The Man Who Knew Infinity
An account of a remarkable person should strive to be as equally remarkable as its subject, not the timid and tidy boilerplate special of a…
I want to tell you a story about the difference between knowing and understanding.
Over the weekend, my ten-year-old son and I had just finished eating supper at a diner near our house. The multiple TVs in the diner were all showing cable news coverage of the Ferguson situation. On the way out, we passed an African American mother talking to her son, a child around my boy's age, seated in a booth near the front door.
The boy asked his mother, "So I should just put my hands in the air?"
"Yes," his mother said. "Just put your hands in the air."
"If I put my hands in the air, will the police not shoot?" he asked.
"Probably not, but you can't be sure. Some people say you should just kneel or lie down, don't ask questions, just get down on the ground."
"If I lie down on the ground, they won't shoot?"
"Probably," she said.
I recognized the exhaustion in that “probably”—a parent trying to explain a fundamentally unfair fact of life in the most neutral terms possible, so as not to make a child prematurely paranoid or cynical or bitter, and realizing that there are no words with which to do such a thing. After my son and I left the restaurant, though, I was disturbed by a mental image of this small boy dropping face-down on the ground at the sound of a cop's voice—thinking just maybe he wouldn't get shot. I thought of Oscar Grant, who was detained by police on a BART platform on New Years Day, 2009, and got shot in the back anyway. To death.
"Is that what you're supposed to do? Get down on the ground?" my son asked.
He'd heard about Ferguson. It was everywhere.
I said, "Not necessarily. Some police want you to put your hands up. Some don't ask you to do that. It depends. I guess the main thing is to just do what the police officer tells you to do. Don't make any sudden moves."
"Can the police just shoot people?" he asked. He seemed genuinely worried.
"They're not supposed to just shoot people," I said. "There are supposed to be rules about when you can and can't shoot a person. Sometimes mistakes happen and people who shouldn't get shot do get shot. And there are other times when..."
And I trailed off because I realized I was evading the real issue.
"It happens, and it's horrible," I told my son," and in a lot of cases the reasons why some people get shot and others don't get shot are unfair, or they don't make sense, but you...." I trailed off again.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"White people just aren't as likely to get shot by police," I told him.
"Why is that?"
"There are a lot of reasons why that's true, and we'll talk about them later, but that's the bottom line," I said. "It's not right, but it's the truth. That's what that woman was telling her son about."
My mind added: ...in a conversation that most white dads would not be having with their white elementary school-age sons.
Why didn't I say this out loud to my son? I don't know. Something was holding me back.
Maybe it was the fact that my son has friends of different races and ethnicities, and I didn't want to burst what I thought was an idyllic bubble, if indeed he lived in one, which he probably doesn't.
No, that wasn't it.
I wasn't protecting my son from anything. I was protecting my son's image of his father, or what I imagined that image to be.
And I was protecting myself from myself. I was lying to myself about myself.
I was reminded of something my best friend, a skinny Irish guy from Bay Ridge, told me. He was hanging out with his dad one afternoon. Out of the blue his dad told he should always be grateful for the greatest gift his dad and mom ever gave him.
"What gift is that?" my friend asked.
"Your white skin," he said. "If you're white in this country, you're ahead of the game. You get more chances. You get more second chances. That's the gift your mother and I gave you—and we didn't have a damn thing to do with it!"
My friend's dad was being bitterly sarcastic. But he was also being honest about white privilege.
I believe that there's a difference between knowing something and understanding it. You know how you'll try to communicate something very important to you to another person and sometimes they'll wave you off with an impatient, "I know, I know"? That's knowing: I got the gist, filed it away, I don't need to think about it again. Knowing is comprehension; understanding is deeper because it comes from empathy or identification.
All of which is a wind-up to say: having grown up in a mostly black neighborhood near Love Field airport in Dallas, and having been a diligent liberal for most of my adult life, I already knew there was such a thing as white privilege, and was properly horrified by it, but I didn't truly understand what it meant, on a deep level, until one summer night in 2006, when I was spared arrest or worse thanks to the color of my skin.
The incident happened about eight weeks after my wife's death from cardiac arrest caused by a previously undiagnosed flaw in her heart. I was at the lowest point of my life. I was angry, and I was drinking too much. I'd been a tremendously angry person when I was younger, my wife made me not angry anymore, and then when she was gone all at once the anger returned, and alcohol made it active. I channeled my anger away from my kids and my coworkers and my friends. But I needed an outlet for all that rage. So one or two nights a week, instead of drinking at home, I'd go out and get drunk at bars and then wander the streets looking for trouble.
One night I was cooking dinner for my kids. I drank a few glasses of red wine while I cooked and at some point realized I was short a couple of ingredients. I turned off the stove, told the kids I'd be back in five minutes, asked my brother, who lived upstairs, to watch them, then went to a deli a couple of blocks away.
It was drizzling. I was carrying a cheap umbrella that leaked. Outside the deli leaning against a pay phone was a Hispanic man in his late twenties or early thirties insulting people as they passed by. His words were slightly slurred.
When I came out of the deli, this man said something about my shoes and my hat, and because I was looking for a reason to hit somebody, I put my grocery bags down and confronted him. We cursed at each other for a while, puffing up our chests and barking threats, and then he poked me in the chest with his index finger. I knew the second he did it that he didn't actually mean to touch me, that he was probably just jabbing at me for emphasis and misjudged the distance between us, because it wasn't a hard impact and the contact seemed to surprise him, too. But I hit him in the face anyway. He stumbled backward, turned around in an attempt to regain his balance, tripped and fell face down on the sidewalk. I jumped on his back and put my forearm around his neck and locked it, to keep him from getting up again. It was a chokehold.
I don't know how long I was down there, but it was long enough for the owner of the deli to call the cops. A squad car pulled up sometime later. Two patrolmen got out and pulled me off the guy and tossed me on the sidewalk. Then one of them ran over and put his knee on my back, but did not cuff me—a detail that didn't register until the cop got off me and allowed me to stand again, and I looked over and saw that the other guy was face down on the pavement, cuffed.
Both cops were white.
The cop on me asked for my driver's license, looked at it, looked at me, and said, "Tell me what happened." I told the cop what happened, exactly as I described it above, including the personal details about why I'd been agitated and drunk, which under the circumstances probably weren't germane.
When I finished he said, "Would you like to press charges?"
"What for?" I asked.
"Assault," he said.
"Why would I press assault charges against him?"
"Because he hit you first."
I said, "Oh, no, he didn't hit me first. He poked me in the chest."
"That's assault," my cop said. "He hit you first."
"I don't think he actually meant to touch me, though," I said, while a voice deep inside me said, Stupid white boy, he's making it plain and you're not getting it.
"It doesn't matter if he meant to touch you, he hit you first," he said. He was talking to me warmly and patiently, as you might explain things to a child. Wisdom was being imparted.
"You were in fear of your life," he added.
By now the adrenaline fog seemed to be lifting. I was seeing things in a more clinical way. The violence I had inflicted on this man was disproportionate to the "assault," and the tone of this exchange with the cop felt conspiratorial.
And then it dawned on me, Mr. Slow-on-the-Uptake, what was really happening: this officer was helping me Get My Story Straight.
Understanding, at long last.
I also need to mention that while this conversation was taking place, not ten feet away the other guy was face down on the pavement, handcuffed—even though when the squad car arrived, anybody who'd looked at our situation purely in terms of physical action, without the explanations I proffered afterward, would have concluded that I was the menace.
"Do you live around here?" he said.
"Yeah—a couple blocks that way."
He gave me back my driver's license. "Go ahead," he said, gesturing across the street.
"Go ahead what?"
I didn't think to get his badge number—and why would I have? I got in a fight with a stranger, the cop asked me a few questions, and now it was done and I was going home to my kids.
I have no idea what ultimately happened to the other man. Maybe they took him in for questioning. Maybe he spent a night in jail. Maybe they took him to a scrapyard and beat him. Maybe they ran his name through the computer, maybe they didn't. Maybe he had a criminal record, or maybe he was just a guy like me, a law-abiding citizen with issues.
In the years since, I've thought about what would have happened if the positions had been reversed. We know what would've happened.
There's a much slimmer chance that either of those cops would have patiently listened to the sob story of a drunk brown-skinned man about how he'd ended up on the pavement with his forearm around a white man's neck, and an equally slim chance that they'd have talked to him for a few minutes and sent him on his way and put the white man in the squad car.
Maybe the other guy was in a bad place, too. Maybe he had kids, too. Maybe he had a sad story, too.
I went home. The other guy didn't.
That's white privilege.
White privilege sent me home to my kids.
White privilege is the reason I've never told this story publicly.
Extenuating personal circumstances, aside, I did something that I should not have done, and I escaped the consequences of my actions by accepting a benefit that never should have been bestowed.
Sometimes police brutality happens without anyone outside the community knowing about it; it's on the back page of a newspaper, if it makes the newspaper (if the town has a newspaper; increasingly few do). Sometimes, as in the case of Ferguson, it snowballs into something bigger. And when that happens, somehow the nation riles itself up in a paroxysm of outrage for a week or maybe a month, deepening already fathomless left wing/right wing divide, until finally everybody just collectively shrugs and shakes their heads and says, "Terrible thing, terrible thing, nothing can be done, way of the world" and gets on with the mundane daily business of life.
And then it happens again, and the process repeats. The liberal outrage. The lock-'em-up-or-run-'em-over backlash. The macho racist blustering. The transparent bureaucratic face-saving tricks. The commissions and panels and trials. The forgetting.
We have to stop the cycle long enough to realize that what we are really shrugging off is racial inequality. This is not: "Well, if ya factor out race, it's a class thing." We all know in our hearts that that is, at best, only partly true. The full truth must include the acknowledgement that if you're white, different rules apply.
So much of the crosstalk, the shouting, the debate over Ferguson stems, I believe, from an inability to admit this fact of life, which was illustrated so plainly to me that night in front of the deli. I've never been profiled. I've never been stopped and frisked. I've never experienced anything of the sort because of the gift that my parents gave me, and that my son's parents gave him: white skin. I've had encounters with police, mostly during my youth, in which I'd done something wrong and thought I was about to get a ticket or go to jail but somehow didn't, because I managed to take back or apologize for whatever I'd said to a cop in petulance or frustration; these encounters, too, would have likely gone differently, perhaps ended differently, if I hadn't been white.
Again, I already knew this stuff. But after that night in front of the deli, I understood it.
More details will emerge about the shooting of Michael Brown, and there will be investigations, maybe trials, related to the aftermath. Cops will get suspended, a few may lose their jobs. And throughout, there'll be a steady chorus among law-and-order types that if only Brown had done this, or that, or not done this, or not done that, he'd be alive.
It's all denial.
My son already knows about the deli incident. It's a part of family lore now. But as far as he was concerned, the takeaway was, "Dad was not thinking clearly, he had a chance to walk away from a confrontation but didn't, and he's ashamed of that now, and you should try not to let your temper get the better of you." That's all true, and useful for a child to hear.
But there's another lesson to draw from the incident, and it's more disturbing, because it illuminates the flaws in a larger society, as well as the fact that complicity in racism is mostly passive: if you're not fighting inequality every day, in ways both large and small, and if you accept the benefits of white privilege without questioning their rightness, you're part of the problem, too.
Even if you think you're enlightened. Even if you think you know.
I've been thinking about what, exactly, to tell my son when we finish our conversation. I might as well just tell him the truth: that different rules apply, that the different rules are part of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that are among this country's great sins, and that it's part of his job as a human being to fight against it.
Hopefully understanding will arrive faster for for him than it did for his dad.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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