Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Cop, the Conservative, & the Issue of Race

I appreciate the recent invitation I received to join the RaceProject Facebook group examining communication, race, and politics. I follow the Facebook posts with great interest, and would love to learn from, and possibly contribute to, the discussion -- the long overdue and scarcely acknowledged discussion. I offer the following (about the recent issues with Professor Gates) knowing that the folks at the RaceProject have studied these issues much more extensively, and understand them far better, than I.


I was a police officer in an area populated almost exclusively by black people for nine years. I had learned from Clara Luper and John George, but still did not understand the chasm that existed between me and the community I served, or tried to serve. I still thought "it" was "over." I thought it unfair that as a white cop I was reviled by so many. I hadn't ever (fill in the blank with owned slaves, beaten black people, used the "n" word) Wasn't that prejudice?

Now, after years of studying and listening, trying to understand perspectives I was not reared to consider, I find I'm frequently a man without a country. White conservatives (that would be me, mostly) want to believe the playing field is now equal, and we all need to "move on." Cops think they apply the law impartially without regard to color, leaving them submitted to their unacknowledged prejudice - but don't try to tell them that. On the other hand, I've written a paper explaining that it's ridiculous to assert that all white people are inherently "racist" (an overused term as Charlton McIlwain has pointed out), and that power centers are dynamic, thus anyone can be a bigot. My conclusion, so far, is that we're all prisoners of our bigotry until we're willing to admit that we are naturally bigots. Then, we can begin to recognize, and fight, the tendency.

I get angry when no one wants to consider where Professor Gates was really coming from as he invoked his rights. No one wants to consider his life story, that he's probably been demeaned by white police officers before. If he hasn’t, he knows plenty of people who look like him who have. Those stories are a part of the fabric of black America, and they explain how black people relate to both black and white police officers.

I get angry when no one wants to consider that burned in the officer's memory are flashes of flag draped coffins and grieving wives comforting stunned and sullen children who want their Daddy to come home. I promise, you never forget that. He didn't know what he was going to face, and to let his guard down could result in a knock on his family's door that would change their lives forever.

No one stopped to consider the others' perspective. They didn't do it then, and most people aren't doing it now. I'm glad that Professor Gates, the officer, and the President sat down and had a discussion -- but shouldn’t we ALL be having that discussion?

I agree with President Obama, it was a teachable moment. I doubt, though, that we actually learned anything.

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Lieutenant Jay Barnett has been an Oklahoma City Police Officer since March of 1990, and currently serves as the downtown dayshift patrol lieutenant. He earned his B.S. in Liberal Studies from the University of Oklahoma, and is currently working on his M.A. in Legal Studies at the University of Illinois-Springfield. He just started research on his thesis examining the expansion of the rights paradigm and its impact on classical liberalism.


Kathryn said...

Lt. Barnett and I have very different world views. I know this because he and I have talked many times about many issues including race. Speaking as someone who is definately "liberal", I agree that until we admit we make judgments about others based upon the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, their gender, or other external characteristics, we cannot know our selves. If President Carter lusted in his heart, I know I have been a racist, sexist or other form of bigot in my mind. I know that when a young black man is walking towards me on the street at night my awareness is heightened. I look for an "escape" route. There are many daily instances when I make negative judgments about others. And I am both ashamed and bemused. Is it human or an artifact of being an American?

The best hope is to keep listening.

adire said...

I disagree with Lt. Barnett's contention that we are "naturally racist." Watch little children play together, and you will see that they don't make distinctions in skin tone. It is only as they grow older and interact with older siblings and adults that they pick up attitudes that, unchallenged, eventually congeal into discriminatory and racist views.

Buddy Baker