There’s an old movie called It Could Happen to You about a NY cop who wins the lottery and splits the money with a waitress. The thing is: it could not happen to me, actually. I don’t play the lottery. Even if you play the lottery, it could happen but it probably won’t.
The death of Otto Warmbier feels especially disturbing to parents who send their children abroad to places like Russia or Turkey or even North Korea. We can imagine our kids trying to take a propaganda poster as a souvenir (aka commiting a “hostile act against the state.”) We can imagine this happening to one of our kids – especially if “we” are prosperous people who can afford international travel for our children.
The death of Philando Castile feels disturbing too, but I am not hearing white friends and family members saying “It could happen to our child too” because it probably wouldn’t. Mr. Castile was pulled over by police officers over 49 times in 13 years according to this article. Like you and me, he sometimes turned without signaling or drove without knowing that his license plate light had burned out. This study in Mr. Castile’s home state of MN found that
“minority drivers were more likely than white drivers to be both stopped and searched, even though officers found contraband more often when searching white drivers.”
As I consider the death of Charleena Lyles who was shot by the very Seattle police officers she called to report a burglary, I was saying to BSE yesterday something like this: “Can you imagine this happening to you or your neighbor? You call the police because you are afraid you’re being robbed and the police shoot you? They said she had some mental health issues, but why would they shoot her?”
But then I realized how ridiculous I sounded. Of course we can’t imagine this because it is highly unlikely that this would ever happen to me or BSE. Because we are white. Because we live in nice neighborhoods. Because we have health care. Ms. Lyles was a black woman with mental illness living in an apartment for people transitioning out of homelessness.
What happened to Charleena Lyles probably wouldn’t happen to me or to my next door neighbor. If my child gets pulled over with weed in the car, he might not even get arrested. If I am missing a tail light – and even if I have a legal gun in the car – I am not likely to get a ticket, much less multiple bullets fired at me. If my husband goes out to get milk at 11 PM, I am 99.9% certain he will arrive home safely.
Note to white people like me: The world will not change until we have empathy for people enduring what we cannot imagine because it probably would never happen to us. Because we are white. Because our skin color affords us privileges we don’t even notice. It’s time for more of us become angry for the sake of what’s right and fair.