Last week on “Real time with Bill Maher,” one of his panel guests was actor/ director Wendell Pierce, who has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies. I should note that Pierce is an African-American male, as this context is important for his viewpoint. During a discussion on domestic violence, Maher introduced the concept of race playing a role in how people perceive alleged perpetrators. Pierce’s opinion was very informative and well thought out. But, there was one particular commentary he made that needs to be stated again and again, as there are some who believe racial injustice does not still exist and is blown out of proportion by the media.
Pierce was dressed in a suit and tie for the show, which is important for his example. He said people who are not an African-American male do not and can not appreciate when he is stopped by a police officer or patrolman, that the thought goes through his head that “I might not survive this encounter.” He used a recent example where he said he was driving to a funeral in Mississippi, dressed like I am tonight, with two young children in the backseat and another passenger up front. He noted he was pulled over by a patrolman.
Pierce said he did what he always does when stopped and pulled his wallet out of his pocket and set it on the dashboard awaiting the officer’s arrival. African-American men do this to avoid the perception of going for a gun as you get your wallet out. He said it was a very hot day, so he turned the car off and left the AC running. After a few minutes of waiting, he looked in his rearview mirror and saw an officer pointing a rifle at his car mouthing the words to get out of the car, #$%&#$. So, a situation that did not need to be tense, was because the officer presumed malintent.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Blink,” he notes that there is a predisposition to act that is based on our experiences. The theme of the book is we make subconscious decisions all the time based on our experiences. These hunches have been formed over the years. He notes this can be good or bad, and cites as an example of the latter in the story of “41 Shots” that Bruce Springsteen made famous in his song “American Skin.” In essence, an “English as a second language” person was perceived as a perpetrator as he did not understand questions officers were asking and, feeling in jeopardy, ran. Not condoning this flight, Gladwell notes the person was trying to pull out his wallet and was shot 41 times on a stoop. 41 times!
The recent death of Michael Brown in Ferguson is another example of this predisposition to act. As a result, someone is killed with his hands raised as confirmed by several sources. Trayvon Martin died because self-appointed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, presumed he was up to malintent and pursued him even when told not to by the police dispatcher. Something similar happened at a gas station where a civilian shot into a car and killed an African-American teen because they were playing their music too loudly.
As a white person, let me state the obvious. While I can empathize greatly with Pierce and other African-American males, there is no way I can walk in their shoes. There is no way for me to know what it is like to fear for my life in circumstances which should not warrant fear. There is no way for me to fully understand how racial injustice continues, when it is obvious that it still does. I have read the excellent book by Michelle Alexander “The New Jim Crow” which speaks to the higher preponderance of incarceration for African-Americans for drug crimes, when whites are equally guilty as indicated by the data. The book also speaks to the number of African-American teens who are in adult prison and, as a consequence, are being taught more to be a better criminal rather than a better citizen. So, they leave prison with few opportunities and may resort to a life of future crime.
Per Pierce and others, the solutions lie in education. The solutions lie in better after school programs.The solutions lie in providing opportunities. The solutions lie in better parental guidance. The solutions lie in better training of police officers to handle confrontations. The solutions lie in community based policing where the efforts are to reduce crimes through positive interaction. The solutions lie in better remedial sentencing where kids can be taught an education, skills and how to be good citizens. And so on. Racial injustice may have lessened, but it is alive and well in America. Anyone who thinks otherwise, needs to do some more homework or look to better sources of information.