Home – and National – Improvement

Today is the 6th of January, 2021.   Like most of us, I sit in not-exactly-shock (really, did we not see this coming?) at the events that transpired today, in our nation’s capital (and capitol) and in various other locations around the country (Kansas, Washington state, and others that I have head reports of, but not confirmed accounts).  I do not have specific thoughts about the events of the day, other than I found it difficult to actually get work done and spent a good part of the afternoon watching the news.  But one thing I did notice was the actions of the Capitol police and how those actions compared to other protests over the years at the Capitol.  These mirror some thoughts that I had in June of 2018, and although I have not had the chance to formulate thoughts from today, I will present my previously-unpublished thoughts from then.  (Minor edits to bring it up-to-today.)

In the early 1990s, before I got a job and essentially gave up television for 20 years, I would watch the television show Home Improvement with my family. This was, I think, not unusual; it was a popular show.  However, like most situational comedies, I found the situations too unbelievable or too uncomfortable to watch without anxiety.  Why would anybody behave like that?  Most of the tension in the series would have been avoided if the cast members simply communicated better.

This is not to say that the show was without its teaching moments.  I recall one such moment in an episode where Jill (the wife/mother in the show) is pulled over for speeding.  This is possibly the episode “The Flirting Game,” which aired in January 1997, so I would have been home from college for winter break when I first saw it.  Whatever the episode, my father was watching it and directed our attention to what Jill did wrong during the traffic stop.  This was not his addressing the flirting-her-way-out-of-a-ticket that was a plot point of the episode, but rather an analysis of the details of the traffic stop itself.

Upon seeing that there was a cop behind her, Jill pulled over, rolled down the window, and got her license and registration ready for the cop.  According to my father, pretty much everything she did after getting pulled over was wrong.  What should she have done?  Turned off the car, kept her gaze forward, and kept her hands on the steering wheel, in full view of the police officer, until the officer came up and tapped on the window.  Only then should she move to roll down the window.  She should wait until the officer asks for the license and registration before moving to get them.  Any unexpected movements, such as removing the hands from the steering wheel or reaching for the license/registration before being asked to do so could mean she was going for a weapon, and the police officer would have to respond as if she were.  She would be seen as a threat and would have to be neutralized.

So that’s it.  That’s how I received The Talk.  No, not that one – the one that tells you how to handle yourself in interacting with the police to make sure you don’t get shot.   Home Improvement was the catalyst for The Talk, but my dad made sure that I knew what to do during a traffic stop.

Here’s the funny thing.  I’m white.  So’s the rest of my family.

The Talk is not usually associated with white people.  I’ve heard stories of people of color having to give The Talk to their children.  I’m sure their version of The Talk is much more detailed and comprehensive than anything I ever received.  But I’m also sure that the the number of white people that have received some version of The Talk is very small.

The weird thing is that it also didn’t work.

A few years later (spring of 2001, I believe), I was pulled over for speeding.  It was hot, I had been having an argument over something, I was hungry, and I was agitated.  Lights come up behind me.  I pull over and remember my father’s advice.  I don’t think I turned off the car, but I kept my hands on the wheel and looked straight ahead.  Eventually I became aware of the officer standing next to the car, looking very frustrated – why hadn’t I put down the window?  I’m sitting there wondering why he didn’t tap on the window to let me know he was ready to begin the interaction.  All that I got out of following this advice was a grumpy cop.  The next time I got pulled over – 14 years later, so that the officer could inform me that I had forgotten to get my car inspection for that year taken care of – I was more like Jill.  I had the window down and documents at the ready.  Nothing untoward happened to me, and it was a much more pleasant interaction.  Even though my actions should have been viewed as threatening the safety of the officer, they weren’t.  They were, in fact, expected of me.

Of course, this is not the case for everybody.  This post was originally formulated in the aftermath of the shooting of Antwon Rose in Pittsburgh, though it thoughts and musings go farther back, to Philando Castile.

Philando Castile was pulled over and, according to all accounts that I have seen, was respectful and did what he was supposed to do during a traffic stop.  It is true that Mr. Castile had a weapon.  It was a licensed weapon that he was authorized to carry, and he informed the officer about it.  The officer still felt the need to neutralize Mr. Castile.  This neutralization involved deadly force.  We later learned that the officer was acquitted of all charges in Mr. Castile’s death.  I have not seen any transcripts of that trial, so I write this with no knowledge but what was brought out in pre-trial news coverage, but the officer’s only defense could be that he felt threatened and had to neutralize the threat.

I don’t think that I need to add that both Mr. Rose and Mr. Castile was black.

Where could the threat have come from?  Witnesses indicated that Mr. Castile was not behaving in any sort of threatening manner.  The only idea that I have – again, without reading trial transcripts – is that the officer interpreted Mr. Castile’s actions as threatening.  But those same actions, from someone who is white, would not have been threatening.  Therefore, the officer felt threatened because Mr. Castile was black.  And this was a defense that convinced a jury. We shall have to wait and see what the outcome of the trial concerning Mr. Rose’s death is.

This is how racism still exists in this country.  You might not think of yourself as racist – you don’t think that there should be separate schools or water fountains or lunch counters – but if you feel threatened by someone simply because of the color of their skin, then you are racist.  The good news is that you don’t have to act on that racism.  You can make the choice to educate yourself, to be brave, and to overcome those fears.

(Note that here I use “racist” and “racism” in the individual definition, meaning “prejudiced against someone because of their race.” There is a school of thought wherein “racist” and “racism” necessarily imply systematic suppression of a group of people and is an expression of power of one group over another. My term for that is “institutionalized racism,” however. I find this particular school of thought’s definition at odds with clear communication: if you want people to understand you, you have to make sure your message is based on common ground information. In particular, if you are trying to persuade a group of people who don’t feel that they have to learn new facts, you have to use their definitions of terms, and can’t be upset if they misunderstand you when you don’t. It is the responsibility of the sender to craft their message in such a way that the intended receiver can understand it. I have no problem with people using this newer definition to communicate with people who will understand it)

As a very young child, I was scared of black people.  Rural south-western Pennsylvania is fairly white, and I don’t think I saw someone with dark skin tones until I was visiting my grandparents in South Carolina.  I remember cowering at my grandmother’s leg, announcing that I was scared of the black woman in the checkout lane of the grocery store.  My grandfather would reinforce and use that fear; he would threaten me with “Ol’ Black Joe” coming to take me away unless I behaved.

Eventually, though, I saw that behavior as the racism it was.  I realized that people are people, regardless of skin tone.  Cultures are different, and differences in culture can be scary, but that is not the same as being scared by the person.  I was brave, and in being brave I learned a little bit.  And learning a little bit led me to being braver, which led me to learning a little bit more.  And now I can honestly say there is no fear.  This does not mean that I have learned everything and that I am not subconsciously racist in other ways, but I have learned enough to know that I have nothing to fear from someone’s skin tone.

Unfortunately, this is not something that I can teach.  This is something that we all need to learn for ourselves.  It is, I think, overly optimistic for me to say that America will do this, but it is overly cynical for me to say that it will never happen.

So those were my thoughts in June of 2018.  What we saw from our nation’s capital today is disheartening.  I tend to disagree with the word “coup” as a description of the events, as their intended leader was already in power, but “insurrection” seems apt – it does seem a bit more directed than a simple “riot.”  The main thing I am commenting on is the Capitol police gently handling the insurrectionists where they had more roughly handled more peaceful protestors in events past.  And while race was not solely a differentiation in past events, the common theme was that the police treated people similar to themselves more gently than those different.   And those are my thoughts for today.