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I was devastated.
As my wife drove me to the Capitol one morning during the legislative session, she informed me that a 19 year old African American man, who had lived with us for two years before heading off to college, had been beaten and arrested by the police after the car he was a passenger in had been pulled over. He had not been engaged in a crime, had never been, he had however, mouthed off to the officers when he perceived they were insulting him, and this apparently triggered the use of violent force.
As fate would have it, the House was scheduled to vote that morning on a bill that would allow police officers to stop a driver for not wearing a seat belt. Good arguments were made on how this would save lives. However, focused on how the life of the young man would be impacted, I rose and spoke against the bill. I felt that before adding another reason to pull drivers over we needed to address the reality of being victimized for DWB – Driving While Black (or Brown).
Unfortunately what happened to my young protégé is a common feature of our society and speaks to still unresolved issues of race in our state and in our nation.
Last week Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. – one of the most prominent academicians in our country – was arrested after “breaking into" his own home when he found his door jammed. Dr Gates is African American. A police officer arrived responding to a call reporting a suspected burglary. This set in motion a tragedy too common in America: a breakdown in the ability of two adults of different racial backgrounds to use common sense and restraint in resolving a misunderstanding. After identifying himself as the home owner to no avail Dr Gates was handcuffed and arrested.
At Wednesday’s press conference, President Obama, who knows Dr Gates personally, was asked for his thoughts on the incident. In perhaps a first for a Presidential statement he affirmed "that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately" and that race indeed remains an unresolved factor in our society.
To be clear that these occurrences, while particularly damaging to communities of color, in fact impact all of us, the President went on to say, "I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody is going to be."
Tragically, people of color often find themselves having to reconcile between two ideals that should never conflict in our democracy. People of color want strong law enforcement that helps us to protect our homes and safeguard our roads. We also expect our freedoms and dignity to be respected, especially by those we count on to enforce our laws. That basic law enforcement often leads to a real or perceived violation of dignity when multi-racial dynamics exists is a destructive reality for our society.
One can only imagine the interaction in both of these instances; the cold language that comes from the automatic distrust and discomfort of communicating across racial identity, a person of color becoming irritated with an aggressive White authority figure, a White cop misreading the intentions of a Black man. It all becomes an enormous social feedback loop with each negative experience shaping the nature of the next interaction. Harsh words are exchanged, events get out of hand.
We can and should pass laws to address this; to collect data on the behavior of public servants, and to provide them with better training. But we also need mature and honest conversations about race, racism, citizenship and democracy that lead to personal commitments to change our behaviors and to hold one another accountable for that change. If we want our homes and roads to be safe, every citizen must take responsibility to truly hear one another and understand how past racist actions has burned distrust into each of us. We have to take personal action to create trust.
The young man who was arrested is facing felony charges. Prior to that traffic stop he represented a rare thing in our society – a Black male college student. Sadly, if convicted he will represent an all too common thing in our culture – a Black male convict. I find it obscene that what should have been a simple traffic stop in Minnesota will determine a young Black man’s life. Sadly, it is a story that is repeated across our nation.
We have the power to either foster dreams, or to destroy them, merely by the way we interact with one another across racial communities. Our President knows this. We all need to know it.
MN State Representative Carlos Mariani
Executive Director, Minnesota Minority Education Partnership