If Sandra Bland Wanted to Get Sassy with a Cop, She Should Have Been White

Mouthy women populate my lineage. My mother’s mother, college-educated before many women were in Kansas, widowed with two young daughters, so a single parent when few middle class mothers were, was what I believed would have been called at the time “outspoken.”

She was a woman who had made her own way in the business world and knew what was what. She had an alcoholic brother she had to track down all over Wichita and lock up in the garage so the county wouldn’t have to take him. She could get things done. She was a bright gracious woman but did not suffer fools.

My mother, a minister’s wife, was careful but cunning with her words. Her sister, my Aunt Podgy, would have made Trump look shy. I have a sister who was born mouthy. She’s a wonderful artist now. Her daughter, who is brilliant, has fashioned an entire career out of being a mouthy Brooklyn novelist. She writes entire mouthy novels!

As for my dating history when I was single, I can only assume in looking back that I had a deep need to be told off. I sure kept finding women to do it. As for the woman I wound up marrying, I’m afraid even to talk about that.

I watched my son when he started dating. At first, I thought, “Oh, no, he has inherited the gene for attraction to mouthy girls.” But it seemed to me all of the guys his age were attracted to mouthy girls. Then I figured it out, slow student that I was. All of the girls his age were mouthy. At least when I was his age we had a choice.

And of course I get why that is, and so do you. Most of it is about the history of our progress out of sexism and the fact that little girls in this world are taught to stick up for themselves, which most of us would take for a good thing. On occasion there may be a less happy undercurrent having to do with the extreme sense of entitlement that middle class Americans have imparted to their offspring in many cases. And, of course, we are talking especially about white people.

The sickening lesson we all have learned from cell phone and dashcam videos is that in this nation black people can’t afford to be mouthy the way white people can, and therefore black parents have to give their kids “the talk,” warning them that the police may kill them if they are disrespectful.

Ah, wait. I didn’t say white people can’t get killed the same way. And I didn’t say it was smart, let alone permissible, for anybody to be anything but subservient to a person with a badge and a gun.

If the police stop you and you want to get out of it in one piece, it’s eyes down and yes-sir no-ma’am. We all know that. But we also all know people who aren’t going to be able to pull that off every time.

I’m talking about Sandra Bland — the 28-year-old black woman found dead in her Waller County jail cell three days after being pulled over for failure to signal a lane change. When she was stopped, she refused to put out a cigarette, then to get out of her car.

When she did get out, the enraged police officer threw her to the ground. She was found dead of strangulation in her jail cell three days later. The cause of death is in dispute.

I keep going back to the dashcam and onlooker videos of the arrest. Does it sound like she was resisting arrest? No. Does it sound like she was mouthy with the cop? A little. But not a lot. In this world, we all know what a lot of mouth sounds like.

Bland sounds like a fairly contained middle class person who may be entertaining some naïve assumptions about her rights — that she can sit in her car and smoke if she wants to and that she can’t be ordered out of the car and arrested for an alleged bad lane change. She may not have the more streetwise knowledge that no matter what she has or has not done to provoke the incident in the first place, the cop can go totally postal on her at any moment.

If you have that awareness lodged firmly in your brain, then, yes, dealing with a cop is more like dealing with a stray pit bull sniffing your ankle and growling. Nice dog, nice dog. But not everybody knows that. If anything, people like Bland may have too much respect for the police. She assumes she is talking to a reasonable and reasoning human being. Big mistake.

But of all those mouthy women I have known in my life, can I imagine any of them refusing to put out a cigarette, balking at getting out of the car and then giving the cop some sass? Under the right circumstances, I can imagine every single one of them doing all of that and more. And I have seen some of them do it, not including anyone now in my immediate family.

I can see it happening easily. I can even predict it happening. And so here is the seam in the fabric where I find myself stopped. All of the women I am thinking of are white.

Can I imagine the cop taking my grandmother, my mother, my sister, my wife, my son’s fiancée and hurling her to the ground so hard her head bounces?

No. I cannot. I do not imagine that. I do not see it. I do not believe it. No matter how mouthy, especially with a nicely dressed middle class woman in an OK car who doesn’t look like she could be a crack whore with a knife palmed in one hand, I believe some special allowance is still made for a woman. They could still be the cop’s mother, sister, daughter. They are females who are physically weaker than men. They deserve a certain special respect and caution from men. Unless he’s some kind of abuser, a man, even a cop, doesn’t bounce a lady’s head off the curb for scant reason.

Unless the lady is black. And then she’s not a lady. Then she’s a cheap thug. Then it’s OK to knock her around.

I’m not offering any proof of anything here, but, I have to tell you, my instincts are hammering me pretty powerfully on this one. That whole scene from the moment the cop goes postal to the ends of both videos: None of that happens if Sandra Bland is white. That's what's meant by “black lives matter.”

I can imagine every mouthy white female I have ever known behaving exactly as Bland did. I cannot imagine one of them getting her head bounced off the curb for it.

That’s the horror of those videos. The difference between what I see in the videos and what I can imagine if Bland were white is what haunts. The white Sandra Bland has started her new job at a university already and is back in her apartment with a glass of white wine, on the phone with a friend who is joshing her about being an outlaw. The black Sandra Bland is dead. 

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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