The cruelty, grief and alienation that spring from racism are all still with us, continuing to deform our day-to-day lives, because white supremacy is still with us. White supremacy is a social chasm across which people can barely see each other, let alone hear and understand. None of that will change until the last white supremacist either changes his heart or dies, whichever comes first.
So what do I mean? Ku Klux Klan idiots in sheets? Some kind of scary Aryan Nation skinheads with tattoos all over their faces? No. Those people aren’t even relevant.
I mean everyday mainstream white people who still believe in the basic difference, who believe that white babies are born fundamentally different from black babies. That belief, inculcated in childhood when the white psyche is still forming, becomes a building block of identity:
I am who I am because I am white. I am a white human being. White human beings are different from nonwhite human beings. We are of a species different from theirs. And by the way, our kind is the real kind.
All those other people walking around who look like human beings and walk like us and talk like us: They’re not quite the real cigar. Only my kind are the real deal. When the other kind talk or act, we have to apply a little discount because they’re not quite us, and we are what counts. This is our world. They visit.
All my life, I have witnessed the same two phenomena among my fellow white folks. The first is white people getting over it. The second is white people not getting over it.
By get over it, I don’t mean any white people ceasing to be white people. I mean that we get over the white thing, the difference, the belief that being white gives us something, puts us at the head of the line, makes us better at quantum physics (in which case I definitely am not white).
White people get over that stuff every day, and it’s easy. It’s always the result of significant experiences of diversity, often a shared task or goal in which white people are shoulder-to-shoulder with nonwhite people trying to accomplish something. The sharing of physical space, the intimacy of cooperation: Something in it pushes certain instinctual buttons in the white person’s soul, and he or she thinks, “Oh, this black person next to me is exactly the same kind of critter I am.”
It doesn’t make us the same personally. It recognizes that we are the same fundamentally. As a black friend said to me when I was still young, “You may be over your white thing, Schutze, but you still can’t dance.”
But then there is that second path so many white people continue to follow with a certain desperation, the not getting over it, almost as if they would rather die than give up their white. Not that any of that is new, but it stands out more and becomes a bigger stumbling block in a world that is way more diverse than it used to be. Certain things just don’t pass the way they used to.
Last week when the Dallas County Commissioners Court voted on a resolution honoring the five police officers murdered on the streets of downtown a year ago, Commissioner John Wiley Price, the only black commissioner, abstained.
“I think it's interesting in this country how you again try to frame the narrative with regards to other people who've lost their life at the hands of law enforcement," he said. "No life is more important than any other life.”
I don’t know if Price had specific lives in mind, but there are specific lives to talk about. The march and demonstration a year ago where the five Dallas police officers were murdered by a sniper was an indirect product of a movement that started three years earlier with the fatal shooting of Clinton Allen. In 2013, a local officer shot Allen, 25, after a foot chase. The autopsy found the drug PCP in his system. He was unarmed.
He was shot seven times. The police officer, who was not indicted, said Allen was choking him when he shot him. The autopsy showed that all but one of Allen's wounds were clean of the telltale stippling of the skin that occurs with a close-range wound. So all but the last shot may have come from a distance. The last shot did cause close-range stippling and probably death. It was in the back.
When white people like me are able to put away our white for a while and think as human beings, then we can imagine a loved one of our own, troubled by drugs and in trouble with the cops, maybe confronting them, maybe even justifiably shot by them. But our aching hearts would still ask, “Why did you have to shoot him up close in the back after he had half a dozen bullets in him already?”
We might not question the legality of the arrest. We might accept the use of force. But our hearts would rage at that last shot because all our instincts would tell us it was the shooting of an animal. Our loved one.
The Texas Municipal Police Association responded to Price’s abstention from the anniversary resolution with what I thought was an especially eloquent statement. The TMPA statement said in part: “While we believe that no single life is more important than another, we nevertheless believe that honoring those who give their lives in the line of duty is just and proper. We do not believe that doing so in any way diminishes the significance of other lives lost.”
Of course all lives are equal, but, frankly, what we do with them is not always very equal. The police officer who puts on a badge and a uniform, holsters a gun and goes out onto the street to protect me is not doing something that is morally equal to what I do every day. She is doing something that is morally superior to what I do. He is stepping in front of my bullet. And if I allow somebody else to step in front of my bullet for me, then I owe that person a deep and unique debt of honor (not to mention a decent pension).
This is all so very heart-breaking. It’s heart-breaking to hear Commissioner Price remind us of the entire narrative that brought us to this terribly sad anniversary. He should not have had to say it. If there were not still an element of white supremacy lurking in this debate and separating us, then no one would have thought of memorializing the five fallen heroes without also memorializing the fallen martyrs.
That’s just human. It’s like sitting around the table at Thanksgiving Day dinner. You wouldn’t say, “You know I lost my son this year,” without also saying, “And, Ellen, we know that you lost your daughter.” That’s how human beings act. And human beings don’t have to be reminded to be human.
It’s just as heartbreaking to hear the cops having to defend their own memorial, having to remind us that their grief does not diminish anybody else’s grief. That’s something you wouldn’t have to explain to a child. How terrible that adults must explain it to each other.
I saw Shetamia Taylor on WFAA-TV (Channel 8) this week. I stood outside Baylor hospital with her sisters, Sherie and Theresa, a year ago when she was being operated on for a gunshot wound she took while fleeing the sniper. You could tell they were a great, solid family.
Police officers had formed a human shield around Taylor and her son while bullets flew. She watched one of them, Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, take a bullet and collapse in the street. He died later. She took a ricochet in the leg but did not die.
We know all our racial cues pretty well, don’t we? So you know from the names, if you didn’t know already, that he was white and she is black. Her sisters’ names might not have given it away, but, c’mon. Shetamia? And Lorne? There is so much about our differences to love.
Taylor told WFAA that she wants to serve as a bridge between police and black citizens. “We don't want to take anything away from anyone, as far as I'm concerned, but we also want to do it in a format that is elevating our cause, what it is we want to accomplish, and that is to just be seen as equals.”
Just to be seen as equals. What does that mean? Somebody wants somebody else’s money? No. Somebody wants to be above the law? Well, there are always people who feel that way, but that clearly was not what Taylor was saying.
Equal means human. Human beings. Fundamentally the same. If not personally or even culturally the same, then the same morally, intellectually, spiritually and before the law.
And what stands in the way of that basic human equality? The same thing that has always been in the way. White supremacy, the belief of some white people, a lot of them, judging by the polls, that they are different and better because they are white. That is what keeps us here.
As long as white supremacy is still among us, so will be the cruelty, heartbreak and waste of human life that are racism — waste of your life, my life, all our lives because, whether we know it or not, all of our lives are one.