In other cases, the advice to avoid raising one's voice to, arguing with, or otherwise aggravating officers of the law is explicitly positioned as "survival advice" for Black men. In a recent piece on NPR, King Anyi Howell describes the techniques he has developed for dealing with the undue Police attention he finds he attracts simply by "Living While Black." He writes:
And I've been profiled so often that I've almost developed an art form for asserting my rights, while not offending the officer. I read recently that black men, when pulled over, have to be some odd combination of Samuel L. Jackson and Sydney Poitier, the former being known for his aggression and the latter for his eloquence. It may sound appalling to some, but that's exactly the tightrope I've learned to walk in dealing with the blue line of racial profiling. There's an unspoken understanding between the offending cop and me when I get pulled over. We both know it's not necessarily because a taillight is out, or my music is playing too loudly. And we both know it will likely end up in some sort of search. I don't act indignant because I'm the Jedi master, employing mind control to get us both out of the situation as quickly as possible.
I'm disturbed by two things here, the first is the notion that some or all citizens should show automatic and unquestioning deference to officers of the law, men and women who, if I understand the constitution correctly, are ultimately answerable to the sovereign people of the United States of America, bound to "Protect and Serve" not to command arbitrary respect based on arbitrary authority. The second is that no one seems to want to mention that when people of color are advised that they must always be careful not to act in a manner that might be seen as aggressive or threatening in the presence of a Police officer, this advice, however well meaning and well informed by the situation at hand it may be, implicitly conditions people to think of themselves as second-class citizens, hemmed in by arbitrary power beyond their control. I'm reminded of a passage from Richard Wright's "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," in which he describes his Mother's actions after she found him injured in a fight with white boys in the neighborhood.
She grabbed a barrel stave, dragged me home, stripped me naked, and beat me till I had a fever of one hundred and two. She would smack my rump with the stave, and, while the skin was still smarting, impart to me gems of Jim Crow wisdom. I was never to throw cinders anymore. I was never to fight any more wars. I was never, never, under any conditions, to fight white folks again. And they were absolutely right in clouting me with a broken milk bottle. Didn't I know she was working every day hard in the hot kitchens of white folks to take care of me? When was I ever going to learn to be a good boy? She couldn't be bothered with my fights. She finished by telling me that I ought to be thankful to God as long as I lived that they didn't kill me.
It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Wright's mother here, after all, she just wants to keep her boy safe. But can a system that makes keeping your loved ones safe mean teaching them to be subservient ever be just? In the end, the responsibility for changing that system rests with us, the sovereign people of the United States. Why do I fear with have become too fond of the shallow stability provided by our near-police-state to take up that responsibility and see justice served.