At Monday's debate, the issue of systemic racism and race relations came up and how the candidates handled it is telling. While Donald Trump hammered away at the concept of "law and order," bringing up stop and frisk as a desirable way to reduce crime on the streets, Hillary Clinton's response was much more nuanced. She acknowledged the breadth and depth of the problem of systemic racism in our criminal justice system, something that is unusual in a candidate running for the presidency.
Stopping and frisking every person as suggested by Trump is not a viable solution to crime in this country. Aside from the way it tends to be carried out by the police (disproportionately targeting African Americans in a manner known as a racial profiling), it only furthers the legitimate view by many African Americans that our system is unfairly set up to discriminate against people based on the color of their skin. Indeed, a federal judge determined New York City’s own stop and frisk law was unconstitutional because it violated African Americans’ civil rights.
In the meantime, Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, recently said that we talk too much about institutional racism in our justice system.
Too much, Mike Pence? I couldn’t disagree more.
Maybe my own personal history of race relations is not the norm. I grew up in the 1970s in suburban Philadelphia, and went to a K-12 Quaker school where equality and justice were part of the curriculum. Although a private school, it was a completely desegregated one in the sense that we all grew up together ― black and white boys and girls ― and were genuinely friends. We ate lunch together, played and hung out at each other’s houses, went to parties together, etc. It all seemed very normal and natural and that’s the environment in which I grew up. It certainly helped that my own parents never once used a racial slur or made racist comments in my presence. Indeed, my mother, very progressive in her own right, joined the NAACP. In 2008, I cheered President Obama’s election in part because I viewed it as progress in our country ― a sign that we had taken another step towards equality. Yet, I am not naive and know that I am, like all Americans, a product of a culture that over hundreds of years has taught us lessons, stereotypes, and prejudices that are deeply engrained in our fabric and are stubbornly difficult to shake.
In any event, I believe that the problem with denying there are issues with systemic racism in this country (and make no mistake, there are still serious problems with racism in this country) is that like with every difficult dilemma, the first step towards solving racism is to admit it exists. In my mind, it all starts with understanding. Understanding and empathy. Not only hearing a black person who says, “Black Lives Matter,” but really attempting to empathize and understand what that means ― and not what it means to myself as a white woman, but to that black person.
During the aftermath of the killing of Keith Scott by police in Charlotte, North Carolina, I became deeply aware of this. On Facebook, reading the stream of articles in my news feed, and opinions posted by my (mostly liberal) Facebook friends, I came upon this comment:
My girls said, "mom, I'm scared for daddy. What if he has car problems? He can't even call the police for help!" My heart is just breaking, I'm angry, I'm sad, I'm hopeless! People will look at my husband, and just think he's a bad dude because his skin is brown and he's six feet tall! And what of my brothers, cousins, uncles! What are these cops thinking?! But yet look at how black men are portrayed on tv and everywhere and so we are subliminally taught that black is bad and black men are the ultimate level of bad!!
The poster of this comment, Claudia (not her real name), is a married African American woman and mother of four kids, who are now 16, 15, 8, and 5. I know her because she was in a social group I joined shortly after the birth of my first baby, my son. Ten first-time moms and our babies met, first in a church, and then at each other’s houses, every week for well over a year. Knowing that these other women were going through the same sort of issues as I was as a first time mother gave me comfort. We talked about all sorts of things and became friends, going to each others’ birthday parties for our kids and holiday parties. Then, many of us drifted apart. We had our second babies, and even our third or fourth, and we didn’t live around the corner from each other. Some of us returned to work full-time or moved out of the area. In retrospect, it’s noteworthy we met for as long as we did as a complete group.
Facebook brought a lot of us back together through throwback postings of pictures we had taken of all ten of the babies when they were only a few months old. And then Claudia and I became Facebook friends. We discovered that our daughters both were dancers and watched each other’s dance videos. I learned that Claudia had moved to Charlotte, North Carolina ― with her husband of 20 years, and kids ― but it sounded like all was well. Claudia and her family are, quite frankly, no different from the rest of my mom friends and their families.
Then came the Scott shooting and that post on Facebook. Soon after, I watched on cable news the video taken by Scott’s wife, Rakeyia, of the shooting (apparently because she had the wherewithal and courage to obtain her own evidence of what transpired as her husband was shot to death by a police officer).
My heart broke into pieces. Why? Because I really and truly empathized with Claudia, whom I had known well, and with Mrs. Scott, who was a total stranger but is also a wife and a mother. I imagined the concern that Claudia had not only for her husband, but also her daughter who is the same exact age as my son. Unlike Claudia’s daughter, my son doesn’t have the worry that he or his father ― my husband ― will be shot and killed because of assumptions and snap judgments made based on the color of their skin. I don’t have to worry that I will ever have to watch my husband being shot and killed before my eyes while I capture it on my phone as proof.
I know that there remain questions to be answered about the particulars of the Scott case. Nevertheless, there will always be another case like it just around the corner with different facts, but with the common denominator of police using lethal force against a black man unnecessarily. The bottom line:
That a wife had to beg and plead for police not to shoot her husband dead and have it fall on deaf ears;
That she had to be a witness to the deadly shooting when the police ignored her even after she said he had a traumatic brain injury;
That a 16-year-old girl who I knew as a beautiful baby has to be scared for her father’s life;
That her mom, Claudia, has to comfort her kids knowing full well they are right to be concerned;
That the book depicted above, entitled ‘A Survival Guide: How Not to Get Killed by the Police,’ must exist in 2016 America.
These things do matter to me, and should matter to all women and moms, regardless of their skin color.
Sorry Mike Pence: President Obama was right about what he said at the White House reception just prior to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and History. We have come so far with race relations and institutional racism in this country, and yet we have so very far to go. And the only way we’re going to get there is by truly seeing each other, listening, trying to understand and empathize and, finally, by working together to find a solution.
Edited to correct a typographical error regarding the year that President Obama was elected.