What do the events of September 11th in New York City and December 14th at a Memphis bank have in common?
The terror of September 11th rocked our confidence and sense of security. We hate those who took so many innocent lives and we want revenge at any cost. The combination of fear and hate are potent emotions that may be rationally explained but also may lead to irrational behavior.
Those emotions have allowed us to accept without much dissent the erosion of some basic constitutional rights. But I would hazard to guess most of us feel that dispensing with fundamental constitutional guarantees is only going to affect others (i.e., people of Mideastern descent), not us. And, irony of all ironies, some African Americans have expressed satisfaction that there are others experiencing the loss of the presumption of innocence through racial profiling.
Fear based upon race is not new to us. Internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II is one example of how we allowed fear to justify stripping away civil liberties of those Americans who fought for us and with us. Their guilt was presumed by their race and/or nationality. We did little to try and formulate some rational basis to sort the good people from the bad people.
On December 14th, irrational fear played a role in the detention of four African-American males in deputy-jailer uniforms at a Union Planters bank in Bartlett. What was it exactly that the bank personnel saw that caused them to make an emergency phone call to report a robbery by "three armed male blacks dressed as deputies"? The deputies, in Bartlett on training exercises, were unarmed, and one had cashed a check using his identification.
Does anyone believe that that phone call would have been made had the deputies been white males? The Bartlett police, who arrived in force, observed men who were obviously in deputy-jailer uniforms, clearly unarmed, and obedient to the request to get out of their van. Yet the officers ordered the deputies to spread-eagle on the ground and handcuffed them. A request for their identification might have resulted in a more moderate response.
Where was the public apology, which should have been immediate, from the bank and the Bartlett police department? It didn't happen. The bank manager and the Bartlett police have said their employees did nothing wrong. The sad but inescapable conclusion is that race was the main ingredient in this sordid affair. These deputies appear to be victims of an irrational fear of black men.
We do not exhibit the same reaction when persons of Anglo descent commit heinous crimes. Timothy McVeigh, a white male, did not inspire backlash and fear against white men. Columbine, Paducah, and the other school slayings by young white males have not produced the level of fear and prejudice that is so easily visible and justified by too many Americans when it comes to black males.
My oldest son is a helicopter pilot in the United States Navy and is fighting for the freedoms that you and I cherish. I am not only very proud of him, I am also afraid for him, should he, on the home front, go into a bank with friends in uniform.
It is time that people of good will of all races work hard to erase the irrational fear and stereotypes that are imported with lack of understanding in these insecure times. We must speak openly and publicly about race, nationality, and religion in order to educate ourselves and our neighbors about the diverse people who make up our community.
Those who believe that the violation of civil rights will make us feel more secure will never feel secure. The fear that causes a violation of rights can be justified not by some noble principle but only by the fear itself. Should I fear your fear? n
Veronica Coleman, a former U.S. attorney, is now director of the Memphis-based National Institute for Law and Equity.