Essay: My Privilege, Our Problem
An award-winning author watches from afar as his hometown unravels, and can’t help but remember the times growing up on Charlotte’s west side when his skin color helped keep him safe
RIGHT THIS SECOND, I’m sitting within reach of six firearms. In a few minutes, when I get up to go to the grocery store, there will be a loaded 9mm pistol openly carried on the seat beside me. If I’m pulled over by law enforcement for running a stop sign or a busted taillight or speeding, I believe that the officer will see the weapon, will discuss how to proceed in a manner that he or she feels safe, will tell me why I’ve been pulled over, and, following that conversation, I’ll drive down the road.
If you want to know why I’m not scared it’s because I’m white. It’s because I’ve witnessed these scenarios time and time again and always come out unscathed. One time when I was 18 years old walking down the side of Wilkinson Boulevard, I was put on the ground at gunpoint by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police with a K-9 unit’s hot, dog breath snarling against my face, and there’s not a bullet hole in my body to show for it. Another time, I was in a car filled with enough marijuana smoke to barbecue a pig with two of my black friends, and when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police came to the window, both of my friends were put in handcuffs while I was left to stand by the front bumper of my truck. That is white privilege, and it sickens me to know that about myself, to know that I’m inherently safer when approached by law enforcement because the color of my skin.
If it bleeds it leads has long been the unspoken rule of the American media, and in the past few years, as that commandment has become more disturbingly and debilitatingly clear, I’ve found it easier to just look away. It’s easier to do that than to face what’s become of this nation.
But as violence erupted in the streets of my hometown of Charlotte this week, I couldn’t avert my eyes. This wasn’t some place where I’d never been. I knew the streets where the tear gas fell, just as I knew the officers who stood there in riot gear and gas masks, and just as I knew the angered community members who destroyed police cruisers and set fires on Interstate 85 because they didn’t know anywhere else to punch. I watched anxiously from my house in the mountains with tears in my eyes, and though I am not a religious man, I prayed for the safety of everyone there because I knew them.
I grew up where Freedom Drive dumps into “Tank Town” in the heart of Charlotte’s west side. White as cigarette paper, I was a minority at every school I attended, from elementary school at Tuckaseegee, where classmates sold weed; to middle school in Camp Greene at Spaugh, where I was robbed at gunpoint; to Harding University High School, where I once witnessed a rich white kid who’d been bussed across the city into Westerly Hills come outside on his lunch break to find the car his parents had bought him resting on cinderblocks, his 20-inch rims long gone and sold. I tell you all of this to say that I grew up knowing and experiencing not only a racial divide, but a line drawn by class across that city. There were the haves and the have-nots, us falling to the latter, so I always knew the criminality around me was a result of poverty not race. It came from having nothing. And still, I understood I was lucky to be born the color I was. Maybe we were all poor, but I had an advantage: a skin tone camouflaged from police profile. My mother, who also went to Harding, remembers cars being flipped and set on fire in the school parking lot during the late 1960s, and I came to realize that what some privileged people couldn’t understand was a group so broken down and angered by silence and injustice and oppression that all they could do was punch holes in the walls of their own neighborhood and hope to God someone listened.
Now this is a story that did not start and will not end with Keith Lamont Scott. What I know for sure is that he was 43 years old and a father of seven. What I’ve heard from one side is that he was sitting quietly in his car reading a book while he waited on one of his kids to get off the school bus, and that an undercover officer shot him to death for no reason. What I’ve heard from the other side is that when officers approached Keith, he jumped from the vehicle with gun in hand and was justifiably killed as officer Brentley Vinson protected his own life.
In the coming months, we’ll likely find that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And by then, I doubt it will make much of a difference, because all we, as a country, seem to care about is what side you’re on. Either you’re with us, or against us.
This past spring, President Obama made a speech in which he declared that, “When (we) become entirely untethered to reason and facts and analysis … when it doesn’t matter what’s true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make good decisions on behalf of future generations. It threatens the values of respect and tolerance that we teach our children and which are the source of America’s strength.”
He’s right in his concern. Months from now, when the truth of what happened to Scott comes to light, most people who remember the story will only remember what we’re hearing now. Either he was reading a book and shot needlessly, or he had a gun and was justifiably killed by police.
What bothers me is this: Whether he was reading a book or sitting in his car with a gun, whether the officer who shot him was white or black, Keith Lamont Scott should be alive and breathing and those seven children left behind should still have their father.
My family has been in North Carolina for centuries, settled around what became the city of Charlotte since the late 1600s. In this open-carry state, an 18-year-old can purchase an assault rifle and openly carry that weapon down Tyvola Road if he wants. And so long as he doesn’t pose a threat, he is within his legal rights to do so. In this open-carry state, a 21-year-old can walk into Hyatt Gun Shop to buy a handgun and openly carry that handgun right out the door, again, so long as it’s not in a threatening manner. This conversation is centered on the idea of “posing a threat,” and sadly, this is the difference. We need to recognize that in America in 2016—and yes, in Charlotte Tuesday afternoon—if you’re black then that in and of itself apparently warrants a threat. Case after case after case, the circumstances leading up to the shooting differ, but the result remains the same: African-American suspect shot dead. With a gun, without a gun, hands raised, hands down, fully compliant or running, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Holding a book, Scott shouldn’t have been killed. Holding an un-aimed gun in an open carry state, Scott shouldn’t have been killed. And even if he aimed the gun at police, even if we find out that Officer Vinson had no choice but to kill Scott, the outrage this city has seen from Scott’s death is a direct result from a lack of dialogue about the probability of the other two scenarios. Regardless, the polarizing nature of the argument fails to advance the conversation we need to be having as a country. What we need to talk about is why one group of citizens is broadly accepted to be less dangerous than another, why I, as a white man, can ride down the highway with a gun on my side and not worry that if I’m pulled over I’ll be killed, but know that if I was black that same scenario would end drastically different.
When I was a senior in high school I picked up a friend almost every morning from a dope house where cops sat in their patrol cars and watched his front door. My friend was constantly scared they’d put him in handcuffs and take him away. With a pocket full of pills and a blunt in the ashtray, I didn’t have a fear in this world. Two suspects, one white and one black, I don’t think those cops would’ve chased me if I ran. All these years later, older and no longer wild, I look back and wonder why. The minute we start having that discussion, what happened to Keith Lamont Scott and the dozens of others will start to make sense.
But until then, this is just one more body stretched between us.
David Joy is the author of the Edgar-nominated novel Where All Light Tends To Go, as well as the novel The Weight Of This World, forthcoming from Putnam Books in early 2017. He lives in Webster, North Carolina.