashing. The irony of a man getting shot after he turns on his flashers to warn other people not to run into him and to alert passers-by, like police, that he needs help, it’s just too much.

For the past few days, I’ve avoided looking. It sounded even worse than the ones before, if that’s even possible. Could this shooting be worse than the boy shot holding a toy gun after the police officer assessed the situation for less than 10 seconds? I don’t know. Why are we even in the business of grading how terrible these shootings are? The pattern is so blatant. White bad guys are taken into custody with no injuries. Black guys immediately deemed to be imminent threats and killed by law enforcement. No time for talk. No time for reason. The time for reason comes after the shooting when the police discover their reasons for having reacted so quickly and so fatally.

The only explanation is a racist reflex.

I have it. I think most white Americans have it. I see a black man walking toward me and I’m alert. Why is that? No black man has ever harmed me. The only person who ever harmed me was a drunk white man whom I had known for several years. No black man ever hurt anyone that I know. I have never been treated badly by a black man. I have never even been treated rudely by a black man. And this has not been because there hasn’t been ample opportunity. I live in a diverse city. My work involves people from all races and ethnic backgrounds. There is no experience base, In other words, that would justify a racist reflex.

But I do. So I compensate. Like crazy. I am mindful of my racist reflex and pray that it’s not visible. I do not have a racist heart, I want to say to people. I don’t believe that I am superior. I study history. I am a good person. Why do I have this racist reflex that is as reliable as the doctor hitting my knee with a rubber hammer?

I wonder a lot about this. One thing I wonder is if the racist reflex could be transmitted in white people’s genetic codes. Maybe it isn’t learned behavior, maybe it’s ingrained, a physical part of us handed down in slices so small and indecipherable that we never suspect. We think all our racism is externally-created, by our experience, by our history, by the faults of other people. I don’t know about that. Because I tell you that I have tried to live a righteous life and I have a racist reflex. I want to say that it’s not my fault, that it’s just here, part of my being, but I didn’t invite it and hate that it stays, year after year.

So I believe that these police officers whose first instinct is to draw guns and then use them have a racist reflex like mine. Except theirs has been allowed to flower. Their racist reflex has been legitimized and given voice. They’ve been made to feel right in having their racist reflex, supported in their suspicions, commended for their valor. They live in an environment that rewards action and belittles kindness. They have been taught to not compensate for what, I think, every white American has – a racist reflex – but to instead incorporate it as part of what they need to survive on the streets.

We need to look at the pattern here and stop treating each case as if it’s unusual, an exception to the rule of treating everyone the same. We can’t stop these shootings by picking apart each case looking for reasons a black man was shot by a white police officer. That is a fool’s game that we have played for years. There are no answers there and no resolution. Only a continuation of avoiding the truth.

White Americans – we are damaged from our past. We, all of us, the armed and the unarmed, the civilian and the police officer. We are not right in our make-up, in our heads. As impossible as it seems, we need to fix that. Each one of us. I don’t know how but that is our responsibility to figure out. It isn’t the black man’s job to figure out how to fix our damage.

I leave you with that. I have no answers. Just heartache for a man who can’t finish college or see his children start. I am sorry to his family for my part in that terrible tragedy. I am so sorry.



5 Comments on “Racist Reflex

  1. This is great, Jan. I believe you speak for all of us who care but are aware of our bias – you speak for me. Please submit this to the the NYT or the Washington Post.

  2. This is one of the most thoughtful posts I’ve seen recently. I’m not American but the US is close to my heart and family, and the escalation of overt racism I’ve been following in the last couple of years is beyond words. Did the fact of having such a visible black President actually backfire? Racism is probably ingrained in most – thugh not all – world peoples, as part of the survival of the fittest for ethniticities. Here in Italy it’s always been latent but definitely present, and has recently reared its ugly head and become visible, maiinly because of the upsurge in immigration. You omit the other cultural American DNA characteristic that leads to all these related shootings: your historical and present tradition of entitlement to guns that makes shooting part of mainstream knee-jerk culture

  3. I grew up in rural Canada where there were a number of Native Indians in the area. I learned my racist reflex from my brother who scared me with tales of how they would kidnap me, string me up by thumbs and torture me. Who taught him to view these people this way? Someone, we weren’t born with this prejudice.

    Like you, I was never harmed or threatened by a First Nation person, but the seed of fear had been well and truly planted in my psyche. We may not like to admit it, but it’s there, for sure.

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