There was a time, not so long ago, that African-American parents reserved “The Talk” for their sons. “The Talk” consisted of a loose collection of wisdom and advice, that varied slightly from family to family and region to region. It generally focused on information designed to help young black men stay out of trouble, avoid drawing unwanted police attention and keep them from getting killed.
However, in recent years, parents have had to confront the unavoidable fact that their daughters, are also being senselessly killed and have to be warned of the particular dangers they face while living Black in America. Sadly, such necessities are driven by a national history that keeps repeating itself.
In 1704, volunteer slave patrols began in South Carolina and quickly spread throughout the antebellum South. By 1793 these practices had been codified in the Fugitive Slave Act, which created an affirmative duty for all white citizens to assist in the recovery of an escaped slave. Slave patrollers not only recaptured runaway slaves but monitored and enforced discipline upon “negroes who did not know their place.”
Numerous historians have noted that, slave patrols and night watches later morphed into modern-day police departments, designed to control the behavior of minorities. My late father was from South Carolina and I was reminded of these patrols, while pondering a spate of “only in America” racial encounters. The spirit of the patroller is indeed alive and well and not only in some of our nation’s police departments. It seems that some of our white countrymen, are also answering the dubious call to enforce discipline upon ‘negroes who do not know their place.”
This self-deputization of ordinary white citizens into an erstwhile auxiliary patrol force has been crawling under the radar for quite some time, reaching its nadir on February 26, 2012. That was the day when the world woke to the horrific news that George Zimmerman had shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old black male. Trayvon Martin would be 23 right now. But he won’t be. Won’t ever be.
Somehow, Mr. Zimmerman felt that as a VOLUNTEER member of a neighborhood watch group in Sanford, Florida, he had the authority, right and responsibility to follow a black teen, confront and then kill him. Trayvon, who had accompanied his father, on a visit to the senior man’s fiancé was gunned down after purchasing a bag of Skittles and an Arizona ice tea from a local convenience store. The teen was not engaged in unlawful activity, was walking back to his future stepmother’s townhouse and had not and did not threaten Zimmerman in any regard before Zimmerman confronted him.
None of these facts seemed to matter much at the subsequent trial. Zimmerman’s case made too much of his membership in the Neighborhood Watch Patrol and not enough of the fact that he, as an armed adult male had stalked an unarmed teenager and started a fight that he was only able to end by shedding the blood of an innocent.
The Zimmerman case was a tragic foreshadowing of what has now become commonplace – the self-deputization of ordinary white citizens. These individuals or Deputies believe themselves empowered to selectively enforce the nation’s laws against “negroes who do not know their place.”
These Deputies do not express their racial bias through garden-variety hate crimes. No these Deputies cloak their racial animus under the guise of legitimately acting to enforce laws they believe have been violated. As if. As if, they are modern-day slave patrollers, ever vigilant, always looking to ensure that black people mind their manners and stay in their place. But, who made them the watchdog for any person of color?
Just a sampling of random acts, reveal the vigilance of these Deputies. Consider the following. Deputy Anonymous Neighbor called the police on 12-year old Reggie Fields, because he accidentally cut a few feet of grass from the wrong lawn. Deputy Alison Ettel a/k/a Permit Patty, called the police to report an eight-year old girl selling bottled water to raise money to go to Disneyland. Deputy Adam Bloom called North Carolina police on a black woman and her son who were using a private pool in the Glenridge community that she lived in.
Deputy Sarah Braasch called campus police on her Yale schoolmate Lolade Sioyonbola who was sleeping in a common room of their dorm. Deputy Starbucks Employee called police to remove two men from a Philadelphia coffee shop who were waiting for a colleague. These Deputies seem more like mall cops, providing a presence to remind black people, that somebody is always watching.
The recent case of Cornerstone Caroline a/k/a/ Theresa Klein, who wrongly called police on a 9-year old she accused of sexual assault is particularly troubling in the way it echoes the 1955 lynching of 14-year old Emmett Till in Mississippi.
The truly insidious aspect of these Deputies is how confident they are that the system will back them up and support their declarations of wrongdoing. Like circuit court judges of the Wild West, they are the law. Unlike post-antebellum night riders who used the cover of darkness to hide their terrorism, these modern-day patrollers ply their trade in shopping malls, at community pools and on the nation’s sidewalks. They are armed only with the self-righteous assurance that they are doing their part to ensure that the balance of power, remains firmly in white hands.
These Deputies are in fact vigilantes who are not enforcing the nation’s laws, but breaking them. Unfortunately, this racism is a throw-back to our 1619 roots. a genetic flaw that lays dormant until some triggering incident, like the cultural anxiety cited by conservative media host Laura Ingraham, occurs. According to her, it is a fear triggered by “massive demographic changes (that) have been foisted upon the American people”
She further opined that “in some parts of the country, it does not seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” As Tonto said to the Lone Ranger “Who is this WE Kemosabe?” This cultural anxiety drives behavior that beseeches a return to an America – where some people are excluded, not because of the content of their character or real or imagined criminal behavior, but because of the color of their skin. An ugly America.
We’ve seen this ugliness before. It was March 6, 1857. In the now infamous Dred Scott decision, no less a legal luminary than United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, noted that “The negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” I am certain that as he wrote this decision, Chief Justice Taney could not have envisioned a future where a white male nominee to the United States would be grilled during his confirmation hearing by two African-American Senators.
We’d all do well to remember that nobody “owns” America – an idea and concept that remains as revolutionary, fresh and ever evolving. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this way back in 1935, when writing “Democracy in America” he noted that “America is great because she is good, if America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
And that is the conundrum that the country refuses, but must face. How to be great, if we will not do good to all our citizens. We cannot do good if cultural anxiety, or just plain ole’ fashioned racism gives rise to a de facto police state where ordinary white people perceive a call of duty to keep black people in check.
Dr, Martin Luther King ominously warned that “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” To share this republic, equitably and peacefully is a challenge that we cannot fail, without risking our future and our democracy.
At a community festival, my daughter happily posed for pictures with her new friends. I pray we can move beyond racism, honestly discuss our cultural fears and find ways to move this country forward together. I’m really not looking forward to giving my 7-year old “The Talk.”
Written by Sylvia Gail Kinard, Esq.