Being Black Is Like Carrying a Flag

The endless murders of unarmed black men and boys by cops shares something with—of all things—global warming. This is what they share: You can’t be certain that any particular death was murder by out-of-control cops, and you can’t be certain that any given weather event is due to global climate change. But you can be certain that the wave of deaths are murder by out-of-control cops. And you can be certain that the wave of severe climate events were caused by global climate change.

It is the overall frequency of these events that is the telltale feature. One storm does not tell us much, but the fact that this storm is one of a 400% increase in storms tells us volumes. The same is true of shootings by cops.

White blamers have at least a minor point.

But the white blamers also have at least a minor point, and that is it’s not so easy to tell the difference between, for example, a potential shoplifter in your store and just another customer. If you are the owner of a small store that sells shoplift-worthy goods, you will often immediately recognize the suspicious ones. Most often they are young men. They don’t seem to want to buy any particular thing, and they tend to appear “shifty”. That is, they don’t face you directly, but now and then look at you by glancing sideways. They tend to dress in a way that suggests they are part of a group of young men who disdain authority, or worse.

And at least in the popular perception they are more likely to be black, because African-Americans carry a flag—their skin color—that readily identifies them. Whether it is true that they are more likely to be miscreants is uncertain. For certain, all black men are treated with excess suspicion, and are many times more likely to be stopped or arrested by the police. Worse, they are many times more likely to be shot and killed by police, regardless of what they do.

African-Americans carry a flag
—their skin color—
that readily identifies them.

Back in your store, you can’t even rely on your perception that this one, black or not, is a good kid just because he looks like a good kid. His two friends, who came in after he did, may grab a bunch of stuff and run out while he’s paying for his bag of chips.

This is probably not a particularly racial concern: I’d look askance at any small group of kids in my store. I’m aware there are Asian boys who go on shoplifting raids to see who can steal the most, and groups of white kids who steal routinely. But African-Americans are easily distinguished by the flag of their skin color, and so, regardless of the truth of it, are more quickly picked out for special suspicion. It certainly doesn’t help when young people, of any race, adopt bizarre hair styles and clothing.

We have fallen into another
of those damned-if-I-do,
damned-if-I-don’t traps.

We have fallen into another of those damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don’t traps. Inequality and poverty are the legacy of the long malign racial history in the US. So while it is obvious that there is no reason for respectable black men to be forced to the ground by racist cops, it is also true that owners of small stores have good reason for suspicion of those who look like potential shoplifters. Moreover, it seems probable that people in poverty are more likely to be petty thieves, and because of our racial history the poor are more likely to be black.

The obvious solution is to do everything we can to create equality and increase opportunity. We have forever been doing exactly the opposite, and this has not only worsened poverty and sharply restricted the lives of the poor, but also kept them in the circle of people we probably don’t want to see drifting around in our stores.

The obvious solution
is to do everything we can
to create equality.

This, of course, is hardly our only problem. The US is headed in the wrong direction—in international relations, in economic equality, and in racial relations, and more. At base, these are all political problems, and our politicians seem full of passionate intensity for all the wrong causes.

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