The Fire Next Time?
Odds are you never heard about the killing of 20-year-old Dillon Taylor. He was shot to death in in Salt Lake City, Utah, just the other day. The man who shot him was a police officer acting in the line of duty. Dillon was unarmed. More significantly, he was white.
Where's the outrage? Where are the protests, the non-stop media coverage? Where's United States Attorney General Eric Holder on this killing? You can hear the questions coming from those located comfortably right of center, in publications such as The New American. It's the same group that scours the press clippings nationwide looking for a story about a homeowner shooting an invader in self-defense in the days after the latest mass shooting.
Anything to avoid discussing issues such as race and gun violence. Any distraction will do, no matter how disingenuous or dishonest.
"White people are not worthy because even dead they have white privilege," one commenter wrote on a link to the story about Mr. Taylor. The writer was expressing a simmering rage, a racial rage: He's no doubt white, and feeling as though he's been given the short end of life's stick. Don't tell him about white privilege, he enjoys none, or so he thinks. Any talk of redressing a legacy of racial discrimination strikes him as an assault on his position in the world. He never owned a slave, why should he offer anything up to a slave's ancestor?
And where's the National Rifle Association been in the wake of the Ferguson shooting and the grotesque police reaction to the protests? Doesn't the Second Amendment guarantee us the right to bear arms so that we can stand firm against tyranny? Dress members of a largely lily white police department in body armor, and hand them assault weapons, line 'em up on the street and have them train their sites on people gathering to seek redress of grievances. There's no protest from these latter day Sons of liberty so long as the police are pointing their weapons at black protestors. The NRA cares less about pushing back against governmental excess than it does keeping the descendants of plantation dwellers quietly penned in ghettos of despair.
It takes a special brand of willful blindness to ignore the reality of race in the United States. The white world has for a lifetime done so because it can. Nathan McCall, writing in Makes Me Wanna Holler in 1994, cautioned a certain wariness about white folks who write about race - it's a topic we white folk are free to address or not, as the fancy strikes us, much like taking up hang-gliding.
Twenty years later, I am not so sure McCall is right. We're now only a couple of short decades from a demographic tipping point in the United States: Come 2040, white folks will be a minority for the first time since Europeans came to this continent centuries ago. We need to find a way to get questions of race and ethnicity right, lest we go the way of so many other regions in the world: Palestinian versus Israeli; Bosnian against Serb; one tribe versus another - black versus white. White folks need to learn to talk about race, and their own sense of impending loss and fear about a world that quite simply looks different than what we were taught to expect.
Race deniers, those stalwart few who, upon learning of an act of violence targeting a person of color, scour the news to find a similar act committed against a white person, are sort of like the speeder who tells a cop, "I was traveling the same speed as everyone else."
Dillon Taylor, like Michael Brown, may or may not have killed by a police officer without justification. We don't know enough about either case to say. In both instances, the young men were in a confrontation with police; in both instances, the officers were armed and trained to use force, even deadly force, in circumstances involving perceived threats. Did the officers act reasonably in either case?
These are the narrow, and highly fact-bound, determinations that will be made in searching reviews of police conduct in Ferguson, Missouri and Salt Lake City, Utah. The public narratives available about both shootings suggest that both decedents were engaged in unlawful and risky conduct when they drew the attention of lawmen. How both the police and these young men reacted to one another in the tension that ensued is what these cases will come down to.
But until someone can make a convincing case that Salk Lake City police officers have shown a pattern and practice of targeting young white males for heightened scrutiny, or that Utah presses young white males into impoverished ghettos, or that young white men are systemically deprived of the benefits of full and equal participation in the social and economic life of the community surrounding them, comparisons of the killings of Mr. Brown and Mr. Taylor aren't just dishonest, they are positively stupid.
Ferguson isn't Salt Lake City, and downtown New Haven isn't bucolic Woodbridge. Context matters. Color matters. Perceptions matter. For as long as this country has existed, we've had an uneasy conscience about race. We may have freed the slaves, and the law has made promises we continue to struggle to fulfill. But can anyone honestly say we've solved the riddle of race?
"Can we ever really right the course on race?" I asked a friend of mine the other day. He's a person of color, a young black male who has done time in prison, been released, found a job, and is now working a regular job to support his family.
"Sometimes I think we can; sometimes I don't," he replied. "But if we're ever going to make progress, white folks need to learn to just shut up and listen."
I'm not sure I know how to listen. I'm watching the world change all around me and I am feeling unnerved. Ferguson didn't surprise me. The next shooting won't either. I keep wondering whether we will find the means to escape the fire next time.