We’ve heard much over the past week about how Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson’s description of Michael Brown as a “demon” suggests that Wilson didn’t see Brown—and by extension doesn’t see black people in general—as fully human. And while these are different cases, in the wake of the failure to indict Eric Garner’s killer, I can only think of New York City police Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s less overt, but no less insidious, demonization of Garner in his version of an acknowledgment and “apology” for what he did.
His words are so incommensurate with what he did that they strain belief as having come from someone who, months ago, killed someone with his bare hands for nothing anyone would consider even a serious provocation.
“It is never my intention to harm anyone,” he said.
“Harm” is a formal word; it comes from a clinical distance and also implies survivability. Someone with a dog bite is harmed. Calling someone choked to death “harmed” verges on abdication of responsibility.
“I feel very bad … ” Me, too—about the time I forgot to keep a neighbor’s lawn watered when she was on vacation once. If I had choked a man to death, however, I would express horror, guilt, the task of carrying the burden to my own grave. Pantaleo just feels bad. Aw.
“ … about the death of Mr. Garner.” Why the noun “death”? Here, using the noun connotes formality and therefore, again, distance: that is, his recoil from his having caused this death. More appropriate here would be “that I killed Mr. Garner” or even “that Mr. Garner died because of my actions.” A noun versus a verb can say much. Imagine someone who always said “since my marriage” as opposed to “since I got married.” Note that you would immediately smell that the person felt a certain distance from his or her spouse.
“Personal condolences” is a phrase one finds on cards sold in pharmacies. It’s so antique and overused that in this context it stands in relation to actual feeling as the phrase “How are you?” does to actually wanting to know. What’s next—a box of Whitman’s chocolates?
It is painfully clear from this statement that Pantaleo lacks the true feeling of horror we would expect of someone responsible for taking someone else from this earth for all but nothing. And it may well be that if he had killed a white man, his expression of responsibility would be equally chilly and distant. However, we are justified in suspecting not, given the realities of American psychology.
I am aware that some will say that it’s hasty of me to bring race into Pantaleo’s statement at all. However, it surely isn’t hasty to note that too many black men get killed by cops for murky reasons in this country. With not just Garner but also with Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice and John Crawford all within one year, it’s time we turned a corner. What kind of nation is this, in which a race of people think of how the cops treat them, or mistreat them, as a core facet of their very identity?
Anybody who thinks that saying this is to bring up race unnecessarily is, frankly, not thinking very hard.
These things occupy a continuum. On one end are the very subtle things, such as a talk show hostess I will not name, who plugged an upcoming guest shot by Cuba Gooding with, “He’s a nice gentleman, so tune in!” She certainly wouldn’t have plugged, say, Matthew McConaughey as a “gentleman,” and what she really meant was, “He’s nothing to be scared of.” On the other end of the continuum is “N—ger!” If any part of Pantaleo’s version of an apology is indeed informed by Garner’s skin color, then I would place it closer to one end of that continuum than the other—and not the one occupied by the talk show hostess.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.