Monday, July 29, 2013

Living While Black: Anecdotes about Dealing with Police

Due to the genetic happenstance of my bi-raciality, I don't look black. This has led to more than a few "No, really, I'm black" conversations, but generally speaking, I can pass for white if I want to. Passing isn't a new phenomenon, but it does generally protect me from unnecessarily hostile contact with police and other authority figures that regularly harassed what Malcolm called "recognized Negroes." That said, I know racially biased harassment is very real.

Gene Denby of NPR Code Switch started a conversation about police interactions on Twitter last Thursday. I Storify'd it so you can read it here, but I want to delve further into why they are more than simple anecdotes of inconvenience.

Most countries have foundational myths that underlie the ethos of the national character. Much of our national myth involves freedom and Enlightenment liberalism: property rights, religious freedom, and the dignity of the individual are among the core values which under-gird our national identity. This narrative leads to national cliches like "If you work hard enough, you can do anything" and 'pulling oneself up by the bootstraps' is the key to success.  The accompanying narrative overlooks what that actually looked like for much of our history including, inter alia, discriminatory legal regimes. This is important not, as many think, to enable a "victimhood" mentality among descendants. This is important to reaffirm that this country has only recently recognized that the "inalienable rights" explicitly assigned to all of mankind in our founding document apply to women and many people of color. This recognition is to understand that, since our country's inception, there have been parallel sets of rules and laws for  marginalized people that are distinct from and harsher than those for the majority. It also means "dignity of the individual" doesn't apply equally.