On April 29, 1992, four Los Angeles Police officers were acquitted of assaulting Rodney King. Six days of looting, assault, arson, and murder followed, resulting in nearly one billion dollars worth of damage to the city. As a white man living in Iowa, I had no idea why the black community was so enraged and why so much violence was occurring. All I knew at the time was that I was afraid of black men and that I had prejudices that had never been challenged.
Years later, I lived in Los Angeles and became very close friends with Sean, an African-American man who was born and raised in Los Angeles. I remember one day after work we were leaving Reseda and were heading to his house on the other side of the city. At one point, a police officer got behind us and we thought we might be getting pulled over. I didn’t think anything of it as I checked to make sure my seatbelt was on and began to joke with Sean that he was probably going to get a ticket for driving too slow (he was notoriously a slow driver.) What happened next left me speechless. Sean turned to me and told me that if the police officer tried to pull him over, he was not going to stop until he got home and was parked in his driveway. I knew he was serious and I could see the fear in his eyes. I tried to reassure him that everything was going to be fine and that he wasn’t going to be pulled over, and that he certainly wasn’t going to be assaulted. He simply told me that I didn’t understand. He was right. I had no idea and it’s taken me a long time to even get close to comprehending his reality.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these experiences lately in light of the recent shootings that have taken place in our community. I don’t know anything about what took place, but when I open up the newspaper and see picture after picture of young black men allegedly involved in these crimes, the same old feelings of fear and discrimination start to bubble up inside of me. I then begin to wonder what impact this imagery is having on others, especially considering the fact that this might be the only exposure they have to the black community. I think it’s fair to assume that inaccurate generalizations may be created or reinforced about the African-American community. Over and over again, I hear comments being made or written about this violence with only one suggested remedy: “move all these people back to Chicago, Milwaukee, or wherever they came from.”These same individuals also tend to reflect back on a time in which our community was so much safer. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that this era which people long to have again is also the same time in which fewer black men and women lived here.
Racism exists in every town and city throughout our great country. If you don’t believe me, ask someone who is not white. Ask them to tell you of a time in which they felt marginalized or discriminated against. Clear your schedule and be prepared to really listen. You are going to hear things that you don’t want to believe exist; things that may make you uncomfortable. It’s critical that we have these conversations though. We all have our own biases and for most of us, our white privilege has blinded us to a reality that is hard to accept. We need to regularly challenge the stereotypes we may have about people, and be open to the fact that the fear we may have about others can cloud our judgement and limit our abilities to work together as a community on problems that have been here forever.