I have been avoiding the story of Sandra Bland since it broke about 10 days ago. I was afraid it would be too heartbreaking. I think I’m overwhelmed—a sure sign is that I switched to classical Minnesota Public Radio from the news version. The case of Freddie Grey, the black man who died of broken neck after being handcuffed, put into the back of a police van, and driven all over town while he was tossed around helplessly, was my (heart)breaking point.
But this morning I switched back to the news and caught this story about Sandra Bland. It contains audio clips of the interaction between Bland and the officer who pulled her over for not signaling a lane change. In case you aren’t aware of what happened next, the interchange escalated, she was arrested and thrown in jail, where she allegedly hanged herself.
It was really, really hard to listen to, but not for the reason I’d expected. I had assumed I would feel angry and powerless because yet another African American was dead after an interaction with a police officer. And I did feel that.
But Sandra Bland reminded me so much of me—specifically my confrontation with a correctional officer that got me ejected from Moose Lake Correctional Facility and banned from visiting Vince for six months. You can hear it in her voice, and in her pauses. She is sick and tired of kowtowing. Bland didn’t lose it as quickly as I did, but she was probably trying to put the brakes on herself since she is black, after all.
I wonder what would have happened to me if I had been black? Would I have been thrown to the ground, arrested, and taken to jail?
I struggle with the race issue. I know that black men, especially, are arrested and incarcerated at a higher rate than white ones. After a police officer shot and killed a black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, the U.S. Justice Department conducted an investigation which found a pattern of racial bias between 2012 and 2014 violating the Constitution and federal law. For instance, while the population of Ferguson is 67% black, 93% of arrests were of black people. You could say, “Maybe black people commit more crime,” but for even minor offenses like jay walking, nearly 100% of the arrests are of black people. And when whites are arrested for jay walking, they are 68% more likely to have their charges dismissed than blacks are.
So why do I struggle with “the race issue” when it seems so clear cut? It’s not that I doubt that black men are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than white ones. It’s that my son—despite the fact that he is white—is still in prison. He is still serving a way-too-long sentence for his crimes and he is still being exploited for nearly free labor. We are still paying through the nose for things like stamps, emails, and ramen. It remains to be seen, but I am afraid he will be released with very, very little in the way of support or resources. And he’s one of the lucky ones—he’s got me and others who are rooting for him and offering to buy him bedding or pants.
Yes, blacks are incarcerated at higher rates than whites; currently at St. Cloud they represent 31% of the prison population while they represent only 5% of Minnesota’s overall population. But since whites make up 85% of Minnesota’s population, their numbers in Minnesota prisons are higher—there are 627 white men in St. Cloud, compared with 335 black men.
Do people think Vince shouldn’t be where he is—because he’s white? Would some people dismiss him as a loser because, being white, he has no excuse not to be a mid-level manager by now with a wife and two kids and a house with a white picket fence in the suburbs? Do people think all white men have it made by virtue of white privilege, and therefore the only explanation when they fail is that they’re bad seeds?