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An Uncomfortable Conversation About Race

October 22, 2014

I write an occasional column for our local Pleasant Grove, UT paper, the Timpanogos Times. Actually, I write in every edition, but it only comes out 4 times per year, so it’s occasional. The following is a reprint of my most recent column.

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This is reprinted from the October 8, 2014 edition of the Timpanogos Times.
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Bliss Bits
An Uncomfortable Conversation About Race
Rodney Bliss

There was a shooting in Saratoga Springs, UT in September. Darius Hunt, a young black man was shot by police while he was carrying a ceremonial samurai sword. The case has garnered national attention. The investigation is ongoing.

There were two other shooting the same week. Men fleeing from the police who actually shot at the cops. One of the biggest differences in the stories is the other two men were white.

The death of Darius Hunt scares me.

I have two sons who are black. They are not yet teenagers. They don’t understand how the color of their skin will cause some people to treat them differently. Before too long I will have to have what Pleasant Grove, UT resident and former state legislator Holly Richardson, who also has black sons calls “The Talk.” Not a talk about sex. A talk about how young black men have to behave differently than their peers when interacting with the police.

A friend of mine posted a question for me “What is it like to be black in America?” to a private discussion group. She shared the results with me. One writer’s account stuck with me.

To be a Black man in America. I got pulled over last night by the police. My tail lights were out. I didn’t know.
As the white officer approached I followed some black-male-surviving-a-police-encounter rules I’ve learned to live by.
1] Keep BOTH HANDS visible and on the steering wheel.
2] Answer when addressed.
3] Be polite, and respectful, but firm & straightforward.
4] When asked for licence tell, without moving hands, “Its in wallet in pants pocket.” Wait until told to reach for it.
5] Same for proof of insurance: “It’s in glove box.” Indicate with nod of head.
6] Move to reach for it when told only.
At this point the officer usually goes to squad car to run plates & licence.
At this point survival for me has been achieved.
Tell him that.

It would be nice to think that we don’t have a race issue in our state, or our city. My wife and I enjoy raising a multiracial family here. (We also have white children and Asian children.) A few years ago we moved from one part of Pleasant Grove, down by the Linden WalMart to the east end of Center Street. It meant our children moved elementary schools. We planned our move so that it happened during the summer.

At the start of the next school year, my daughter’s 6th grade class announced they would take nominations for a class representative to the student council. My 11 year old was very excited to tell me that she intended to try to become her class representative.

“That’s great, honey.” I was happy that my daughter was willing to try new things. I was also worried about her being disappointed. She was one of the top three vote getters in the first round. She prepared a speech for the final day of voting. Coming home she couldn’t wait to tell me about it.

Daddy, guess what?

What?

I WON!

As a parent I was relieved that my kids attended a school where the new girl who was black could be elected by her peers.

In fact, Utah in general is known as a very racially tolerant state. We moved here several years ago from the Seattle area. There was a certain amount of apprehension, moving our multi-racial family from Seattle, a city known for its diversity, to Utah, a state known for being very conservative, very white and very Mormon.

And yet, when we arrived, it turned out our neighbor was of Asian descent. We went to church with Tongans and Samoans. A Spanish branch of the Mormon church met in the same building we met in. True there were not a lot of black people, but there were certainly a lot of people of color.

Given those positive experiences, it’s easy to think that we don’t have to worry about race in Pleasant Grove. I haven’t seen it. Many of the people in my neighborhood haven’t seen racism in our community.

However, the death of Darius Hunt reminds us that race still plays a role in Utah. We do not know if race was a factor in his death. We certainly know that race has been a factor in the discussions in the days since his death. In addition to Holly Richardson’s stories of how her adult black children are treated differently by police than her white children, I have heard from other friends in Utah who are black.

Rodney, did you think it didn’t exist? Did you think I was making it up? Every day. Every day I’m reminded that I’m black in a state that is mostly white.

Here’s why Darius’ death, in addition to being tragic, scares me. As you can see from the picture at the top of this column, I’m white. My wife is white. How do I teach my children? How do I teach my boys who are black to be confident, strong men, but to not do anything during an interaction with the police that might be considered threatening? How do I prepare them to be followed around a store by employees simply because their skin is a different color? How do I teach them to recognize and respond appropriately when they are subjected to the subtle racism that my friends tell me they deal with every day?

A friend who is white suggest that I am blowing it out of proportion, that if they are doing nothing wrong, they will have nothing to fear.

Let me ask you a question. I have five sons, one white, two Asian and two black. Suppose my white son, who is a 6’2″, 14 year old rugby player gets caught doing doughnuts in the school parking lot in a couple years. What do you think the response will be from people in general and from law enforcement?

Most likely they will tell him to knock it off and go home.

Now, picture the same scenario with one of my sons who is black, and will most likely be short of 6′. What do you think people’s reaction would be if one of them were doing doughnuts late at night? Do you think they’d tell him to knock it off and go home?

My friends who are black know exactly what would happen, because they’ve been detained for doing far less.

Yes, the death of Darius Hunt scares me a lot. It reminds me of just how much I need to teach my children, and how il-prepared I feel for that.

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Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

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7 Comments
  1. The following is a letter to the editor of the Timpanogos Times in response to the above column.

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    October 15, 2014
    Dear Mr. Bliss,

    I read your letter about the recent shooting of Darius Hunt in Saratoga Springs with great interest. Unfortunately, I believe you have done a certain amount of damage to race relations in Utah with your article.

    You have irrationally concluded that the officers shot Darius simply because he was a man of color. I don’t believe for a second that these two police officers were predisposed to shoot people because of their race.

    On the day Darius Hunt was shot, police responded to calls that a man was waving a Samurai sword and behaving completely out of control. When they arrived, he refused to put down the sword and continued running around, waving the sword. He most certainly was a danger to the public at that point.

    Even a ceremonial Samurai sword, depending upon the weight of the blade, could do great bodily harm to a person. If he swung the sword with force, hitting someone in the head or neck, serious injury or even death could occur.

    The two officers, from their position thirty or forty feet from Darius, probably would be unable to assess the weight of the blade of the sword. If they failed to stop Darius, and an innocent bystander was hurt or killed, they would have been in deep trouble for not protecting the public, as they are sworn to do.

    Your 6-point recommendation for behavior during a traffic stop or other encounter with the police is good advice for people of all races, not just those of color. Watching the news during the last several months, I have been struck by the thought that evidently, many people believe in this country that we only follow orders given by police officers if we want to. If we don’t, we are free to do whatever we want. Not! Our laws dictate we are obligated to follow their orders. If we don’t, we will suffer the consequences.

    During the recent shooting of a man of color in Salt Lake County, the officer’s body cam fortunately showed he was justified in firing. First, the victim’s two friends were shown in the video with their hands in the air, not moving. Second, the victim, instead of following his friends’ examples, walked away,cursing at the cop, then turned, faced the cop and moved both hands down toward his waistband, where there might have been a gun; the worst thing he could have done. Third there were prior reports from people in the area that he had a gun. As it turned out, he did not, but if he had followed orders, he would be alive today.

    In both of these cases and in many others, family members, though they did not witness the shooting, assert that their loved one was innocent of wrong-doing and should not have been killed. One can hardly blame them, but they don’t have the facts available to them and they are not speaking from a position of impartiality.

    Some folks seem almost desperate to see a racist behind every bush. In such cases they often find one…in their own minds. This is not to say racism does not exist, but if a person can keep a positive attitude, one is less likely to have that proverbial chip on the shoulder.

    Police officers have a very difficult job. They sometimes must make life-and-death decisions in a split second. Mr. Bliss, with all due respect, your article just made their jobs a little bit more difficult.

    Vernon M.
    Eagle Mountain, UT

    p.s. I’m a former resident of P.G.

  2. Wow. Blown me away! Thanks for an honest and perhaps painful view into your parenting life. Race isn’t easy, but I believe you handle it with more grace and love than any ten of us. Good on you for having ‘the talk’ with your kids in a positive way, in that it’s more likely to keep them whole.

    I’m sorry to disagree with Vernon M., but I have plenty of experience with police along with my wife the police dispatcher of 25 years. It’s a mixed bag. Cops are no better or worse than the rest of us, and expecting better than average behavior out of average people is unreasonable. I’ve had them lie to me, mislead, make split second decisions about guilt and innocence and drive evidence collection to the prejudged conclusion. That’s not to say cops are all bad, it’s that they are all human. This one could have a bad day, that one could be happy – and the one who just stopped you is ready to explode.

    Keep your family safe, and may they grow up to help us all make a better, happier and calmer world.

    • Thanks for the kind words Randy. We all attempt to muddle through the best we can. I wasn’t sure how this post would be received. It’s a bit of a departure from my normal fair. The feedback (Other than from Vernon) has been very positive.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Too Hot To Handle. . .Writing To Provoke | Rodney M Bliss
  2. Repost: An Uncomfortable Conversataion About Race | Rodney M Bliss

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