It had nothing to do with race.
So said Sheriff Leon Lott, last week, in discussing a violent arrest by one of his officers, a white deputy named Ben Fields, of a black female student at Spring Valley High in Richland County, South Carolina. Fields, a school resource officer, was called in when the girl reportedly ignored a teacher’s instruction to stop using her cellphone and leave the classroom. He ended up overturning her desk and slinging her across the floor like a sandbag or a sack of dog food.
His actions, caught on cellphone video, have detonated social media, many observers expressing visceral fury over this treatment of a black child. But Lott, who later fired his deputy, said he doesn’t think Fields acted from racial prejudice because he has an African-American girlfriend.
It is a statement of earnest, staggering obtuseness that sheds no light on the officer’s overreaction, but reveals with stark clarity the simplistic way many of us perceive the all-American conundrum of race. Granted, it is not inconceivable that a white girl could have been subjected to the same brutality in a similar situation. But it is a matter of statistical fact that it’s more likely to happen to a child of color.
Multiple studies have shown that those kids are subjected to harsher discipline in school than their white classmates. Indeed, numbers released last year by the federal government show that this begins in preschool where the “students” are little more than toddlers, yet black kids, who account for 18 percent of the population, get 42 percent of the suspensions.
Nothing to do with race?
The people who habitually say that operate under the misapprehension that racial bias requires intent or awareness and that it leaves obvious evidence of itself: a tendency toward racist comments, let’s say, or membership in the Ku Klux Klan. In that worldview, racial bias is incompatible with having a black girlfriend.
But that worldview is naive. Bias is frequently subterranean, something you carry without meaning to or knowing you do. In a country that has used every outlet of media, religion, education, politics, law and science for over two centuries to drive home that black is threatening, black is inferior, black is bad, it is entirely possible Fields could have acted from unconscious racial bias and yet had a black girlfriend. For that matter, he could have acted from unconscious racial bias and had a black face; African-American people are no more immune to the drumbeat of negativity surrounding them than is anyone else.
So “nothing to do with race” is a reflexive copout many of us embrace against all reason because to do otherwise is to face a mirror whose reflection does not flatter. Which is why the usual suspects — Steve Doocy, Mark Fuhrman, Glenn Beck and etcetera — have attempted to fix the blame for what happened here on the girl.
Let’s be very clear in response. It doesn’t matter if she was disruptive. It doesn’t matter if she was disobedient. It doesn’t matter if she was disrespectful. Those things justify discipline, but they emphatically do not justify this child being lifted and flung by a grown man as if she were an inanimate object. If she were white, that would likely go without saying.
One is reminded of all the other African Americans we have seen in just the last few years brutalized and even killed for no good reason. One is reminded of Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott and Eric Garner and Charnesia Corley and Oscar Grant and Tamir Rice and Sean Bell and Levar Jones and more names than this column has space to hold, more blood than conscience can contain. And how many times have we been offered the same simplistic assurance in response?
This had nothing to do with race, they say.
Of course not. It never does.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)