Black skin: A uniform we can't take off

Bell: Don't want my child to be surprised if I'm killed
Bell: Don't want my child to be surprised if I'm killed


    Bell: Don't want my child to be surprised if I'm killed


Bell: Don't want my child to be surprised if I'm killed 00:10

Story highlights

  • W. Kamau Bell: Police and African-Americans aren't two communities in search of common ground
  • Taking a view of the police as a separate community dangerously misses the point, he says

W. Kamau Bell is a critically acclaimed sociopolitical comedian, featured on the podcast Politically Re-Active on Panoply and CNN's "United Shades of America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)The Bahamas just issued a travel warning to their citizens about the United States of America.

I've been to the Bahamas. It's a beautiful country with truly excellent people. When I took a cruise that docked for a couple hours in Nassau, it mostly reminded me of a giant version of my grandmother's neighborhood in Mobile, Alabama ... but with better accents.
    The other thing I remember was that when my wife and I took a taxi, the driver pointed out interesting spots along the way. At one point he said, "And over there in that cemetery, Anna Nicole Smith is buried." I thought to myself, "Wow! Is that what they think of Americans here in the Bahamas? Do they think Anna Nicole Smith is one of our leading lights?" I wondered how many Americans at that point in the taxi ride have yelled, "Stop the car! Pull over! I must walk around her grave seven times!" In that moment I felt like the Bahamas wasn't giving us Americans a lot of credit.
    W. Kamau Bell
    And now the Bahamas is giving us even less credit than that -- deservedly so. Their travel warning reads in part: "We wish to advise all Bahamians traveling to the U.S. but especially to the affected cities to exercise appropriate caution generally. In particular young males are asked to exercise extreme caution in affected cities in their interactions with the police. Do not be confrontational and cooperate."
    Wow! "Affected cities?" "Exercise extreme caution?" What's next? The United Nations sending in peacekeepers? Is Canada going to invade us to install a democracy? (For the record, I'm not opposed to that on its face. We can talk about it. Get at me, Canada!)
    What is so incredible about this is that the Bahamas recognizes that the United States of America has a crisis of how black communities (and communities of color more generally) are policed, while in this country -- if you watch cable news or are on it sometimes like me -- the idea of whether or not we are in that crisis, incredibly, is still up for debate. There should be no debate. We should be way past debate and deep into the solutions by now.
    After the tragic killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands (and guns) of police officers, I naively thought, "Finally, we are going confront this" -- according to a Harvard study -- "epidemic of killings by police officers."
    But then Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire on police officers in Dallas, killing five and wounding 11 other officers and a civilian. And all over cable news, the conversation shifted from, "What are we going to do to protect our innocent citizens from the police?" to "What are we going to do to protect our police?" Even Rep. Trey Gowdy took a break from rhetorically sautéing James Comey about Hillary Clinton's email server to tweet ...
    "Serving in law enforcement is difficult even on the days officers do come home alive."
    Yeah, that's true. But you can say the same thing about being black in America. Every day you leave your house, your day can be made extremely difficult by forces out of your control. Forces such as institutionalized racism, structural racism and the state-backed force of the police department. Over and over again we have seen that if you are black (or Latino) that the police can kill you for no obvious reason. And worse, in an overwhelming percentage of the time, even if you did nothing wrong, the criminal justice system sides with the officer who took your life.

    Not an issue of two communities

    So yes, being a cop is hard. Very hard. Too hard for me, which is why I didn't apply for the job. (It's also why I didn't apply to be one of those people who wear character costumes at amusement parks. Seems too hard and too unrewarding. Kind of like being a cop but with much less pay and no gun.)
    A big problem here is that we have created a false equivalency by referring to black people and cops as being in separate communities. When we let cops talk about themselves as a separate community, then we are letting cops wall themselves off from the rest of us. We don't generally do that with any other jobs. We don't talk about the barista community or the Wal-Mart greeter community. We refer to them simply as baristas and simply as old people who aren't getting enough Social Security. We don't even talk about the Senate community or the Congressional community. And who is more walled off from regular society than senators and members of Congress? Kardashians?
    Cops should not be separate from the black community or any community. Their salaries are paid for by the communities they police. They should be working for the communities they police. But as we saw in Ferguson, Missouri, they are not always doing that.
    In communities of color, such as Ferguson, it often feels like the police are protecting the white community from us instead of protecting our communities from the criminal element. This past season on "United Shades of America," on the other hand, we went to Camden, New Jersey, where they are practicing community policing, a model based on police officers getting out of their cars and getting to know the community as individuals instead of waiting until an officer has his gun drawn to meet the community.
    What cops can learn from Camden
    What cops can learn from Camden


      What cops can learn from Camden


    What cops can learn from Camden 01:29
    Imagine how a scene between Philando Castile and the officer who killed him could have gone down if the police officer -- like "Sesame Street" taught us -- knew the people in the neighborhood. And the scene could have gone down much more like this.
    The officer pulls Castile over and immediately recognizes him as a beloved fixture in a local community school. He and says to Castile, "Phil, I'm not going to tell you again to fix that broken taillight. Next time I'm giving you a ticket."
    And Philando Castile is still alive today. Diamond Reynolds, his fiancée, has a Facebook Live video that shows a good cop in action. (That might have gone viral on its own.)
    And most importantly, the officer didn't fire his weapon directly into a car where a completely innocent 4-year-old girl sits in the back seat, changing her life forever ... for nothing.
    The reason that it didn't happen that way is because too often police in this country don't see themselves as members of the communities that they police. They see themselves as separate and superior. And they are neither.
    This is not an issue of two communities needing to find a common ground. This is an issue of the wrong people being ineffectual at their jobs, and their ineffectiveness leading to the death of innocent people. This colossal mess that America is currently in is on the people who applied for, received and accepted the jobs as police officers. Because despite the prevailing narrative, an innocent black person cannot guarantee that doing what a police officer says will keep him or her alive.
    Philando Castile was attempting to comply, but the officer decided to take his life anyway. Tamir Rice, Laquan MacDonald and John Crawford III were all killed within seconds of officers showing up on the scene. None of them even had a chance to comply with the officers' instructions, because the instructions came in the form of bullets.

    We can't quit being black

    Officers who have homicidal impulses need to quit their jobs for one simple reason: We can't quit being black. You can take off the blue uniform at the end of the day and be a person. We can't take off the black skin and find out what it's like to have that regular old American experience that we hear about. We are always black. And don't get me wrong. We love being black. But whether we love it or not, it defines us. Whereas being police officer is a job. A difficult, frustrating, often thankless job ... that you can quit. And if you see all black bodies as future criminals and time bombs waiting to explode, then please do quit.
    There's a video of a local Beaverton, Oregon, TV news report on YouTube that I often find myself pulling up to watch when these stories come out about police officers killing innocent black people. I watched it again recently after I heard the news about Alton Sterling. I always have to look the video up, because I don't have it saved. I usually enter keywords such as "police," "wrestling," "police station," "Beaverton," "Oregon" and finally "white man."
    When the video loads, you see security camera footage of an 18-year-old white man -- who looks like he just left a frat party -- entering City Hall in Beaverton. He aimlessly walks around until he finds some police. He quickly engages them in a physical confrontation that eventually ends up in nine (nine!) police officers wrestling with him for six minutes (six minutes!). During the wrestling match, he grabs one of the officers' guns, and a round gets fired into a wall of the police station.
    The 18-year-old who clearly came looking for a fight ends up with a bruise on his head ... a bruise. That's it. A simple bruise for starting a fight with nine police officers and firing a shot that, luckily for those officers, ends up in the wall. This man ends up in court healthy enough to tell the tale. And I'm always blown away by the reporter who asks an officer if there was anything they could have done differently. The implication being -- at least to me anyway -- "Why did you have to bruise him? He's just a kid!"
    Now don't get me wrong. (And I know some of you out there are already prepared to get me wrong. You're writing in the comment section -- and on Facebook and Twitter -- right now without even reading as far as this sentence.) I'm happy that those officers didn't kill that man. I'm happy for the man himself, and I'm happier for his family. I'm happy for them that they don't have to have a press conference asking for justice and publicly mourning his death. I'm happy for those officers that they don't have to live with a dead body on their consciences.
    I think I watch the video because the injustice of what is currently going on in America is made so crystal clear. Ultimately nine officers get involved, and none pull their gun. These officers know their job is to de-escalate the situation. Their job is to keep this person alive -- as Malcolm X would say -- "by any means necessary." And whenever I show it -- either to friends, or on social media or onstage when I perform -- the thing that is most clear is how determined those officers are to save a white man. When I watch the video, I usually end up laughing at the disconnect between this kid's reality and the reality that most black Americans experience. It is so clear that I can't help but laugh. But this most recent time when I watched it, I couldn't stop crying.