The video below has shown up on my Facebook feed two or three times over the last few days, so I finally decided to watch it this morning and see what the big deal was. Give it a look:
Now, each of the three friends of mine who posted this video is a white, male, conservative. I don’t think that’s an accident. Granted, I can’t know their motives, but if I had to make a reasonable assumption I’d be willing to bet that their thoughts ran something along the lines of — “See, here’s a black guy who gets it, who understands that not every white officer is out to get them.”
Which, in this case at least, seems to be true. The young man in the video — Will Stack, of South Carolina — does seem to have been pulled over for an offense other than “driving while black.” By his description, the encounter with law enforcement proceeded just as it should — calmly, with restraint and respect on both sides. As he says in the video, “The point of this is to say that I am an African American male, this gentleman was Caucasian. There were no problems. He did his job, I did what I was supposed to do, and that was it.”
That is a good thing. And it would likely be unremarkable if it weren’t for the fact that North Charleston police officer Michael Slager had shot and killed unarmed, black man Walter Scott about a week before. And the fact that Scott’s death was yet another in a disturbing string of deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials employing questionable levels of force. And the fact that men of color have had, to put it generously, an uneasy relationship with the American legal system since their first arrival on this continent.
But Stack’s experience, and his video describing it, have struck a resonant chord, particularly among those who jump so quickly into defensive mode as soon as the systemic inequities in our justice system are brought out into the light and challenged.
Granted, what Stack says in the video is perfectly valid: “… not all officers are crooked, not all officers are racist, bad people… and not all people who get shot or tased or arrested by officers are innocent victims. Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you’re a victim.”
Even though what he has to say is true, we would be wrong to conclude that his saying it absolves the rest of us of the responsibility to root out the persistent disparity in the way our justice system treats black men. The fact that this time, in this instance, he was not treated poorly because of his skin color is an encouraging reminder that such a thing can and does occur. But it does not change the fact that:
- The police department of Ferguson, Missouri was found by the US Justice Department to be engaging in practices which “exacerbate existing racial bias.”
- Cities across the country continue pursuing the so-called “broken windows” strategy, which disproportionately affects the poor and people of color, despite a lack of evidence that such policies are in fact responsible for drops in crime
- We persist in our use of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that are grossly out of proportion to the crimes committed and, again, have a far greater impact on communities of color
And that’s barely scratching the surface. The roots of injustice run deep, and we cannot act as if they have been eradicated because one young, black man had an encounter with a police officer which did not result in that young, black man’s death. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that Stack’s experience sticks out specifically because it stands in such sharp contrast to the larger picture of what it means to be a black man facing the American justice system.
Which is not to say that Stack’s video, and what he has to say in it, isn’t useful or instructive. But we should take it as a reminder of our destination — a system of justice that is truly color-blind. We would be foolish to take it as proof that we’ve already arrived.