A while ago I was talking with one of the few African American high school students in our fair town. His first name is Abdul. He told me that late one afternoon he and several friends were skateboarding in the local high school parking lot, an activity that is not prohibited. A police car rolled into the lot, and the officer, staying in the car, motioned for Abdul to approach him. Since he is a law-abiding American, Abdul did so, but since he was fifteen and black, he did so on high alert. The officer looked him over for a few seconds, and then asked his name.
Abdul answered that his name was James. The officer said, “No, tell me your real name. You people have names like D’antoine and Deshawn.” Abdul repeated that his name was James, and since he had no identifying papers with him, he felt confident that he could play out the scene. The officer looked at him for a few seconds more, then said, “Have a good day,” and drove away. So Abdul played the officer.
So, no harm done, no ugly video on You Tube, a healthy, safe interchange? No way. Not.
That police officer, in a city where the police chief vows that all citizens are treated with equal respect, demonstrated his racist lack of respect in at least three ways.
First and most obvious, he called out the one non-white teen among the skate boarders. If asked, the officer might have said he was “conducting a field interview.” This is a questionable police practice wherein an officer informally engages a person he thinks might have recently engaged in criminal activity or is likely to do so in the future. Abdul’s criminal activity? BWB, Boarding While Black.
The officer’s second racist act was to categorize Abdul as one of “you people.” The use of the term, “you people,” separates the officer and the community he serves from people like Abdul, people with dark skin. The academic term for this is othering. Othering describes the act by which an individual or group becomes classified in somebody’s mind (in this case, the police officer’s) as “not one of us.” It is then easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are. Well, you might say, so what. I get to pick my friends. What’s the problem?
The problem was brought front and center a couple of weeks ago when a North Miami police officer, Jonathan Alleda, shot the caretaker of an autistic adult with an assault rifle while the caretaker was lying on the ground with his hands above his head. Take a guess on the ethnicity of the caretaker, Charles Kinsey. Right you are. He is African American, and Officer Alleda appears to be, from his photos, not (though he may well be). When Kinsey, lying on the ground, soon to be handcuffed and left on the hot street for twenty minutes waiting for an ambulance, asked Alleda why he shot him, Alleda, a SWAT team member, allegedly replied, “I don’t know.”
I will answer that question. The officer shot Mr. Kinsey because he has habitually “othered” black civilians. To Alleda Mr. Kinsey was a second class human, and he must have been guilty of something or the police would not be on the scene. Officer Alleda was primed by his training and the racist culture that supports that training to shoot black people without sufficient provocation. Check out this site for more on that subject.
Now apply this “othering” process to recent police murders of black men, such as the shooting of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Beginning to see a pattern?
The third bit of racism that our local police officer exhibited is really another facet of othering, but I think it is worth commenting on because it is typical so many white people. It’s about the name thing. The officer associates names like Deshawn and D’antoine with African Americans and names like James (and maybe Peter, John, Matthew, Simon, Thomas, Philip and the other twelve apostles) with white people. What could be the source of this dichotomy? I would propose that the source might lie in the world of sports. If the officer followed the Denver Broncos, the closest pro football team to our 94% white, and .5% black town, he would hear the names of African American athletes, names like Keyvon, Demarcus, Devontes, Vontarius and Kapri. But he would have also heard the names of other black players like Brandon, Von, Robert, Emanuel and Donald. But that second group of names did not make an impression. If he was a fan of the Golden State Warriors he would hear the names Draymond, Kevon, Zaza, Klay and Damian. But for every one of “those names,” there is a Stephen (Curry, the Player of the Year), Kevin, David, James and Patrick. Our officer is primed to pick out the differences, not what we have in common. Your name is Kevon, you must be black, and it’s likely your are a threat. Your name is Brandon? Hey, I went to school with a Brandon, you must be OK.
So now you see, if you did not before, why Abdul became James. At his age he understands racism. Abdul knows not give a cop any information that might give the police an edge. Because the cop is white and the cop has a gun.