America has a long history of white women’s accusations costing innocent black men their lives.
The story of Emmett Till is etched in our national consciousness because in 1955 the 14-year-old was kidnapped, tortured and shot in the head, his body tied with barbed war to a cotton gin fan and thrown in the Tallahatchie River because a white woman said he’d whistled at her. He was not the only black boy to suffer such a fate, but his name endures because his mother insisted that his coffin be open, with his mutilated corpse displayed, at his funeral. The white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, now admits that she’d lied yet has suffered no consequences for her actions.
Fast forward to Central Park, New York City in 2020 and Amy Cooper, the white woman who called the police to threaten a black man out bird-watching who asked her to leash her dog, as park rules require. The worst part is, she knew what she was doing because America has taught her how to do it.
Just last week, a white woman was charged with first-degree murder for killing her 9-year-old son after police found video of her pushing him into a canal; she’d told them that two black men had stopped her car, demanded drugs at knifepoint and then stolen her child when she said she didn’t have any.
This is 2020 America, where Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while jogging on a Sunday morning by white vigilantes who say he posed a threat to the neighborhood, and George Floyd died this Monday with a Minneapolis policeman’s knee on his neck, crying out “I cannot breathe.” Sound familiar?
But in 2020 America, four police officers were fired on Tuesday, and Cooper’s 911 call has had severe consequences for her. She was fired from her job, and her dog was removed from her care. Her reputation is in tatters and she has no one to blame but herself.
Last year, the oft-vandalized memorial to Emmett Till in Mississippi was replaced by a bulletproof 500-pound marker. America remains a nation sick from fear of black skin, and sick with the entitlement that goes with having white skin. We refuse to have an honest talk about the role that race plays in everything we do in America, how it impacts wealth creation, opportunity, and advancement—and, with the coronavirus, the odds of life or death. We simply continue to cover up and deny what is right in front of us.
The deniers have found an ally in the nation’s 45th President, who says many racists are “very fine people.” He tells women of color in Congress to go back to where they come from, even including those who come from America. He baselessly accuses his predecessor, our first black president, of being some sort of criminal, and suggests that he was not born in America. He emboldens racists and incites others to question and demean patriotic, loyal American citizens.
She may not have learned it from Trump, but somewhere along the way Amy Cooper learned that if you want to get a black person out of her way, call the police and accuse him of something. She understood that if you are black or brown, you live by a different set of rules, with the threat that one wrong word can be career limiting or life ending. It turns out, that applies to her too.
The way to finally change this dynamic and begin to redeem our history and our humanity is to call a thing by its name, and speak up against racism. Colin Kaepernick was blackballed by the NFL — partly at Trump’s behest — for protesting like a gentleman about the deaths of black men like George Floyd at the hands of white policemen. This would never have happened to a white man. If we cannot learn to talk about this for real, in truth and in honesty this country is not going to make it. We cannot endure as divided as we are.
To my white fellow citizens, I say: You can no longer look away, make excuses or pretend this doesn’t matter. Because I have news for you: it does matter. It matters a lot. And the only way we are going to heal this nation of what ails us is to tell the truth about our past so we can get to a better future. Together.