“At one time, I thought Barack Obama would bring the problem into the open and remove the racist stigma. Instead, he perpetuated it. In his acclaimed Philadelphia speech on race, he cited his grandmother as ‘a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street,’” Cohen wrote. “How about the former Barry Obama? When he was a Columbia University student living on the lip of then-dangerous Harlem, did he never have the same fear?”
Today, Kathleen Parker made a similar point in the same pages, asking readers to “Picture Zimmerman’s neighbor Olivia Bertalan, a defense witness, hiding in her locked bedroom with her infant and a pair of rusty scissors while two young males, later identified as African American, burglarized her home. They ran when police arrived.” She goes on to argue that “This is not to justify what subsequently transpired between Zimmerman and Martin but to cast a dispassionate eye on reality. And no, just because a few black youths caused trouble doesn’t mean all black youths should be viewed suspiciously. This is so obvious a truth that it shouldn’t need saying and yet, if we are honest, we know that human nature includes the accumulation of evolved biases based on experience and survival. In the courtroom, it’s called profiling. In the real world, it’s called common sense.”
What’s striking about both of these arguments is the way Cohen and Parker are looking for fear, almost eager for it, as a sign of prudence and rationality–and when it’s displayed by African-Americans, as well as white people, as a sign of a common worldview. As Cohen sees it, Barack Obama’s grandmother was behaving sensibly, not shamefully, in fearing the black men she saw out and about, and that the future president himself, if he were to distinguish himself from other black men, should have shared white fear of black people who live in the neighborhood where Columbia is located. In Parker’s formulation, fear of black men is part of a natural and admirable maternal instinct.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “Richard Cohen concedes that this is a violation, but it is one he believes black people, for the good of their country, must learn to live with. Effectively he is arguing for a kind of racist public safety tax. The tax may, or may not, end with a frisking. More contact with the police, and people who want to be police, necessarily means more deadly tragedy. Thus Cohen is not simply calling for my son and I to bear the brunt of “violation,” he is calling for us to run a higher risk of death and serious injury at the hands of the state.”
That’s a tax that isn’t levied on the white people who Cohen and Parker believe should be afraid of men like Coates and his father and son. But choosing to live your life in fear of a class of your fellow citizens involves paying smaller fees.
There are little things, like the story Ahmir Questlove Thompson told this week about a woman who lived in his (highly secured) building who inconvenienced herself and created an awkward situation simply to avoid letting him know which floor she lived on. Rather than doing the math and separating out Thompson from the statistics by virtue of the fact that he has a keycard to operate the elevator in her building, she first gave him the impression that they lived on the same floor, then made things deeply uncomfortable by turning down his courtesy, not once, but twice, when he tried to let her off first, and then when he tried to get the right floor button punched for her. If Thompson decides he still wants to reach out to his neighbor, he’d be a more courteous person than I am, but that woman has potentially lost herself a friendly neighbor, a nice asset to have even if the people who live down the hall from you don’t happen to drum for The Roots.
And there are larger costs, like the decision to forego certain experiences because you don’t want to venture out to a particular neighborhood to visit a particular restaurant, to not attend college in a city because you’re anxious about the area in which it’s located, or to not buy a home you like because you aren’t willing to deal with the people who you’ll share a block with. The decision to live in fear is a choice to live a narrower kind of life. And those opportunity costs should be factored into the idea that tailoring your actions in response to your fear black men is a rational, sensible, even mathematically enlightened or admirably protective impulse.
When I was in college, I did a lot of political work in a neighborhood that, aside from the dorms of my college that were zoned into the ward, was predominantly African-American. And during one visit to the local elementary school on a winter afternoon, a janitor I ran into punctured my sense that I’d gotten to know the people I was registering to vote and turning out for local elections particularly well. The prevailing opinion, he explained, was that any young white woman who spend a lot of time wandering around the neighborhood was probably working for the police, and that affiliation explained why I didn’t look scared. The fact that I didn’t look frightened was, paradoxically, good evidence to be suspicious of me.
To me, that story felt ludicrous, in part because my acute awfulness at keeping secrets would make me a terrible candidate for any sort of undercover assignment. But that private knowledge I have of my own openness isn’t tattooed on my forehead, or available via Google Glass. Based on the experience the folks in that neighborhood had of the police, and the actual depth of my actual relationship to a lot of the residents I’d met, their conclusions were relatively reasonable.
If Parker and Cohen want to argue that it is rational for white people to fear black men as a class, I wonder how they’d reckon with the argument that it’s rational for African-Americans to fear the police as a class. And if they’re willing to accept that other half of the equation, it seems impossibly defeatist to argue that maintaining this uneasy, untenable polarity is an acceptable–and rational–state of affairs.