You know that idealistic 15-year-old who admonishes his father at the dinner table every time the old man makes some racial epithet?
That was me.
And given his litany of profanity laced pejoratives, there were times when I sincerely believed that my old man could have learned a thing or two about racial tolerance from Archie Bunker. That someone whose intelligence I otherwise respected could be so cavalier in making broad-sweeping comments about people on the basis of their race dumbfounded me.
But then, I was a child whose formal education coincided with LBJ's Great Society experiment and millions like myself were weaned on precepts that warned against the wrongs of discrimination and encouraged us to treat everybody as an individual.
Determined to put some of the wrongs of the past behind us, my generation adopted a different cadre of heroes than that of our fathers. As high schoolers, we listed O.J. Simpson as our number one hero, and by adulthood I'd read books such as "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice." Along the way, I filed away anecdotal fodder, such as Shirley Chisum's revelation that she'd encountered more discrimination by virtue of her gender than her race. Not only did everyone have some cross to bear, but some had more crosses than others.
Having vicariously suffered the slights these men and women had endured, I understood their often militant streaks. But the primary force behind their outrage—the idea that the character deficiencies of any one individual should be extrapolated as an indictment upon some greater segment of society—repelled me.
Some might say I was terribly naïve; others said I came to embody the kind of values that every human ideally should. In any event, this aspect of my personal history is no less true than the fact that today I am to the right of the Attila the Hun. Mea culpa.
But if I am more jaded and less idealistic these days, I can only blame the intervening years. For those decades that forced me to judge things empirically, and not just co-sign someone else's ideological b.s.
And what was it that transpired during those lost years? Primarily the job and the things that came with it.
Things such as my first day working custody when I was greeted with cat calls of, "You white-cracker-racist-Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost-redneck-m*****-f*****" from beyond the bars.
The pro forma accusations of racism that I endured on patrol involved detainees who routinely accused me of stopping them because they were black/Hispanic/Asian/albino—despite the fact that their features had been completely obscured by the tinted windows for which I was pulling them over in the first place.
The many times I saw officer-related events controverted by the Al Sharptons of the world and further exploited by a reprehensible news media—allegations that were often discredited but rarely with commensurate attention.
The disparity in media coverage of events wherein race was the biggest indicator of whether or not it received coverage, and not where the crime itself ranked within any objective hierarchy of horror.
What I was witnessing is something I continue to see—the polarization of people along racial lines.
All of this worked slowly but inexorably to exact a personal and professional toll on me. As subject to Pavlovian conditioning as any man, if I am continually treated in a certain manner, I come to expect more of the same. And sure as hell, as a white male in a law enforcement uniform I encountered it.
If there was any ancillary epiphany, it was the realization that we are all ambassadors.
Even my dad—while an admittedly lousy fit for the U.N.—was an ambassador, serving as an emissary for his ideological ilk.
And it didn't matter whether or not we wanted to be ambassadors—we just were. And just as I was an unwilling representative of my maleness, my whiteness, or my uniform, the people I have come in contact with have been avatars of something beyond themselves. As such, they helped form the generalizations that I subscribe to today.
That temptation to generalize is a hard one to overcome. We all want shortcuts in life. It accounts for why many of our critics don't give a second thought about broadstroking us as "abusive Neanderthals" anymore than we don't hesitate to dismiss them as "f***ing idiots."
But I wonder if in routinely treating cops as racist these same critics don't run the risk of making us so or, at the very least, losing the sympathies of those who were initially with them.
At one point I wondered if I really was Casper, and my detractors could see right through me. Like me, others might well begin to reconsider that nascent liberalism that factored into their becoming cops. They may come to wonder if perhaps there isn't something to these accusations; if not - given the idiocy of their accusers - that there should be. Some may go on to adopt racist ways.
In even touching on these points I may be setting myself up to incur the kind of wrath that Shirley Sherrod has become all too familiar with in an incredibly short period of time.
For how are we to move beyond our racial enclaves unless we can have parity in dialogue? Sherrod's comments as reported by the news media, while admittedly harmful on their face value, were nonetheless taken very much out of context. Even the white farmer who was the subject of her inflammatory story has said that what's happening to her isn't right. And I agree.
But the topic of race continues to be a lightning rod, and in the short run Shirley Sherrod was but a sacrificial offering, something put forth to appease a growing discontentment among those whites that are pissed off that the n-word is something still bartered in the communities upset by it, and resentful of the perceived exorbitant prices paid by whites who have previously been held accountable—Jimmy the Greek, Al Campanis, Marge Schott, and the irrepressible John Rocker.
The sad thing is I believe Shirley had something to offer.
I don't have to tell you, the patrol officer, how race factors into your job. It is there in crime broadcasts, and in how we couch our sentiments depending upon who is present. It has figured prominently in legal precedence and proven to be the flashpoint in this country's most violent riots. It has been a catalyst for some of our country's darkest moments, and is something around which many continue to blanket themselves, believing in the safety of numbers.
I understand how some may have pride for their heritage, even as I wonder how many "pure breds" we have in this country (I know damn good and well that my Germanic blood has been too diluted to have survived any Aryan insurrection).
What concerns me most is how people who otherwise have little in common can unite solely on race, and how they can find common enemies in those of a different color—the men and women who wear the color blue.
I wonder what percentage of those who would doubtlessly brand me a racist have similarly expressed outrage at the killings of cops by militant blacks, and how many may have in fact celebrated such losses. I continue to question why the jury nullification verdict of O.J. has not received its due in the news media, and why certain segments of the population are deemed sacrosanct.
I'll take Attorney General Eric Holder up on his implicit challenge, when he said we were cowards when it came to discussing race.
And I'll challenge others. I want to know whether or not you think I'm full of shit on how prominently the role of race impacts our mission. I hope I am, for I love nothing more than when some negative assumption on my part is proven wrong.
Allow me to ask you these questions:
Has your career as a law enforcement professional affected your own take on race and race relations?
Are you more or less tolerant than when you came on?
Do you feel that we're racially more cohesive than at the dawn of LBJ's Great Society? Please weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section below.