In the fall of 1996, I was a sophomore at West Charlotte High School and called to participate in an assembly. I quickly realized our whole audience was Black males. The assembly began with a Black male millionaire telling us about entrepreneurship and wealth acquisition. The second speaker was a Black CMPD officer who told us every step to take to survive — you read that word correctly — if stopped by police.
Flash forward a decade later. I’m working with high school youth at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Dilworth and a white CMPD officer comes and speaks to our youth, who are predominantly white and upper middle class. He told them how to conduct themselves if police showed up after they had been drinking or partying illegally so the cops would call or take them home to their parents while keeping their records clean.
Put plainly, hundreds of Black males were told how to not get killed in a police encounter whether we had broken the law or not. A decade later, white youth of the same age were told by the same department: “We’ve accepted that you will break the law as your rite of passage. Here’s how you avoid punishment afterwards.”
These conversations weren’t a creation of left wing or social media designed to divide. This was two police officers, one Black and one white from the same police department, telling two same-aged audiences, one Black and one white, two different ways the criminal justice system worked.
And yet, South Carolina’s Tim Scott is compelled to discuss being stopped seven times as a U.S. senator due to his skin color in 2016, then say the country is not racist to comfort people uncomfortable with truth in 2021.
For many white people, the word racist is the ultimate trigger word, and an unspoken goal of being deemed “not racist” is their aim. Derek Chauvin and others allow them to create overt boogeymen and say: “He’s racist and I didn’t do that, so I’m good.”
But the George Floyd case illuminates why being “not racist” is insufficient to combating the disease of racism and creating a healthy country. If we treat Chauvin cavalierly kneeling on George’s neck as the picture of racism (some sadly struggle even with this), the officers who flanked him without intervention but didn’t directly kill him represent “not racist.” The problem is their being neutrally “not racist” didn’t stop a 9-minute death kneel from killing Floyd. The only way to stop Chauvin’s deadly racist kneel would have been with an antiracist act of removing his knee from Floyd’s neck. In court, Chauvin’s conviction occurred due to antiracist acts like a civilian recording and testimony to what actually occurred that countered false police reporting.
Being offended by the concept of antiracism to combat the disease of racism is like being offended by radiation and chemo to eradicate cancer. Inactive response to a progressive disease spreading is negligence and complicity. It’s tantamount to knowingly sitting outside of a bedroom where a sexual assault is occurring, not intervening, and thinking as long as you aren’t doing it, you’re good.
A country whose first police patrolled Africans seeking freedom has racist DNA that neutrality cannot change. It requires antiracist repair. It requires depersonalizing and focusing on policies, practices, and rhetoric over sensitivity and personal litmus tests. Passing the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act, transparently releasing the video footage of Andrew Brown’s death in Elizabeth City, and creating uniform policing rules for kids in white and Black neighborhoods are antiracist acts that move the country closer to actually being “not racist.”
Justin Perry of Charlotte is a contributing columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org