Like many Americans the news of the deaths of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, and of the police officers in Texas shook me to the core. Feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear, and from those anger, flooded me for several days. Then, like many Americans, ordinary everyday routine reclaimed my life, the knots in my stomach along with the anxiety, fear and anger ebbed. It’s not that I (we) forgot what happened, but I (we) could turn away from the immediacy and relax.
Lying in bed last night awake in the dark early morning hours, it finally occurred to me that this ability of most Americans to push these issues out of the forefront of our lives is part of the problem. Because the people most directly concerned – African Americans (especially young black men) and uniformed law enforcement – do not have this luxury. Sadness, anxiety, fear and anger are embedded in their daily lives in way that the rest of us cannot really understand.
However, the experiences of African Americans and uniformed law enforcement while similar in some ways are not identical.
Sociologists use the term “master status” to encompass things those things in our lives that are central to our definition of self and our identity. Both being “African American” and a “law enforcement officer” are important master statuses, central to the personal identity and sense of self of most of the individuals who can claim those statuses. The difference is that being “African American” is an ascribed status, one conferred at birth by having parents/grandparents with African ancestry, one imposed by society regardless of one’s own wishes, and impossible to exit except by death. Being a “law enforcement officer” is an achieved status, obtained by study and practice, consciously chosen as an occupation by an adult over other possible occupations; while far more central to a person’s identity than “working in a factory” or “flipping burgers,” achieved statuses such as law enforcement officer can be exited by choice resignation and retirement, or can be forced upon one by disability or death. Exiting the status of law enforcement by death is the exception rather than the rule. Moreover, law enforcement officers can and do take vacations from their status – they can take their family to Disney World and not be perceived by anyone else as a law enforcement officer. There is no vacation from being African American.
So the thought came to me as I lay in the dark, that it is important for the rest of us – who are neither African American nor law enforcement – to remember the intensity of the fear, the anxiety, the anger and to remember that while we can let it go and get on with our lives, others must continue to deal with those destructive, life-corroding feelings every day. The goal is not to make us all live in fear and anger, but to use our memory to assist in building a society in which no one need feel that way every day.