Friday, July 16, 2010

Murder or mistake in Oakland, CA?

Oakland, CA. White cop. Unarmed Black man lying face down. Shot in back.

Murder or mistake?

As a middle-class, white woman with a retired police officer for a father (who I've always considered quite a good person), my life experiences lead me to give law enforcement officers the benefit of the doubt. Am I perfect? No. Do I face life and death situations regularly? No. Might I, in the face of some challenging experience, pull a gun when I thought I was going for my taser? I have no idea.

From what I read it seems that, at the trial of this white officer, the argument was made that this is what happened....that it was a mistake...that he meant to go for the taser. I write this is someone who is likely quite average when it comes to news. I am relatively aware. Not fully aware. Don't have time to read everything. Not completely unconscious. I try to keep up. Relatively aware. And reflecting on that middle-zone status is what has prompted this post.

My personal reaction to the verdict --- Manslaughter--- has been internally disruptive.

It comes down to this progression:
1) Manslaughter? Ok. Not absolved, but given the benefit of the doubt on the intent. Ok. Seems fair enough to me.
2) Protests? Hmm. A little reactionary? I mean, he was found guily of manslaughter, yeah? Not exactly let off the hook.
3) Posts and texts of outrage from my antiracist community? Oh, yeah. Right. Of course. Old story. Same outcome. (Great facebook note from Josh who did a Tim Wise style "flip the script" scenario -- Imagine if, and create the scene of a white man shot in the back by a black man and then the trial is transfered to a location with an all black jury...and then consider whether it's a fair trial. -- Thank you for that.)

And, I'm left wondering...

Here I am, someone who really thinks about white privilege and racism every day. I mean, every day. So, with as much attention as I put on trying to see and understand how racism, both subtle and not so subtle, both individual and institutional, is allowed to manifest, what is going on with me and my search for some type of "balanced" response? And, what might that say about the average white person who doesn't think about this stuff at all?

I admit, not proudly, that I spent about a week or so pondering how reactionary our country's political life seems. And, I lumped this in with it. It then occured to me that I needed to consider my vantage point. Why am I willing to read a few paragraphs in the paper, hear that a person is claiming it was a mistake, and simply believe it?

Two things. Yes, my experience with my father and unthreatening police officers in my life is one factor. But so is my ability to project myself onto this individual. Nothing in my life has caused me to believe really deep down that the average white person is intent on doing damage to people of color. It's not how I grew up, and it's not who I've met in the course of my life. I consider that a good thing, as far as it showing that many people really don't espouse overtly racist beliefs in the zones where I've lived.

These two factors led me to do an internal check. What if I were in this situation? I'm psychically putting myself in the place of the perpetrator and deciding that I can see that perhaps I would have made that error. Maybe. And maybe is enough to humanely go for manslaughter, right?

Now (thanks Josh) it's time to flip the script:

What if my entire set of life experiences taught me something radically different? What if my experiences with law enforcement consisted of scary events where people were injured at the hands of the police? What if my own family and friends had been victims and the police were not exactly appropriately protecting and serving? What if my life taught me that more often than not white people have gotten away with murder through getting the benefit of the doubt (at best) or outright racist policies (at worst --- see our history if you're skeptical)? What if my understanding of bias research ALSO tells me that people in our society are more likely to see black victims of police violence as more deserving of it than white victims (even when the situations are identical).

Put that all together, and then what?

I'm not pretending to say I know what the outcome of the trial should, or should not, have been. I wasn't there. I didn't hear the entire testimony. And, I'm only relatively aware (as I suspect is true for most.)

So, what can I say for sure?

White privilege struck again deep within me. It allowed me to think I was judging the situation on its "merits" in some type of objective way, as though I was being less emotionally "reactive" and more "balanced" than those who are responding angrily. When, in fact, it was my personal life experience that, without consciousness in the moment, shaped all of my initial thoughts and reactions.

So, the question becomes...for white people who are convinced that they are colorblind and that they aren't affected by race at all, what is the likelihood that they would do the type of internal check that I had to do in order to be aware of how privilege was shaping my "objective" response?

I'd wager that for most the likelihood is small to nil. Our culture doesn't support this level of deep thinking nearly enough. It's usually perceived as "guilt-induced" or "self-flagelating". Note that I don't believe I'm doing either of the two. I'm being honest. That's it. I'm noticing. I'm witnessing. I'm recognizing that varied experiences lead to varied perceptions which lead to varied conclusions.

So, what's the resistance about? Simple: The type of self-eval I did on myself messes up the (largely white-held) view that we're collectively beyond race and that we can be "objective" about these things.

It's not until I accept and attend to the fact that the effects of racism/privilege enter my psyche that I feel prompted to consciously work to get rid of it.

Believing we're "colorblind" in our responses shields too many of us from this recognition (sadly).

Do you agree? What's been your experience with this?


  1. Dear Shelly,
    Hello, there, Shelly! Your post as usual is right on target! It means so much to me that you cared enough as the true sister who you are to think through the process, and to try to see beyond your immediate first response, and to see without white privilege, as you did so excellent at flipping the script and seeing how this case might look to people of color who far too often have very negative experiences with the police and other authorities. I like so many of your points in this great and superb post! I love how you said varied experiences lead to varied perceptions which lead to varied conclusions,what a fantastic point which you have made, Shelly, along with your other marvelous and progressive points! Even though I as a 48-years-old black/African-American woman who has experienced racism, discrimination, and oppression in my life, and some problems here and there in my life from police harassment (although I have been blessed that these experiences are few and far between, it just is that when I was younger in my older brother's car, he was driving and my late mother was next to him in the passenger side, and I was in the back seat, we were harassed and unfairly pulled over by the police and then let go, the only other things I have had happen was seeing my mother harassed by the police when I was 5-years-old, and the only other things I have had happen recently is when I am followed in stores like the grocery stores here where I live in Iowa City,Iowa, and one more thing is the University Of Iowa campus police a few years back mistook me for another black woman they were looking for, and I showed my ID and they then let me go), I know that I have had far fewer police things like harassment happen to me compared to a lot of other people of color, yet I can still relate to this problem. I absolutely refuse to let these things make me bitter. This belief is a huge and integral part of my spirituality, and how I see and live my life. I will never give up on my love for white people at all no matter what, no matter how bad things could be!

    Shelly, your are sadly so right when you said that many white people don't necessarily take the time to do what you did in stepping outside of the parameters of your experience and worldview as a white woman, and it means so, so much to me that you made the effort and took the time and the effort to step outside of your experience and to see how many people of color would think about things in a different manner. Something I am working really hard to do as a black/African-American woman is to give white people the benefit of the doubt more, rather than having that knee jerk reaction response that this is racist or that is racist, or this white person is racist, or that white person is racist. I look at what happened to this poor man who was killed in Oakland, and I initially had that knee jerk response of "Racism! Racism!," and then I tried really hard to give the benefit of the doubt. Where I am at now with this case is that I am left in a quandary, I am not sure what to think, but it still seems like the police officer at least on some level had some racism in his heart, yet I will still in this situation and in other ones will give the benefit of the doubt!

    Your father sounds like a wonderful person and a great police officer! I must say that I have come across good, kind, and ethical white police officers in my life experience as well, they have not been all bad and racist, there are indeed good white police officers out there! And I will always continue to have faith in the system no matter what,even when it can be hard to do!

    Shelly, I thank you so dearly and so kindly for this super post of yours! I truly appreciate your efforts in this post, and all of your other hard, efficient, sensitive, and productively progressive work! Thank-you, thank-you so, so much true sister who you are, Shelly! Blessings so, so much to you for always, Shelly!

    Sincerely always,

    Sherry Gordon

  2. 在莫非定律中有項笨蛋定律:「一個組織中的笨蛋,恆大於等於三分之二。」............................................................

  3. For me, the O.J. trial was a watershed in this regard. As a white man, I could not imagine how anyone would see the trial as anything but an open-and-shut case. When the verdict was announced and the division of opinions along racial lines became clear, it stopped me dead in my tracks. That was when I realized how little--OK, nothing--I knew about being a person of color in America. I find I still know next to nothing: like you, Shelly, I am somewhat but not fully aware and have other commitments, so I don't spend nearly as much time on this issue as I'd like. But I remain curious and hungry to learn more.