The events that preceded Sandra Bland’s death have revived an old conversation in black communities: how to make it home after an encounter with the police. Although Bland didn’t lose her life there on the highway where she was pulled over, it was the events that took place there that ultimately lead to her tragic death. Rather than focusing on the specifics of her interaction with Officer Brian Encinia, we would be better served examining what we ask of American citizens who wish to survive an encounter with law enforcement. When looking at it through this lens, an honest and sober observer will see respectability politics doesn’t save lives.
There have been no shortage of think-pieces and explanations on what black parents tell their children about how to survive an interaction with the police. Outlets from ABC News to TIME even Gawker have illustrated just how frustrating and scary it is for many black parents when they send their children out into the world. The instructions can be as broad as “’do everything the officer says” or can be as specific as a detailed point-by-point if-then scenario black people are to follow should they interact with police. Inexplicably, and almost like clockwork however we hear some story about law enforcement interaction with African-Americans that ends in death. With all these lectures on black respectability and how to navigate interaction with the police, perhaps it’s time someone craft think pieces on how police interact with citizens.
We come back to the word citizens because in the United States African-Americans are seemingly constantly attempting to prove their worth. Time and again respectability politics rears its ugly head to say “had this person done this” or “had that person done that,” but a careful review shows simply that citizenship and the rights bestowed upon those persons who are citizens are given not earned. It would be far too easy to chronicle the countless incidents where white Americans interact with law enforcement to significantly different results. Comedian Dave Chappelle brought some levity to the situation with a standup routine about the matter. Nonetheless the nation still routinely has occasion to search for an answer to the dilemma to the relationship between black Americans and law enforcement. The quandary wouldn’t be quite so difficult however if one were to make peace with the reality that no level of respectability will make law enforcement see black Americans as their peers. Thus meaning the change has to occur on the side of law enforcement.
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates outlined how the common suggestions of better police training, more body and dash cams and other tepid reforms are largely meaningless to this conversation. Sadly what they’ve done is given us a front row view to black death. The officer in Tulsa, Ok who shot and killed an unarmed Eric Harris fleeing from him had his body camera on and working. It did nothing to save Harris’ life. The larger problem here is that for whatever reason (racism seems apparent although others might argue another reason) police don’t see black lives as mattering thus there is a need for the cry Black Lives Matter. If these series of incidents were unfortunate and random occurrences they would be more evenly distributed across racial lines. They are not, and because law enforcement and the nation as a whole is unwilling to confront, challenge and change the functionality of white supremacy we are left asking the victims to come up with the answer to better manage the oppressor’s behavior.
Which brings us back to Sandra Bland. Her crime according to the law? Not signaling when changing lanes. Her actual crime? Offending the ego of Officer Brian Encinia. Her punishment? Death. Very stark terms indeed but it is the reality facing so many American citizens. Why would American have this problem with just one group of citizens? If police officers were out of control en masse wouldn’t we see Asian teen girls being slammed to the ground at pool parties? Wouldn’t we see white criminals who flee unarmed accidentally shot? And wouldn’t we just accept the humanity of black Americans without someone having to tell us how great of people they were before they died explicitly at the hands of or under dubious circumstances while in the custody of law enforcement. But none of this happens. No matter how many times Bland graduated from college, no matter how affluent the background Prince Jones came from, no matter how innocent and adorable Aiyana Stanley Jones was, no matter how great of a father Eric Garner was no matter how loving of a mother Tanisha Anderson was… respectability didn’t save them.
Ray Baker is a journalist and political commentator who has contributed to TVOne, Ebony, Washington Post & Politic365. More of his work can be found at www.raybakermedia.com. You can follow him on Twitter @RayBakerMedia.