I woke up on May 26th to a story that is told in the national headlines every week, but whose latest installment took place in a location very familiar to me: The Ramble, 38 acres of fairy-tale forest in the middle of Central Park.
It was the latest installment of #LivingWhileBlack, the series of incidents in which White people call the police to report African Americans for such offenses as barbequeing or sitting in Starbucks.
Christian Cooper, a birdwatcher, had requested that Amy Cooper put her dog on a leash as per the requirements stated on numerous signs throughout the Ramble. Ms. Cooper has told CNN that she knew about these rules and she knew that having her dog off-leash was prohibited.
Dragging her dog by the throat, the video shows her stepping toward Mr. Cooper, who had begun recording her actions.
Ms. Cooper thereafter announces her intention to make a report to the police. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she informs him curtly.
As the dog, now hanging partially suspended above the ground by his neck, struggles to breathe, Ms. Cooper calls 911. “There’s a man, African American… he’s threatening me and my dog,” she says into the phone. As Mr. Cooper stands by (“Please tell them anything you like,” was his comment), Ms. Cooper escalates her tone. “Please send the cops immediately!” she cries out.
This incident displays its guts in so many ways. It bursts with plot elements that are identifiable as racist and derivative of Whiteness as an unspoken cultural context. Here are a few.
Living while Black. Some version of this confrontation might have taken place if the central characters were of other races. However, Ms. Cooper leaves no doubt as to the salience of the racial dynamics in this instance when she issues her introductory threat to Mr. Cooper: her plan is to report to the police that an African American man is threatening her life. I have already heard the White defenders of Ms. Cooper suggest that she only told the police that Mr. Cooper was African American as a straightforward and innocent attempt to describe him to the police. Even if we were to accept this, it does not account for the fact that she said this to Mr. Cooper. She didn’t just say “I’m calling the police!” and she didn’t say “I’m going to tell them that you’re threatening my life!” or “I’m going to tell them that a man with glasses is threatening my life!” She threatened him via a particular aspect of the interaction that carries a particular significance.
White women’s tears. Not only did Ms. Cooper make good on her stated intention to weaponize the racial dynamics of the incident, her behavior also smells like the gender-linked narratives that have been interwoven with racist actions for centuries. Although Ms. Cooper had certainly sounded indignant and angry before her 911 call, it is conspicuous that, once on the phone with her rescuers, her tone took a sudden shift toward a teary presentation: “I don’t know, I don’t know,” she begins to say raggedly as Mr. Cooper stands some distance away, calmly filming her. A sob now enters her voice: “Please send the cops immediately!” These tearful, damsel-in-distress behaviors on the part of a White woman seeking to sic the police on a Black man are reminiscent of the ways that White womanhood was historically weaponized against Black men to justify lynchings. These are the same tears that make White women largely unworthy of trust by Black women.
I’m calling the police because they will help me. I can call the police with the expectation that they will take my side against yours. This is one of the unspoken subtexts underlying Ms. Cooper’s behavior that are also part of the incident’s race-related fabric. My point here is not about people’s right to expect assistance from the police. The point is that African Americans do not live in a world that has taught them to expect, without even needing to think about it, that the police will take their side in circumstances such as this because they live in a society shaped by Whiteness. I, on the other hand, like Ms. Cooper, expect (without even needing to think about it) that the police will assist me because I live in a society shaped by Whiteness.
I’m calling the police because they will help me even though I violated the rules. Ms. Cooper chose to walk her dog off-leash despite knowing that it was prohibited. Ms. Cooper knew about the rules yet did not feel compelled to align her behavior with them. She may have thought (if she thought about it at all) something like, “Oh, but it’s just this once!” “Oh, but I have a good reason and here it is….” “Okay, well, next time I won’t do it (smile).” Something in her bones told her that it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing for her to bend the rules, and we have no reason to believe that she was ever worried about having to pay a price for this infraction. My point here is not about whether or not it was so bad, or whether or not it was conscious on Ms. Cooper’s part. The point is that African Americans do not live in a society that has taught them that they can expect grace in circumstances such as this, because they live in a society shaped by Whiteness. I, on the other hand, would not expect to be hauled off to jail for having my dog off-leash, because I live in a society shaped by Whiteness.
The fact that my bones reassure me like this in a world that does not mete out equal consequences to all makes me dangerous to Black Americans. In a world where Black men are at risk of death when they are apprehended for minor or nonexistent infractions, my unexamined, unfettered impulse to summon police to the scene makes me dangerous.
White observers quickly began deflecting attention from the racism-related elements of this incident in predictable ways, as a visit to Mr. Cooper’s Facebook page will demonstrate. Many of these deflections depend upon White people’s determined embrace of the premise that racism exists exclusively via the overtly discriminatory actions of White nationalists, neo-Nazis, and/or other unsavories. “I’m not a racist,” said Amy Cooper to CNN. This incident, along with countless others, illustrates that the kind of racism that is represented within unspoken, unquestioned White representations of reality are potentiating harmful, deadly consequences even where there’s not a single neo-Nazi to be found.