Tony Norman: They All Call to Ask, ‘What Do Black People Want?’
There’s a genre of letters and phone calls that every black person with a media platform gets on a regular basis. They all begin with the correspondent declaring his or her age — usually between 60 and 85 — followed by the announcement that they’re white.
What follows is often either a short statement of support or a disquisition on why some outrage, like the shooting death of an unarmed black person by the police, has more to do with the home training of the deceased than racial bias or incompetence on the officer’s part.
With the killing of Antwon Rose II by East Pittsburgh police Officer Michael Rosfeld, many citizens took it upon themselves to explain to me why the use of deadly force to bring down an unarmed fleeing suspect is justified under the law. They’ll even include a citation of the relevant law. Nothing brings out the amateur Perry Masons among us like the legally (and morally) unjustified shooting of a black person.
But in fairness, the letters and calls I got came in before Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. filed homicide charges against Officer Rosfeld. As of Thursday, no emails or calls have come in second-guessing Mr. Zappala’s decision, but I’m sure talk radio is ablaze with those who always seem to know better.
Still, none of the callers or letter writers I heard from was trying to be argumentative. On the contrary, they were unfailingly polite even as they asked me to call or write back immediately with answers to the following questions: “Why do black people always run from cops or defy them when there’s a strong possibility they’ll be shot dead?” and “Why do black people blame racism for everything?”
There’s an implication in these emails that I have nothing better to do than write or call back immediately with an answer that will somehow assuage their lack of guilt about being so obtuse.
What these correspondents always seem to want from me is a value-free explanation of the 400-year history of black folks in America. They especially want to know why slavery and other diminished circumstances like Jim Crow discrimination weren’t the result of personal and collective “choices” by black people, to use Kanye West’s tortured observation.
These last two weeks saw an unprecedented level of local protests over the Antwon Rose shooting that sometimes resulted in snarled traffic and the obligatory racist Facebook post by a regional mayor or firefighter.
After acknowledging that shooting someone in the back isn’t an ideal way to bring about confidence in the justice system, these correspondents ask, with eyes brimming with innocent tears: “What do black people want?” and “Is it absolutely necessary to disrupt the social order while I’m on my way to work to get it?”
Well, for starters I would remind them that black people are tired of being disproportionately killed during encounters with the police. Black people want to have the same odds as recent white mass shooters of being taken into custody alive. Antwon Rose was killed for just being a suspect in a drive-by shooting, but Dylann Roof, who killed nine black parishioners, was taken alive. When he politely requested fast food before being taken to jail, he got it, along with courteous conversation in the backseat of the squad car. Black people can’t even dream of receiving treatment like that.
Here’s a hard truth that many of my white correspondents — not those marching in the streets — refuse to acknowledge. I say this with both affection and frustration: Every black person they’ll ever meet understands America better than they do.
These white folks see America through a glass darkly and swear it is bathed in eternal sunshine. They catch a glimpse of their fellow American — a black person with a clenched fist — and they believe they see someone who has had the same opportunities as they had, yet spurned them. They believe black anger is the result of bad choices — not an evil system that has blinded white folks who uncritically support that system despite its obvious disparities.
When black people return their gaze, these white people are only vaguely aware of their self-deceptions about America’s unresolved past. They see all police departments as morally neutral associations of gun-toting good guys who take black lives only when provoked by extreme behavior.
They imagine that cops take more black lives and incarcerate more black people as a percentage of the population because blacks are somehow “more dangerous” than whites. Despite a documented history of structural racism within police departments and the criminal justice system, there’s never anything “racial” about unarmed shootings of blacks. There are laws and rules that sanction it, so it’s never anything personal like racial animus.
My suspicion is that many of my correspondents don’t want enlightenment as much as absolution through a narrative that excuses and reinforces their sense of historical innocence. I can’t give them that. To do so would mean becoming the kind of magic Negro who can only offer a false hope and the dubious civility that comes with it.
Tony Norman is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. He was once the Post-Gazette’s pop music/pop culture critic and appeared as an expert on cultural issues on local radio talk shows and television programs. In 1996, he began writing an award-winning general interest column, which, he says, rejuvenated his enthusiasm for the kind of journalism that makes a difference.