I still see white people claiming that there’s no systemic racism among police, and that racist police officers are the exception, not the rule. Even though I’m white, I have had multiple experiences with police officers that have had a racial component.
From 1989 to 1997, I lived in a poor neighborhood in Lansing, Michigan; since 2000, I have lived in Royal Oak Township, which has a population that is about 95% African-American. For the last five years, I have worked in communities where whites are in the minority. Here are some incidents where I believe race played a significant role.
My wife and I lived in an apartment in Lansing. The management company told us they were glad to have us in our apartment, on the third floor with a view of the freeway. “We usually have drug dealers and prostitutes in that apartment.”
On one occasion, we heard arguing and things being broken in the next apartment. The man had started assaulting the woman, including tearing the door off the hinges, and she was trying to throw him out. At some point, she came into our apartment for safety and to call the police.
When a white police officer arrived, her first act was to confront my wife about why we had called the police. This was not a casual question: It was an accusation. Meanwhile, across the hall, the fight had started anew. The woman was throwing the man’s clothing down the stairway at him. The police officer’s priority continued to be how we’d gotten involved.
This was the first of several encounters where we got the message: If you (white people) weren’t putting yourself in an environment with them (black people), we wouldn’t have to inconvenience you.
In Royal Oak Township, someone tried to steal my car out of my driveway. They tore out the steering column to hotwire it, got it down to the street, then abandoned it. My neighbor had come by to tell me that my car was in the middle of the road.
When the (white) police officer arrived, his first question was, “How long have you been living here?” The emphasis was on “you” and “here”: It wasn’t about getting facts, it clearly suggested that I shouldn’t be living in that neighborhood. Other things suggested that he felt it was the nature of “those people” to steal cars, and that I should just get used to it happening.
I worked for a year in Highland Park. I have a March birthday, and it was the second week of April when I was stopped for having an expired plate. As soon as the (white) police officer got to my window, his body language changed. He told me my tag was expired. I said, “Oh, yeah, it’s at home. I’ll put it on when I get home.” He nodded and said, “Okay, good, make sure you do. Have a nice day.”
That was it. Yes, white apologists, I know: He’d run my plates and seen I was current. That’s why these encounters are so insidious. I can put them in text and they look innocent enough, but there are body language and verbal inflection cues. That’s what microaggression looks like. It’s plausible deniability. It’s letting a white driver go without even a warning on a minor infraction, but giving a driver of color a ticket for the same thing.
I knew that I’d been pulled over on a DWB and released because I wasn’t. It sickened me.
Lansing’s answer to the 7-Eleven is the Quality Dairy. My wife and I pulled into the parking lot and got out of the car. We were immediately followed by a police car with its emergency lights on. We watched for a moment, considering whether this was the best time to go into the store.
A few moments later, a black teenager hopped the fence from the alleyway, looking like he was headed for the store. There was no urgency or guilt in his actions. This was before Treyvon Martin was shot, and I thought about this incident often when Martin died.
The officer told the boy to put his hands on the hood of the police car, which he did. The boy complied as the officer kicked his legs apart and frisked him. There was nothing inappropriate about the officer’s search, except for the obvious part: What had the boy done to deserve it?
Another car pulled up, also with its lights on. At this point, we’d decided that what was going on was none of our business, so we headed into the store as the second officer joined the first one.
Inside the store, we saw one cashier on the telephone. “Well, when will they be here?” she was asking. “No, they’re not here yet!” A second cashier was talking to a drunk white customer who was spewing sexist slurs and threatening to break up the displays.
The cashiers were in dire need of police intervention and had called for it, but the officers were too busy harassing a black teen to address the emergency they’d been called to.
There’s one more incident that speaks directly to the carceral state and how it’s manipulated to maximize punishments against people of color.
Shortly after we moved to Royal Oak Township, our garage was broken into. The theft amounted to several hundred dollars worth of garden equipment, but there was a lot of damage to the garage and both of the cars. After our insurance deductibles, we were out $1000.
Our neighbors had seen the crime and told us about it later. A drug addict had broken in, then called out to a passing car for help. The car was being driven by a black teenager. The teenager agreed to drive the drug addict, with his stolen goods, to a nearby crackhouse. The neighbors knew the teen, but not the adult.
Even though the police were told who the teenager was, they dragged their heels. It was a fairly minor infraction, after all. Then, half a year later, I was contacted by the police, who told me they were going to trial.
All I wanted from the teen was my thousand dollars, which I eventually got back. He had done something stupid, but he wasn’t the actual thief. The boy wasn’t willing to show the police where they’d taken the stuff because his mother didn’t want her son seen pointing at a crackhouse from the back seat of a police car. Understandable, if frustrating.
As we were standing outside the family courtroom, I asked the officer why they’d put the investigation in high gear. He told me the boy had had a birthday and had been involved in stealing some tires from a dealership. Because he could be tried as an adult now, they wanted him to have a previous conviction so his sentencing on the tire theft would be higher.
I’d been used. They weren’t seeking justice, they were seeking injustice, and I’d played my part.
I nearly walked out of the courtroom without testifying. I’m not sure what I’d do if it happened today.
Black and brown people have been trying to tell us for decades that the police system is biased against them. My experiences are minor compared to those who live with this situation as a direct threat, every day.
It’s real. If you’re white and still deny it, educate yourself. Get woke.
More on the subject here on The Good Men Project:
White men can help fight white supremacy.
Naming white supremacy shifts the locus of the problem to white people, where it belongs.
Photo credit: Getty Images