Amy Cooper knew exactly what she was doing. That’s the wildest and most insidious part of all this ― the part we haven’t been talking about enough.
On Monday evening, yet another video of a white woman calling the cops on a Black person out of spite went viral. This time, the woman in question was Amy Cooper, a dog owner who had unleashed her cocker spaniel, Henry, in a section of Central Park called the Ramble where, legally, dogs must be on a leash at all times.
Christian Cooper, a Black man, had reportedly asked the woman to put a leash on her dog. She didn’t appreciate his request and what transpired was captured in a video by Christian Cooper, in which the woman, unhappy with being recorded, threatened to call the police.
“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” Amy Cooper says in the one-minute clip.
And she did, whining hysterically, emphasizing the fact that her so-called attacker was African American (and nearly strangling her dog in the process).
What was clear in her words and how she used them was that she didn’t actually feel physically threatened ― rather, she was wielding her privilege as a white woman with the knowledge that accusing a Black man of violence was a weapon against him.
The video sparked outrage within hours of being posted online. Twitter sleuths quickly dug up Amy Cooper’s name, her workplace, and even the shelter where she adopted her dog. Her employer, Franklin Templeton, issued a statement indicating that she had been placed on administrative leave. She willingly surrendered her dog to the Abandoned Angels Cocker Spaniel Rescue.
By Monday evening, Amy Cooper had issued an apology to NBC New York in which she said:
I sincerely and humbly apologize to everyone, especially to that man, his family. It was unacceptable and I humbly and fully apologize to everyone who’s seen that video, everyone that’s been offended ... everyone who thinks of me in a lower light and I understand why they do.
When I think about the police, I’m such a blessed person. I’ve come to realize especially today that I think of [the police] as a protection agency, and unfortunately, this has caused me to realize that there are so many people in this country that don’t have that luxury.
There is, of course, a long history of white women in this country falsely accusing Black people, particularly Black men and boys, of crimes they did not commit. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten, tortured and killed because Carolyn Bryant claimed that Till grabbed her and made sexual advances towards her in a Mississippi grocery store. She later admitted that was not true.
The 1921 Tulsa race massacre, in which whites destroyed an affluent Black neighborhood and killed and injured hundreds of its residents, was sparked after white elevator operator Sarah Page claimed that Black shoe shiner Dick Rowland assaulted her. It’s been widely reported that Rowland tripped upon entering the elevator Page was operating, accidentally grabbing her arm to steady himself. She screamed.
Nearly a century later, in the heart of New York City, Amy Cooper’s actions echo this dark history. And so it is incredibly disingenuous for Cooper, in her statement, to claim that the fallout from the incident has “caused” her to realize and recognize her privilege as a white woman in America.
But her actions and her apology reveal a kind of savviness, a calculated racism showing she was already aware of that privilege. The clip of Cooper sneering “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life” highlights this truth about race in America: White people are far more aware of the structure of the thing than they care to admit.
Cooper seems like a fairly average person. It’s very likely that she doesn’t consider herself racist. It’s very likely that she doesn’t consider race much at all, because she doesn’t have to. Perhaps she has one or two Black friends and works with Black employees and feels good about her interactions and relationships with them. Perhaps she likes singing Beyoncé songs at karaoke.
And yet, when asked by Christian Cooper to follow the rules, it’s telling that her reaction was indignant, angry and then passively violent. She understood completely the implications of calling the cops on a Black man. She understood that her faux-breathless screaming and tears could elicit a very specific, historic, racialized response. And that is why she did it, why she felt comfortable saying all the things she said, with a camera trained on her.
It makes one wonder what Amy Cooper has said and done that has been harmful to Black people and other people of color when a camera wasn’t trained on her. As The Black List founder Franklin Leonard asked on Twitter last night, “How many times has Amy Cooper said behind closed doors that a black co-worker ‘wasn’t a team player,’ ‘isn’t one of us,’ ‘made her uncomfortable.’ How many times has she just not been able to put her finger on it, but just doesn’t think they’re the right candidate for the job?”
There is an unwieldiness, an unpredictability to whiteness that puts Black and brown bodies in needless danger, simply because it can. Often, this unpredictability is framed or presented as a kind of obliviousness: White women calling the police on Black people — as if the cops are a pizza delivery service or, perhaps more appropriately, an exterminator — are viewed as silly and absurd. But there is a sharpness to their absurdity. A cunning.
In all this, I’m thinking of the number of times I’ve felt my presence and my existence policed by whiteness in both subtle and overt ways. The times I’ve been sternly told not to sit on stoops in my quickly gentrifying neighborhood, or asked who I knew in an apartment building that I lived in, experiences I’ve seen echoed in news stories about other Black people over the last several years. In every instance, I’ve had to mitigate my annoyance, weigh the pros and cons of an eye roll or a withering glare. I’ve had to be intentional about remaining calm, deescalating the situation, making the other person — the person policing me — feel safe and reassured, in spite of the fact that in these interactions they’ve been perfectly fine and I’ve been the one made to feel unsafe and insecure.
What the Amy Cooper situation reveals to me is what instances of racism in America always reveal: There’s a level of self-examination and self-awareness that white people are not doing that they must do. There’s something that white people, even the ones who believe that they hold no biases, that they wield no power, must admit to themselves and begin to unpack. They are complicit — and even participatory — in the system of white supremacy. Individual white people may not believe they are, but their ability to tap into that system is always within reach.
For his part, Christian Cooper was gracious in response to Amy Cooper’s apology. He told CNN: “If it’s genuine and if she plans on keeping her dog on a leash in the Ramble going forward, then we have no issues with each other.”
It’s great that he accepts her apology, even though he has every right not to. Perhaps Amy Cooper losing her job or losing her dog feels like a kind of justice, but I’m weary of the storyline that these viral stories always follow: Someone is caught doing something racist, it goes viral, they lose their job, issue a lukewarm apology, and the news cycle moves on.
In this narrative, when the frenzy is over, it’s always unclear whether the person who was outed for doing something racist is actually going to change. There are so many Amy Coopers out there, and until they do the work, this is just going to keep happening.