A brief encounter involving two people and a dog in New York City’s Central Park has turned into an explosive, headline-making sociopolitical drama. A white woman was caught on video calling the police on a black man to accuse him of threatening her after he admonished her for not leashing her dog — mentioning more than once that he was an “African-American man.” The brief video clip quickly became emblematic of America’s enduring problem of racism. The woman, identified as Amy Cooper, was castigated as a vile bigot on social media and fired from her job.
We know that sometimes viral videos that purportedly expose racism can be misleading. Remember when white teens from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky were pilloried for harassing a Native American activist in Washington, D.C., until longer video footage showed that the boys were the ones being harassed? But in this incident, the woman’s repeated references to the man’s race seem to make it an open-and-shut case.
And yet it turns out that even this story is more complicated. An account of what happened just before the video was posted on Facebook by the man, Christian Cooper — yes, they share a last name — has led many to suggest he was at least partly at fault. After Amy Cooper refused to leash her dog, Christian Cooper told her, “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.” He then held out a dog treat in the hope that the dog would run to him and the owner would leash it.
A number of people have pointed out that a woman alone with a man in an isolated area was likely to perceive the remark as threatening. Still, by the time Amy Cooper made her fateful 911 call, she knew the “threat” was a dog treat, and her reaction was in part to Christian Cooper filming her with his phone — an act that doesn’t suggest imminent assault.
And yet if Christian Cooper had been a white man and had ended up on video, it’s possible he would have been publicly shamed as a male bully. He might even have been accused of weaponizing a woman’s fear of sexual violence to browbeat her — the way Amy Cooper has been accused of weaponizing black men’s fear of police violence to intimidate her adversary.
Meanwhile, many outraged people have suggested that Amy Cooper’s actions amounted to trying to get Christian Cooper killed. With frequent news stories about police killings of African-American men — most recently in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where a black man died in custody after being pinned and apparently choked by an officer’s knee — that reaction is understandable. And yet, as Pakistani-American progressive commentator Zaid Jilani points out in a column in the online magazine Arc Digital, it represents “catastrophic thinking”: focusing on terrible but incredibly rare outcomes of common situations. Jilani notes that in 2019, one unarmed African-American man was killed by police in New York.
Ironically, similar catastrophic thinking about violence against women is common among feminists: every obnoxious comment by a man to a woman, we are told, could be a prelude to rape or murder. When such gender-based paranoia intersects with racial tensions, it’s a recipe for disaster.
So far, the best thing to come out of this mess is Christian Cooper’s admonition in a TV interview that Amy Cooper should not be harassed, destroyed, or judged as irredeemable for one bad act. Such respect for our common humanity beyond the divisions of race and gender is the way forward.
Cathy Young, an associate editor at Arc Digital, is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.