A Conversation on Race?

We’ve been told, from time to time, that what we need is a ‘national conversation’ on race.  To be sure, even after fifty years of civil rights enshrined in Federal law, there are still issues and problems to be resolved.

But then I get the sense that I would be unwelcome at such a conversation because, well, I’m not black.  And the conversation would have certain ground rules, like:

  • Only white people can be racist.
  • In fact, all white people are racist, whether they care to admit it or not.
  • It is offensive, and therefore forbidden, to:
    • Cite statistics or other facts that are contrary to the narrative of racist discrimination;
    • Point out that many of the problems of the black community are in fact faced by all Americans;
    • Make light of the issues involved for rhetorical effect;
    • Challenge the ground rules.

To heck with that.

And I’m not black.

So let me start with what I know.

Michael Brown and Eric Garner confronted police over what were ultimately minor issues, and died at the hands of police as a result.  Two years ago, Trayvon Martin, while visiting another neighborhood, had a confrontation with a resident of that neighborhood, who shot and killed him.

I know, as a white person, from my own experience, that if I confronted police as Eric Garner or Michael Brown did, or a resident of a neighborhood where I was visiting, like Trayvon Martin did, I would not expect to remain unscathed.  I know that it would be extraordinarily dangerous, and I might even be putting my life at risk.

So I wouldn’t do that.

And I understood that concept from sometime when I was in elementary school.  I didn’t learn it in high school or college, or even from elementary school: it was something that seeped in from my observation of the world around me as I was growing up.

So why did these three men have these confrontations?

If I were to say that it was because they were black, that would be racist.  It would also be preposterous: I know many people, of all races and colors, who would agree that confronting the police, or a resident of a neighborhood where you didn’t live, is foolish at best and can be fatal at worst.

But if these men weren’t motivated to confrontation by race, what was it?

I tend to believe the reasons are cultural.  the three men were brought up in a different culture, with a different set of rules, that admitted confrontation for confrontation’s sake as useful and necessary.  But that’s my speculation at a distance, and may or may not be correct.

In any case, we need to understand, not so that we can flagellate our inner racist and throw money at the problem, but because it will get far worse, and not better, unless all of us strive to address it.

3 thoughts on “A Conversation on Race?”

  1. The question that I have to ask is where stupid stops and race begins. We work, but we don’t have the need for the sort of hustles that Eric Garner got into, selling single cigarettes for a dollar or so. He had had run-ins with the police over the sales before.

    I’m old enough to remember packs of 5 or so cigarettes that were given out on planes that my father brought home from business trips, and was able to buy packs of 10 cigarettes in England in 1999. I don’t know whether or not they are still sold in small packs. However, in an effort to protect children, cigarette manufacturers in the U.S. are not allowed to package cigarettes in packs of fewer than 20.

  2. I’ve read (can’t speak from experience as I’ve never been a smoker) that the little grocery stores common in most NYC residential areas would break up a pack and sell loose cigarettes, at least to their regular customers. Perhaps some still do, although it’s against Federal law.

    Actually, selling smaller packs of cigarettes would be a prudent marketing move, were it not the subject of Federal regulation. Many people can’t quite quit smoking, but are trying to smoke less, and in places like NYC with high taxes, a pack of smokes that cost under $10 would have a ready market.

    But Eric Garner got in trouble on this particular day not specifically for selling loose cigarettes, but because he was being a general public nuisance. He had had regular encounters with the police, and told them at the time, ‘it ends today.’

    In another time, Eric Garner might have had a job in a factory, or as a taxi driver, or some other honorable trade where he could have kept a roof over his family and not become a public nuisance. But that didn’t happen.

    1. I didn’t know that. I haven’t read much of the coverage. Based on what you wrote, it looks like stupidity is more important than race.

      As a white woman, I am not likely to make a policeman nervous. People who don’t know me think that I am a schoolteacher or librarian when they first meet me. I was stopped while driving my car in Durango, CO. I had driven across two traffic lanes (both were turn lanes), and figured that I was getting a ticket. By the time that he approached the driver’s side window of my car, I had my license, registration, and insurance card ready to hand to him. He took them and told me that I was driving under the speed limit, and wanted to know whether I was all right. I told him that I wasn’t from around here, and that I was trying to get to a local motel that I believed to be a couple of blocks from where I was parked. He handed back my paperwork and sent me on my way. Though I do suspect that had I not had a specific destination that I would have gotten a ticket, he did say that the only reason that people drive under the speed limit is because they are drunk.

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