Identity, Race, and Policing

Driving down Greensboro Street last Saturday morning, I was ready to enjoy a beautiful day when suddenly, a silver car lurched from a parking lot, turning left in front of me.  I could see the driver looking to her right as I was heading toward her, my foot firmly on the brake.  There was really nothing I could do.  I slammed into the side of her car, a slow-motion, slow-speed collision.  Restraining my anger, I checked to see if the other driver was alright, and then I called the police.

I live in a small, Southern town affectionately known as the Paris of the Piedmont.  Carrboro, NC, is the lesser-known half of Chapel Hill/Carrboro, Chapel Hill famous as the home of the UNC Tarheels.  Carrboro is a liberal town, arguably the most liberal in North Carolina with the possible exception of Asheville.  Our town elected the first openly gay mayor in the state, and Carrboro is a welcoming community for people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.1

But as a community, we are not immune to the forces at play in the wider culture.  Racism, homophobia, and other divisive “-isms” might not be explicit, but I am certain that some people harbor divisive, hateful attitudes in their hearts, even in Carrboro.  Those attitudes rarely come to the surface, but they are alive even here.

Carrboro lies to the west of Chapel Hill, a similar town where a horrific hate-crime took place a few years ago.   Three young Muslim students were killed ostensibly over a parking dispute, but the shadow of hate hung heavy over the incident.  The murder occurred four months before Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy for President, and I am certain the seeds of hate have been well fertilized by Trump’s rhetoric, and his refusal to repudiate the vile rhetoric of others.

Some of the most disturbing comments from 45 are his assaults on the free speech rights of NFL players taking a stand against discriminatory policing targeting people of color.  When a football player takes a knee, it is not an act of disrespect, it is an expression of a fundamental American right to protest the over-zealous police actions against people of color.  There is plenty of evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, indicating racial disparities in police response is often related to the race of an alleged perpetrator.

I believe this differential in police enforcement is real, but I will not try to explain, prove, or defend my belief here.  But consider what happened after I called the police last Saturday, after that minor accident.

The young police officer arriving on the scene was white, as I am.  He asked for my identification, and proof of insurance.  I gave him what I had.  He pointed out that the registration I was out of date, and that according to his database, my insurance was expired.  After a quick call to my wife (thankfully available) she was able to bring the paperwork demonstrating that it was all a misunderstanding.  The car was properly registered, the insurance was paid.  In all likelihood, the police database had not been updated yet, as the insurance payment was very recent. I thanked the officer for his courtesy and understanding.

But I have to wonder, had my skin been brown or black, would I have been offered the same courtesy?  Would I have been given the opportunity to call my wife?  Alter the circumstances a little – say the accident occurred at night – would this young white police officer have shown the same kindness?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I sensed no racist sentiment from the young officer, but then why would I?

I can not hide my identity as a white male any more than a black or brown man or woman can.  Each of us enjoys the privileges or suffers the pain that society sends our way until the day arrives when the color of our skin truly does not matter.

I love my town.  I love living in a town where kindness is the norm, diversity is celebrated, and a police officer is understanding and courteous on a Saturday afternoon. That should not be a white privilege, but a privilege for all.

Written in response to a Daily Prompt from Identity

  1.   If you can afford it.  As with a lot of communities, low-income housing is a       perennial problem. 

About Chris van Hasselt

I eat, sleep, play guitar...but wait, there's more!
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