So much happened this week: Rodney King, a man troubled by personal demons and unasked for fame, and who was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers during a 1991 traffic stop, died in a pool accident at his home; the North Carolina Legislature once again failed victims of involuntary sterilization, who were mostly poor, black women, by denying them restitution; a newly graduated college student was denied entrance to and then forcibly removed from a sports bar in Raleigh, NC, because of the color of his skin; and a study in North Carolina proved that police and other law enforcement are twice as likely to conduct a search at a traffic stop if the driver is a minority person, and minority drivers are twice as likely to be arrested at a traffic stop than white drivers. Race is in the news every day, and the reason is because racism still exists.
When I read Rodney King died in an accidental fall into his pool, I remembered the riots sparked by the acquittal of the police officers involved in the high-speed chase and traffic stop during which Mr. King was severely beaten. Seven police officers were involved in the beating that nearly killed King. Four officers were videotaped beating Mr. King with their batons while the other officers stood and watched. Many Americans did not know about police brutality, but this time it was caught on video, played over and over on the news, and indelibly proved that being black in America negatively influences interactions with law enforcement. The riots that began immediately after the acquittal of the four charged police officers on April 29, 1992 lasted six days and lead to fifty-three deaths and thousands of people injured. Only the National Guard could stop the violence.
I sat sobbing in front of the TV, 3,000 miles away, despair oozing through me, as Los Angeles burned on my twin daughters’ eighth birthday. Cara and Mackenzie wanted to know why I was so sad. I was crying for all the people who felt other Americans hated them, treated them differently and brutally, and then blamed them for their poverty and disenfranchisement. The only thing they could do from their powerless status in America was to destroy whatever crossed their path. I cried because I had always been afraid the police might do something like that to Ronald for being black and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had some scary run-ins with the Syracuse police. See my post The Tar Baby of Racial Discourse:
Rodney King famously appeared before the TV cameras and pled with the rioters to stop the violence. He said, “Can’t we all get along?”
He became the symbol of victimization by racist police officers in America. The videotape of the beating opened the public’s eyes to police brutality, but I know that police misconduct, brutality, and prejudice still exist.
This week the Researchers for N.C. Advocates for Justice made their findings public after reviewing state data collected on more than 13,000 traffic stops conducted between 2000 and 2011. Dick Taylor, the chief executive of the trial lawyers’ group behind the study said of the results, "When you are stopped, you are more likely to have a negative outcome if you're Hispanic or African-American. The disparities are there. We need to look in a serious way at why that is the case."
While stopping short of calling law enforcement agencies institutionally racist, he said the data certainly raises troubling questions that should be addressed through training. Can that be enough to stop radically different experiences with law enforcement based on race?
The North Carolina Legislature approved the state budget, but without a provision to compensate about 1800 victims of involuntary sterilization (only 146 have actually been identified), so it will be another year of waiting for justice. Some argue that compensating the victims would open the door for other groups, such as descendants of slaves and Native Americans, to file similar claims for restitution. I am not opposed to restitution for other groups for the abuse and genocide wrought against them. How else to help level a playing field that has been unfair, uneven, and one-sided for hundreds of years? Their blood, their heartache, their failures, and their inability to become part of mainstream America in large numbers, are on all our hands. We are obligated to right the wrongs of the past, else how will we progress as a country and not repeat the violence and evil perpetrated against people that were historically considered less than equal?
Jonathan Wall, a twenty-one-year-old black graduate of Morehouse College and a native of Raleigh, NC, wrote about his experience at a sports bar in Raleigh, and it’s been circulating on the Internet. First, he and his two friends were told they could not enter the bar because they were not members, but when a police officer stopped by, the bouncer let them in. They were the only black patrons in the bar. Jonathan was told, as he sat alone at a table, that if he didn’t order a drink immediately, he would have to leave. He told the bartender he was waiting for his friends to return to the table. Minutes later, he was forcibly ousted. A cousin relayed a similar experience at the same location.
I remember a time in the early 1980s when Ronald and I went to listen to a band at a club in Syracuse called The Lost Horizon. As we approached the door, we heard someone tell the bouncer, “Next black guy that shows up, tell him we’re full.”
I wanted to turn around and leave, but Ronald, pulling me by the hand, climbed the steps and stood in front of the bouncer and the manager. He looked directly at the manager and said. “I heard what you said.”
The manager looked at the both of us and said, “No, man, that’s not what I meant. Come on in.”
“No,” Ronald said. “I heard you.” He turned and led me back down the steps, and we left. It would be years before we returned to that club. But I know it still happens. Read about Jonathan Wall’s experience at this URL:
Racism still exists because it is woven tightly into our history, our social interactions, where we choose to live, where we choose to work, and where we choose to worship. Racism is subliminally communicated in video games, movies, and in television programs. It is institutional and systemic to the way our society operates. People use hate language and hateful generalizations in describing the president, for example, or certain groups of people, such as Islamic people or homosexuals. It’s easy to demonize a whole group, rather than look at people as individuals. White people mostly enjoy their individual uniqueness, while most minorities are not treated as individuals as they negotiate their way through society.
It can be hard to swallow, but if you are white in America, you are a racist, even when you don’t personally believe you are. I realized that when I was taking courses toward my first master’s degree and began studying and writing about multiculturalism in a deeper way. How can I be a racist when I am interracially married? I am a racist by virtue of my skin color, and if you are white, so are you.
I benefit because of my skin color in many ways when I am by myself, for example, I’ve used my husband’s credit card at stores, written and signed checks in his name, and even moved money from his account (we have separate accounts) into mine. I can walk into any business and be treated with respect and feel welcome there. I built my career by moving from one company to another, each time accepted on merit (though gender affected my career in both positive and negative ways). In most of my social interactions, when I am by myself, I am openly accepted. When I am out and about with Ronald, and we are identified as an interracial couple, then my ability to navigate my way through society is greatly impacted.
We have been refused service, had to go to court to purchase our first house, even had our canoe rammed one time out on a lake in Upstate New York. I’ve been confronted by angry colleagues, people who embraced me and enjoyed working with me, for not telling them I was interracially married, as if that changed who I am. I didn’t change, but their perception of me did.
See my post Schadenfreude to read about being confronted by colleagues:
See my post Legacy of Racism to read about our housing discrimination experience:
The people who practice racial superiority are the ones demanding to “take back America.” They are afraid of demographic changes and our progress toward equality among people of all races and ethnicities. They fear they will become the minority and what that will mean and how they will be treated. They believe their kind, white Americans of European ancestry, should stay in power and continue to live with entitlement and privilege at the expense of those they consider less than because of their ethnicity or skin color. Yes, they are the true racists, but we all support a society that is classist and racist.
I think that many white people believe they will lose that sense of privilege and entitlement, but in a country like ours, there is more than enough to share, and all Americans could feel they are a part of a great country. Our ideal America is a country where everyone who is able can find a job and make a living wage, have access to affordable education and health care, live in affordable and adequate housing and provide for children and loved ones. That is not the America we live in now. We live in an America of race and class disparity.
Racism is everywhere, and examples of it can be found as easily as reading the newspaper.
Changing to a truly equal and desegregated country takes work and commitment from the majority of Americans, not just the people being oppressed and a few enlightened people from the majority group. We can change things together. Can’t we all get along?