THE BLOG
11/20/2016 10:56 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2017

Tensing's Confederate Tee Shows Indifference Can Be Brutal

It "means nothing to me," said former University of Cincinnati policeman Ray Tensing of the Confederate flag tee shirt he wore on the day he shot Samuel DuBose, an unarmed African-American man whom he'd stopped for a missing front license plate. If we take him at his word, Tensing's donning of the shirt reflects not even a misguided Southern nostalgia, but a myopic self-absorption, one that ignores American history and chooses, instead, nonchalance.

Put more simply: if the flag of a rebel slave state means "nothing" to you, then you're not taking humanity seriously enough. And if you don't take humanity seriously enough, it gets easier to shoot someone without justification.

Tensing is affected, as we all are, by a political culture that supports this kind of self-absorption. I do not want to demonize him; to do so would be a failure to indict that culture. His tee shirt, which he says is a tourist souvenir his relative bought in the Great Smoky Mountains, was made to gain profit from a casual symbol of historical violence. That's not Tensing's fault. But what's profitable becomes prevalent. What's prevalent becomes normal. That a country's most visited national park would be represented by the symbol of rebellion against that country, a symbol of the enslavement of its citizens and the assassination of one of its most venerated presidents, is preposterous. But "it meant nothing" to Tensing, because he was surrounded by a culture that told him it meant nothing. Like the life of Samuel DuBose, of which Tensing disposed in less than a second. A Black man dead: What is prevalent becomes normal.

Tensing talked about his "perception" of being dragged as justification for killing Dubose. He used it to counter the expert testimony of other police who said that he was not dragged, that his procedure was unsound, that his use of force was "unreasonable," that the shooting was "unjustified." But Tensing's education as a police officer should have disciplined and broadened his perceptions, rooting them in reality. Tensing reached into Dubose's car, which his training had taught him never to do. If he hadn't, there would have been no bodily threat at all--whether perceived or real.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to unfold, America hears the phrase "implicit bias" more. Hillary Clinton mentioned it in the first presidential debate as a "problem for everyone, not just police." It is, among other things, a form of self-absorption, an obsession with your own perception, an indifference to education about the perceptions of others. We can all be guilty of it. It results in stereotype, and generates fear, especially in emergencies. We think of it as hateful, but it can be cool, casual, and unintentional, like nonchalance. Still, it can have, in Clinton's words, "fatal consequences."

We must battle the self-absorption of implicit bias, and indifference, by seeking three-dimensional reality. A single point of view gives no depth perception. We may see things, but we don't see them; we don't assign them their real value and meaning. As Terrina Allen, Samuel DuBose's sister, put it: "I think that Tensing thought as little of my brother as he said he thought about that Confederate flag T-shirt that he put on that morning. Nothing at all. He thought nothing at all about [DuBose's] life."

Since I began writing this essay hours ago, Judge Megan Shanahan has declared a hung-jury mistrial in Tensing's case. Joe Deters, the Hamilton County prosecutor who so swiftly brought charges against Tensing last year, must retry him. In the coming days few things will be more important to the citizens of Cincinnati, or to their country, than shedding our indifference. We must acknowledge that the choices we make mean something. Doing so may keep us from being so careless with one another's lives.