I’m always surprised by the number of people that don’t realize how much of America’s origin story is a set of mythological tales.
It may surprise you to learn just how many people believe the Founding Fathers sincerely believed all men were created equal (they did not), or that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree (he didn’t), or that Abe Lincoln was a benevolent emancipator (he was not) rather than a believer in white male supremacy less concerned with freeing enslaved Africans than maintaining the nascent Union.
When I worked on Wall Street, I told a white colleague that I attended a segregated elementary school growing up in the Deep South. I could almost hear the gears in their brain grind to a halt in disbelief.
The silence on the other side of the conversation told me he doubted my story. It was as if in his mythological idea of America, the brutal segregation of Jim Crow and a Black man of my age could not coexist.
The foundation of our country’s mythos — its origin story — is the ideology of American exceptionalism, the belief that America is unique as a nation, inherently superior to all others. Subscribers to this mythology believe our government can do virtually no wrong, and on the rare occasions that America stumbles, there is always a justification.
The mythology of exceptionalism feeds the perception, especially among white Americans, that Jim Crow happened in America’s distant past and that, by extension, the country — especially its non-white citizens, should leave the past behind. But when our leaders cannot reconcile themselves with America’s real history, it is impossible to turn the proverbial page.
One prominent purveyor of American exceptionalism-driven denial is a senator from my home state, appropriately named Tom Cotton, who posited just this year that slavery was a “necessary evil.”
Logically, America’s mythology of exceptionalism, its inherent goodness, should also extend to its institutions. Accordingly, it requires that our courts be innately fair; our police departments should protect and serve the citizenry as a matter of course.
But the persistent failure of our national ideology results in a dichotomy in which white America’s perception of our nation and its institutions diverges from Black America’s reality.
My first recognition of law enforcement’s ability to extrajudicially end a Black life happened in high school. Pete, a Black kid in my history class, didn’t show up one day. After a few days, our teacher told us Pete would never return.
I would never see Pete again because the police killed him. As he ran away from them one night, a policeman shot Pete in the back — with a sawed-off shotgun — for stealing coins from a soft drink machine.
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Most Black men I know have experienced at least one encounter with the police. My two oldest sons, my brothers, and I often share stories of the times we’ve been stopped, harassed, and even arrested by the police.
“You’re not the kind of black person that gets stopped by the police.” I can’t tell you how many times a white person has said this or some version of it. According to America’s mythology, it should be true — but it is not. I have never committed a crime, never been arrested, and yet many times, all that saved me from the police was the business suit I wore.
But once, long ago, even the tuxedo I wore was not enough.
In high school, I escorted my girlfriend to the Debutante Cotillion — an annual event held during the Christmas season, featuring the daughters of prominent Black professionals in my small town as they came out to society. The event was a big deal in Pine Bluff, Arkansas’ Black community.
In the mid-1970s, I was a nerdy 10th-grader, but through some miracle, I managed to date an 11th-grader. The event was my first occasion to wear a tuxedo; I even sprung for the ugly (and uncomfortable) patent leather shoes that no one in their right mind wears. My girlfriend, sporting an enormous afro, wore a full-length gown purchased especially for the event.
One thing stands out in my memory of that evening: It was my first encounter with the police. At some point that night, my date and I left the event, driving to a nearby parking lot to do what most high school kids do in that situation. A few minutes later, a flashlight shone through the driver-side window.
It was a policeman.
I showed the officer my license and registration, hoping to escape with a warning. But instead of writing a ticket, the officer told my date and me to step out of our car and into the back of his vehicle.
He eased out of the parking lot and down the dark road toward a few warehouses nearby. The officer said nothing as he drove further into what appeared to be an unfinished industrial park.
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Just ahead, five or six police cars sat in a darkened parking lot, headlights off, their blue lights flashing. Without a word, the policeman exited the vehicle. My date and I sat in the back of the car, holding hands in fear, wondering what would happen next.
As we prepared for the worst, the policeman opened our car door and told us we were free to go. Rather than drive us back or provide any explanation, he told us to walk the quarter-mile back to our car.
As the two of us walked in the dark — me in my tuxedo and patent leather shoes, and my girlfriend, her gown dragging through the muddy street — the group of police cars crept along behind us, headlights still off. In the end, she and I survived that evening, albeit shaken.
It was not my last encounter with the police. The police have pulled me over to determine whether or not the Mercedes-Benz I drove was stolen. On other occasions, the police suspected I was lost because I drove my vehicle in a wealthy neighborhood.
But it is that night, in particular, that still returns to me — like an old, recurring wound — in the years since. Why did the officer treat us that way? Would things have gone the same had my girlfriend and I been white?
Then I remember that our exceptional nation’s mythological story never contemplated a role for Americans who look like me. I suppose the Tom Cottons of the world would tell me that, too, is a necessary evil.
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