Durham News: Opinion

White skin in a black robe – Marcia Morey

Marcia Morey
Marcia Morey

The cadets, in matching gray T-shirts inscribed with “Police Academy 2016,” sat erect in their chairs and shouted out in unison “Good morning, Ma’am” when I walked into the classroom.

It was just hours after five Dallas officers were assassinated and mere days after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police, and I wondered what was going through their minds.

Did these horrific, polarizing events cause the cadets to have second thoughts about pinning on a badge, swearing to “serve and protect” by running into danger, not away?

I wasn’t invited to speak to about race relations, but about the importance of helping kids stay out of the criminal justice system. I encouraged them to refer first-time teenage offenders to a diversion program that holds youth accountable while avoiding a criminal record. I told the cadets that their first interaction with a young person, if positive, can make all the difference in the direction of a life and help police-community relations.

Although I didn’t directly talk about racial inequities in the criminal justice system, that is a discussion that was on my mind that morning, and it was on the minds of many. Black youth are three times more likely to be arrested for offenses than whites. Blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites and on average receive 20 percent longer sentences than whites for similar crimes. Two-thirds of Durham’s jail inmates are black.

A recent CBS news poll found that 69 percent of Americans defined race relations as “bad” in the United States. That won’t change unless there is acknowledgment, education and discussion.

The discussion of race must begin with ourselves. None of us is colorblind. We all have been conditioned to be aware of race. When I zip up the black robe and enter a criminal courtroom I am very aware of my “white” skin as I sit in judgment of a predominantly “black” courtroom. As the docket is called, I wonder if those staring at me will assume that I will prejudge them or treat them more harshly because my skin is not like theirs.

Last month, I attended a two-day training sponsored by the Racial Equity Institute from Greensboro. Fifty county and city employees, black, white, brown, of all ages talked about the origins of race labeling beginning in Jamestown in the 1600s through today. We contemplated the founding principle of “all men are created equal” and how this rang shallow since blacks weren’t “people” under the law, but chattel.

We were told that “race” is a social construct, not a biological one. Science has proven race is a specious classification of humans based solely on skin color and that there are more genetic variations within race, than across racial lines. Blood donations are not labeled by a donor’s race, only type. We all bleed red.

This historic approach to labeling people by race promoted categories by which our society could devise special privileges and benefits for some and not for others, simply based on skin pigment. It happened in 1705 with a Virginia statute that gave white indentured servants 50 acres, 50 bushels and a musket, but nothing to blacks. For the next 200 years, a Civil War, Jim Crow laws, statutes, policies and court decisions denied blacks equal opportunity in housing, education, health care and justice.

Racial inequity is not simply a black person’s problem, nor a white person’s ignorance. It’s a systemic issue that permeates all aspects of our society, especially the criminal justice system and particularly law enforcement who are on the front line of heightened tensions.

The workshop was sobering and empowering. When one black woman said her husband had never driven over the speed limit, I thought good for him, he’s a safe driver. Then she emphasized “never.” The inference was that her black husband didn’t want any encounters with police. He was afraid of what could happen.

Another person shared that when the census counter stopped by her grandmother’s house and no one was home, it was erroneously recorded that a “white” family lived there. Because of the error, mortgage opportunities magically appeared.

And I remembered when I was a young assistant district attorney when four white middle school students were selling Ritalin, a controlled substance, the school resource officer refused to take out charges, but when three black boys were caught throwing dice against a brick wall, charges were filed.

At the end of the training, whites were asked, “What do you like about being white?” Answers included: “I’m glad not to be a suspected person when I walk into a store;” some said, “unmarked, advantaged, ashamed after what we learned about white supremacy.” There was no pride in our answers, just sobering facts.

When blacks in the room were asked what they liked about being black, the river of responses flowed: “Strong, determined, culture, skin tone, trend setters, survivors, generational wisdom.” Their words were strength.

Despite the heavy emotions and difficult moments we shared during the racial equity training session, it was taking the journey together, that became healing. Pain and anger and sadness won’t be erased, but it can be eased with understanding.

As I finish this article, breaking news reports that at least three more officers have just been killed in Baton Rouge. And I wonder if those young Durham police cadets had flinched? The risks and responsibilities they will face are enormous, and as Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country … every societal failure, we put on cops to solve,” like drug addiction, mental illness, the homeless, school truancy, etc.

In a time when black, blue and white seem to be colliding, we must remember that labeling the unconscionable actions of individuals to an entire class or profession is wrong. Justice must be found in the courts, not on streets of violence.

In “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch told Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around it.”

Understanding another person’s experience is the essence of understanding and healing.

Marcia Morey is Durham County’s chief district judge. You can reach her, as well as comment on this column, in c/o editor@newsobserver.com. Please include your name for publication in the paper and online.