Not by the Color of Their Uniform

The Dallas shooting offered a parable about racism. Just not the one you think.

Law enforcement pay respects during a viewing before the funeral service for Senior Corporal Lorne Ahrens held at Prestonwood Baptist Church on July 13, 2016 in Plano, Texas.
Law enforcement pay respects during a viewing before the funeral service for Lorne Ahrens, one of the Dallas shooting victims, held at Prestonwood Baptist Church on Wednesday in Plano, Texas.

Stewart F. House/Getty Images

Lorne Ahrens was a big guy. He stood 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed 300 pounds. His arms were tattooed. His head was shaved. He once played semipro football. If you’d met him in a dark alley, he might have scared you. But he had a big heart, too. Last week, just before he was fatally shot, he bought dinner for a homeless man.

Michael Krol was almost as imposing: 6 feet, 4 inches, a standout at pickup football. He used to work as a hospital security guard. He didn’t just patrol the building. He attended to whatever the patients needed. If they had to go to the bathroom, that’s what he helped them do.

Brent Thompson served in the Marines and did security work in Afghanistan and Iraq. He looked like the kind of guy you’d send somewhere to break heads. But that wasn’t his style. When he came home and took a job in law enforcement, his bosses sent him to the roughest neighborhoods because he treated everyone with respect and never lost his cool.

Ahrens, Krol, and Thompson were cops in Dallas. On the night of July 7, they and two of their colleagues, Michael Smith and Patrick Zamarripa, were shot and killed by a sniper. Thompson had just gotten married. Zamarripa had a 2-year-old daughter. The sniper, who was black, purportedly told police he wanted to kill white people, especially white cops. But several of the 12 officers he shot were Latino. One was a gay man from Puerto Rico. Another was a young woman who had worked in Hispanic community outreach.

The sniper said he was angry about police killings of two black men: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 5 and Philando Castile in suburban Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 6. But the officers he shot in Dallas had nothing to do with those deaths. In fact, the Dallas Police Department was pioneering reforms to prevent such incidents. And on the night its officers were gunned down, they were protecting people who were protesting the deaths of Sterling and Castile.

So why were these cops targeted? Because they were cops. “He was killed for one reason,” says Thompson’s former boss. “He was wearing a uniform.”

In other words, they were killed because they fit a profile. The shooter identified all police officers as threats, based on a common visible characteristic, regardless of who they were.

In the community of law enforcers and their families, wearing blue has always signified both risk and pride. “From the moment you put on that uniform,” President Obama observed at a memorial service for the Dallas officers on Tuesday, “you have answered a call that at any moment, even in the briefest interaction, may put your life in harm’s way.”

The attack in Dallas has alerted many Americans to an additional risk. It’s not just the job that’s dangerous. It’s the uniform itself. Ahrens, Krol, Smith, Thompson, and Zamarripa weren’t just killed in the line of duty. They were marked for death, not for anything they had done but because they wore blue. Every officer knows this is unjust. “Underneath that blue, underneath that badge, we’re people just like you,” a wounded officer, Jorge Barrientos, told the Dallas Morning News. “We love the community. We love the people we serve. … Stop dividing each other into different groups … We’re the same.”

That’s a compelling message. But it might be said, just as eloquently, of people who wear a different kind of uniform. It’s a uniform you’re born with and can never take off. It can make you an object of fear, suspicion, and blame. It can make you a target. The uniform is black, and it’s made of skin.

This is the uniform Alton Sterling was wearing while selling CDs outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge. A homeless man pressed him for money. At some point, Sterling indicated that he had a gun. “I told you to leave me alone,” he told the man. So the man called 911. The call was relayed to officers as a report that Sterling had “threatened someone with a gun.”

Two videos of the fatal incident have been released. They don’t show what happened when police first arrived. In one video, Sterling appears to be standing in front of a car. The officers tase him and tell him to “get on the ground,” but he doesn’t seem to move. So an officer tackles him. While he’s pinned down, an officer shouts that Sterling has a gun. Shots ring out. A subsequent police affidavit says Sterling “attempted to reach for the gun from his pocket” and “the officers fired their police-issued duty weapon at the subject to stop the threat.”

Sterling had a long rap sheet, including aggravated battery, domestic abuse battery, sex with a 14-year-old, and illegally carrying a weapon with a controlled dangerous substance. But there’s no sign that the cops knew any of that. All they knew was what they saw—a big black man—and what they had heard: that he had a gun.

If you’re white, the sequence in the video seems bizarre. You don’t get tackled while standing still. You don’t get shot four or five times, from point-blank range, while you’re pinned down. Nobody is that scared of you. Nobody treats your life that cheaply. And nobody says you had to die because—contrary to the testimony of the store owner who was standing right there—you “attempted to reach for” a weapon.

Philando Castile wore the same black uniform. A day after Sterling’s death, he was driving through a largely white suburb of Minneapolis–St. Paul. An officer saw him and told colleagues he was going to pull the car over because the driver and the person in the front passenger seat—which turned out to be Castile’s girlfriend—“look like people that were involved in a robbery” reported days earlier. “The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just because of the wide-set nose,” the officer said in a radio exchange.

A video of Castile’s death, taken by his girlfriend, doesn’t show the whole encounter. It shows a freaked-out officer pointing a gun through the window of the car—having fatally shot Castile—and shrieking, “I told him not to reach for it!” The girlfriend calmly replies: “You told him to get his ID sir, his driver’s license. … You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.” She is ordered out of the car at gunpoint, with a stream of frantic orders—“Keep ’em up!” “Face away from me and walk backwards!” “Get on your knees!”—that would rattle anyone. One mistake and you’re dead.

Again, if you’re white, it’s almost impossible to imagine yourself in this situation. Castile was in a car with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. He was a school cafeteria supervisor. Colleagues called him warm, friendly, humble, loving, calm, smart, kind, gentle, and respectful. As a motorist, he had previously been cited for driving with a suspended license, lacking proof of insurance, speeding, and not wearing a seat belt. But none of that warranted a pullover at gunpoint. Apparently, to avoid misunderstandings or a nasty surprise, he told the officer he had a licensed firearm. The officer, having instructed Castile to produce his license and registration, decided that he was reaching for his gun and shot him to death.

The officer’s lawyer claims that he “was reacting to the actions of the driver” and that the shooting “has nothing to do with race and everything to do with the presence of a gun.” But it’s obvious from the video and from the radio traffic that the officer, based on an imputed resemblance that was hardly more than racial profiling, created a confrontation he couldn’t emotionally handle. Then, uncertain about what Castile was reaching for, he pulled the trigger. Every decision the officer made, starting with the pullover, was colored by race.

You can argue that Sterling had a criminal record, that the video of Castile’s death doesn’t show what he was doing before he was shot, and that both men were armed. But scroll down the long lists of black people killed by police, and you’ll soon run out of excuses. What about Walter Scott, who was shot in the back while fleeing? Or Sandra Bland, who was pulled over for not using her turn signal, threatened with a Taser, and jailed until she hanged herself?

If you’re black, you can put on nice clothes or drive a nice car. But you can never take off the uniform. Why was Don Lemon tailed and accused of shoplifting a CD player he had bought? Why was Sen. Tim Scott, earlier in his political career, pulled over seven times in a year? Why was Eric Holder, as a young man, pulled over twice and subjected to a weapons search? Why was Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrested in his own home after a white woman told police she had seen two black men—one of whom was Gates—trying to force open the front door? In each case, you can argue the details. But the pattern is unmistakable.

That doesn’t mean all cops are biased. People who wear blue aren’t all the same. But people who wear black aren’t, either. It’s easy to forget this when you focus entirely on defending police. That’s what seems to have happened to Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York. “You’ve got to teach your children that the real danger to them is not the police,” he told black parents in a Sunday interview on Face the Nation. “The real danger to them, 99 out of 100 times, 9,900 out of 1,000 times, are other black kids who are going to kill them. That’s the way they’re going to die.” Giuliani said if he were a black father, he’d tell his children: “Be very careful of those kids in the neighborhood, and don’t get involved with them, because, son, there’s a 99 percent chance they’re going to kill you, not the police.”

Giuliani exaggerated the numbers. But that’s not the problem with his analysis. The problem is that if police use statistics like these to decide who should be pulled over, tased, tackled, or shot—consciously or unconsciously—you’ll see a lot of harmless black people arrested or killed. And that’s exactly what has happened. It’s not necessarily malice. It’s math.

So, yes, mourn for the fallen officers in Dallas. They didn’t deserve to die just because they wore the same uniform as the shooters in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. But think about the other uniform, too, the one that puts people on the wrong end of a traffic stop or a gun barrel just because they fit the profile.

See more of Slate’s coverage of the Dallas shooting.