George Pyle: Why is violent racism still a surprise?

A man poses in the parking lot of an AutoZone store in flames, while protesters hold a rally against the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Violent protests over the death of the black man in police custody broke out in Minneapolis for a second straight night Wednesday, with protesters in a standoff with officers outside a police precinct and looting of nearby stores. (Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via AP)

“That’s not a chip on my shoulder, that’s your foot on my neck.”

Malcolm X

It is difficult to imagine someone more privileged than I am.

Male, white, American, college educated, baby boomer, born at the right time, late enough to miss the Vietnam War and early enough to take the internet revolution more or less in my stride. Pursuing a profession that allows me to sit out the coronavirus lockdown without having to make a choice between my money and my life.

I can also claim, when it suits my purposes, to be an Honorary Black Man.

Or I could, if the title were hereditary.

My father earned it, back about the early 1970s, for just showing up to work. The local chapter of the NAACP needed a parade permit, or a park reservation, or something, for their local Juneteenth celebration. The chapter’s members hadn’t realized the paperwork was necessary and ran down to City Hall at the last minute to seek help.

My father, who was in charge of such officiousness, filled out the necessary form and stamped it or signed it or whatever was needed. A minimal effort for a person who had been doing such things for many years.

The applicants were grateful, and more than a little bit surprised. They had half expected the grizzled old white guy, who grew up on a farm in Kansas and probably hadn’t seen a black person until he went to college, to put up some resistance. To think up some bureaucratic reason why they couldn’t have the permit they wanted because they had made their application after 4 p.m. on a Friday.

And the old man was just a little bit offended that the applicants had made an assumption about the content of his character based on the color of his skin.

As I said, the title is not hereditary. But one thing I do carry on is a privileged blindness that continues to leave me surprised when yet another example of violent racism is splashed across the national media.

Aren’t we finished with this yet?

Can’t people of all skin colors get a parade permit, go bird watching in Central Park, get picked up for a minor criminal offense, play with a toy gun, have a barbecue in a public park, go jogging, go to the store for some Skittles and any number of other normal things without worrying that they will be turned away, have the police called on them, get shot, get their windpipes crushed?

Apparently not.

That woman in Central Park who called the police when the black man told her that she was in an area where her dog should be on a leash. She lives in New York City, for crikey sake. She sees black people — and Puerto Ricans and Asians and Indians — all the time. Why isn’t that just normal? Why does she think she should call the police, when she must have known on some level that the result could very easily be that this inoffensive stranger could die in front of her?

White people see black people on TV, buy their music, root for them to score a touchdown or a three-pointer, emulate their style and their figures of speech. We even elected a black man president of the United States. Twice.

But in real life, it is a relationship still guided in large part by fear. It can’t just be dislike or discomfort or even feelings of superiority. This much violence and acceptance of violence can only rise from white people being afraid of black people.

Police officers, particularly, are these days trained in techniques of deescalation that, at least officially, honor officers for resolving situations without resorting to violence. But there is obviously just too much Wyatt Earp in too many cops — and, especially, in self-appointed vigilantes — that is triggered by a belief that a black man who writes bad checks or sells untaxed cigarettes is not just a miscreant but a clear and present danger.

The result, of course, is police brutality and self-deputized acts of violence that the black community tolerates for as long as it can, plus a little, before erupting in burn-down-the-police-station rage.

Which only serves to prove to the bigots among us, particularly the one in the Oval Office, that their fear was always well placed and their violent acts of self-defense always justified.

Of course white people are afraid of black people. We know if we were treated the way blacks are treated in our society, we might be pretty angry, too.

So it goes.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, thinks white people might catch a very tiny hint of what it’s like to be a minority by, as he did, riding public transit in Buffalo, N.Y., for four years. Though, because nothing bad ever happened, it’s not really the same.


Twitter, @debatestate