On Memorial Day, a video shot by an avid birdwatcher of a confrontation in New York City’s Central Park went viral, sparking another conversation about race and privilege in America.
The bird aficionado was a 57-year-old black man named Christian Cooper, who works as a science editor. He asked a white woman, who was later identified as Amy Cooper (the two are not related), to leash her cocker spaniel in a part of Central Park where signs indicate that leashes are required.
In response, she said she was going to call the police.
“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she said, pulling out her cellphone and dialing 911.
“Please call them,” the man said.
By Tuesday afternoon, Cooper’s sister’s tweet of the video had more than 31.6 million views, but for many black scholars, the incident is just another example of the everyday racism that pervades American culture, with the exception that this one was caught on camera.
“I don’t think there’s an African American person in America who hasn’t experienced something like this at some point,” Christian Cooper told The Washington Post.
Less than 24 hours after the incident, Amy Cooper, an investment manager at Franklin Templeton, had lost her job and had her dog taken away from her.
“I sincerely and humbly apologize to everyone, especially to that man, his family,” Amy Cooper told WNBC. “It was unacceptable and I humbly and fully apologize to everyone who’s seen that video, everyone that’s been offended … everyone who thinks of me in a lower light and I understand why they do.”
“When I think about the police, I’m such a blessed person. I’ve come to realize especially today that I think of [the police] as a protection agency, and unfortunately, this has caused me to realize that there are so many people in this country that don’t have that luxury,” she said.
Amy Cooper’s use of the word “protection” set off a reaction in some listeners, who viewed it as coded language for accusations against black men.
“This is just everyday, run-of-the-mill racism,” Yolonda Y. Wilson, a philosopher who writes about race and gender bias in bioethics, said.
“This is not a recent phenomenon. There’s a long tradition of targeting black people, particularly black men, and justifying violence against black people on the grounds of needing to protect white women. Not even individual white women, protecting white womanhood as an idea,” Wilson said.
Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, history professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South,” sees Amy Cooper’s actions as stemming from a legacy of laws that specifically granted white people governance over their black countrymen.
Nicknamed “black codes,” these colonial-era statutes gave white Americans the ability to “maim, brutalize and kill” African Americans, Jones-Rogers said. “The laws of this nation have historically granted an extraordinary amount of power to white people over black lives.”
In some states like South Carolina, she notes, the law specifically designated that white women had this power over black lives.
Even after the Civil War and slavery, white women played a role in the lynching of many black men, Jones-Rogers said. Like in the case of Carolyn Bryant, a white woman in Money, Miss. who claimed that a black 14-year old boy, Emmett Till, made sexual advances at her in 1955. Till was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Decades later, Bryant recanted her accusations to historian Timothy Tyson, a confession that was revealed in his 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.”
“White women understand that if they make certain accusations, they will be believed. Even when the law did not empower white women to have the power of life and death over African Americans, communities empowered them in this way. They have weaponized the ability to have power over African American lives. They can claim to fear for their lives and keep African Americans in line, or in extreme circumstances, killed,” Jones-Rogers said.
Educator and advocate Shana V. White, believes these entitlements start early in life and are reinforced in school.
“The first thing everyone should do is self-inventory. Examine how you are promoting, upholding, complicit in or silent about whiteness in your daily life. This involves reading and lots of unlearning of toxic beliefs and behaviors that harm others,” White said.
She encourages her students to read and listen to voice of people of color and other marginalized groups, including using social media to go outside the “insulated bubble many white people have lived their lives in.”
“This is an ongoing pursuit: to gain knowledge, listen, speak out, pursue justice and support marginalized voices. No one ever arrives and no one should seek pats on the back for doing the right thing, which is recognizing and respecting the humanity in others.”