Breonna Taylor and Justice  10-1-20

Understanding by putting ourselves into the narrative

After the Breonna Taylor ruling in which a grand jury ruled against charging the police officers who shot her with murder or manslaughter, a white friend of mine expressed genuine confusion over why some folks saw this as a horrible miscarriage of justice. 

At the outset I want to be clear that this man is working on dismantling his internalized racism. In light of that fact, I want to respect his question and give it a considered response; you can’t learn anything if no one is willing to teach you, especially when it comes to us white folks understanding racism. 

He stated that he totally understood that there are great inequities in the legal system and that there needs to be reform when it comes to things like no-knock warrants. He just didn’t understand how a decision that seemed to be based on the rule of law could be unjust. 

Here is his question… 

I do wonder why people think that exonerating two of the officers was a miscarriage of justice. The officers were being shot at. Should they not return fire? 

There are a couple of important points to be understood here. The first is that while people want to think that the law equals justice, often that is not the case: making something lawful doesn’t necessarily make it just. For example, slavery was legal, but it wasn’t just. The 1876 Supreme Court “separate but equal” decision was lawful, but it wasn’t just. In fact, looking back on this country’s racial history, we see that from the beginning there were many laws that actually created and perpetuated huge injustices. Therefore, while it may have been technically lawful for the officers to shoot, doing so under the circumstances in which they did was not just.

The second important point is that when the rule of law generally works in your favor, you don’t have to question whether or not it is just. For white folks, we are often given the benefit of the doubt when we interact with law enforcement and the legal system. As a white woman, if I am pulled over for a traffic violation, the officer who interacts with me may give me a ticket but is very unlikely to question my right to be where I am, search my car, arrest me, or harm me in any way unless I do something “suspicious.” The result is that I can assume that law enforcement and the legal system will deal with me fairly. But what if my presence and skin color alone are seen as suspicious? 

For my white friend who has never had to negotiate a legal system that treats people like him unjustly, it seemed that the officers were justified in shooting Breonna Taylor because they had been fired upon first. That was his perspective - his white perspective. But therein lies the problem. 

When it comes down to it, much of it is about personal perspective. As white people, we have an expectation that the legal system will treat us fairly and generally our experience bears that out. However, that is untrue of many (perhaps even most) people of color for whom there is not only a history of mistreatment by the legal system, but personal experience as well. 

Let me give an illustration of this… Recently, I saw this question posed on Facebook, “When you are pulled over by the police, what is the first thing they say to you?” For me the answer is “Do you know why I pulled you over?” and, “Can I see your license and registration?” That response was true for most of the white people who responded - particularly the white women. However, the responses from people of color were more often, “Where are you going / where are you coming from?” “Is this your car?” and even, “Do you have a criminal record?” These questions clearly do not give the driver the benefit of the doubt and indicate a raised the level of suspicion. 

These responses reminded me of when I was pulled over several years ago and my oldest son, who is black and was about 15 at the time, was in the car with me. The officer asked us where we were coming from and where we were going. It struck me because that is the only time I’ve been asked those questions. To be honest I was taken aback and offended – because I am used to being treated fairly by law enforcement and without suspicion. The only thing that was different when I was pulled over that time, was my black son’s presence, which was enough to raise suspicion. 

Going back to my friend’s question and understanding why people felt that the Breonna Taylor decision was a miscarriage of justice, we need to engage in an exercise of empathy.

For white folks to better understand, we need to lean into the problem by placing ourselves in the narrative. Keeping in mind that that law enforcement isn’t as objective as we would like to think, take time to consider… What if that had been me? What if I had dated someone in college who turned out to be dealing drugs out of their dorm room? (I use this illustration because those of us who went to college know that a lot of drugs pass through dorm rooms - a fact which no one seems to question or be willing to criminalize.) What if I were in bed late at night and someone broke down my front door and came into my home? If I had a gun (in California we have an aversion to guns, but Kentucky is different), would I shoot? If I shot in what I believed to be self-defense, should the person who came in be allowed to kill me even if that person turned out to be law enforcement?

Hopefully, this exercise can help us see how even if the actions of the officers were technically within the scope of the law, the result of their actions was unjust. By putting ourselves into the narrative  we can begin to see how those two things can diverge. 

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