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A Tale of Two Coopers

Dr. Christian Cooper, a Harvard-educated law-abiding citizen and senior biomedical editor, has a bird-watching hobby and a penchant for encouraging others to abide by leash laws. Amy Cooper is the head of insurance investment solutions at the Global Investment Firm Franklin Templeton, and presumably, she is well-versed in risk assessment. She got this one dead wrong.

I am a White woman. And I know that as a White woman, if I were to call the police on a Black person for barbecuing, waiting for a friend at Starbucks, trying to get help after being in a car accident, being in his own driveway, or any number of everyday otherwise mundane situations, they are likely to show up because it’s their job to show up. And because every person carries their own biases, both conscious and unconscious, such situations all too often result in tragedy.

Dr. Cooper had the audacity to call out a White woman for breaking a leash law, and Amy Cooper wasn’t having any of it. Ms. Cooper wasn’t scared because she knew she had the ultimate weapon, her Whiteness. White women know this on some level, but Black men experience this on a visceral level. Dr. Cooper was asking Amy Cooper to abide by the law. Amy Cooper was, in no uncertain terms, threatening his life. She claimed to be afraid. I would bet money that her alleged fear was no match for his. She claimed she didn’t mean any harm, but can we honestly believe that she was sincerely scared of a man who was offering her dog treats, asking her to leash it, and posting proof of his response on social media? Most perpetrators don’t make a habit of filming their own crimes. Fearing what you do not understand is a sign of ignorance. Threatening what you know has the potential to hurt or even kill a person of color, that’s a sign of racism. Amy Cooper didn’t act our of fear; she acted, at best, out of privilege.

Amy Cooper told CNN, “I’m not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way.” It’s clear from her shock at the backlash she was confronted with that Ms. Cooper never viewed herself as a racist, and therein lies the problem. Any person who is blissfully unaware of how they benefit from a system that subjects people of color to discriminatory practices and injustice can easily be led to believe that they do not have a racist bone in their body. But Ms. Cooper was quick to draw her weapon and brandish the racism that bears the tenuous foundation of the ideals of justice in a diverse society. This unwitting participation in such a system harms us all. Failure to speak out, to call for justice, to see what is so painfully obvious to so many, stains our psyche as a nation.

Amy Cooper knows risk and how to mitigate it. It’s her job. Why not just put the dog on a leash? Why not just abide by the law and be on her way? Why not run away if she truly felt threatened? It’s because she had a weapon, and she knew it. Otherwise, she would not have so casually and assuredly threatened Dr. Cooper to tell the police that an African American man was threatening her. She was not threatening to inform the police that she was being threatened by a bird watcher, a person who was trying to get her to obey the leash laws, or even a stranger. She understood the power of calling him an African American man, and thus, she understood her power as a White woman. Amy Cooper’s privilege allowed her to believe that she could assume victim status. She was betting that her word would be believed over his, that if the cops showed up, they would turn their questions to Christian Cooper first. Dr. Cooper knew that if the cops showed up, there was a chance he could end up dead. This is the reality that so many people of color, especially Black men, face, and refusal of many White people to recognize the privilege that comes with simply being born White should disgust us all. One need not look farther than the day’s news to find yet another example of the overt and subtle acts of racism and oppression that pervade our country (see here, here, here, and even, somewhat ironically, here for examples).

It didn’t have to be this way. Amy Cooper could have been humble. She could have admitted she wrong, leashed her dog, apologized, and with a nod to Maya Angelou, knowing better, she could have simply promised to do better. For Amy Cooper and many of us who watch in horror as such situations play out across the country, I can only hope that we awaken to this reality and recognize that we all have a role in creating a just society that favors what’s right more than it favors who’s White.

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