“For a time, I worked at a call center in Pittsburgh. Monday through Friday, from 8 to 5, I was at the end of the line for people seeking roadside assistance. It wasn’t a great job; it was just a job I needed at the time.
I wasn’t there long, but while I was, I found out more about my co-workers than I imagined possible. I knew that the woman two cubicles down usually brought tuna for lunch. I knew that the man who sat behind me was having work done on his house. A woman who sat near me was having problems with her eldest child. From just sitting nearby, I also knew something about my co-workers’ politics and their attitudes about other people.
Which is why I find it hard to believe that Rankin County, Miss., Sheriff Bryan Bailey could never have imagined that the men in his employ were capable of, at the very least, discriminatory acts against Black citizens. “Never in my life did I think this would happen in this department,” he said.
I find the sheriff’s protestations hard to swallow. On Monday, six White law enforcement officers, including five from Bailey’s operation, pleaded guilty at Rankin County Circuit Court in Brandon, Miss., to various state charges that stemmed from their roles in breaking into a private home and Tasering and beating two Black men living at the home of a White woman. One of the Black men was ultimately shot.
This latest law enforcement horror story took place in January after dispatchers received a call from the woman’s neighbor alerting the deputies that there were Black men living in the home who were engaged in “suspicious activity.” The deputies acted without a warrant and deactivated their body cameras.
Hateful incidents such as the one in Rankin County remind us that we are not much removed, if at all, from America’s lynching past. But they also should make us question the predictable instinct to claim that the behavior came seemingly out of nowhere. The men were unlikely to have all been prudent and civil one day and then terrifying and criminal the next. Several of the defendants, federal prosecutors alleged, called themselves “the Goon Squad” and were “known for using excessive force and not reporting it.”
Racism is like a hothouse flower: It requires special conditions to grow and thrive. My bet is that the deputies’ workplace might have provided better-than-normal conditions for hatred to flourish.
Anti-Blackness, like the kind Rankin County should now be remembered for, doesn’t typically present itself so nakedly unless the coast is clear. People need to know there will be no consequences for saying what they think out loud. Every racist joke usually begins with the joke-teller looking slyly over both shoulders.
In America, being racist isn’t so much the sin; it’s getting caught being racist that’s the danger. Normally, I would say, racists take care to keep their fears and neuroses about races and people who are different under wraps until they feel safe enough to share them. There are exceptions, of course: Sometimes, racists express their fears in ways that can’t be easily traced, such as bias in hiring practices, promotions, the selling of homes and the like. Racism has become less about yelling slurs on the street (though that still happens) and much more of a covert operation. Which makes it more insidious.
The coast is clear theory is easy to prove. In America, many Black Americans present as White. Some are famous, but most are not. Several of my friends move in this space between White and Black, and have told me of White people saying the vilest things in their company simply because the Whites thought there were no Black people around.
Bailey rightly called his former deputies “a bunch of criminals” and described the event as a “home invasion.” He said their actions made him “sick to my stomach” and were “a perfect example of why people don’t trust the police.” Bailey also apologized for their actions on behalf of his department and vowed to improve accountability. “We understand that the alleged actions of these deputies has eroded the public’s trust,” he said in a June statement. “Rest assured that we will work diligently to restore that trust.”
But I still think Bailey should resign. You might be able to convince me that Bailey could remain at his post if only one of his deputies was involved in the incident. But five? That happens only if the guy who runs the office was willfully ignorant or failed to fight racism when it reared its head at work. Either way, the sheriff should go. Until he does, the Black citizens of Rankin County are anything but safe.
And I’m not ready to believe the sheriff was completely ignorant of his deputies’ instincts. I believe this for the same reason that I knew the woman sitting two cubicles down from me at my old job brought tuna for lunch three times a week. Because the smell of it was in the air.”