Getting handcuffed is no fun at all. I speak from experience. As an eighth-grader, I shoplifted a 10 cent candy bar from The Merc—the Walmart of its day—in Mountain Home, Idaho. I got caught, and the store manager called the police. I was handcuffed, put into the back seat of a police cruiser and taken to the local station. The cops were serious—they wanted to teach me a lesson—but they were kind, too. After all, I was only 14-years-old.
Idaho is a conservative state, very much a law and order kind of place. Lucky for me I happen to be white. I was given a chance, even though I was caught red-handed. I was handcuffed, but it was just to scare me a little. It was an unpleasant experience, yes, but I never feared for my safety.
Emmet Till wasn’t so lucky. Have you heard of him? If you haven’t, you should, because if you knew about the circumstances of his death and the fate of his killers, you’d be incensed and rightly so.
Here are the facts: Emmett Till, like me, was 14. However, he was a black boy from Chicago, and he was murdered by two white men in Money, Mississippi, where he was visiting his relatives. Emmett entered a store owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant to purchase some bubble gum. He came and went without incident, but Carolyn told her husband that Emmett had flirted with her or whistled at her—the precise details of Till’s alleged infraction are sketchy. Roy, believing that the young man had offended his wife, decided to take revenge.
The details of Emmett’s subsequent abduction, torture, and murder are horrific—you can Google the story if you’re curious. Suffice it to say that Roy and his half brother were charged and tried for the crime, and acquitted by an all-white jury. Roy even bragged afterward that he’d killed a 14-year-old black boy and gotten away with it.
U.S. history is filled with thousands of similar stories, and the number continues to grow even today. The only difference is that modern-day victims aren’t kidnapped and lynched anymore; they’re gunned down or strangled to death by law enforcement officers, or “concerned citizens,” or damned crazy racist imbeciles, often with no consequences. Emmet Till was murdered in 1955 by an angry white shop owner. George Floyd was murdered by a system that turns a blind eye to the fact that racism exists. The brutal reality is that George Floyd was murdered because it doesn’t touch us, and what doesn’t touch us allows us to become complacent. The outcome is identical.
I don’t pretend that I have moral standing to speak to the injustice that Black people have endured, but here’s what I do know: These things don’t happen to white people. I can read about modern-day lynchings. I can talk about it, and I can try to empathize, but the injustice is simply beyond my comprehension. It’s not “real” to me. Not one of my relatives that I love has ever been killed by the police, and I have virtually zero expectation that my life might end in an encounter with law enforcement. All I can do is march and protest and speak out. But in reality it doesn’t touch me because I’m not black.
Efforts to fight systemic racism have made some progress, but it’s difficult to understand why the white majority has not done more to address the remnants of the institutional racism that allowed Emmett’s killers to walk free. Emmett Till would have been 79-years-old in 2020, chasing his grandkids, laughing, dreaming, living the life that was cut short at the tender age of 14, simply because he was black.
A friend often asks me what I would do in any given situation if the roles were reversed. It’s a good way to push myself into a different frame of reference. With that idea in mind, I would ask any white person who believes that all races are treated equally in America, would you trade places? Would you have felt safe walking into a small-town Mississippi store in 1955 if you were black? What about now, today? Would you feel safe in 2020 if you were 14 and had just shoplifted a 10 cent candy bar from the Merc in Mountain Home, Idaho, if you were Black and handcuffed?
I’ll admit it, I’m political. I like to read things that might help me understand the “why,” things that might help inform my opinions on the swirling mess that sometimes threatens to engulf us all. Some of my favorite authors are Douglas Blackmon, Naomi Klein, Matt Taibi, David Stuckler, Henry George, Michael Lewis, George Lakoff, Jonathan Tepper and, yes, Barack Obama.