It is impossible for me to know what it is like to be black in America. My upbringing in Cumberland, Rhode Island in the 1960’s could not have been more plain vanilla. Cumberland wasn’t home to very many black families.
The first conversation I ever had with a black person wasn’t until I went into the Air Force. So for me to pretend to understand what it’s like to be black in America is foolish at best and dangerous at worst.
Later, when I became a police officer, I came into daily contact with a much wider variety of ethnicities. Yet, it was easy to fall prey to the us versus them mentality. As my experience grew, so did my appreciation for the similarities we shared rather than the superficial differences.
Unfamiliarity breeds misconceptions and prejudices.
The America of the 60’s was torn by the strife of racial hatred. Cities in America were burning. Images of riots showed lines of club-wielding police officers, almost exclusively white, facing off against protesters, mostly black, in the confrontations over segregation and racial discrimination.
It was these images that served as the basis of my exposure to people of color. I didn’t see prejudice in Cumberland. Not because it didn’t exist, but because there were few people of color living there.
As a police officer, I saw examples of prejudice perpetrated by officers. Yet, the times were changing. These acts, once institutionalized, were by individual officers rather than department policies.
The truth of the matter is they became more concealed, more insidious because they hid behind the façade of arresting criminals. If there is one thing I learned as a police officer, it is that everyone is one dire change of circumstances away from committing a crime.
All it takes is a sudden downturn in fortune and a once successful, happy, employed individual might turn to some criminal action to obtain money or sink into the abyss of drug addiction.
This condition is color-blind.
There is another aspect to being a police officer that creates conflict. We started wearing ballistic vests, donning Kevlar skin as part of our job. A necessary evil that created a mindset that every moment on the job was fraught with risk.
Cops are not taught that people of color are dangerous. They are taught that everyone is. Cops begin every encounter assuming the person they are in contact with poses a threat. It is drilled into them in the academy and in the field. They evaluate the person starting from that assumption. It sets a certain tone to every encounter.
For anyone not raised with black skin to say they understand the problem or can empathize with someone of color is ludicrous.
For persons of color to assume the individual in Kevlar skin is a racist threat with murderous intentions is equally ludicrous.
I was taught to seek out a police officer if I were in trouble. People of color often teach their children to fear cops based on their own experiences. As a country, we can do better.
To applaud the killing of Police Officers while doing their job is to sustain the perception and problem. It derails any attempt at a solution.
America can no longer afford to ignore the endemic racism prevalent within our society. We must confront it in an open and honest manner.
The reason our prisons are full of people of color has nothing to do with propensity to commit a crime. It has to do with a difference in access to justice. The lack of access to dedicated legal advice is the prime factor behind incarceration rates. Until access to justice no longer comes with a price tag, such disparity will continue.
I cannot pretend to know what it is like to be a person of color in this country. Just as most people cannot begin to understand what putting on Kevlar skin and going out into the dark night is like.
There is room for increased understanding and conversation on both sides of that spectrum. The time to act is now. The cities are smoldering. Now is the time to remove the fuel of discrimination before they are burning once again