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Leonard Pitts: Why do we often see what isn’t there?

By Leonard Pitts

The beam from his flashlight reflects off the glass, so we can’t see what he saw.

But in a sense, we don’t need to see what Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean saw to know what he saw, peering through that window. He saw something fearsome, a threat to life and limb. All this in the person of Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old black woman, who was actually doing nothing more sinister than playing video games in her bedroom with her 8-year-old nephew.

It was 2:25 Saturday morning. Police had been called out by a neighbor who saw the front door open and became worried. Now Dean cried out in panic. “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” Body cam footage shows he fired his gun before the words were out of his mouth. And the little boy saw his aunt die.

Days later, Dean is an ex-cop charged with murder and his former department faces sharp questions.

Why didn’t he identify himself as a police officer? Why did police treat this like a burglary call — skulking around outside the house — when they’d only been asked to check on the family’s welfare? Could better training have prevented this?

But the tragedy raises a question bigger than the Fort Worth Police Department, bigger than policing itself. Why, when we see black people, do we so often see what isn’t there?

It makes headlines when police do it because the outcomes are so often catastrophic. However, this almost literal inability to see black people is not limited to law enforcement. Virtually every institution in America suffers some degree of myopia.

Consider journalism, where newsroom managers tend to look at black people and not see journalists. In 2018, the American Society of News Editors reported a historically low number of responses to its annual survey of newsroom diversity. Among companies that did respond, the percentage of journalists of color was 22.6 in a nation where the percentage of people of color is about 40.

Consider health care, where doctors tend to look at black people and not see patients. In 2016, the National Academy of Sciences reported that African Americans are “systematically undertreated for pain” by white medical students and residents who often believe them to have thicker skin and thus, less susceptibility to discomfort.

Consider business, where bosses tend to look at black people and not see potential employees. In 2017, researchers at Harvard, Stanford and the University of Toronto found that black job applicants who scrubbed their applications of clues to their racial identity were more than twice as likely to make it to the next stage of the hiring process.

And so on.

Too often, black people are expected to reside in a box of other people’s imaginings, other people’s uninformed expectations of who and what we are. So, when Dean looked in that window and didn’t really see Atatiana Jefferson, the only salient difference between him and a businessman, him and a doctor, him and a managing editor, him and anybody in any institution anywhere, was that he had a badge — and a gun.

Proving yet again comedian D.L. Hughley’s maxim: “The most dangerous place for black people to live is in white people’s imagination.” But black people have no obligation to be imprisoned by other people’s perceptions — and every right to play video games in our bedrooms in the wee hours of the morning without getting shot because of what somebody thought he saw.

We sprawl beyond the box of other people’s imaginings. That’s where we really live.

Or at least, that’s where we try.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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