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A tale of two Coopers, one as old as the nation

May 26, 2020, 7:22 PM UTC

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An ugly moment was caught on video in New York City’s Central Park over the holiday weekend: A white person threatened to call the police on a Black person for the high crime of asking her to respect the rules and leash her dog.

Amy Cooper was walking her dog in the Ramble section of Central Park on Monday morning, when she encountered Christian Cooper (no relation), an avid birdwatcher. Unleashed dogs are a specific problem, he told CNN. “That’s important to us birders because we know that dogs won’t be off leash at all and we can go there to see the ground-dwelling birds,” some of the 230 different species of birds that have been seen in the area. “People spend a lot of money and time planting in those areas as well. Nothing grows in a dog run for a reason.”

Amy Cooper, an executive at Franklin Templeton Investments, an asset management firm, had an immediate reaction to the correction. “I’m taking a picture and calling the cops,” she is heard saying in the video taken by Christian Cooper while struggling to contain her dog. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”

It was a vile threat, and Christian Cooper clearly knew what she meant.

“I videotaped it because I thought it was important to document things,” he told CNN. “Unfortunately we live in an era with things like Ahmaud Arbery, where Black men are seen as targets. This woman thought she could exploit that to her advantage, and I wasn’t having it.”

The summoning of the police to address the presence of a Black person, typically minding their own business, isn’t simply poor judgment or a temporary lapse in civility. It’s part of a broader tactic that white people have long used—often without thinking—to summon the state’s power on their behalf with the intent on restoring racial order. 

The last few years have provided a master class in this behavior.

The most famous example was in April 2018, when Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson were arrested after a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia called the police to report them for, well, sitting in the store. “I have two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” she told the 911 dispatcher. That was not quite true; they had said they were waiting for a friend to arrive. The incident, caught on video by an alarmed bystander, forced Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson to immediately apologize. A month later, the company closed some 8,200 stores for four hours of storewide diversity training, some of which they made public.

But the behavior is widespread. A white student living in a graduate dorm at Yale called campus police to confront and remove minding-their-own-business Black students not once, but twice. A white woman called the police to remove a Black man wearing socks in the swimming pool of their apartment complex. A white woman called the police on an 8-year-old Black girl selling water from a sidewalk shop without a permit. Another in Ohio called the police on a 12-year-old Black entrepreneur mowing a neighbor’s lawn. Police in California, some of whom were in a helicopter, surrounded four Black people as they loaded suitcases in their car after leaving an Airbnb. Neighbors thought it was a robbery. One of them was Bob Marley’s granddaughter, a filmmaker.

And most recently, a Black delivery driver and his coworker were blocked from leaving a gated community in Oklahoma City by a white man who insisted on knowing why they were there. Travis Miller documented the incident in a now-viral Facebook Live video, tears streaming down his face. “My intention was to cover myself in case he called my employer and said I did something other than what I did,” Miller told NBC News. He was also afraid that if the police were called, he’d be pegged as the problem.

And we all know what that means.

“Non-Black people in this country have been fed a steady diet of propaganda from their parents, their schools, their churches, and from the media that tells them that people of color, and particularly black folks and Latinx people are not to be trusted,” Jamilah Lemieux, a cultural critic and writer told The Guardian in 2018. “They’ve been taught that we are criminals, that we are violent that we are predators and think we need to be monitored.”

So tensions boil over quickly when Black people encroach typically “white spaces,” the boundaries of which have been in flux since the Civil Rights era, suggests Elijah Anderson, the William K. Lanman, Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale University. 

His research shows that still-widespread segregation impacts the white and Black psyche in different ways. Progress aside, “[t]he wider society is still replete with overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, restaurants, schools, universities, workplaces, churches and other associations, courthouses, and cemeteries, a situation that reinforces a normative sensibility in settings in which Black people are typically absent, not expected, or marginalized when present.” White people typically avoid Black space, he writes, but Black people are required to navigate the white space as a condition of their existence.

And if they fail to navigate that space correctly, their existence may be threatened with the help of the state.

As we discuss sociology today, Amy Cooper is having different discussions. She had been put on administrative leave, after the viral video hit Twitter yesterday, making her a trending topic and temporarily crashing her employer’s website. Her rescue dog has also been surrendered to a shelter. She was even forced to “apologize.”

By press time, Amy Cooper had been fired. “Following our internal review of the incident in Central Park yesterday, we have made the decision to terminate the employee involved, effective immediately. We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton,” the company said in a tweet. Next year, when something similar happens, her name will be evoked. In five years, her story will be part of someone’s Master’s thesis, a permanent part of a canon without end.

But Christian Cooper is still alive, and that’s the good news here. Despite the drama, he is determined to reclaim the Ramble as a public space available to all. When asked the obligatory, “do you forgive her” question, he responded: “If it’s genuine and if she plans on keeping her dog on a leash in the Ramble going forward, then we have no issues with each other.”

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

On point

Thousands of Floridians are now cleared to register to vote before September A federal court has blocked a Florida state law that required formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions to pay court fines and fees before they can exercise their legally affirmed voting rights. Florida lawmakers passed the restrictive measure after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 that restored voting rights to any individual who had completed their sentence, including probation and parole. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle referred to the 24th Amendment, which abolished poll taxes and was ratified in 1964.
Washington Post

In the Navajo Nation, this year’s high school graduation is bittersweet The Navajo Nation has a higher coronavirus infection rate than any U.S. state, and tribal authorities have issued strict guidelines to shelter in place to attempt to stem the infection. But for the young adults graduating from Monument Valley High, losing the graduation ceremony was a blow. More than half come from homes without electricity or running water, and most don’t have the internet to do schoolwork from home. “So, when the kids are able to make it to graduation, I feel like it’s kind of a celebration of life, of still being successful and thriving to some extent,” says Principal Spencer Singer, who marked the moment by arranging solo photos with students receiving diplomas in front of a green screen in the school’s foyer.
KUER

“Skyrim Grandma” dials back her playing due to “internet arseholes” Shirley Curry, an 84-year-old widow and grandmother from Ohio, has become a quiet force in the gaming community as the world’s oldest professional streamer, popular for her streams and videos as she plays The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. “Good morning, grandkids, we’re back with Jhondar, and he got the boneyard keeper,” begins one such charmer. The avid gamer, who has 834,000 subscribers and who is an internet treasure, plans to scale back her posting due to irritating and hurtful comments, much of which sounds like critiques of her style and other gamesplaining nonsense. The pressure of daily content producing was also bothersome, particularly in light of the commentary. “I’m wasting my time, and it’s stressing me out” she tells Kotaku. “I’m trying to get my health under control. I’m not trying to be cranky.”
Kotaku

Coronavirus in the community

  • Provincetown on Massachusetts’s Cape Cod is a coastal haven, a historically welcoming community for the LGBTQ community, and beyond. But as one business owner writes: “Memorial Day weekend is a deadline that seaside towns cannot ignore. When a crush of tourists arrive, what will we do?”
  • Prepare for the "patchwork pandemic," for one thing.
  • And a deadly new surge in rural America.
  • Also, I don’t think pool parties are a good idea.
  • "A day in the ER battling COVID-19" turns a wrenching testimony from Dr. Craig Spencer, a New York City-based emergency room doctor, into a tenderly animated video. Well done, A+.  

On background

Why is coronavirus killing so many Black people? We know why, says Sabrina Strings, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine. She begins this must-read opinion piece with an anecdote that many will recognize: As the only Black expert in a room full of earnest people trying to solve a Black problem. In this case, why so many Black people suffer from preventable and treatable diseases. Her answer was slavery. “The era of slavery was when white Americans determined that Black Americans needed only the bare necessities, not enough to keep them optimally safe and healthy,” she writes. “It set in motion Black people’s diminished access to healthy foods, safe working conditions, medical treatment, and a host of other social inequities that negatively impact health.” She asks important questions about the now widespread idea that severe obesity, as defined by a body mass index greater than 40, is a complicating factor in COVID-19 disease. There are racist ideas embedded in those assumptions, too.
New York Times

Racist white voters abandon democratic ideals when it appears to benefit anybody but them A study which uses data from the World Values Survey, a global network of social scientists collecting how values change and impact society, found that when white Americans embrace intolerant and racist beliefs, they gravitate to authoritarian rule. Put another way, when a political system includes marginalized people, they don’t like democracy much anymore. The research was conducted by political scientists Steven V. Miller of Clemson and Nicholas T. Davis of Texas A&M; it started as a blog post, then a working paper, and has now been released as a peer-reviewed paper titled "The Effect of White Social Prejudice on Support for American Democracy.” The data they studied were collected from 1995 to 2011, so it doesn’t chart the Trump era, but it does predict it. Racially intolerant voters have long seen violent authoritarianism as an option in "a preference for the sort of white-ethnocentrism that imbued much of the functional form of democracy for the better part of two centuries," Miller told NBC News.
Steven V. Miller

When personality and bias collide Quinisha Jackson-Wright does a great service by debunking the use of unscientific personality assessment tools, specifically the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), as a strategy for managers who want to understand the strengths and styles of the people who work for them. “Do they fulfill their intended purpose of helping managers get to know their team’s working styles, or simply reinforce stereotypes that encourage managers to seek out people like themselves?” she correctly asks. Particularly at risk to be pigeonholed and marginalized are women, introverts, introverts of color, and immigrants who may be bringing non-majority cultural norms to the workplace. So, a lot of people. While there are truly useful and unbiased personality assessment tools in the marketplace (I’ve taken quite a few) none of that matters if the results aren’t filtered through a welcoming environment run by well-trained leaders. “While the M.B.T.I., and the organizations that use the assessment, promote the idea that there’s no ‘wrong’ personality, real-life workplace conflicts do not always play out so objectively.” Excellent fodder here.
New York Times

Today's mood board

historical-photo-for-ra
"Slave Rebellion, Jamaica, 1832," an open letter from a British military commander, threatening to call the forces.
Courtesy of National Archives London/slaveryimages.org