Eric Garner and The Tipping Point in Race Relations

I grew up believing that the word "racism" was an archaic term that belonged only in history books.

Yeah, I realize how crazy that sounds. I see now that it was silly to believe that.

I understand that anyone who reads this blog post will know from that very first sentence what color my skin is. I am white.*

I know now that only a white person could make it through the first ten or fifteen years of life and still believe that racism was an ugly, distant memory, a relic from the past that only appeared in textbooks and history lessons next to the first two hundred years of American life, from slavery through civil rights.

I know now how ridiculous that notion seems. 

It took time for me to understand.

It took life experience for me to see how my coworkers and clients in our nation's capital were grossly underpaid and overqualified, consistently offered salaries and positions lower than those with lighter skin.

It took candid discussions with friends to understand what it meant to live black*: to have to teach a son to be timid with strangers and the authorities just to stay alive, to expect to be pulled over at night or in a predominantly white neighborhood.

It took getting to know family histories to see that sharecropping, hate crimes and lynching weren't dead memories; they were alive and a real part of the personal history and experience in my friends' parents and grandparents lives. (More recent even than the Holocaust and its survivors whose firsthand stories I heard at least once a year in school assemblies: stories of oppression and genocide that took place far away, outside our borders, filled with stories of American heroism in the name of equality, justice, freedom. "American" qualities.)

It took decades to get it.

But once my eyes and ears were tuned in to the fact that race is still an oppressive factor in life in America, I could clearly see the additional—--almost imperceptible--—layer of both fear and pride in black parents' eyes as they looked to their children's future.

Still, it took Eric Garner to shake me awake. It took Eric Garner to peel away the veil of sixty years of perceived progress and strides toward equality.

Wednesday night—Eric Garner—was my tipping point. I watched the decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo with disbelief and tears in my eyes.

I first listened to President Barack Obama and I agreed. This case was about more than race, more than black lives or white lives. It was about American lives and a flawed justice system. It was about law enforcement and making sure every single person in our country is equal. Is valued. The lesson about what had happened had to be more than this outdated concept of "race."

And then I went to Target.

And I realized that once again, I was wrong. The Eric Garner case has everything in the world to do with race.

I was wrong because I had the luxury of being surprised with the grand jury's failure to indict. 

When I walked into Target at eight o'clock on what should have been an average Wednesday night, I felt an energy permeating the air that I have never felt before in my entire life.

I felt defeat. And I felt dejection.

I walked around the store, and I saw men and women in every shade, processing the news of the day. On white* faces, there was surprise, confusion, contemplation, frustration, disappointment. But on every black* face, there was a level of sadness I've never seen. It was a look that told me that Eric Garner's murder (because that's what the coroner called it: homicide)—--with the witness catching it on video and the hands up and the jovial personality—--dug deeper than any wrong conviction or racist remark or attack ever had.

I can only describe the energy I felt that night as the pivotal moment when a person realizes a relationship they'd cared about is over. That second when you go from the drive to argue and be heard by the person you thought you loved to the realization that it's just over. The relationship is not worth the energy or the anger or the frustration or the sadness. It's just plain done.

Anyone who's ever fallen out of love or known when to walk away from a lover knows that moment, that pained look of dried-up hope and abandoned dreams.

It says, quite simply, "I give up."

I'd never seen that look or felt that emptiness from so many people in my life. Not after Columbine, not after 9/11, not even after Sandy Hook—and I say that not to minimize any of those tragedies, but to illustrate just how powerfully diminished the air felt. I think it's because those shocked us all, but this—--a senseless loss of life followed by an institutionally blatant disregard for the weight of what had happened—--was actually expected by a large portion of our population.

I've been obsessing over the right words for days, and I still can't find a way to adequately explain or describe that night.

If I hadn't gone out that night, I probably wouldn't have even seen it. I would have thought Eric Garner was "just" another case of structural racism. By the next day, I noticed that the masks were back on and the desperation was hidden behind a forced strength. But I did go out. And I did see it.

On Wednesday night, while my anger and frustration and sense of injustice were raring to fight, the faces of those who'd anticipated such stark disregard for one unarmed black man's life told me everything I needed to know. It would never be enough.

I realized the protests in New York weren't only peaceful because people were tired of violence and suddenly learned order in chaos. They were peaceful because all the air and all the fight had left the room.

Hands in the air. Race is real.

Every day, I wake up white. Every day, I am perceived as white. Every day, I experience life as white. And every day, that will limit my understanding of what it really means to live in America, because I walk through life presumed innocent.

It's not wrong that I am perceived that way. It's wrong that others are not.

Wednesday night, at Target, I could see that even deeper and more desperate than generational or societal American racism, a racial chasm had been revealed with the Eric Garner case.

This time, it was different. This time, it was day. This time, there was a video. This time, the victim was peaceful. This time, there was absolutely no question. Eric Garner was not supposed to die.

This time, it was clear that no matter what a person does, no matter how much a man strives for peace and cares about his community, there will be a next time.

And how is it possible to explain that? How is it possible to justify that? How is it possible to live with that?

I can't explain it; I can't justify it. Purely by chance and the "luck" of the genetic draw, I am not forced to live with a different set of behavioral expectations related to my every day reality. My children will not face the same scrutiny as the children of my friends and neighbors. I will worry about their health, safety and well-being, but only in the universal motherly sense; my worries will not be heightened simply due to dark coloring.

When I checked out, cold meds and stocking stuffers passing by the rhythmic beep, there was the same small talk.

Her: "Hi. How are you?"

Me: "Fine, and you?"
Her: "Fine. Did you find everything ok?"

Me: "Yes, thanks."

Blah, blah, blah. Lies. Lies from both of us. Eyes were downcast and averted as we feigned a normal conversation.  

She was black. I am white. Most days that wouldn't matter. Most days, we'd hold eye contact. Most days, she would have held the same conversation with the woman in front of me in line, a woman who was also black.

But, this time, you could feel the truth beneath the surface. This time, the cashier and the woman in front of me knew there was really nothing to say. They just looked at each other and sighed, not a word exchanged. 

This time, our small talk was thick with unsaid sentiment.

Her: "Hi. How are you? Actually, I don't even care. Did you see what happened today?"

Me: "Yeah, and I feel pretty sh*tty and scared about it. But I know not as sh*tty or scared as you. How are you? It must suck to try to pretend life is normal and concentrate on scanning items and asking people how they are when the whole world fundamentally changed a couple of hours ago. But I feel you... I feel your fear, your worry, your sadness. And I'm sorry. Really, really sorry. They were wrong. And the thing that sucks is that it's not just Eric Garner. It keeps happening. The stories are different, but the same. Your life, and the life of your family, is harder than mine because you are darker than me. It's not fair. It's not fair. It's not fair."

Her: "Yeah. It's not fair. And you won't ever understand just how unfair it is."

Me: "You're right. I won't. And for that, I am both grateful and deeply, deeply sorry. I wish it weren't true. Hell, I'll fight with you. But I know now it won't be enough. And that's tearing me apart."

Yes, Eric Garner was the tipping point that revealed the decades of civil rights that I had always thought (perhaps ignorantly, perhaps naively) we'd moved beyond were just a ruse.

And I suppose it shouldn't be all that shocking. After all, Rosa Parks' journey on the bus was only fifty-nine years ago. The older I get, the clearer I recognize that's merely a drop in the bucket of human history. But I really believed we'd learned so much more.

No one will ever know for sure what would have happened if Eric Garner were white, or if Daniel Pantaleo were black. But we all know it'll happen again. And again. And again.



*Note: See my post Thursday re. my reluctance to use the terms "white" or "black" to define a person in the first place (and why I use the term "black" vs. "African-American" in the first place). I don't claim to be color blind, nor would I desire to be color blind. I see our human shades; I do believe bits and pieces of culture are reflected in our skin, but those are just one component of the myriad of elements that make us who we are. 

I always notice a person's eyes and smile, confidence and gait, wit and caring, long before color.

I will never judge a person by the color of his/her skin. I will never think a person is "less than" or "more than" another because of tone. We are different, and we are the same, and we are richer for our diversity.

Whatever shade you are: I think you are beautiful. 


On Thursday, I posted several long, winding thoughts about the Eric Garner case, the idea that all lives matter and the concept that violence is altogether too prevalent in our society, as I whittled down my point. There are so many concepts wrapped up in this one case that it's hard to pick just one.

The tipping point that I refer to above, though, is the stark realization that while discussions about dignity and respect and violence are also important, it's impossible to arrive at those discussions without first addressing the simple concept that Black Lives Do Matter. 

I thought we were so far past that concept that we could move on up the Adapted Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Relations (don't google it; it doesn't exist), but I learned on Wednesday night that we can't. We have to face that seemingly obvious fact first.

Over the past couple of days, I've attempted to complete the writercize assignment I gave you. The task proved to be tougher than I thought, as thousands of thoughts continued to dance in my head. I had more to say. I had different things to say. But I have to let it go and allow those other bits and pieces to be a part of the larger dialogue.

Once again, I challenge you to the same writercize from Thursday:

Write a column (opinion piece) that gets to the heart of how recent news stories about the justice system's response (or: the politicians' response, the police response, the media response, the public response) to Eric Garner, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Trayvon Martin have impacted your world view.

I welcome your writercize attempts, and I welcome your comments. This is the touchiest subject I've ever written about, and undoubtedly to many, I got some of it—--or all of it—--wrong. 

Please, don't hesitate to share with me what you think. I appreciate different perspectives and am open to listening to and learning about what you have to say.

Disrespectful or spiteful comments will be deleted.