1. Opinion

What can a black person do to keep from getting killed by police in this country?

Racist attitudes lead to tragic outcomes. | Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson [File photo]
Published Oct. 15

WASHINGTON -- This is a serious question: What can a black person do to keep from getting killed by police in this country?

Driving-while-black has long been potentially a capital offense, as witnessed by the case of Philando Castile, who was shot to death. Driving-while-black got Walter Scott tasered, but it was running-away-while-black that got him fatally shot in the back. Walking-while-black is what attracted police attention to Michael Brown, who was also shot to death. Standing-while-black was enough to get Eric Garner choked to death.

Now it appears that staying-home-while-black is also such a threatening activity that police might kill you for it.

That is what happened last year to Botham Jean, who was sitting in his Dallas apartment when off-duty police officer Amber Guyger burst in and killed him. And it's what apparently happened Saturday to Atatiana Jefferson, who was playing video games with her nephew in her Fort Worth home when a police officer fired through a window and shot her dead.

The officer who gunned down Jefferson is white, but the racism in these killings -- and it is racism, pure and simple -- has less to do with the color of the perpetrators than that of the victims. After all these high-profile incidents, after all the consciousness-raising and all the soul-searching, black lives still are simply not valued the way white lives are. In too many police departments, officers still are being enculturated to see persons of color as both threatening and disposable. From what we know at this point, the killing of Jefferson was unjustified by any imaginable standard.

It was around 2:30 a.m. A neighbor noticed that the lights were on in Jefferson's house and a door appeared to be open. Knowing that Jefferson and her nephew were there alone, according to news reports, the neighbor called a non-emergency police line to ask that someone check to make sure everything was all right.

The officers who responded parked their squad car around the corner and approached stealthily. Body-camera footage released by the Fort Worth police department shows the officers making their way to the backyard and approaching a closed first-floor window. One of them shines a flashlight through the window and yells, "Put your hands up! Show me your hands!" Then he fires through the window, immediately and without identifying himself as a police officer, and Jefferson is killed.

It is progress, I suppose, that police did not seek to suppress the video of the shooting and its aftermath -- and also that the officer has resigned and may face criminal charges. Images from inside the house show a firearm, which to me suggests a possible scenario: What if Jefferson heard noises outside, suspected a possible intruder and reached for a weapon to defend herself?

According to the National Rifle Association and pro-gun zealots such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, that's exactly what a law-abiding citizen should do, right? The main reason for making firearms so widely available is to allow us the means to defend ourselves and our families. If the police officer had been a prowler, according to the good-guy-with-a-gun philosophy, Jefferson had every right to shoot him.

Oh, but I forgot: Second Amendment rights don't apply to African Americans. You will recall that Castile was legally carrying a firearm when he was pulled over for a traffic violation, and that fact was enough to get him killed.

It happens that Jefferson, by all accounts, was an upstanding citizen -- a graduate of Xavier University, with a degree in biology, who sold pharmaceutical equipment for a living and was thinking about going to medical school. So was Jean, a promising young accountant. So was Castile, who worked in a school cafeteria.

But Jefferson's character is not relevant to whether she had the right to stay up late in her own home playing Xbox games with her nephew. It is not relevant to whether the young boy had to witness his aunt being brutally killed.

It will not do to write this off as just a horrible mistake -- not when such mistakes fit such a clear pattern. Far too often, police officers approach situations involving African Americans with racist assumptions. They see a deadly threat where none exists. They act in ways that escalate the situation rather than calm it down. They are too quick to draw their weapons and too quick to fire. They shoot first and ask questions later.

Racist attitudes lead to tragic outcomes. Until police departments banish those attitudes, until officers' default assumption is that black Americans are not suspects but citizens, more innocents like Atatiana Jefferson will die.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is

© 2019 Washington Post Writers Group


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