By William C. Snowden, Vera Institute of Justice Founder of The Juror Project
Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.African Proverb
“Why are you running so fast?” The officer questioned me after ringing his siren one time for me to stop.
I caught my breath. I knew I was not running that fast because the rest of the cross-country team was a half-mile ahead of me. But, to answer the officer’s question I dumbfoundedly looked at my green athletic tank top with the universal cross-country logo on it—two Cs with an arrow through it—and then I looked at my ridiculously short green runner’s shorts. Suspecting my outfit would not suffice as an answer I told the officer, “I’m running cross-country practice.”
“Pfft, likely story. Give me your ID.” He said.
I was 14 years old. And this would be the first of many times I would be stopped by police for simply being me—a light-skinned Black man whose father is Black and mother is white. Growing up in the Selma of the North as Milwaukee is known, with a blended background I learned a lot about race.
Seeing how Black people have been treated this year is traumatizing. I’m convinced 2020 can only get better and I must believe that because hope is a survival tactic. In the first eight months of this year, police killed 164 Black people. There are also scores of Black people who have had the police called on them this year and ones that were killed before the police even arrived, like Ahmaud Arbery. No one deserves to be treated this way.
Ahmaud’s death hit different. I cried watching the beginning video of him being hunted down. Knowing how it was going to end I could not watch anymore. I did not need to ask, “Why he was running so fast?” I knew it was for his life. Those white men saw a threat and nullified it. For no justifiable reason but for the color of his beautiful brown skin, Ahmaud Arbery was killed for simply being.
If being seen as Black can get you killed, then being seen as human must be the key to staying alive, right? That survival tactic is not offered as a suggestion to pursue colorblindness. It does, however, serve as a 21st century example of W.E.B. DuBois’ “double consciousness” discussed in, “The Souls of Black Folk.” To survive encounters with law enforcement, or wannabe vigilantes, we must develop the, “Sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” as DuBois puts it.
What a burden. To survive we must placate to the sensitivities of others while not doing anything to offend their feelings of comfort or security. But what about the discomfort and nervousness we feel when encountering the police? Don’t break the law and you have nothing to worry about, they say. Tell that to Philando Castile or George Floyd or Atatiana Jefferson or Botham Jean or Breonna Taylor. If having a valid license to carry a concealed weapon, paying with legal tender, and being in your own home is not law-abiding enough then I do not know what is.
And I’ve studied the law. I’ve seen its paradoxical application and enforcement track along racial lines. When I show up to do work dismantling this double standard, I simultaneously strategize tactics to advance racial equity in our criminal legal system. If successful, that means race will no longer be a predictor of outcome in this system.
That equilibrium, however, does not live within law, it lives within people. For our own health as people exercising leadership, we must first acknowledge, digest, and process the American Spring birthed by the killing of George Floyd. Then we must recognize the conversations we need to have to restore understanding.
Conversations are the foundation we use to build bridges between people. But conversations about race can be polarizing. Afterward they can sometimes feel like we have widened the gulf between us. This is partly due to the history of race in America and partly due to America never having a reckoning of its racist past.
I recently had one of these difficult conversations with my childhood best friend after he decided to text me the speech Kentucky’s Attorney General Daniel Cameron gave at the Republican National Convention. We mostly disagreed with our interpretations of the roles Democrats and Republicans have historically played in fueling racism in our country. My friend using a Black elected official as the representative of American values was a veiled attempt to make the conversation about party and not race.
Our disagreement was frustrating. Not because I cared about which party he was blaming for white supremacy and racism in America, or “who has done more for the Black community,” but because I felt my friend was unwilling to name white people’s role in our racial problems today. As a Republican, it is easier for him to blame Democrats since he isn’t one. But to acknowledge the role whiteness has played in creating the racial strife of the day invokes an assumption of responsibility. Many white people today are unwilling to acknowledge the way this country has made white the default and how that default has harmed and continues to harm Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. It seems acknowledging their white privilege takes away from their believed successes.
Despite our difficult conversation, I needed it. In today’s world it is easy to enjoy the tunes of our echo chambers we naturally surround ourselves with. But the discord he and I experienced gave me more understanding of his perspective. We must think about other conversations we need to have about race. Conversations in our classrooms, our boardrooms, and our courtrooms. What do we ask? How do we process any pain that may result from those conversations? How do we assume our perspective is wrong? Exploring these questions can help set the stage for the dialogue.
This moment in America feels different. It is clear our country is at a tipping point. And if our will is change, we must lean forward to understand the way we see each other is the way we treat each other. But absent dialogue and relationships with others from different identity groups and lived experiences our perspectives will never change. The Chinese Proverb tells us, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.” Our lack of conversations and dialogue about race have contributed to the racial tension we have today. By speaking with each other now, we can plant the seeds of understanding for our future.
And in the future when I speak with my Republican friend, I hope he can acknowledge that the role of party is less important in America than the role of race. Colorblindness is unacceptable. And although some white people experience racial anxiety when discussing matters of race we must continue to normalize its discussion.
Leadership in America will acknowledge and celebrate our differences while rejecting systems that normalize whiteness while making it the cultural default. Too often we rush to find out how similar we are instead of exploring and seeking out how we differ from each other. Our differences, not our similarities, make us strong.
My hope for America is that we see each other not through appearances but through understandings. By understanding our histories, stories, and experiences we will transform the way we treat each other.