IF YOU’RE WHITE, YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND

As some of you know, I was once the only white administrator in an all black anti-poverty agency. It was like going to graduate school. However, like going to school, I got a great education on the subject, but I remained who I was–an upper middle class white male. There were moments from that experience that are stamped on my brain.

  • My boss, a tough, wise, soft-spoken man who was bedeviled with Sickle Cell Anemia disease saying to me, “Don’t ever tell anyone here you’re not prejudiced. Everyone is prejudiced, even us. It’ll ruin your credibility.”
  • The summer’s day on my way to work I saw a colleague on the same journey but he was walking. I rolled down my window, called out “good morning”, waved and drove on. When I met him later he looked at me with a fish eye. I said proudly, “Didn’t you see me wave good morning to you?” His response, “I did, but it didn’t get me to work any faster.” For years I asked myself why I didn’t give him a lift. I don’t like the answers.
  • Riding with a black Acting Lt., “acting” because the chief did want to cause trouble by appointing the first black ranking officer, He said to me, “Let’s not make a habit of this. There are people in this town who will shoot you for being seen with me.” The “town” was Stamford, Ct. then the state’s fourth largest city.

In my career I’ve been tasked with changing inner city housing conditions, defusing race confrontations on the street, ending an armed black group’s takeover of city hall, representing the city administration at an open forum on desegregating the school where I heard a man get up and shout, “I’m not lettin’ my kids go to a school where they’ll smell the stink of a bunch of N…….’s, and more. And sitting here all I can think of is that only two weeks ago I was writing about Ahmed Aubrey, ‘hadn’t even gotten around to Breonna Taylor, whose birthday is today. Ringing in my ears is, Al Sharpton’s refrain,”…get off our necks.” What is most troubling is that I’ve been hearing this since the 1960’s and that’s less than a third the time black people have been saying it.

Sorrowfully, I must admit I have little else to say that I haven’t already said except this. Unless you are black you can’t understand, “Driving while black, eating out while black, going through an interview while black, and so many more, “…while blacks.”

There was a time when I was intensely involved in undermining the Ku Klux Klan. Some approached the battle feeling that when these folks croak, the norms of American society–better jobs, more education–would raise their kids’ boats. The rising tide would wash away all the racism and hatred. Wrong.

So without co-authoring a text with a sociologist and psychologist, let me share this with you from Pogo, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” “They” don’t have to change, we do, we individual human beings and we who shape and control the society in which we all live. If the thought of the Attorney General of the United States staking out a position on the streets of Washington like Stonewall Jackson, overseeing the placement of his troops for an impending battle, doesn’t scare you to death, you need to change. If the realization that the levers of government are in the hands of the Red Queens, the Tweedle Dees and Tweedle Dums, the White Rabbits, and the Dormouse sitting in the White House instead of a teapot, doesn’t scare you, if you don’t hope the Wizard turns out to be some flawed nut job behind a curtain instead of someone who will really do important things for us, you need to change.,

But Rev. Sharpton said this needs to be the era of change for policing and criminal justice. For over 40 years I have worked with police departments as a community relations consultant and ethnicity trainer. For eight of those years, I worked in a police department. I’m here to tell you, the vast majority of police officers join the force to better the community they live in. For at least the first five years, the are naive and idealistic. That’s when the change needs to be introduced to help them build on that idealism, to help them use it well, and to help them hold on to it. The Jesuits say, “Give me your child ’til six and I’ll give you a Catholic for life.” Same idea. Education. You should know too that the overwhelming number of cops go through their entire careers never discharging their weapons except on the training range.

And then there are the others. They are not like the “skirt the edges” cops glorified on TV. They have within them an anger, a disappointment, a frustration, a deeply rooted politics, and a depressing sense that “it” isn’t working. They can be mean. They can be dangerous. What about them? They need to be gone, even with the realization that we all should have that policing is one of the very few jobs where a kiss goodbye at the door may not have a corresponding kiss “Hello, I’m home!” at the same door. How to make the line a circle?

First is recruiting. Departments must spend more money looking further from their base for balanced, well-educated, idealistic recruits. The department must pledge to try it’s best to align the demographics of the department to the demographics of the city. Yes black cops, Hispanic cops, Jewish cops, Muslim cops, female cops make segments of the population less anxious. The mind tells them that the odds for their safety are at least a bit better than if the force is 90% white, Christian, and male. Those recruits are out there, and they can be found.

So then what to do in those first five years for the good, the bad and the ugly? First begin before they begin. There must be longer and better psychological screening for officers before they are accepted into the academy and again before they are accepted onto the force. More apples already beginning to rot must be found by departments and disposed of. The rotten apple, they say, can spoil the barrel. This has been an area of advancement in the past few decades, but just like a bad teacher produces bad education, a bad interviewer hires bad people.

Next, while most cops believe training should be focused on things that make them better at their perception of being cops, cops more likely to survive on the street (shootin’ ropin’ and ridin’ as the cowboys used to say), they do not see learning about ethnicity, picking up a few words of a predominant minority language spoken in their town, learning to eat lunch or dinner in different neighborhoods of town often enough so that they are not seen as a foreign presence, and taking a mandatory course in Ethnic Relations, minimum 40 hours, that is broad in scope and is not presented solely by a white male or female. This may mean making their stay in the Academy longer. So be it.

It is said that the only thing that stays the same is change. As Sharpton said, “this is the season, this is the time.” If we miss this opportunity for the change we want, the change we get will not be the change we want or that our founders envisioned–at least from my perspective.

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William Gralnick’s tour of duty with law enforcement has covered the riots after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr, in Johnstown, Pa, the child murders chaos in Atlanta, Ga, the Black Panther’s movement in Stamford, Ct, the Overtown and Liberty City riots in Miami, Florida, and the post 911 anger and fear in Palm Beach County, Florida. He worked for 8 years for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. Now retired, he sees himself in the position of Rodin’s “Thinker” bent over contemplating what hasn’t yet happened and what might happen. His blog can be found here or on his website williamgralnickauthor.com along with links to his other writings.

More than ever he believes, “Read! It’s good for both of us.”

2 thoughts on “IF YOU’RE WHITE, YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND

  1. Thank you Bill. I didn’t know that you had such an intense work history!
    I had quite a few experiences as a teacher in a big city. One thing I realised early on that probably saved my career was the realization that “I wasn’t walking backwards, they were! Yes for the first few years I really felt inadequate, like I couldn’t figure something out. Then I realize that I was ok, normal, my conscience was in tack. But the system, the bureaucracy was hopelessly out of sync. I hardly ever gave them another thought.

    Like

    1. rich, i grew up with a girl who wanted only to teach in Harlem. She got raped by an 8th grader, and eventually committed suicide. Glad you found the balance you needed to be the success you were.

      Like

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