In 1993, when I was working at a California state agency on a controversial project, every team meeting featured two agency managers suggesting, often, that we should be “getting off the merry-go-round.” It took me awhile to realize the purpose of the merry-go-round metaphor was to sabotage an open discussion of a proposed analytical approach. Whether or not others figured it out, the metaphor had its intended effect. The deciders decided we should be “moving forward.”
Language is powerful and most people naturally deploy short cuts to describe complicated ideas. We process so much information that we often rely on these short cuts to give our brains a break. There are a lot of language short-cuts out there right now and most of them deserve a little scrutiny…
I understand why so many people are angry. I am angry. Over the years, I have had numerous explicitly racist encounters with police from the Bay Area cities of Oakland, Berkeley and Piedmont. I know my black son has had many more, and his are dangerous. I have worried about him every day of his life since he was old enough to walk down the street by himself. It’s all so painful and personal, it’s hard to even think about it.
And yet, I believe police officers should not be the main target of our anger. That’s because they are not the main cause of America’s police brutality problem. If we were to hold every police officer accountable for every act of racism and unjustified violence — and we should — we would still have racist policing and police brutality. That’s because the problem is not “bad apples.” Circumstances and government policy have converged to create a policing culture that promotes racism and violence.
This period of protest and national dialogue should make me feel hopeful but, so far, it makes me more despairing. It reminds me of the racism my son, Gabe, has endured over the years in our “liberal” Bay Area community. It reminds me of the anger I feel for the times I have tried to talk about racial issues and gotten the message that I should move on. It reminds me of the shame I feel for the times I could have done something and didn’t.
Like most parents of active boys, I got a few phone calls from school over the years. Remembering them, I usually laugh. He stole a potato chip from Emily! But one of them still turns my stomach. When I was at work one day, the principal of Gabe’s school called to say Gabe had been “acting up” all week whenever his teacher read aloud to the class. This wasn’t Gabe’s usual venue for mischief so after a few minutes on the phone I asked what book the teacher was reading.