We hear a lot these days about how poorly certain Americans understand their neighbors, especially when it comes to racial differences.
But if I can’t understand the experience of a person of color, am I any better equipped to understand a great grandchild of Irish immigrants who worked as domestic help in Boston?
And why not reverse the direction? Can people of color understand mmmmeeeEEEEE? Do they know what it felt like to put on a wool uniform with the junior high marching band to perform in the July 4th parade, to receive a B+ on a paper for Reformation history at Temple, to be rejected for a Luce post-doctoral fellowship, to experience the retirement of Mike Schmidt? Some might say that these experiences are insignificant compared to those of other people? That is a fair point. But it also raises a question about whether we only care about the experiences of others when they die. Which is another fair point. Death does put a point on experience. But how often do memorial services capture the entire experience of a deceased’s life. We remember the person as a great guy or gal and stay quiet about the blemishes.
When it comes to black men who get pulled over by police and die, should Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown and op-ed writer for the Times, be able to say that his experience is akin to that of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile? I have a hard time understanding how a man with Dyson’s experience can think that his is similar to men who live in very different circumstances. According to Dyson:
At birth, you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy. Those binoculars are privilege; they are status, regardless of your class. In fact the greatest privilege that exists is for white folk to get stopped by a cop and not end up dead when the encounter is over.
Perhaps Mr. Dyson did not receive his privilege (elite university professor and writer for the nation’s premier newspaper) at birth, but that status surely puts him at several removes from Castile and Sterling and many other African-American men who live in our nation’s cities. It is also several removes from white Americans, even those with advanced degrees and who teach for a living.
The problem with framing race relations along the lines of what each of us experience, and that some can never know the experience of another, is that it leaves no hope or way out. Mr. Dyson will never know my experience and I will never know his.
But if you want to talk about law enforcement policies that lead to the mass incarceration of blacks, municipal governments’ failure to recruit and train people who will be good cops, or the lack of independent oversight of law enforcement officials (like even Jim Comey), that’s a conversation we can have. But one that always informs me how I cannot know what you’ve experienced is going to be a conversation stopper.