The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Amy Cooper and George Floyd represent two versions of racism that black Americans face every day

A memorial in honor of George Floyd is seen outside Cup Foods on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis on Wednesday. (Tim Gruber/For the Washington Post)
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How refreshing it would have been if Amy Cooper had said, “Yep, that was a pretty clear act of racism on my part,” instead of apologizing to “that man” and insisting that she was not really a racist.

She might not be, but her actions surely were.

She knew that Christian Cooper, the black man who was out birding in Central Park, did not present a threat to her life. But she also knew she was threatening his life by weaponizing her tears and using the 911 system as a kind of concierge arsenal to summon what could have wound up being the opening act to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis later the same day.

These two storylines — the black man confronted by white fragility in Central Park and the black man confronted with police brutality in Minneapolis — will forever be in conversation with each other.

And while we continue to dissect and discuss the disparate outcomes, it will be easy for Americans to point a pious finger at bad actors for individual examples of heinous racism, instead of examining how these two stories represent extreme versions of the kind of constant racism that flows through American life every single day.

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Few would call themselves racist, and yet we see the inequality all around us — in disproportionately aggressive policing, disproportionately high rates of covid-19 illness and death, disproportionately low allocation of pandemic relief funds — the list goes on and on.

These outcomes are not accidental. They are the result of 100 million little individual actions and decisions that intersect and interlock to create the scaffolding for structural racism.

A lot of people are condemning Amy Cooper without interrogating the implicit bias in their own actions. Sometimes it is as subtle as clutching your purse a little closer when a black person steps into an elevator. Sometimes it is as overt as willfully overlooking the patterns in hiring decisions, mortgage applications and property assessments that lead to a condition in which the median white adult who attends college has more than seven times more wealth than the median black adult who attends college and almost four times the wealth of a median Latino with similar education. Economic exclusion is the engine of inequality.

A lot of people are also condemning the actions of the Minneapolis police officers responsible for the death of an unarmed 46-year-old black man. This was a case where the police took a knee. And that knee was wedged in George Floyd’s neck for several minutes while he gasped for air and repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

Floyd’s face was on the pavement. His hands were cuffed behind his back. The sickening picture of the Minneapolis officer with his hands in his pockets and his knee pressed hard on Floyd’s neck like a farm hand trying to control a wild steer will forever be a symbol of diabolically aggressive policing.

But the only way it leads to real and lasting change is for police departments and the communities they serve to examine all the ways individuals purposely hold others down with decisions that propel some forward in life and keep others relegated to society’s lower rungs.

“He’s just not the right fit.”

“Black men can be so scary.”

“I just feel more comfortable with people I can relate to.”

“They’d do better in life if they were willing to work harder.”

“Racism is a thing of the past, so we should just stop talking about it.”

Race fatigue is a real thing, and I understand how it can all be exhausting. But unease is no excuse for pretending racism has gone away — not when the evidence of inequality is still staring us in the face — informed by our history, fueled by our social norms, fertilized by social media and stoked by political opportunism. An equally dangerous distortion is the belief — or, more precisely, the comfort of believing — that people like Amy Cooper and those Minneapolis cops are sole proprietors of bias, distant and distinct from our body politic.

“I’m going to tell them there is an African American man threatening my life.”

Amy Cooper wishes she could take back the words she barked at Christian Cooper. She said later that she meant no harm. “I reacted emotionally and made false assumptions about his intentions when, in fact, I was the one who was acting inappropriately by not having my dog on a leash,” she said. “I am well aware of the pain that misassumptions and insensitive statements about race cause and would never have imagined that I would be involved in the type of incident that occurred with Chris.”

But in the moment that mattered, she weaponized her privilege and her tears to imperil the life of a black man. Perhaps it was an act of unconscious bias — a result of the social stereotypes that live outside our conscious awareness. But I take no comfort in that, because I know that inequality still flourishes precisely because there is a quiet brand of bias, fear, status, expectation and otherness that marches alongside us every day, impacting some, invisible to others, until it’s captured on a cellphone and goes viral for all to see.

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This rendition of the poem ‘Black 101’ memorializes the innocent lives poet Frank X Walker says are terrorized by white rage, including jogger Ahmaud Arbery. (Video: Frank X Walker/The Washington Post)

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