One negative assumption after another killed Breonna Taylor
I’m in the middle of reading a great book on the Great Migration of Black Americans out of the South and into the North and West, a movement of about 6 million people that lasted from early in the 20th century, starting during World War I, right up into the 1970s. The book is called “The Warmth of Other Suns,” published in 2010 by Isabel Wilkerson. It won all kinds of awards. It’s a wonderful read, as it focuses intimately on three people involved in the migration at three different time periods and mixes in a lot of history about the movement and what life was like in the South, the North and the West in those times.
I also recently read “Civil Rights Childhood” by Jordana Shakoor, published in 2006, which I picked up at a garage sale. It’s a modest but affecting story of growing up Black and poor in the 1950s in Mississippi, where many Black families worked as sharecroppers, dependent on white landowners for whatever they decided to pay them (often a pittance for a year’s worth of labor, picking cotton,) and living under the shadow of a Jim Crow system that dictated their public behavior, with violent punishment if they broke the rules.
As much as you think you know about this country’s caste system that persisted well into the 1960s, and lingers still, it can be a shock to read about the details — about Black people beaten and sometimes murdered for infractions such as passing a white motorist on the road or failing to say “sir” to a white man or paying a white woman a compliment. These weren’t extraordinary abuses that shook people’s consciences, they were a way of life, a code that white people allowed, enforced and celebrated (including the lynchings) and Black people had no choice but to follow.
This extreme oppression was taking place in my lifetime throughout the South — and in less extreme but still pernicious form, throughout the North, too — and it’s naive to think it could have vanished in one generation.
It has not vanished, and the Breonna Taylor verdict is one more example of that. People — especially those people defending the verdict — will argue over all sorts of details — whether the officers announced themselves, whether Breonna Taylor was in bed or had stood up — while ignoring the larger context, the confluence of negative assumptions that brought officers in the middle of the night to the door of someone who had done nothing wrong, armed with a warrant and the expectation they would meet with trouble.
Try to think about yourself in Taylor’s situation. If you’re a white resident of the Glens Falls area, this is probably difficult for you to imagine. The police would never bust into your house in the middle of the night, guns drawn. And that is right. The system that for hundreds of years has devalued Black life — and for most of that time, judged it as worthless — created the circumstances where all those assumptions were made that led to the unjustified shooting of Breonna Taylor. Living with those circumstances — being on the wrong end of them — is unimaginable for white folks like me who almost always get the benefit of the doubt.
Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star of Glens Falls.