Barack Obama’s days as president are winding down, and with them go the false hopes of his black brothers and sisters who thought America would finally be theirs.
It isn’t theirs. Neither is it mine, and it probably isn’t yours (whatever your skin color).
As any ordinary non-black American could have told ordinary black Americans: You can’t depend on politicians, especially those in the stratosphere.
Here in Oregon, we have a U.S. senator whose New York townhome recently went on the market for $7.5 Million. What does Sen. Ron Wyden’s life have to do with mine? Well, we both have light beige skin. That’s about it. (I also once worked with one of his old girlfriends.)
How is it that American race relations have blown up after almost eight years with a black president?
The myth of white privilege.
For too many black Americans, nothing has changed. Did they expect cops to stop looking for criminal suspects who were black when there was someone “who looked like them” in the White House? Did they think cops would no longer pull over black drivers who appeared to commit traffic violations?
If that’s what they expected from a black president, perhaps they should have come right out and said so: “We want the laws rewritten. No more traffic stops of black people. Ever. No more arrests of black people. Ever.”
Having a black president didn’t give black Americans a license to run from police or permission to put up a fight, but it looks like that’s what they expected.
White motorists are stopped by police, too. White suspects also resist arrest. When the encounters go awry, though, it isn’t necessarily treated as news.
What does it say about the black community’s relationship with crime that a willingness to cooperate with police is considered “acting white?”
In the midst of the recent racial violence, some media have offered a bright spot – the Atticus Finch virtual reality headset. The concept is based on the philosophy of fictional defense attorney Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
In the book, Finch tells his young daughter that the best way to understand someone else is to walk in his shoes. The makers of this virtual reality headset, which resembles elaborate ski-goggles, designed it to increase the user’s empathy. It takes the user into various scenarios in another person’s shoes and has them react.
The subtext of some of the media stories about the virtual reality headset is that it will open up the world of black America to white America. Why stop there? Perhaps black America should open its eyes to white America.
Here are five encounters that my brother has had with police over the years. How would a black man, wearing a virtual reality headset, react in these encounters?
First a description of my brother: He has light beige skin, stands 6-foot-2, is solidly built and in his younger days looked like a brawler. (Donald Trump would love to have my brother’s hands.)
INCIDENT #1: My brother was flying from Klamath Falls, Ore., to Phoenix, Ariz. While standing in line waiting to board, he noticed two cops looking at him. He thought he was being paranoid (he hates flying), but then another cop joined them, and the third seemed to be studying him too.
The next thing he knew there were two cops standing on one side of him and three on the other side.
“We need to take you out of line and speak to you.”
My brother told himself to cooperate. Why not? At one time, he wanted to be a cop. Then one of them grabbed his arm.
“I jerked away from them. I could see right then they changed.”
As they walked him away, people stared. The officers took him down a hallway, and the moment he was out of public view, they told him to put his hands behind his back. They handcuffed him.
They led him into a small room.
“Being in handcuffs, the room feeling like it’s closing in on me, I started to panic,” he said.
The cops told him he fit the description of an escaped convict who was believed to be armed and dangerous. They needed to verify his identity.
One of the women who worked refueling the planes at the airport knew my brother from having worked with him at a supermarket. She had seen them leading him away.
“He’s an escaped convict,” someone told her.
“He is not,” she said.
While the police were confirming my brother’s identity, his plane took off. Eventually, they determined he wasn’t an escaped convict, uncuffed him and showed him a picture of the man they were looking for. My brother said he did resemble the guy. He tried to joke with the police.
“He does look like me, except I’m better looking.”
The officers apologized and told him they had arranged for him to be on the next flight. Our older brother, who worked at San Francisco International Airport at the time, was more upset. He told my brother he had grounds for a lawsuit.
“I ended up showing up in Phoenix two hours later. It wasn’t like it was the end of the world,” my brother decided.
INCIDENT #2: My brother was living in Southern Oregon and had just purchased an older car that still had California plates. He left the parking lot of Wal-Mart in Talent, Ore., and pulled into traffic. It was a brightly lit commercial area. He saw an oncoming Talent police car go past him and noticed in the rear-view mirror that the cop did a dramatic cowboy turn and came up behind him, lights flashing.
My brother sized up the cop as he walked up to the driver’s-side window: “He was a belligerent prick.”
“What are you stopping me for?” he asked the cop.
The officer didn’t answer directly, just wanted to see his license, insurance card, car title. He examined them and re-examined them and called for reinforcements.
“Listen asshole. Either tell me why you are stopping me, or this conversation is over.”
Two more officers arrived.
“You’re nothing but a candy-ass,” my brother told the cop.
Meanwhile, his wife who was sitting in the passenger seat, was growing increasingly upset.
Finally, the cop told my brother his license plate light was out.
“How could you tell my license plate light was out with all the lights on around here?” my brother asked him. Then he laid it out to the cop what was really going on:
“You saw an older car, you saw it didn’t have Oregon plates, you thought you were really going to collect, thought I wouldn’t have insurance, wouldn’t have papers, and you were going to collect big money from me for the city of Talent. Write the ticket.”
Then the cop one-upped him to remind my brother who was boss.
“I’m not going to write you a ticket. I’m going to give you a warning.”
INCIDENT #3: My brother was driving from California to Oregon, and it was extremely foggy. He was going about 40 mph on the freeway. It was still too scary for his wife and son.
“Honey, slow down,” his wife said.
“Dad, slow down,” his son said.
My brother slowed to 30 mph. Everybody was passing him – except for the California Highway Patrol officer who pulled him over.
“Have you been drinking?” the officer asked.
“I don’t drink,” my brother replied.
“He hasn’t drunk in years,” his wife chimed in.
The CHP officer told him he was driving so slow he thought he was drunk. My brother laughed.
“I’m so glad to hear you say that, officer.” Then he explained why he was going 30 mph.
INCIDENT #4: My brother was working for a maintenance company in Portland and driving a company truck that ran out of fuel by the side of a freeway outside the city. A state patrol officer stopped to see what was wrong.
The officer looked in the back of the truck and noticed there was a gas can. Since the truck was in a dangerous spot, and there was nothing else going on, the trooper offered to give my brother a ride to a gas station.
“I have to follow regulations, though,” he said. “I’ll have to frisk you.”
Anybody driving by would have seen my brother with his hands on the hood of the patrol car while the officer gave him a pat-down.
INCIDENT #5: My brother was managing an apartment complex in Portland, and his two young daughters were visiting him. He saw a man in the parking lot take out his penis and urinate in front of the girls.
Enraged, my brother confronted the man and slugged him. The guy got up and staggered away. The police arrived, and my brother told them what happened.
“If he comes back again,” one of the officers told him, “knock him out and give us a call.”
Each one of these incidents could have ended differently for my brother. At the airport, had he run from police, what would have happened?
During the traffic stop, even though he mouthed off to the cop, he still cooperated. What if he had refused to show his license, etc.? When he called the cop a candy-ass, what if he had made a movement with his hands – towards a pocket or to open the car door?
When he was pulled over by the CHP for driving too slow, he kept a sense of humor instead of railing at the officer for not going after speeders.
When the Oregon State trooper frisked him, he didn’t protest even though a public pat-down can be humiliating.
When the Portland police didn’t immediately offer to go hunt for the guy who urinated in front of his young daughters, he didn’t get in their faces and yell, “If this were the mayor’s neighborhood, you’d do something!”
If my brother had been black, and if any one of these incidents had turned deadly and led to a media pile-on, President Obama would have been quick to find common ground with him. Without knowing any context, Obama would have intoned against systemic racism and the criminal justice system as he has in every high-profile, officer-involved killing of a black man since he took office.
On Sunday morning after three police officers in Baton Rouge were shot dead, Obama had the gall to say: “Everyone right now focus on words and actions that can unite this country rather than divide it further.”
In seven-and-a-half years, Obama has divided this country like no other president. (Who could have predicted in 2008 that Americans would be arguing about transgender bathrooms?)
His daughters will never wear a police officer’s uniform. His daughters will never be forced to live in a high-crime neighborhood.
His black daughters can “act white” with no condemnation.
If more black people were encouraged to do the same, perhaps they could catch some of that white privilege that they think abounds.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons