Read So You Want to Talk About Race Online
Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
police forces were created not to protect Americans of color, but to control Americans of color. People of color were
seen by the police as an inconvenience at best, and a threat at worst, but never as people to protect and serve. This desire to control the behavior of people of color along with disregard for the lives of people of color has been woven throughout the history of American policing.
This general attitude toward communities of color was also built into police training and police culture, and strong remnants of that remain today.
It is understandable then that the fear and mistrust of police are also woven throughout the history of communities of color, especially black America. The trauma from police brutality has been felt over multiple generations. The generational wounds
of police brutality and oppression have not healed, because the brutality and oppression is still happening, even if cops are no longer wearing white hoods or letting their attack dogs loose on us.
Yes, our police officers are far less likely to be seen joining lynch mobs, and far fewer of them explicitly see “controlling the black population” as their main job. But our police force is much larger
and much more powerful than it was in the past, and the narratives and organizational structure that promoted the terrorizing of black Americans and communities of color in the past protects the harassment and brutality against black Americans and communities of color in the present.
This is not to say that the majority of our police officers are racist, hateful monsters. When looking at anti-black
bias in police actions, we are looking at the product of police cultural history that has always viewed black Americans as adversaries, and of a popular culture that has always portrayed black Americans as violent criminals not worthy of protection. From our books, TV shows, and movies, to our crime focus on news
programs—the narrative of the black brute is as strong now as it was when
was released to wide acclaim in 1915. We hear this repeated in the language of our TV pundits and our politicians. Who will do something about this inner-city crime? Who will keep our streets safe from these thugs? Who will protect us from these super-predators? The belief that black people still need to be controlled by police is promoted by our politicians and funded by our taxpayers.
This belief that black people and people of color are more dangerous, unpredictable, and violent is not something that I believe most police officers (and other Americans) even know they believe. But they do believe it deep down. This implicit bias against people of color is so insidious that not even people of color are exempt from having it, which is why, yes, even police officers of color can
show bias against civilians of color. Implicit bias is the beliefs that sit in the back of your brain and inform your actions without your explicit knowledge. In times of stress, these unexamined beliefs can prove deadly.
And a large portion of police encounters with people of color—or with any people for that matter—are high-stress situations where that implicit bias is more likely to take over
at any hint of unpredictability or escalation and flood an officer with irrational fear. When an officer shoots an unarmed black man and says he feared for his life, I believe it. But that fear itself is often racist and unfounded.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that there is higher crime in some cities where larger minority populations live. Yes, black men are more likely to commit
a violent offense than white men. No, this is not “black-on-black” or “brown-on-brown” crime. Those terms are 100 percent racist. It’s
crime. We don’t call crime that happens in white communities “white-on-white” crime, even though the majority of crimes against white people are perpetrated by other white people. Crime is a problem within communities. And communities with higher poverty, fewer
jobs, and less infrastructure are going to have higher crime, regardless of race. When the average black American has one-thirteenth the net worth and the average Hispanic American has one-tenth the net worth of the average white American,
and when the poverty rate among Native Americans is over three times that of whites,
it is a strong bet that neighborhoods of color are more likely to be
poor neighborhoods with higher crime and that higher-priced neighborhoods with easier access to jobs and more funding for education that lead to less crime would be more likely to be populated by comparatively wealthier white people.
Crime in communities of color is often compounded by the contentious relationship with police. Nobody wants a solution to crime in black communities more than black
people do, they are the people most impacted by it. But when you cannot trust the police to protect you, who do you call to report illegal activity? When a crime happens, why would you cooperate with a police force that you do not trust to enforce the law without bias or excessive force?
Police, as an extension of American society, are more likely to view people of color as dangerous, and people
of color are more likely to view police as corrupt. This may seem on the surface as a simple miscommunication. Old grudges that just need to be let go. This is often how it is discussed by the media and by our politicians. “If we could only come together, we’d see that we’re all good people.”
But these simple platitudes ignore the power dynamic at play in people of color’s interactions with police.
Just about every police officer that a person of color encounters will be armed—not just with a gun, but with the full force of a justice system that has shown just as much bias against people of color as the police have. If someone is going to be harmed or killed in a police encounter, the numbers show that it is most likely going to be the civilian, not the police. When that harm is the result
of an unjustified use of force against a civilian of color, most people of color know that the police officer involved will likely face very few consequences, if any. Police officers know this, too. This is known in every encounter with police—every traffic stop, every domestic violence call, every welfare call.
People of color do need and desperately want an effective police force to help keep
their communities safe. And in order for a police force to be effective, it has to earn the trust of its people. But to those who only scratch the surface, to those who do not investigate their simplistic opinions about the root cause of crime in inner-cities and the animosity between police forces and communities of color—the answer is simply “more policing.” But what we need is different policing.
Policing not steeped from root to flower in the need to control people of color.
If you are not a person of color, your relationship with these same officers is likely vastly different. The assumption that police officers would serve and protect the white community has existed as long as the assumption that police officers would control people of color. The long, well-established history of violence
toward and oppression of the
white community simply does not exist in American policing. This does not mean that white Americans were never subject to abuse by police, not at all. A look at our police force’s history of abuse and persecution of the LGBT community is one of many examples that show otherwise. But by and large, even with occasional abuses of white civilians by police, most white
Americans are confident that the criminal justice system is still to be trusted. Our police force is integral to white American feelings of safety and security in their communities. They are a valued part of the community. To question the integrity of police is to question the safety of the communities they serve, and that can be very unsettling to many who rely on that feeling of protection for their
peace of mind.
But that comfort and security that many white Americans have felt with their police is built on the oppression of people of color by those same police. The police don’t just keep white communities safe, they save white communities from the evils of inner-city crime. They are the heroes who keep Compton in Compton and Chicago in Chicago. Without the police, your white community
would be just like
communities, and it is white America’s love of police that separates you from a crime-ridden ghetto. This is not something that all white Americans explicitly think or say, but it is the overwhelming narrative of our culture, our politicians, and our police forces. And that narrative shapes a lot of our conversations around policing and race.
When talking about police
brutality, it is important to remember that the police force can be trustworthy public servants to one community, and oppressors to another community—just as we can live in a country that promotes prosperity for some and poverty for others. And this can be the same police force and the same country, without making any of these realities invalid. While numbers show that people of color are disproportionately
targeted by police, they also show that white people in general trust and admire police. Both these statistics are true.
But our goal should be to ensure that people of all races are able to feel safe and secure with our police forces. We need to recognize that the fear that people of color have of police is not merely rooted in feeling or culture, but in the separate and violent history that
our police forces have with communities of color. We must realize that there are two very different realities of how our police interact with white communities and with communities of color, and both of those realities have their own structure and history. We cannot address police brutality if we are not willing to recognize these differences and address the entirety of the specific history and structure
of police interactions with communities of color.
It is important when talking about police brutality to stand secure in your experience, without trying to override the experiences of other communities with police. What has happened to you is valid and true, but it is not what has happened to everyone. The experience of white communities with police are real, and the experience of communities
of color with police are real—but they are far from the same. And while it is important to recognize these different viewpoints, we must remember this: If you do trust and value your police force, and you also believe in justice and equality for people of color, you will not see the lack of trust on behalf of communities of color as simply a difference of opinion. You will instead expect your police
force to earn the respect
and trust of communities of color by providing them with the same level of service that you enjoy. People of color are not asking white people to believe their experiences so that they will fear the police as much as people of color do. They are asking because they want white people to join them in demanding their right to be able to trust the police like white people
OMA, IT’S TIME FOR YOU TO STEP OUTSIDE NOW.”
I quietly grabbed my pencil and folder and walked out the door while the rest of my first-grade class watched.
In the hallway stood a teacher’s aide, next to two tiny desks. In my memory the hallway was dark and foreboding, but I think now that any empty school hallway seems dark and foreboding
to a small child regardless of lighting. From a classroom a few doors away, a brown boy exited into the hallway and sat at his desk, and I took a seat in mine. The teacher’s aide did not seem like a real teacher to me, she seemed like a big kid. Looking back on it, I think she was probably a college student. She was friendly and cheerful, but I resented her anyway. I didn’t like being in this dark
hallway, away from my class. I didn’t like how much more it set me apart from my peers.
“How’s your book report coming, Joma?” she asked, her smile unrecognizing of my seven-year-old anger. I quickly shook off my resentment and launched into excited ramblings about my favorite subject: books.
We had moved to this neighborhood a few months earlier. We couldn’t afford our apartment in our old
suburb, even without a phone or electricity after both had been shut off due to nonpayment. And even though we had to sneak into the “show” apartment down the hall at night to boil water for ramen and to shower (after a sympathetic manager had given my mom a key), I loved our neighborhood and my school. My teachers were excited by my aptitude and love of learning and had talked with my mom about moving
me ahead a grade or putting me in an advanced program.
But even my seven-year-old self could see that my mom was struggling to make ends meet. We had roommates for a while, another single mom and her two young children, and the six of us were doing okay in the three-bedroom apartment. But my mom had come home one day and caught her roommate beating her five-year-old son in the head with a plastic
baseball bat, and after the dust settled and the cops had left, it was just the three of us again. And we were no longer able to get by.
When my mom became eligible for family housing near the university she was attending, she jumped at the chance, and we moved to converted army barracks in the city. I said goodbye to my friends and my teachers and started at a new school, in a new neighborhood
where I definitely didn’t belong. The school that I moved to was very diverse and very poor. Many of the kids in class were also kids who, like us,
depended on government assistance for most of our food and the community garden for the rest. Many of the kids seemed older than me—not in physical age, but in life lived. They wandered our neighborhood with a freedom and abandon that I knew my mom
would never grant me. They hung out with older siblings and told stories of fights they’d seen, and some they’d even joined in on. I had never seen a fight, except for the seconds I’d seen of my mom’s interaction with her roommate months earlier before she told us to go to the neighbor’s apartment and wait for her to come get us. I didn’t know the jokes, the games, or the slang of these kids. I felt
like I’d moved to another country, and not simply another city.
Most of the kids that I remember in my school were latchkey kids, their own responsibility while their parents worked multiple jobs just to get by. I remember the distinct difference in parental involvement in education at that school compared to my old school—in that it just didn’t exist at my new school. Parents were too busy trying
to put food on the table, and so all educational needs were left, by necessity not choice, to an extremely underfunded school.
My mom had more time than most parents at my school, not because she had more money, but because she was a student and her schedule allowed for an hour or two between classes to volunteer at my class when she could. My mom believed that education was our only way out
of the poverty we knew and had spent the last twelve years working toward her bachelor’s degree whenever she could scrape together enough money, loans, and time to attend classes. She pestered my new teachers into doing whatever they could to nurture the talent I showed. And so, a few times a week, I was sent to the hallway to read and write with the other kid identified as “gifted.” This was the
best they could do.
My brother Aham, a very talented kid in his own right, did not fare so well. His emotionality and energy had been misinterpreted in the same way it is for many young black boys—as aggression and lack of intelligence. One teacher, who had given up on my brother altogether, told my mom that she thought Aham had “cotton between his ears.” When the school refused to move her son
to a different classroom, my mom became a regular volunteer in the class, sitting in the back of the room and staring at the teacher, to ensure that she treated my brother with at least feigned kindness.
As the years went by and we moved from neighborhood to neighborhood and school to school, as financial woes drove us out with each rent increase, my school record followed. My quiet demeanor
and love of books had me singled out as “different” from the other black kids and each teacher treated me as a sort of unicorn, trying to preserve what they saw in me as “rare.” For my brother, his reputation as a troubled black boy also followed him from school to school and class to class.
One day, in fifth grade, two girls I knew from my brother’s class ran up to me.
“Your brother’s homeless!”
they shouted, giggling, before running away again.
I had no idea what they were talking about, but I quickly forgot the exchange altogether.
A few days later, we were heading to assembly in the school gymnasium when my class line crossed paths with Aham’s class line.
“Hi!” Aham eagerly shouted at me and I raised my hand and waved.
“Homeless! Homeless!” a few kids shouted at him and my brother’s
face clouded in shame. He blinked back tears. Before I could say anything, they had passed me by.
After a few days, I was able to get a girl in Aham’s class to explain what was happening. Their teacher had set up a unique system of reward and punishment in the classroom. She had printed out fake money for the class and gave them each a few dollars to start. If you were attentive in class, you
were given money. If you turned your homework in, you got money, and so on. And if you spoke out of turn, you lost money. If you forgot your homework, you lost money. If your desk was messy, you lost money. If, at the end of the week, you had leftover money, you could use it to buy treats or stickers or other small gifts. But there was a catch.
You had to pay rent first. On your desk.
had already been singled out as a difficult kid, and the teacher was taking money from him before he could make it. And his upset over losing money would cause him to act out and lose more. So while every Friday students would eagerly line up to pick out their piece of candy, my brother would sit.
On the floor. Because he was homeless. He couldn’t afford rent on his desk.
The days spread to
weeks and the weeks spread to months and my brother became known as “the homeless kid.” It was a taunt that followed him everywhere, eating into his soul. I do not think that his teacher knew that we had, in fact, been actually homeless at times. But how she could miss the impact that this new homelessness was having upon a little boy, I’ll never know. By the end of the year, my energetic, sensitive
brother became permanently sad and anxious. He didn’t make a single friend for years.
My brother and I went on our separate paths through the rest of our school years. I went on to take early college courses. Aham dropped out of high school, his daily panic attacks making social interaction impossible, and we could not afford to get him help. The only thing that kept my brother alive was music.
And after he dropped out of high school and the prejudgment of teachers was gone, Aham was easily able to pass his test for his GED. And he then successfully interviewed for and received a scholarship to music school. Without music, he would have been lost.
I got married at twenty and had my firstborn son, Malcolm, shortly after. But the marriage was unhealthy and at times abusive, and I had
to get out. By the time I was twenty-two, I was a single parent. I had never forgotten my mom’s dedication to education. After a few years of struggling in entry-level customer service work, knowing that I only had one option to escape the poverty that she’d had to raise us in, I moved my son and me ninety miles away, and went to college.
I had no family money to help pay for college, but the
early nurturing of my teachers had left me with a strong enough academic record for admission, and outside of a few grants, I was able to pay for the bulk of my tuition in loans that I was not sure that I’d ever be able to pay back.
Over the next few years I fought my way to a degree, enduring many a sleepless night as I balanced school, work, and
being the sole caretaker of a young boy. I remember
feeling so tired, and so alone. I remember looking at my student loan balance with dread, and looking with jealousy and resentment at my classmates whose parents had at least been able to offer some help. I remember wishing that I, too, could crash for a few days after finals week, instead of waking up the next morning to take my son to the bus. I was always the only black person in my classes,
and my entire time in the university I only encountered one black professor. I was constantly translating my opinions to a class that did not understand the political viewpoints of a black woman who had lived a life they would never know. I remember having no friends. I also remember knowing that I couldn’t fuck up. Not once. I couldn’t change my major, couldn’t fail a class. But I loved school,
and despite the challenges, I flourished in college in my own solitary way, just as I had in elementary school. And in 2007 I received my bachelor’s degree, the day after my son graduated from kindergarten.
After graduation, I was engaged to be married and pregnant with my second child. I quickly found work, from a college referral program, with a telecom company. The work had less than nothing
to do with my degree in political science, but it was a job, and because I had a degree—any degree—and because the college referral program set me up with phone interviews where nobody could see my black skin and pregnant belly, I was able to ask for a living wage.
I was, at twenty-five, still the same child who had been told every day that she was different and special. Knowing that, I dove
into my new career with gusto. I volunteered for special projects, worked unpaid overtime to learn new skills,
found new ways to save the company money. I applied for a promotion and interviewed well. A manager came by my desk one day, “Congratulations,” he said, “They announced it in the manager’s meeting today. You’re moving on to better things.” I was ecstatic, this was my first promotion.
Word quickly spread as another manager stopped by my desk to loudly congratulate me, and while some people were happy for me, others were not.
The next day I was pulled into my manager’s office. He looked pained.
“There’s been some rumor that you’ve gotten the promotion you applied for. I apologize for any mention of that getting to you, because unfortunately it’s not true. I don’t know how
this misinformation got to you, but I’m sorry.”
“I was told by two separate managers that they’d been told by you,” I said, tears welling up in my eyes.
“That’s simply not true,” replied my manager and reiterated, “I’m sorry. You’re talented and your time will come.”
I had been lied to. Something had happened to my promotion, but there was nothing I could do. I was crushed for a few days, but
I recovered and kept working. A few months later, another opening came up in the department I had interviewed for earlier. I interviewed and was formally offered the position.
When I arrived at the new department, I was told by a teammate that they’d all expected me sooner, but when word of my first supposed promotion got out, a white woman who had also applied complained and said that because
I hadn’t been at the company as long as she had, it was obvious that I had been promoted because I was black. She had threatened to sue, so the promotion went to her instead.
That insinuation that I’d been promoted because of my skin color stuck, even though I was one of only about five people of color in my entire department. I had the highest stats, stayed late almost every night even though
I had two kids at home, and took on any extra projects available to me. And yet, the grumbling and rumors persisted: I didn’t deserve any of my accolades or promotions. Along with the resentment of my race, there was the sexual harassment that came from being a woman in a primarily male department. I’d be asked to split a lunch only to find out that I’d somehow agreed to a date. Unwanted gifts were
left on my desk. Suggestive “jokes” were made about my body. I remember one senior engineer leaning over my desk to tell me how many women he’d slept with over the years, then he paused and looked at my pregnant belly and asked, “So, are you going to deliver vaginally?”
Even with the unpleasant environment, I still did better than other people of color in the department. My teammate Terrence,
who had trained me when I was first promoted onto the team, had been with the company about three years longer than I had. He was a hard-working black man, with a wife and three kids at home. One day I showed up to work and his usually cheerful demeanor was gone. In fact, he looked like he was going to have to cry. During break, I asked him what was wrong.
“Between you and me, I think I’m going
to have to quit,” he said.
He explained that he had been offered another job at a rival company. He didn’t want to leave, but his family really needed the increase in pay that had been offered. He had told our manager about his predicament, and our manager and director had agreed to match the hourly wage that the competitor had offered. Terrence turned down the job with the competitor, happy
to stay at the company that he’d been with for years.