American Exceptionalism: An Oxymoron?

06/21/2017 08:30 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2017

Note: The video below may be disturbing for some viewers.

Back in the days when this land was still infected with the disease of slavery, many African-American mothers chose to drown their children rather than subject them the hardships of bondage they’d endured. This was considered a merciful act. Is America once again in a place where today’s bearers of our future generations will be forced to make such a decision? I pray not.

But I just saw the dashcam video of the shooting of Philando Castile. You remember him, right? He was the African-American man shot by Jeronimo Yanez, a police officer with the St. Anthony (Minnesota) Police Department. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, began recording on Facebook Live as her beloved lie bleeding to death. Also as a passenger was a 4-year-old daughter, whose innocence was to be snatched away at such a tender age, not unlike so many African-American children.

As the officer stopped him for a broken taillight ― a cliche for many of us ― 30 seconds into the conversation, Castile notified the officer he was armed with a weapon. Having a firearm is nothing special for a state like Minnesota.

But as Yanez believed Castile was going for his gun, he rapidly fired 7 shots at Castile as he screamed at him not to go for his gun. Within about 40 seconds after the encounter, Castile was dead. On the video, his partner on the passenger side of the Castile’s vehicle looked so casual, it makes you wonder what Yanez actually saw.

Yanez did stand trial for manslaughter, but he was acquitted. A particular part of Yanez’s testimony struck me as, well, hinky:

“And then it was just, getting hinky, he gave, he was just staring straight ahead and I was getting (expletive) nervous and then, I told him, I know, I know, (expletive) I told him to get his (expletive) hand off his gun.”

Why did a motorist he was stopping, who’s staring straight ahead, make him feel nervous?

Now, the entire encounter ― including the part we never saw on Facebook Live ― is viewable to the court of public opinion. To me, it showed an officer out of control. How do you fire so many shots in such a short amount of time and not be seen as such?

I know a lot of folks saw it as murder. It didn’t help that the officer stood callously yelling like a madman while his weapon was still trained on what would soon be the dead body of Philando Castile. It also didn’t help that a four-year-old passenger was also in his line of fire? Was he afraid she had a gun hidden in a nearby toy?

I won’t go that far as to say it was murder. I cannot say he stopped that vehicle with the intent of killing him. Not based on the evidence I saw. But there is this fear of blackness that causes folks to act hastily. Whether a white woman in an elevator clutching her purse tightly as a black male enters. Or whether a black driver is stopped and, even when honest about possessing a weapon, he’s seen as a threat with any movement he makes and is shot dead,

Fear of blackness is what killed Philando Castile. It has killed numerous African-American men and women... boys and girls. Remember Tamir Rice? He was just 12 years old when he was shot by Cleveland (Ohio) police officers in a park within two seconds of them arriving on the scene. His crime? Playing with an air pistol.

And it was fear of blackness that gave the jurors a pass to let Yanez walk free. It’s fear of blackness that continues to allow police officers to shoot and kill black folks with the smallest provocation, only to use the tired defense, “I feared for my life. I thought I would die.”

It works every time, it seems.

Many point to the villains of our race as the answer that our blood is so cheap when spilled by fearful police officer.

But what of the criminals of other races? Namely, the white race in this land of the free, whose worth seems almost completely untarnished by their brethren who walk a crooked path. Are we saying the evil they produce has been quarantined to only to them, yet “the blacks” or “Mexicans” or “the Muslims” or “the [fill in the blanks]” have been tarnished by the few among them who’ve done wrong?

OK. Is the country as bad as it was during slavery times? No.

Is the country as bad as it was when I was a kid? Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Probably not. But the fact that I have to ask such a question in 2017 is pathetic, indeed. When it makes you think, it really makes you think.

Do I believe all police officers are bad or evil? No, I don’t. It’s a tough job. It’s a dangerous job. I still believe there are good cops out there. But if any of them want to count themselves in this group, they need to stand for those innocent lives taken by their crooked fellow officers. Sound harsh? Those in the Muslim community are constantly told they should speak up whenever they learn of anything that could be considered dangerous, radical activity. Well? Shouldn’t the same apply to the good police officers?

Here’s some food for thought. I lived in Germany from May 27, 2011, until November 18, 2013. And for those 906 days, I was never once stopped nor harassed by the Polizei, the German police. That means I was able to walk the streets at night without harassment. I visited stores and shopping areas without getting that “extra” attention. In fact, when a woman in our apartment building was reported missing by her mother, every tenant present was questioned, and that includes me. Not at as someone whose skin color made him guilty (I was the only black person), but as a human being, just like everyone else.

Perhaps I was just lucky. Perhaps not. But it got my attention.

Within one year of returning to my native America, I was back to playing the skin game. A police officer was looking for a black male in a white shirt, a suspect in a possible burglary. He wasn’t sure if one had even been committed. He wasn’t rude. That’s thanks to my mom, who taught me at a young age how to get stopped by police. It came in handy since I estimate I’ve been stopped 100+ times in my nearly 56 years in America.

But whether he was rude or not, he stopped me for one reason. I fit the description of a phantom black suspect.

Americans ― generally white ― love to claim the title of “American exceptionalism”. What’s exceptional in allowing government officials to get away with selectively killing its citizens? Don’t we criticize other countries for doing that?

American exceptionalism? We can put that misnomer to rest. It’s become an oxymoron. America is no longer exceptional. Perhaps it was only so in our imagination.

Here are a couple of my memorable interactions with police:

Lawrence D. Elliott is an author and contributor to the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul book series. He’s also a member of Toastmasters International and a veteran of the United States Air Force. He’s lived in interesting places, including over 6 years in Germany. Click here to read more from him at HuffPost, or visit LawrenceElliott.com.

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