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Of neighbors, fear and a fractured — and armed — America

A certain mindset prevents many white Americans from seeing a Black person as belonging, Mary C. Curtis writes

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., arrives for his weekly news conference on March 30 in front of a sign decrying gun violence.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., arrives for his weekly news conference on March 30 in front of a sign decrying gun violence. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It’s something most folks do without thinking. And that included me a few weeks ago. But since then, I’ve been thinking about it — a lot.

When the mail carrier mistakenly delivered a package to my home instead of next door, I carried it over, placed it carefully outside the front door and rang the bell before leaving. Halfway down my new neighbors’ driveway, however, I began to second-guess myself, my naivete and my decision.

And after recent headlines, well, let’s just say I feel lucky the story ended so routinely.

When I returned home that afternoon, I wondered what might have happened if the folks next door, the new neighbors (white neighbors I had not yet met), had glanced through the peephole and had seen this Black stranger, holding a package, wondering, perhaps, if I was coming or going.

Dressed in a baggy sweatsuit and slippers, I can’t imagine I looked like much of a threat; then, neither did 16-year-old, 5-foot-8, 140-pound Ralph Yarl. Yet, 84-year-old Andrew Lester, a white man, has said he was “scared to death” of the “6-foot-tall” Black “man” of his imagination.

Armed to the teeth, was he emboldened as well? He did not shut the door or call the police. Instead, he shot through a glass door, shot Ralph not once, but twice, as though he was not the Kansas City band kid he looked to be in the photos I’ve seen, but some “thing” that needed to be put down.

Combine laws that permit high-powered assault weapons to be easily purchased and, increasingly, guns of any sort to be carried without license or permit, “stand your ground” laws that seem to encourage confrontation, and hair-trigger fear and you get a crisis America would just as soon ignore.

But it’s not going away.

It’s bad enough that when they think no one is listening, those tasked with protecting and serving all too often celebrate the harsh punishments they unfairly mete out on Black Americans, judging from the racist texts that implicate a sizable number in the Antioch, Calif., police department or recordings of Oklahoma officials who long for a return to the days of lynching.

Now, “the talk” Black parents dutifully recite to caution children about interactions with law enforcement must include new rules to follow since “stand your ground” laws have unleashed a wave of enforcers in the guise of 84-year-olds.

Is there always a “racial component”  — as the county prosecutor in Kansas described was in play — in interactions that too often turn deadly? Of course not. Examples? In a New York state driveway, a car of young people was shot at; 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis did not survive. In Texas, two cheerleaders were shot, one of them seriously injured, apparently for mistaking a stranger’s car for one they were searching for in a parking lot.

And it’s true that the shooters don’t fit an exclusive demographic or age range, though males are over-represented in the category of armed and afraid.

But imagine that a Black man claiming fear as an excuse had shot a white teen through a door in Kansas City. Does anyone honestly believe that Black man would have remained free and uncharged, as Lester was, for days? If so, well, you must be studying the sanitized version of American history state legislatures across the country are peddling.

You must not know anything about the laws, covenants and customs that maintained housing segregation, and continue to fuel a mindset that prevents many white Americans from seeing the Black person at the door as belonging. My neighborhood is one of those where deeds instructed: “This lot shall be owned and occupied by people of the Caucasian race only.”

Studies show that Black people are seen as older and bigger than they are; Lester was no exception when it comes to making that particular error in judgment. Researchers say “people who were asked to judge the size of Black people tended to see Black men as bigger and stronger than they actually were, and gave Black children the attributes of adults,” reported The Washington Post.

Self-defense laws that encouraged a retreat from danger have been replaced with ones that seem to encourage Americans to lean into a fight. And even those laws can be subverted or twisted to fit an agenda, as Greg Abbott proved when — after a campaign from the now-departed-from-Fox host Tucker Carlson — the Texas governor ignored the verdict of a jury to push a pardon for Daniel Perry, a white man with a history of racist comments. Perry, convicted of murder but not yet sentenced, shot and killed a marcher at a Black Lives Matter protest. In that case, the victim, Garrett Foster, was white; I guess being Black-adjacent is enough to put you in the crosshairs.

In my primary residence of North Carolina, the state legislature, without additional debate, voted last month to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill that will eliminate required background checks for handguns conducted by local sheriffs’ offices, and allow those attending religious services at places that also serve as schools to carry guns.

Is my relief that my son lived to tell about just one unpleasant profiling experience five minutes from our house unreasonable? Am I really being paranoid when I could envision my harmless interaction with the couple next door going off the rails?

I admit to being relieved when I finally introduced myself to my new neighbor — he seemed awfully nice. We know each other’s names now, which is a start. We chatted for a bit, until I felt comfortable enough to make an uncomfortable joke.

“Now, don’t shoot me, OK?” He got it immediately — and laughed.

Me, not so much.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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