What the Police Told Me: “they will kill you for being white”

Back in 1995 I lived in an apartment on Bankhead Highway in Atlanta. My roommate and I were the only white people in our complex, on our street, and as far as I could tell, on that whole side of the city. We got a lot of funny looks, were the subjects of quite a lot of loud jokes, but no one ever gave us any real trouble- but then there were the police.

12thecity

They never gave us any real trouble either, but they surely gave us a lot of attention. We used to ride the subway and I could tell every time the transit police changed assignments, because the new officers would without fail, ask us if we missed our stop once we passed the Georgia Dome. They were trying to be helpful, they usually looked concerned. The regular officers knew better, we were easily recognized in that we were Mormon missionaries in white shirts and name tags in addition to our whiteness. There was one instance where a veteran interrupted a new cop mid inquiry, by hitting his shoulder and rolling his eyes, waving the new guy to move on down the train. But always, there was a well-defined line which when the train crossed, the white people needed protection. They never asked the black kids if they missed their stop.13bball

There was that other time when a cop car pulled over to us as we were walking down our block. “Hey! You guys lost?” the officer asked. “No we are fine. Thank you.” Was my reply. “No. I mean what are you doing here?” He followed up. When I explained to him that we live “right over there,” the officer responded by calling me stupid. That is the word he used. I had at this point lived in that apartment for 7 months, and as a 19 year old I probably was in many ways stupid, but I remember clearly what the police officer said, “You are stupid. You shouldn’t live here. These people will kill you just for being white. Don’t call us when you are in trouble for being stupid because we won’t come help you. It is your own fault.” Then he drove away. I never did call the police and no one ever killed me for being white.

Since that time I have heard countless stories from white people, who were at one time in their personal history functioning in a majority black or brown environment (school, work, neighborhood) and were warned, sometimes by school officials, that they would be the target of violence. These stories are almost always told as a means to build the story tellers credibility or first-hand authority in matters of American race relations. There is normally an implied, though sometimes spoken, statement of the teller’s toughness for having endured the dangerous circumstances of being a white minority and the warning of how race really works in the world. These stories happen after a driver takes a wrong turn and finds themselves driving through an area full of brown people, or that time when they were 12 and had to go to a mostly black school and every time the point is that the white person was in real danger.

Yet none of the stories ever include a white person dying. I can recall about three stories (out of 30) where the school kid got in a fight, though none of them required medical attention. The black people on Bankhead never hurt me and none of those I have met who took the dangerous wrong turn, were ever actually assaulted. Where are the dead white bodies? By the persistence of these stories there should be graveyards filled with white victims of racial oppression. I suspect that white people reading this are simultaneously searching their memories to find their examples of actual black on white violence to refute my question. They (we) are looking for their anecdote to support this idea, that a brown or black majority is synonymous with anti-white violence. But it isn’t really necessary because the idea that it could have happened, because it is perceived as a possibility, is always enough to prove the point.

Why?

Is it true that white people in black spaces are in danger, so these stories are simply a practical warning? The data does not bear this out.11church

Does the data not back the lore because the warnings have been heeded? If the white folks had not fled when black people moved into their neighborhoods would there have been great rashes of black on white beatings? Are white people not accosted while driving through “bad”, aka black, neighborhoods at significant numbers only because the white people are listening and driving the long way home? Perhaps the myth is only a myth because it is effectively serving its purpose. Maybe.

I have wondered this quite a bit since 1995 and it led me to do a lot of looking. I have looked all the way back to the 1600’s and I will admit, I found some stories. There was that time in 1675 when a bunch of white people found themselves settling in a brown neighborhood called Plymouth and the brown people started burning villages and killing people for 3 years before they were permanently defeated and almost completely, exterminated. There was that time in 1831 when Nat Turner tried to kill all the white people in his neighborhood, or 1859 when John Brown riled up some black people and they killed 5 white people, injured 9, but were then themselves crushed by Robert E Lee. There was that time after the civil war in 1898 when the whole state of North Carolina, including Wilmington, was a black neighborhood. Violence broke out on voting day- and 100 black people were killed, black homes were burned, yet strangely no white people died.

There have been race riots in Atlanta (1906), St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), Tulsa (1921), Harlem (1935), Detroit (1943), Watts (1965), and on and on up till today there has been violence when black and white collide. Yet in every single one of those situations, including the ones back in the beginning, the primary casualty has always been the brown or black people. The white people win every time so why in all the stories people tell me, are the white people the ones in danger?

Maybe the persistence of this story, this trope, grows from the collective suppressed white awareness of how truly mistreated brown people have been, and the logic that says that this violence will inevitably be reciprocated whenever the opportunity is presented. Perhaps that is it, though that would be some seriously collective subconscious logic at work, but I think individuals should spend some time thinking through this logic and all of its implications and lessons.

But whatever the cause or origin of this line of story telling, that white people in brown or black places are in physical danger, what concerns me most, is when this idea is perpetuated or enforced, by those in authority- like cops. Or teachers. This concerns me because I have yet to find any tangible set of facts or events that bear out this widespread idea, in fact I have at least 20 years of first hand experience refuting it, but we as a society are trained to believe and trust police and cops. Or maybe I should just say white people are trained to trust these authorities.

Maybe thinking about this sort of storytelling can help us understand why there is a gap between who trusts the authorities and who does not.

When my white body moved into black Atlanta spaces, the police felt I needed protection. Their actions and inquiries made this obvious. Maybe those officers really did have information I do not, or had direct experience that I did not (surely both are true in many respects), but what was clear in those moments, and in all of those stories, was that the authorities believed that black and brown people posed a physical danger to white people.

That is the whole point of these stories. And it makes me fear for those black and brown people when I consider that people with badges, or run schools, are the ones who believe and tell that tale. In this sort of reality who are the ones being hurt?

It isn’t the white people.

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2 Comments

Filed under history, people

2 responses to “What the Police Told Me: “they will kill you for being white”

  1. Charlotte Keys

    I love your blog because of pieces like this. I wish I published a magazine so I could give you a wide audience. I love all the other stuff, about your family, your clothes, etc. But this is the real deal.

    I have been in the kinds of situations you describe (I’m a white woman) usually because I did stay on the subway past my stop by mistake. I would be lying if I didn’t say it made me nervous at the time (I don’t think it would any more). Every time some completely normal black person walked up to me and asked me if they could help me find where I was going.

    I like the question you ask about whether we’d have these kinds of fears if there hadn’t been massive white flight. I live on a diverse street now and am happy. There are people who don’t like each other and have verbal confrontations (we have a guy with a confederate flag hanging on his garage–in Massachusetts)–he’s the outlier here. But we all treat each other decently because to do otherwise wouldn’t make any sense to the life of our street where all the kids play together and we help each other shovel out of blizzards.

    Thanks for writing and probing these issues in a real and human way. Keep it up. I will always read!

  2. uglyblackjohn

    Man, I’m dying laughing at your paintings while reading this. In my mind they kind-of came to life the way the panels in a comic book do when one is reading.

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