Back when I was about six years old, a year younger than my youngest is now, I became the victim of racial hatred. I was playing in the yard of our Denver apartment building when a black child who must have been 12 years old or so, found me alone and attacked me, calling me words I had never heard before, words I later learned all too well. I remember how it felt when he managed to kick me in my arm pit and how shocked I was to be receiving a beating from someone I had never seen before. I don't remember much about the aftermath, just the indignation of having been hated because I was white. In the years following the attack, my family lived mostly on Air Force bases, and no matter what negative associations I might have with those places, I can remember that they were racially diverse communities where housewives often joined one another for coffee and gossip, and where race was seldom a reason to prevent someone from playing pick up games of football in the nearest field. My parents never used racial epithets around me, and never did we talk about the attack I had suffered as being a reason to cast dispersion on anyone of color.
Visiting my family in North Carolina, however, I learned that race was still very much an issue. The first time I remember hearing the "n word," was in the small community where my dad had been raised. Years later, when my father married my stepmom, an African American woman, I learned that even though most of the people I knew there would never condone lynching, they seemed quite certain by their responses that marrying outside of one's race was a cardinal sin. I remember thinking that, as much as I love living in the South, I wouldn't want to raise my children in a community that openly belittles others because of their skin color, or because of behavior that developed as a natural result of years of oppression. I remember being in my 20s, and feeling embarrassed by the shows of deference given me by elderly black folks working in service occupations. "Please ma'am, you don't need to call me 'sir,'" I remember saying to the elderly black lady who used to sweep my classroom floor with her God-awful dust mop that carried the mustiness of million passes across the elementary school floors.
Worse yet, I remember my own carelessness with words when I insulted a man I deeply respected, believing that because everyone knew I wasn't a racist, I could say anything and it would still be funny. Sorry, but being friends with someone for a semester does not allow me insensitivity towards his personal experience of being black.
Then, today, I read a comment Father Nathan Monk had made about his outrage that Dylan Roof, the white shooter of the black church members, was able to be arrested without violence, yet police had to brutalize poor black teens at a McKinney pool party, as though the two incidents occurring separately, thousands of miles apart, were evidence of a systemic problem with policing in America. Even though I am inclined to agree with that notion, to some extent, I chose to speak up, suggesting that at the moment when a suspect is being arrested, violence can be avoided, regardless of race: "At the time of interaction with police, no matter the crime, the arrestee's attitude can affect the officer's behavior. Someone openly defying authorities is going to be taken down. It's ugly and sometimes brutal, but people can, except in those atrocious cases of abuse, avoid violence."
The OP then replied with a hashtag: "#victimblaming."
What followed was a series of posts and replies between me and Father Nathan Monk and those who agreed with me and those who took issue with Monk's comparisons between today's arrests and other instances of police excessive use of power when confronting black victims.
It became clear that my view was being dismissed because I dared to suggest that some victims of police brutality could have avoided their fates if they had learned to respect authority. Sadly, there have been many well-documented cases where this was not the case. What seems to happen more and more today, through the posting and tweeting on social media, is that extreme viewpoints get all the attention, and those in the middle are thrust to one side or the other. The moral middle ground has become untenable in many instances.
For the record, I am glad to hear that the Texas Rangers are investigating what happened when the infamous McKinney cop tripped over a root and started pointing his gun at people. I am glad that Dylan Roof was arrested and will stand trial. I am glad that people are empowered to challenge authorities when authorities mess up. I am not glad that many people feel empowered to blame the cops for violence when I see children being brought up without guidance or expectations of respect for authority.
In today's online debate, I dared to suggest that some of my students listen to rappers such as Chief Keef, and that they hear more from those who make millions promoting hate and criminal behavior than they do from elders who want them to become respectable citizens. A mother responded, saying that her son listens to all kinds of "ratchet" music and he stills loves his family and respects his elders. It is good that she is able to teach him to differentiate between music and the real world, because there are plenty of kids for whom no acceptable role model can be found. When there is no one to help shape our young people into citizens, what are we to expect of our law enforcement officers when push comes to shove?
Every institution in America needs improvement, no doubt. As I tuck my child into bed tonight, kiss his forehead and tell him that I love him, I know that the change needed in America is not the abolition of our law enforcement agencies. It may sound idealistic, and for students who suffered in my classes, repetitive, but the greatest change we need is empathy on all levels.
Imagine how much change could be effected if children were taught that empathy really mattered. When I taught English, I always emphasized the need for empathy in being an effective communicator and reader. The same applies for interacting with those who are different. Imagine if police officers learned to connect better with those they deal with, seeing perps as human beings, not just the offenses they commit...and those children being raised to understand one another and to see officers as human beings, not just symbols of authority to thwart...