We all know the feelings of the scenario—you’re driving through the city with one headlight out. A police car coming the other way does a u-turn and comes up behind to hover for a moment before lighting up. You pull over and wait while two officers approach your car.
Now imagine that you’re black.
For some of my readers, this latter addition will not require any imagination. Indeed, the interest of rights are served best when people of all groups take an interest in their protection and exercise. But as a white man whose ancestors come in the centuries gone by from the high latitudes of Europe, I have to recognize that the history of this country includes the deep stain of violation of the most basic rights of some of us. As a result, the scene that I drew is an occasion of heightened concern and even fear for many.
Before we dismiss those reactions as irrational or exaggerated, remember the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina or the choking of Eric Garner in New York. Sitting here in the safety of my office, it’s easy for me to recall that in a nation of some 320 million inhabitants, the number of incidents in which a law enforcement officer has killed a member of the public currently numbers 1,000, as compiled by Killedbypolice.net. This is in line with earlier numbers given by The Washington Post in May of this year. But I can understand how the news stories of white officers shooting unarmed black men come to mind more readily when out on the street at night.
One unfortunate fact about the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality of so much of our professional media today is that moments when things go right rarely get headlines. This sends us to social media, an outlet for personal journalism. One example was a posting to the Facebook page of Steven Hildreth about his experience in exactly the kind of incident I described at the opening of this article. Hildreth, who is black and who has a carry license and who serves in the National Guard, was stopped by the police in Tucson, AZ for a broken headlight. He and the two officers had a polite exchange that included Hildreth allowing one officer to take temporary custody of his carry gun and ended with Hildreth receiving a verbal warning about the headlight and being sent on his way.
The possession of a carry license by Hildreth might have had something to do with this. Massad Ayoob has pointed out in his writing that police officers realize that a license holder has gone through background checks and has an interest in keeping the license. This suggests to officers that the encounter will not end in violence.
It’s unfortunate that many have the impression, as valid as it can be, that law enforcement and ordinary citizens are on opposite sides, especially when the ordinary citizen is a member of some minority group. I emphasized the individual details of Hildreth—black, carry license holder, National Guard service—for a reason. We live in a nation in which that first characteristic, race, is too often regarded as definitive of the whole person. Law enforcement officers face a similar attitude in that they are regarded too often as being only their profession and not whole, complex human beings as we all are.
And this gets to the heart of the problem. We like to think in shorthand. We label visible characteristics and fill those categories in our heads with long lists of expectations, many of which are hasty generalizations and assumptions on little evidence.
Given our nation’s history, it’s hard for me to preach with sufficient credibility to everyone, so I’ll speak to myself in this advice, while leaving it available to anyone else who may benefit from it: Each person deserves to be treated as an individual, not as a member of some number of groups.
I speak to and for myself here, but I also believe that the more of us who can apply this principle daily, the better things will be.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.