On Tuesday, Sept. 20, just before 4 p.m., two men were doing what thousands of parents across North Carolina were doing: waiting for their children to return from school. One sat in his truck. The other sat on a neighbor’s yard alongside a busy road. The man in the truck was dressed in bright clothes: pants and a T-shirt. The other was dressed in raggedy shorts and a scrubby work shirt. The man in the truck lived near a university. The other man lived just on the edge of downtown.
In both cases, police officers arrived on the scene. In the case of the man in the truck, the officers were looking for a man with outstanding warrants, a routine task. The father, they said, fit the suspect’s description. The man got out of the car as instructed. His nervous wife recorded the event, calmly demanding that the police not shoot her husband. That man was black. His name was Keith Lamont Scott. He ended up dead, apparently shot as he backed away from the police.
In the other case, officers were answering the call of a possible break-in. In this case, the man refused to move very far from where he was and looked nervously from the police officer to the road as they talked. He said he was worried about missing his kid’s bus. He owned the house, he assured them, and the call had been a false alarm on a system he thought no longer worked. When the officer asked for his identification, the man said he didn’t have any.
When asked whether he had any keys to the house, the man admitted he didn’t. He was just making a quick run to the corner to meet his child and hadn’t brought any of that along. He had only his phone, but he convinced the police officer that he wasn’t lying and that there was no need for concern.
That man was white. That was me. And I walked away just in time to meet my son as he got off the bus and to walk him home. I told him the story, and he asked a million questions, amazed and impressed that his father got to talk to a police officer.
With each question, without knowing what was happening in Charlotte at the same time, I grew increasingly aware of the fact that, had I been black instead of white, the scenario likely would have played out very differently. I thought about how the interaction would have been more likely to turn violent – and possibly fatally so. I’d heard and used the word privilege a lot in recent months, talking about the immense advantages that white people have over black people in just these situations. I had talked about it but had never felt it quite so intensely.
Never, that is, until I settled on my porch just on the edge of downtown Raleigh and talked with my spouse about the anger spilling over in Charlotte. Then I realized that on Tuesday, Sept. 20, at 4 p.m., Keith Lamont Scott and I had an awful lot in common. In fact, in so many ways my own situation was much more suspicious. But there was one difference that probably really mattered.
There’s much that we still don’t know about the events surrounding the tragic death of Keith Lamont Scott. Nevertheless, our paths – briefly parallel, then violently divergent – starkly illustrate the challenges that black men face in this country.
Keith Lamont Scott deserved the same chance to meet his kid at the bus that I enjoyed on that same day. He deserved the chance to survive mistakes, just like I did. But he didn’t get that, in part because he’s black. I walked my son home while Keith Lamont Scott lay dying in the street.
Mr. Scott, like the many before him and the many sadly still to come, deserves better. We must do better. We must recognize that race fundamentally shapes our interactions, that it shapes the decisions of police offers to trust one person and not another, before they know anything else. We must push for change in a system that has failed to address the problem: for training to address implicit bias and for meaningful accountability in a system that seems to have lost it.
All of that change, however, begins with those of us who have it acknowledging the fundamental privilege painted on our skin.
Mark T. Nance lives in Raleigh with his family, Sarah, Simon and Anna, and is a political science professor at N.C. State.