Stephen Colbert parodied conservative calls for colorblind government policies by claiming, “I don’t see race.” He took that statement to its unintended and ridiculous conclusion for laughs. Colbert had a friend named Alan whom he only knew to be black based on the say-so of others. At one point, he quarreled with Alan and went on a national search for a “new black friend.” Sorting through candidates was hard because the clueless talk show host literally couldn’t tell ebony from ivory.
However, there is a really important distinction between not seeing race at all and in seeing only race to the exclusion of more important things. When I first saw the video of Eric Garner being harassed by police on the streets of Staten Island’s Tomkinsville neighborhood, and being violently subdued in a way that led to his death, I did not see the former horticulturalist as a black man.
Yes, I could tell that Garner was black. My eyes work fine and video was clear enough. And Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the lethal arrest and who now faces his own legal problems (possibly as police payback), made sure to remind us of Garner’s skin pigmentation with his running commentary. But race seemed so far beside the point to me, and to so many others, as to make it a non-issue. It was a great and unwanted distraction from the real horror at hand.
Race seemed out of place because we saw police harassing not a black man but a fellow American. If you haven’t watched the video yet, please do so. You’ll see the New York Police Department badgering a man past the point that most of us would break, reportedly after he had stopped a fight. You’ll see them tackle Garner to the ground, choke him, and refused to take much interest in the man as he lays unconscious and dying—other than to shoo passers-by away, of course. No good deed goes unpunished—or, these days, unchokeholded.
Eric Garner’s Wife Sees Police Brutality, Not Racism
You know who else shared in the colorblind reaction to Garner’s death and Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s non-indictment on manslaughter charges? Garner’s own wife. “I don’t even feel like it’s a black and white thing, honestly,” Esaw Garner said in her bracingly honest “Meet the Press” appearance this Sunday.
Garner’s widow wants justice for the specific crime committed against her husband and for her and her family to be free from recriminations. She has refused (“hell no!”) to accept Pantaleo’s condolences and said on “Meet the Press” that her husband “was murdered” and that she still hopes the case will find its way into a courtroom. She says he was killed not because of the color of his skin but because law enforcement decided he was nothing more than an irritant. They thus assigned his life about as much value as you would assign that mosquito that lands on your arm.
There was no flattery in her words for her late husband and no obviously false notes that I could hear. At one point, speaking of Eric’s troubles with finding work, Esaw said, “He tried working with the parks department. But he had asthma, you know. He had issues, you know. Heavy guy and he was very lazy. He didn’t like to do anything. He wasn’t used to it.” Again, with that filterless honesty: “I’m not going to say that he was a career criminal but he had a past of being arrested.”
Esaw Garner leveraged her frankness to argue the police had specifically targeted her family for petty offenses, because her husband occasionally sold “loose” untaxed cigarettes to generate some cash. “They harassed us. They said things to us. We go shopping. ‘Hi, cigarette man. Hey cigarette man wife.’ You know? Stuff like that. And I would just say, ‘Eric, keep walking. Don’t say nothing. Don’t respond. Don’t give them a reason to do anything to you,’” she said. She insisted that “he never, not once, ever resisted arrest.” The closest that he got was in the video when he asked the cops why couldn’t they just leave him be, especially since he had no contraband to bust him for that day. They obviously didn’t like the question.
Eric Garner Needs, Not Special Pleading, But Solidarity
Some activists on the right have said that we should be willing to look at race in the Garner case. For a long list of reasons, blacks make up a disproportionate number of all kinds of law-enforcement actions: arrests, convictions, shootings by police. And Pantaleo has been the subject of racial bias lawsuits in the past. Given all that, they ask: How can you not look at race in this case?
That is far from a dumb question, yet I think Esaw Garner’s instincts are basically correct here. The bedrock problem is “not a black and white thing,” and neither is the solution. What’s needed is not special pleading but solidarity.
The widow Garner said on “Meet the Press” that she wants to feel safe from official harassment in the future. She does not believe playing the race card will help, and she seems to realize the changes needed will be enormous. Her family’s tragedy showed the world American law enforcement is out of control.
Focusing on race now could deprive the country of an historic opportunity. Eric Garner’s death and the subsequent non-indictment of Pantaleo happened because we have too many laws and too few fetters on those who enforce our laws. If reformers prove up to the Herculean tasks of paring back our laws and of policing the police, it would be a victory for blacks, certainly, and also for most Americans.