Talking about racism (Participation)

Published September 15, 2014 by djlwsu

When white friends don’t believe what blacks go through, they’re not friends

I am not delusional, so please don’t be incredulous.

Mary C. Curtis

 September 9

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.

I still remember it perfectly, more than 10 years later. It’s terrifying to be stopped in your car and approached by first one and then two more white police officers with their hands resting on their holstered guns. I kept my hands in plain sight on the wheel while they inspected my license and registration. On second thought, I recall thinking during the 15-minute stop, perhaps the scruffy sweats and baseball cap that were perfect for my spin class weren’t the best choices when you’re African American and you’ve just bought a red car. (Why didn’t I pick the gray Camry?) I was given a written warning about running a stop sign that I’d actually stopped at, but I knew better than to argue.

“Forty-five percent of blacks say they have experienced racial discrimination by the police at some point in their lives; virtually no whites say they have,” according to a recent New York Times/CBS Newsnationwide poll. (I’m shocked the 45 percent figure isn’t higher, considering the stories African Americans tell each other all the time.) So when I share the trauma of that particular incident and so many like it – fraught interactions that may have involved a son (stopped driving a nice car in our nice neighborhood), nephew or friend – I expect, first of all, that I will be believed.

Yet whites are, frequently, disappointingly, incredulous. Very often a “friend’s” reaction that goes something like this: “I don’t think a police officer would stop anyone for no reason at all.” Or: “You must have done something suspicious.” Or my favorite: “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.” I am not some child coming home with some tall tale, and I am certainly not a delusional liar.

I don’t expect much. Just nodding and acknowledging my words would be enough. Instead, jumping in to explain what must have really happened before I can finish a sentence means that – whether you realize it or not – you’ve shattered an important bond and traveled the distance from friend to acquaintance. I smile, make a mental note, and change the subject, realizing that with this person, topics from now on will be limited to rating entrées at the latest neighborhood bistro or judging whether the new Scorsese film shows the master back in top form.

In the national conversation about race, especially after a well-publicized confrontation like the one in Ferguson this summer, different sides don’t need to agree. But they do have to accept that the other side is speaking sincerely and from the heart. And whites need to believe blacks when we say what we’ve been through.

The discussions I’m talking about are those that have the potential to be most effective—ones that happen naturally, among people of different races who already interact with an easy rapport: the women who sweat together at the gym and compare aches and pains, the moms and dads at the PTA with questions about the new coach, neighbors exchanging tips on backyard gardens. It’s people who already share the ordinary, sometime mundane details of life. From there, it should be easy for one side to give the other the benefit of the doubt. (Yes, America is deeply segregated, but most people do have co-workers of different races; there are opportunities for interaction.)

That’s why it’s especially disappointing when some of the folks whose kids have enjoyed homemade blueberry pie at my kitchen table are the ones who greet my stories with blank stares or worse, excuses. When they deny my life experience, I know the friendship has its boundaries. These are educated people, but I wonder, were they asleep during history class or did they never read a book about the complicated history of America that makes Ferguson about much more than one 18-year-old, one policeman, and one suburban community?

I don’t get upset when a white friend recounts a bad interaction he or she has had with a black person to explain his or her view of me as an exception – much. Though I might recommend that friend get out more. A Public Religion Research Institute survey shows that the social networks of whites are more than 90 percent white, the most homogeneous of any group. I might also ask if judging groups rather than individuals is any way to live life or an efficient way to enforce the law, since 90 percent of those stopped in New York City’s stop-and-frisk routine resulted in nothing but aggrieved citizens.

Americans will never have a forthright conversation on race unless people listen with open minds. They have to believe, and be willing to learn. And most of all, they need an empathetic imagination. “When asked whether police forces should reflect the racial makeup of the communities they serve, nearly six in 10 blacks say yes; whites are about evenly divided,” wrote the Times. Would whites feel comfortable living in a predominantly white community policed by an overwhelmingly black force? I’ve been there when guests at a neighborhood holiday party congratulate themselves on living in an integrated community – and I’m the only black guest. Reverse the numbers and reflect; that’s all I ask.

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7 comments on “Talking about racism (Participation)

  • It honestly upsets me when race talks involve the police. I can completely understand the problem blacks had in the past with police but that is in the past! People get pulled over all the time just because the situation they’re in. Like me for example was pulled over with a car full of white guys who just left Walmart, the cop said we looked suspicious. Should I write a whole blog on how I was discriminated against because I’m a college student at WSU? Or was that cop trained to look for situations like that to prevent bad things from happening? Yes she was pulled over because she was black, but how do we know if there wasn’t a recently stolen car and that car matched the description. I’m tired of cops being labeled as racist for just doing their jobs.

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  • I believe that many blacks have experienced racial discrimination and most of it comes the police. there have been many “accidents” that have gotten out of hand leading innocent people dead. Racism will always be alive and and always exist but I think many of the problems were how some people were raised. Racism as i stated before will always be around. Even though many people think times have changed, they haven’t changed enough. Racism has many faces and it also comes from ignorance and arrogance. I feel like being an african american and from my own experience, whites don’t necessarily know how it really feels to have someone being racist towards you, but thats just because of history and how our ancestors laid it out. Racism is a horrid thing, but in reality we have to understand and realize it will never completely change.

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    • Your argument that “many blacks have experienced racial discrimination and most of it comes the police” is completely invalid. All of these “accidents” you speak of are a few incidents compared to a lager scale of the good the police does, that just get blown up by the media. Yes, the officers could be wrong in their actions, but these few times doesn’t allow you to make generalized statements about the police as a whole being the driving force behind racial discrimination. My dad is a black police officer in Seattle’s predominately colored neighborhood for the past 20+ years, and he will be the first to tell you that their job is to protect. They go through extensive training to make informed decisions to ensure the safety of the greater population, so our first instinct should not always be to blame the police.

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      • As noted by WA Post (article post), there is data that demonstrates that a sizable number of African Americans are dissatisfied (with police and part of that results from incidents of racial profiling). You can see here – http://www.theppsc.org/Archives/Community-Relations/Blacks.Distrust.htm.

        You can also look at the number of links posted here and in the other article that notes the systemic issue of racial profiling. As the article notes, ““Forty-five percent of blacks say they have experienced racial discrimination by the police at some point in their lives; virtually no whites say they have” – that is close to majority, isn’t it? It is a sizable number, no?

        What is interesting is that the article is challenging us to hear these experiences rather than dismiss them

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  • How does this move beyond an individual? How can we have a “what you did conversation” rather than a what you are a conversation. How is this a structural issue – while dated, good article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/13/opinion/the-fallacy-of-racial-profiling.html

    You can also see here: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/how-much-racial-profiling-happens-in-ferguson/378606/ and here – http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/the-statistical-debate-behind-the-stop-and-frisk-verdict. For this piece: “To be more precise, after carrying out a regression analysis, Fagan concluded:

    NYPD stops are significantly more frequent for Black and Hispanic citizens than for white citizens, after adjusting stop rates for the precinct crime rates, the racial composition and other social and economic factors predictive of police activity. These disparities are consistent across a set of alternate tests and assumptions.
    Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be stopped than Whites even in areas where there are low crime rates and where residential populations are racially heterogeneous or predominantly White. And that was not all. Fagan’s analysis also showed that blacks and Hispanics, once they had been stopped, were more likely to be subjected to the use of force, even though the probability of the stop resulting in further action—like an arrest, or a summons—was actually lower in cases involving minorities than in those involving whites.”

    Also, what is author arguing with respect to talking about race?

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  • As we have talked about in class, when it comes down to police they pull over or stop people of color more based on what could be implicit or explicit bias resulting in discrimination. Police officers, just like the average citizen are exposed to the stereotypes which correlate to colored people and were taught by their parents how to handle race. If a white police officer has an implicit bias, they will be more inclined to pull over a red car with a black male than a red care with a white female and possibly even more inclined to use force when it comes to the black male. Thus more people of color will be arrested or penalized which is shown in statistics. Those statistics that convey black people as criminals then turn into a stereotype. Which will continue this biased view for multiple generations. White people in my general opinion, that are put into the police force should have a conscious awareness of their biases and take the extra step to not allow bias to influence their work decisions. It is also very sad that if a police force was predominantly black in a more white populated area, some white people would feel uncomfortable.

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  • When we talk about racism we must talk about all the groups it is a part of. The police are just as much a part of it as is the law, education, the economy, real estate, etc. Many points were discussed in this article and comments that I’d like to talk about. First the police. The police are part of an institution that holds power. The likelihood of being black and being arrested is much higher because of the history of arresting blacks. Time travel to Jim Crow and segregation, blacks were arrested more frequently for crimes they may or may have not committed. Those were recorded and the next batch of police officers started to create what criminals looked like and where they lived based on their statistics. This system does not mean all cops are racist but rather as mentioned above may hold an implicit bias. Here is an article with some numbers: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2012/03/13/11351/the-top-10-most-startling-facts-about-people-of-color-and-criminal-justice-in-the-united-states/
    Secondly I think the author recognizes this instructional racism but is really trying to get at how white people that she considers her friends, deny her experience. They often reject race plays a factor into the situations she has gone through, but rather talks of a negative situation they had because they were white. But why?? They are her friends they should understand. They seem to have a filter, this filter gives of this notion of “colorblindness” where anyone of us would have the same experience. More importantly she feels disconnected from them because we as a country have not all had the race talk of today. She states “They have to believe, and be willing to learn. And most of all, they need an empathetic imagination.” Lastly I would love to see a social experiment played out where the entire police force in a white community is 100% people of color!

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