Something Happened In Our Town is a book written by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard from the Emory University School of Medicine. A Marshall University article about the book commented: “This New York Times and Indiebound bestseller is written by three psychologists to help parents talk with their children about racial bias and injustice. In a letter to Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association’s (MPPOA) Executive Director Brian Peters requested the state stop recommending the book for instruction to elementary students and asked for a follow-up conversation about the approval process for the book. The book— adopted by various Minnesota state agencies—is intended for children ages 4 to 8 and, according to its publisher, includes an extensive note to parents and caregivers ‘with guidelines for discussing race and racism with children; and includes child-friendly definitions and sample dialogues.’”
The story centers around a report of a policeman shooting a Black man. The narrative takes us into the house of a White family where we hear their reaction to the killing. It then continues to the house of a Black family where we hear their different reaction to the killing. The next day, two children, one from each family, freshly sensitized to the issue of racism and the need to think inclusively, come to the rescue of a new student who is being mistreated by the rest of the students. This book was written to help end racial conflict. Instead, it generated a new wave of conflict. What happened?
The Cops Shot Him Because He’s Black
In the first family scenario, young Emma asks why the police shot the man. She receives various answers from family members, including, from her older sister, Liz: “It wasn’t a mistake. The cops shot him because he was Black.” This inflammatory opinion was not challenged by the adults, both of whom had earlier said the shooting was a mistake.
The Ancestors of Blacks Were Slaves
When Emma had a question about who Blacks were, Emma’s father tried to explain. At first he pointed out that “Black” usually means African American. Then he thought it would be helpful to explain that most of the ancestors of Blacks were brought to America as slaves. Are people’s identities wrapped up in how their ancestors have been mistreated? Jewish people have probably been mistreated more than any people group on earth. They were kept as slaves in Egypt for 400 years. That experience was centuries ago, of course, but Jewish people were also subjected to the Holocaust in Germany a little less than a century ago—much more recently than American slavery. Less than 400,000 Black slaves were imported to the United States. The number of slaves grew to nearly 4 million by the end of the Civil War, however. Still, 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. We recognize these important facts about Jewish history but we don’t identify Jews in this way. Slavery has profoundly impacted the experience of African Americans but there must be better ways to think of American Blacks than their history of oppression. Perhaps we should think about them in terms of their accomplishments. Perhaps we should think of them in terms of their humanity. Or to be more theologically precise, perhaps we should think about them as people created in the image of God.
But identifying Blacks as descendants of slaves is necessary in this book because it is a set-up. As the explanation for Emma continues, we learn that slaves had to do whatever White people told them to do. This was true in America, of course, up until 156 years ago. However, the story doesn’t have the depth to explain that slaves have been commonplace in world history and that the institution, operating in different but typically cruel ways, has been applied to people of every race. Blacks were often enslaved by Arabs, as were Whites. Blacks commonly enslaved Blacks from other tribes throughout Africa. Almost all the slaves brought to the Americas were first captured by other Blacks who sold them into slavery. But these “details” only muddy one of the story’s themes, namely that Blacks in America are victims, while Whites are oppressors.
Here’s what the story had to say about the Civil War: “Even after slavery had ended…” That’s it. The Civil War escaped notice altogether. It was America’s most costly war. Casualties amounted to 750,000 men. Forty thousand of those men were Black. They were ready to fight for their own freedom once they were permitted to do so. The total loss of life represented 2.5% of the population in the 1860s. If America lost 2.5% of its population today that would work out to 8.325 million people. The war literally tore the country apart. It was not fought because all Whites believed slavery was okay. Even in the South only 31% of the White population were from slave-owning families. At the beginning of the war there were 22 million northerners and 9 million southerners. This means that in 1860 approximately 9% of White people in the United States were slave owners.
A similar failure comes through the father’s next statement: “Even after slavery ended, White people didn’t let Black people live where they wanted, go to school with White people, or vote.” True. Whites were guilty as charged. And yet, to sum up the history of Blacks in America as one of White oppression is a half-truth. Whites were slow to permit full citizen rights to Blacks after the Emancipation. The Civil Rights Act was not enacted until 1964. But the Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, as well as race in hiring, promoting, and firing. The Act prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and federally funded programs. It also strengthened the enforcement of voting rights and the desegregation of schools. Passage of the Act ended the application of “Jim Crow” laws, which functioned on the basis of “separate but equal”. The Civil Rights Act was eventually expanded by Congress to strengthen enforcement of these fundamental civil rights.
Affirmative Action regulations were also widely established throughout the nation around this time. Whether these laws and other social welfare programs helped or hindered the progress of Blacks in America is subject to debate. But their intent was to “tilt the playing field” in the favor of Blacks in order to help overcome past discriminatory laws that had caused them harm. As even most children in America know, White America elected a Black man, Barak Obama, to its highest office in 2008, and reelected him in 2012. Does all of this absolve White Americans from their racist actions or prove they are not racist? No. However, these facts, among others, show that alongside White discrimination against Blacks, Whites have also taken major steps to make corrections and to improve the lives of Blacks in America.
“Did our family do those bad things a long time ago? asked Emma. “Yes,” answered her mother. “Back then many White people thought that they were better than Black people, even though it wasn’t true.” Maybe she knew something specific about her ancestors, but she didn’t elaborate. I wonder how many Americans know whether their ancestors owned slaves, or whether they had ancestors who fought for the South, or whether they actively supported Jim Crow laws. I suppose after 156 years most White Americans had one relative or another who did…or maybe many. Of course it’s also true that most African Americans have White ancestors who were slave owners. History is not all black and white. Are we justified in being angry at people because they look like those who committed evil? Are we justified in hating people because they are descended from those who committed evil? If so, the recipe calls on us to despise everyone. That’s helpful.
Black Men and Boys Are Dangerous
Liz added: “Some White people still think most Black men and boys are dangerous, even though they’re not.”
Most Black men and boys are not dangerous to White people. However, according to FBI figures from 2017, Blacks committed 5025 murders or manslaughters, while Whites committed 4188. With a White population nearly 5 times as great as the Black population, this means that Blacks were 6 times as likely to commit murder. If a man is approaching you on the street in America, if that man is Black, he is six times more likely to be violent and dangerous than if he is White, particularly if you happen to be Black. Statistically speaking, while it is true that most Black men and boys are not dangerous, it is also true that Black men and boys are by far the most dangerous demographic in America. So, was Liz telling the truth?
Shooting Him Was Part of a Pattern
Emma’s mother continued to say that the shooting was a mistake, but she also maintained that the shooting was part of a pattern of [the police] being nice to White people and mean to Black people.
The police received an even more judgmental review from the Black family. When the young boy, Josh, asked whether the policeman would go to jail, his mother responded, “What he did was wrong.” The father, agreeing, added, “But he won’t go to jail.” The explanation for this was given by older brother, Malcolm: “Cops stick up for each other, and they don’t like Black men.”
Josh, seemingly the smartest character in the book, wonders about this. “Why not? Some police are Black.” This point was conceded by the parents and then tossed aside with this comment, “There are many cops, Black and White, who make good choices, but we can’t always count on them to do what’s right.” This bland statement could be applied to every person in the world and on every day. There was an opportunity to explore Josh’s objection but the book made a pointless diversion instead.
Let’s analyze the situation thus far. The book tells us that a White policeman shot a Black man. We don’t know if the shooting was justified. What we are given are two expressed opinions. The one opinion is that the shooting was an accident; the other that the shooting was on the basis of the man being Black. Both opinions could be wrong. These people, like the rest of us, formed their opinions based on what they read in the paper and on the basis of their own prejudices.
In the case of the White family, the prejudice, or default position, was the recognition of the importance of police in society. Without police, society would quickly devolve into anarchy, as been demonstrated in several places across America in the past year or so when police abandoned certain areas to the control of protestors. The role of police is law enforcement. The hope of the citizenry is that the police will do just that. Black communities know this better than other people in the country. Black communities are frustrated with certain police tactics, with the arrogance of some police, and with the way bad cops are protected but, otherwise, Black communities want more policing, not less. The other bit of wishful thinking on the part of the White family was their hope that police to do their jobs without regard to race. So, calling the killing “a mistake” is jumping to a conclusion. But it is a conclusion based on a right expectation.
In the cases of Liz and the Black family, the jumping to conclusions is from another direction and it is more harmfully prejudicial. He “shot him because he was Black”. This is an example of guilty until proven innocent. This is an example of judgment without facts. This approach of pronouncing judgment without due process leads only to injustice. Unfortunately, due process does not always lead to justice, either, but we cling to it because it works better than the alternatives.
So why was the claim that he was shot for being Black allowed to stand unchallenged in a book that is supposedly about racial reconciliation? Almost certainly, they felt comfortable in promoting this narrative because they were riding on the coattails of a national prejudice. The opinion that finds its way into most news reports, Twitter tweets, and protest chants is that cops hate Black people, especially Black men. If so many people hold an opinion it must be true, right? The prevailing opinion in America in the 1700s was that Blacks were an inferior race. The Nazis said the same thing about the Jews. In fact, for many centuries the opinion of most people in the world was that the earth was flat. Truth has never been decided by majority vote. However heretical this may sound in a country that is committed to the concept of democracy, whenever the majority of people think anything, it is probably wise to look elsewhere for the truth.
A study done in 2019 by Michigan State University and the University of Maryland looked at whether White officers were more likely than minority officers to kill minorities. The research team reviewed police shootings from the 2015 databases of the Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers. The data set included more than 900 fatal officer-involved shootings.
In the vast majority of cases, the person killed was armed and posed a threat or had opened fire on officers. The report concluded,“We find no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities across shootings, and white officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-white officers.”
The authors did find that local crime rates played a key role in predicting who was most likely to be killed by police. In areas with high rates of violent crime by Blacks, police were three times more likely to shoot and kill a Black person than a White person. But the reverse was also true, with White people more likely to be shot by police in places where Whites committed many crimes.
Even Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the local chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, said she agreed that increasing diversity in police departments would not necessarily lead to less shootings.“It’s still true what we’ve been saying, which is we’re less concerned about the racial make-up of police forces than we are of the institutional racism carried out by police, regardless of race,” Abdullah said.
Clearly the police are dangerous. What I find amazing is that people forget that we hire them exactly for that purpose. There are dangerous, reckless, opportunistic characters milling about in our communities. We need someone to protect us from them. (Sometimes we need them to protect others from us. Sometimes we need them to protect us from ourselves.) No doubt there are cases where social workers or psychologists could handle dangerous individuals with less violence than what happens in confrontations with the police. But I am skeptical that we will find a significant number of social workers or psychologists who will come running to diffuse those bombs.
Many people will react with, “That data you’ve provided is bogus. Everybody knows that White cops are brutal towards Blacks.” The news media in this country, with the exception of radio, is overwhelmingly controlled by the political left. There have been a few famous White cop/Black citizen confrontations in this country in which a Black person was killed. Pex, an L.A. based analytics company, says it has data that shows the George Floyd video was viewed 1.4 billion times. Derek Chauvin was a cop out of control and he deserves punishment for his actions, but he killed George Floyd 1 time. He was watched doing it 1.4 billion times. Everybody knows about George Floyd. I wonder how many people know that at least 25 people died in the George Floyd protests, that more than 2000 police officers were injured in those protests, and that property damage has been estimated at $1.5 billion, nearly all of which took place in Black communities.
There’s a lot of anger directed towards police about the number of people they kill, but there are 16 times as many murders in this country as there are killings by police. In 2018, 7407 black Americans were murdered, 89% by Black civilians. For every Black person killed by a cop, 28 were killed by a Black civilian. Is this institutional racism? Are Black men really in grave danger from police? There’s a lot of noise and reaction to mass killings, as well. Mass killings get a lot of press. But mass killings make up a small percentage of the total number of murders. Drug-related and domestic violence murders in this country are so common they barely make the news. The media generates a perceived reality in this country that is far afield from reality itself.
How does it help to continue to brainwash the Black community…and the liberal White community into thinking the police are out to get Blacks? Things are rough in the poor Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Something has to be done. Yes, something has to be done, but screaming and throwing bricks at the people we have all hired to protect us is not addressing the problem. It is a diversion. It is a misdirection. And it is counterproductive.
The result of less policing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder was more violent crime, as made clear by Federal Bureau of Investigation data. Homicides in the U.S. rose by nearly 30% in 2020, the biggest single-year spike since the feds began collecting data 60 years ago. The body count reached 21,570 people, or 4,901 more murder victims in 2020 than in 2019. Aggravated assault offenses increased by more than 12%, and violent crime overall rose by 5.6% compared to 2019.
No one factor explains this criminal surge but all this happened as cities slashed police budgets, progressive prosecutors demanded leniency and eliminated bail for criminals, and jails and prisons released thousands of lawbreakers amid the Covid-19 outbreak. FBI data show that minority communities suffered disproportionately from last year’s rise in crime. For murders in which police reported demographic data, more than 55% of last year’s victims were Black.
Political hostility toward police was most acute in big cities like New York, Minneapolis and Seattle. Those urban police departments have seen surges in officer resignations and retirements, and they’re struggling to fill vacant positions. That’s meant fewer cops on patrol, slower response times, less proactive policing—and more crime.
I Could Get Stopped For Being Black
Malcolm added, “I could get stopped by the police just because I’m Black, even if I don’t do anything wrong.” This is true, of course. Police are armed and are entrusted with power, which they sometimes abuse. However racial discrimination is illegal. Any cop who stops someone on the basis of race is breaking the law and is subject to being punished by that law.
Josh then asked, “What if it was a White man in the car? Would they have shot him?” “They probably wouldn’t have even stopped the car,” said his father.
This issue of probability of stopping a car has a great deal to do with policing policy. The War on Drugs was initiated in Washington and has continued through several administrations, including that of Barak Obama. One of the key elements of the War was the focusing of police in neighborhoods where there were high incidences of crime. Included in the policy were liberalized guidances for police to pull over vehicles and to press the vehicle occupants for permission to do searches. Police have and will certainly continue to focus their attention on neighborhoods with a high concentrations of Blacks because these neighborhoods also have a high concentration of violent crime.
Based on 2016 statistics, approximately 7300 Black people were killed by other Black people. In that same year, police killed 234 Black people, 19 of whom were unarmed. This story highlights a police killing of an unarmed Black man. While it certainly happens, an unarmed Black man is 384 times as likely to be killed by another Black person than he is to be killed by a cop. Is Something Happened presenting a fair picture of police treatment of Blacks in this country? No, it focuses on an anomaly and labels it a “pattern”.
Racial and Sex Stereotyping
The day after the family discussions, Emma and Josh were given an opportunity to help a new boy who was being ostracized by the other kids at school. Emma is a White girl. Josh is a Black boy. The new kid, Omad, is apparently from the Middle East. The kid featured as least receptive, both by his words and his angry image, is a White boy. In America today it is okay to be racist and sexist towards White boys. In this book there is a fairly consistent presentation of racism and sexism against White males. It seems that some people think of this as a kind of affirmative action racism—it’s all about tilting the playing field in order to correct for the past in which the playing field was tilted the other way. It’s not that racism is bad; it’s just that certain kinds of racism are bad. This viewpoint is, of course, just racism.
One ought to wonder how the new authorized racism is affecting White men or, especially, White boys. Some White males will find this new public perception to be deeply disturbing and disabling. Some will find it ridiculous and will scoff at it or try to ignore it. Some will react in anger, perhaps dangerous anger. I find it amazing that the three writers of this book, all doctors of psychology, who aimed to address racial injustice and bring about a “future in which diversity is valued”, in this way promoted the opposite.
The book ends well, with Emma and Josh coming to the rescue of Omad. It seems that Emma and Josh had absorbed their parents’ teachings about the need for human empathy. Unfortunately, this spoken lesson was disconnected from the narratives and themes elsewhere in the book. The children were also taught that it’s fine to form opinions without doing the work of researching the facts. They were also taught a new set of “acceptable” prejudices that work to imbed double standards into the meaning of prejudice. This means they had made no progress at all.
If I’m asked whether I would want my children or grandchildren to read this book, my answer is, “Certainly not”, at least not without an adult to help them sift out the falsehoods. While I appreciate the intention of the authors, which is to help children become more racially accepting and relationally inclusive, their effort fails completely. If you want your children to be filled with guilt, to be taught to be self-righteously angry, to be taught they are victims, to be taught they are oppressors, and to feel hatred towards others, this book will serve you well.