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America’s deep roots of deference

The attic toward the back where the slaves

The attic toward the back where the slaves lived at Sylvester Manor in Shelter Island, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. Credit: Randee Daddona

Blaming black people for their repression is one of our nation’s most venerable traditions. And in the justifications we still use to explain why blacks are at fault for their own abuse, the slaver roots are clear.

Slaveholders used a twisted theology to explain why rebellious slaves should be beaten or killed, backed by Bible verses like, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5), or, “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect” (Titus 2:9).

And that led to a philosophy among many whites and slaves of taught docility. Slave owners truly were harder on unruly blacks, so slave parents, understandably, taught children to obey whites with no sass. How blacks could avoid trouble became a common thread between both races: Be good, be quiet, don’t bring that lash or gun upon yourself.

That construct did not disappear with slavery. The idea that some blacks were “uppity” and deserving of poor treatment, and some were amiable and deserving of better, continues among some whites. And so does the idea for many black people that they can be safeguarded via respectful behavior, particularly toward cops.

“Why do you want to stir up trouble?” millions of black men and women have been asked, both by blacks who feared retribution and whites who might deliver that retribution.

“The talk” has existed in this country for 400 years. It has merely morphed from teaching black kids not to give owners a reason to kill or beat them to teaching black kids not to give the cops a reason to do so.

To make an analogy between police and slave owners would be utterly unfair. Cops generally don’t want to hurt anyone, regardless of color. When they do, they are usually acting out of fear in a moment of conflict.

The analogy is between blaming mistreatment of slaves on their own behavior and blaming the mistreatment of some young black men today on their own supposed criminal tendencies and life circumstances. And this is where facts are helpful in understanding why this is about race, and why black lives do, in fact, matter.

It seems like common sense to say that not being a criminal is the way to avoid trouble with police, and it is for white people. But studies show minorities are pulled over or questioned much more frequently for minor infractions or because they act suspiciously. Cops may let one busted taillight go and stop the next, or search one driver and not another, and not even know why. They may think it’s instinct. And they may not realize they are instinctively more suspicious of minorities than whites.

When a police officer hurts or kills an unarmed civilian, it is usually because the cop is terrified. Are police officers more afraid of black people than white people? Yeah, many are, whether they realize it or not.

Studies show job and rental-home applications of people with black-sounding names are less likely to be accepted. Black kids often attend horrible schools. Black people face more scrutiny from police, and more violence, too, as well as harsher criminal penalties than whites for the same crimes.

Society makes it harder for black people to get the good job we say would solve their problems. We make it harder for black people to rent or buy in the safe area we say would solve their problems. We make it harder for black people to get the education we say would solve their problems. We decry the absence of black fathers we’ve jailed unfairly. And we make it harder for black people to avoid confrontations with cops and to hold their tempers when these confrontations mount.

And then we blame them for the result. As is our tradition.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.


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