For selling bottled water.
For napping in a dorm.
For mowing a lawn.
Perhaps you recognize the list. If not, be advised that it represents a few of the slew of recent high-profile episodes in which police have been called out on black people for reasons so trivial, nonsensical and stupid as to beggar belief.
These incidents, many captured in cellphone video, have resulted in anger, ridicule, occasional job loss for the instigators and, in one case, corporate sensitivity training. They have also provided a window, for those who need it, into the challenge of breathing, existing, minding your own business, just trying to go about your day, while black.
Not that there is anything new here. To the contrary, this behavior is as old as the Republic. The only difference is that now we see it on video and more attention is being paid. But if, for some of us, this is a trending topic, it is, for the rest of us, just life. We’ve never known a country wherein some white people did not feel they had the absolute, God-ordained prerogative to regulate us — nor the right to call police when we declined to be regulated.
Why else do you think George Zimmerman felt empowered to stalk 17-year-old Trayvon Martin through a Sanford, Fla., neighborhood? He would require this unknown boy to explain himself. He would get answers. He ended up killing the child instead.
Friday makes five years since a jury failed to hold him accountable. Zimmerman, the innocent man just trying to defend his neighborhood, has since compiled a long list of run-ins with the law. Trayvon, the guilty boy who simply had to be up to something, is still dead. Yet too many white people still accord themselves the right to demand that black people explain themselves. In recent days, cops have been called on African-Americans:
For working out at a gym.
For stopping for dinner at Subway.
For trying to use a community pool.
For wearing socks at a community pool.
The old “Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” used to display a world map with the South Pole on top. It’s a perfectly valid view — there’s no up or down in space — but if you’ve grown used to viewing the world north-side up, it was jarring, a visual metaphor for how difficult it can be to see a familiar thing from an unfamiliar point of view. If you are white in America, the familiar thing is the idea that black equals danger.
And too often, you don’t question that assumption. You barely know you’ve made it. I’m reminded of a reader who wrote to tell me what black people must do to earn his respect. That we should crave his respect was a given. That maybe he should ask how he might earn our respect did not enter into his thinking.
Just as he didn’t recognize, much less question, his implicit assumptions, many white people never question their “right” to regulate African-Americans. It never occurs to them that black people — who work, pay taxes, go to school, raise their kids and get dinner on just like normal people — deserve to expect, just like normal people, that they’ll be left the heck alone when bothering no one and minding their own business.
Five years after the Zimmerman acquittal would be an excellent time for them to finally get that. Because it’s tiresome to know that on any given day, you might be stopped and required to explain yourself:
For checking out of an Airbnb.
For inspecting a house.
For waiting at Starbucks.
For walking home in the rain.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He’s at email@example.com.