It has been less than two months since I started a new job and moved away from St. Louis, Missouri. The murder of Michael Brown and the attacks on others in Ferguson, Missouri have been devastating to read about this week. I have thought time and again of the semester that I taught Invisible Man in a classroom just twenty minutes from Ferguson, and how we spent a long time discussing the murder of Tod Clifton. In Ellison’s story, the young black character and political activist Tod Clifton is murdered by a white cop. Ellison’s unnamed black narrator speaks at Clifton’s funeral, saying:
“Let me tell it as it truly was! His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He thought he was a man when he was only Tod Clifton. He was shot for a simple mistake of judgment and he bled and his blood dried and shortly the crowd trampled out the stains. It was a normal mistake of which many are guilty: He thought he was a man and that men were not meant to be pushed around. But it was hot downtown and he forgot his history, he forgot the time and the place. He lost his hold on reality. There was a cop and a waiting audience but he was Tod Clifton and cops are everywhere.”
This is a work of fiction published in 1947, and its resonance to the murder of Michael Brown and so many other—far, far too many—black Americans in our present age is disturbing and unacceptable.
Many others out there have written well about the events in Ferguson, as well as the national and regional history, the ongoing systemic racism, the militarization of the police force, and other contributing factors. I haven’t been sure that I’ve had anything different to say, any particular perspective to add. But I’ve repeatedly returned to the line, “but he was Tod Clifton and cops are everywhere,” and I’ve continued to think about Tim Wise’s call for white people to face our privilege and speak up about moments “of law-breaking, of blatant disrespect for authority, of straight-up criminal behavior that would have landed our black and brown sisters in jail (or the grave) long ago.”
And I don’t think I have an eye-opening story about a confrontation with the police. At least, I don’t think I have a story about the kind of confrontation that would have likely led to a talk at the station, or an arrest, or even a violent attack, if I had been a person of color.
And I know that this, in fact, is exactly the point. My lack of a story is what I want to add to the conversation. I do not have an experience to share about a memorable interaction with the police because the police are rarely a factor in my life. I am a white, upper-middle-class woman who has lived in neighborhoods with mostly other white, upper-middle-class people. The police have mostly left me alone.
This is NOT because I’ve never broken the law.
This is NOT because I’ve never shown blatant disrespect to authorities.
This is NOT because I’ve never behaved in a criminal way.
I very rarely interact with the police because they do not police me.
When I’m walking on a street at night, the police drive past me.
When I’m driving in my car, in whatever neighborhood, the police don’t pull me over.
When I’m at a party at someone’s house and the noise level at the party is high, the police don’t come by.
When I’m loitering on a street at night—maybe standing outside a bar that has just closed—the police don’t approach me.
Ellison writes, “There was a cop and a waiting audience but he was Tod Clifton and cops are everywhere.” Clifton forgets what the presence of a white cop means for him—the danger that it poses—because cops are always there.
In Clifton’s world, a world that Ellison probably knew well, the police are constant and inescapable. In my world, the cops are occasional and avoidable.
Simply put, it is ludicrous to think that anything about my behavior has somehow earned me this latitude and space from the police. That is just not the case. The truth is that this respectful aloofness to my behavior is part of the racial and economic privilege that I happened to be born into. My lack of a story is my privilege.
His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He forgot his history. He forgot the time and the place.
If you’re white, you can believe the illusion that history, time, and place do not matter—that it is only your behavior that matters. And if you choose to, you can keep on believing this.
Because you won’t be killed for it.