The Hard Truth About Terence Crutcher and Tulsa: What Kind of White Person Do You Want to Be?

Human Rights

If America were a song, the killing of unarmed black people by the police would be a standard chord progression or rhythm, the sort of indistinguishable background noise that you hear so often you might not even notice it anymore.

On Friday, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a 40-year-old black man named Terence Crutcher had car troubles. The police approached him. Crutcher responded by putting his hands in the air. The Tulsa police used a Taser on Crutcher. A Tulsa police officer, Betty Shelby, then shot him dead. They left him bleeding in the street for almost a minute before rendering any aid. The incident was recorded on video.

Crutcher had committed no crime. He was unarmed. He was a motorist in distress.He was driving home from a music-appreciation class at a local college. This street execution took less than 30 seconds.

Several months ago, I decided that I would no longer watch videos of black people being killed by America’s police. These images have become a type of pornographic violence, a new digital-era version of lynching postcards. I know all too well what dead black bodies look like. To be repeatedly exposed to such images is psychologically unhealthy.

And yet how could I ignore Terence Crutcher? So I made an exception. I was not surprised by what I saw. Lynching postcards and photographs were a way to circulate images of white-on-black racial terrorism with the goal of intimidating an entire community of people. The contemporary images of Terence Crutcher, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald and many others do much of the same type of political work.

Over the last several years, I have written many dozens of essays about police thuggery and abuse against black and brown Americans. I have even developed an open-letter format to that end. How’s that for macabre efficiency? Every one could start this way:

Dear America’s police:

Please stop killing black men. I am a black man. Police have threatened and harassed me while I was doing nothing wrong. I do not know why you hate people like me so much. I have no criminal record. I hope that you will reflect on your behavior and subsequently do a better job of stopping the foul, horrible, and criminal behavior that routinely takes place in white communities all across these United States.

Those in denial about the war by American’s cops on people of color will say they are “shocked” by what is quite common. White denial — perhaps most so when embraced by people of color — is one of the bedrocks and cornerstones of white supremacy.

As I would tweak, modify and update this with specific, horrific details to fit a given circumstance, I would be reminded that I was ultimately making both a plea and a demand to the white reader. Black people — especially black men — are not monsters — yet somehow the white gaze all too often and immediately defaults to such a conclusion.

I know this phenomenon, which philosophers such as Judith Butler, George Yancy and others have described as white racist paranoia, is neither my fault or responsibility. It is an existential and psychological problem that white folks must heal for themselves. But I also know that as a matter of practical survival in America and elsewhere people of color must be hyperaware of white folks’ anxieties and fears. To not do so is a grave risk — and often a matter of life and death.

Police violence against African-Americans is also a reminder that black people are an asterisk on American history that upsets and challenges almost every popular myth and narrative about the United States.

The freedom symbolized by automobiles and the road are central to American culture. As such, African-Americans used cars to escape the racial terrorism of Jim and Jane Crow and the formal apartheid of the American South. But for decades (and perhaps even now in the present) black Americans still needed to use resources such as “The Negro Motorist Green Book” in order to try to travel in safety and with dignity.

Black America’s collective memory contains many stories of happy journeys by car that are disrupted and derailed by white bigotry and racism. In 2015  this was the narrative of Sandra Bland, a young black woman who, while traveling to her dream job from Chicago, was pulled over by an overzealous white police officer on a pretext stop and then somehow ended up dead in a prison cell in a small Texas town many hundreds of miles away from her family. This is a black American nightmare made real. The $1.9 million in blood money paid to Bland’s family by Waller County in Texas will not reanimate Sandra Bland. Her death is permanent.

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