Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Driving While Black, and Life in Post-Racial (sic) America

W'sup Sabine County Sheriff? My bad for scootin' through there and bein' black at the same time. Didnt mean to bother you and the Forest Services (or Alpo, the kindly drug mutt)! Next time, I won't not speed or pass the paper bag test ...

The March 17, 2009 incident involving the Dallas Police and Ryan Moats is a counterpunch to the suggestion – tantalizing, while also mind-numbingly inane – that we are now in a “Post-Racial America.”

Watching the incident unfold (video-documented here and analyzed well in a number of blogs and newspapers, including Dave Zirin on his 3/30 HuffingtonPost.com missive) has incited within me a bilious mixture of disgust, regret, and extreme disappointment.

Many people who know me well know that I have lost both of my parents. What they do not know was that I was not at either one of their bedsides when they passed away. Both times, I was in transit, rushing cautiously but speedily to be at their sides, all for naught. When my father passed away, I received word that he was dying, and I made the three and a half hour drive from Shreveport to Lafayette only to arrive 30 minutes too late. When my mother passed away, the drive was across Biloxi to get to her, again, arriving minutes late. I don’t recall the content of those drives, whether I braked appropriately, signaled each time, came to complete stops, though I am reasonably sure I did, as I am a careful driver. And furthermore, were I to have been pulled over, I hope that I would have been as patient and as tolerable as Moats appeared to be. Truly, his demeanor throughout the entire horrifying incident is what makes this case as disgusting a case of police misbehavior on record (the many, many incidents of police brutality and murder on record, notwithstanding). I truly feel for Mr. Moats and his family, and wish to express my regrets for their loss.

For all the talk about America entering a new era – a post-racial era – given the election of Barack Obama as president, incidents like this remind us all too starkly that while a Black leader is now calling the shots, many Black people in this country face a paralyzing fear of getting shot at by police officers who abuse their authority and harbor hatred for Black people. Ryan Moats, and the unseen individuals who every day are haunted by the specter of institutionalized racism, are reminded time and time again that their race – not the content of their character – determines their place in the social order of America. Though I am a career-long educator and committed advocate of social justice, hopeful that America will live up to the words of the Declaration of Independence, episodes like this jar my sensibility to the point that I am certain that the only unalienable right I have is to remain silent.

Mr. Moats had every reason to be angry, to plead his case at a much higher decibel level, and finally, to challenge the officer – a little man with a big syndrome and a bone to be picked at Mr. Moats’ expense. And yet we all know, were that to have occurred, I might be writing today about two deaths rather than one, and in six to twelve months, riots would have ensued after this officer – after a paid suspension, of course – was exonerated and walked scot-free. I don’t care that the officer has apologized – it was contrived, expedient for his pending civil case and disciplinary hearings, and would not have happened if Moats didn’t tote the ball for the Texans.
Compounding the frustration I feel is the fact that the officer’s harassment of Mr. Moats discourages not only the public’s trust in officers of the law, but has to be discouraging, too, for other competent police officers across the country who risk their lives, day in and day out, to protect and to serve. While the case of Ryan Moats is being publicly debated, consider also that just a few weekends ago, four police officers were killed after a routine traffic stop involving an individual (a young black man, who was also killed after the incident) with an extensive criminal history (AP report). These men gave their lives protecting the people of Oakland and were met with a fate that is tragic and undeserved. I am truly saddened for their family’s losses, as well, as none of them were able to be at the sides of these men as they passed away.

One ill, in this case, feeds an alternating illness. Police officers in Oakland were already maligned after public outcry over the New Year’s Day shooting of Oscar Grant on a BART/S train platform -- a case which has drawn murder charges for a police officer currently on suspension. Now we have learned that about 20 onlookers at the scene of the shooting where the four police officers were slain actually lingered and taunted the police officers (AP report). It’s a Moebius Strip, which has neither a beginning nor an end – incompetent, racist police officers harass black citizens, causing black citizens to lose trust in and become fearful of all police forces. Black citizens become increasingly distrusting, leading to, at best, the “No Snitching” campaign, and at worst, to police becoming targets of violence. Whatever the case, there is nothing “post-racial” about this dynamic.

To close, I have long been a critic of the dominant sports media in America, and days after the Moats incident, there is little analysis or investigation into the incident on the major providers of content (ESPN.com, SI.com, Yahoo!Sports, and the like). They’ve, of course, provided video of Moats accepting the officer’s apology – as if to say, “don’t worry, everyone, it’s all okay now. No need to get racial.” The dominant sports media is also curiously giving as much coverage to an earlier incident involving this officer of the law, noting that the same officer had pulled over Zach Thomas’ (another NFL player) wife and arrested her after a routine traffic stop – as if to say, “See, everyone? He doesn’t just pick on black people.” As usual, the blogosphere is leading the way, and within hours of the incident, bloggers had posted videos of the incident and culled information from his MySpace.com page in which allegedly wishes to assault a young woman he’d pulled over, but recoils because her 7-year old daughter was watching. Clearly, whether his motives were racist or not, this is someone who has long exhibited the signs of incompetence and emotional instability that should have had him removed from the beat a long time ago.

But perception is everything. Whether or not the officer’s intentions were to display a deep-seated urge to dominate a black man, borne of his frustration and angst over a seemingly well-to-do black man standing up to him, or not, that is how many will perceive it. And his actions not only destroyed trust, but he has endangered the lives and made the work of his fellow officers more difficult. And he has disheartened virtually everyone else in the process, including me.

And maybe the silver lining is that he has, for once and for all, destroyed this whole “Post-Racial America” fallacy for good, and we can get back to broaching a discussion about racial inequality in America that will ultimately benefit us all.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

The Moebius Strip that you describe is absolutely correct. It is like the world's worst Catch-22. At some point there has to be a break of the endless cycle...I just don't know where that comes from. What Obama's election has done, I think, is raise the ceiling for black people, and certainly made relations better for those that already had pretty strong relations to begin with. But for the more urban, less integrated people, this hasn't effected a change at all. And certainly not in police-young black male relations. They still distrust each other and probably will until such a time as one of the two groups is able to marshall control on all of them. Unfortunately, there are bad apples in every bunch, like the Dallas cop or the cop killers in Oakland or the taunters.