Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Don't Make 911 Tragedy Indictment of Race, City

From Detroit Free Press columnist Desiree Cooper:

"They're the calls heard around the world. On Feb. 20, Robert Turner, then 5, called 911 to get help for his mother, who he thought was dying on the floor in their Detroit apartment. By now everyone has heard about his desperate attempts to get help from a dispatcher who thought he was playing a prank. Frustrated at one point, he groaned "Ugh," and hung up the phone. His mother died before help arrived.

The story has stirred up sympathy, outrage and even litigation. But there's one reaction that has been totally unwelcome: the feeling of collective shame on the part of black people. Whenever news of a heinous crime or outrageous behavior hits the airwaves, black people in America -- and especially in Detroit -- share a
singular prayer: "God, I hope they weren't black." This is a rare experience for white Americans, who generally skip through life without feeling that people like the Unabomber, Howard Stern and Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush reflect upon them personally, or on their whole race.

But when an African-American person becomes the subject of controversy, all of us blacks carry the shame of it, breathing a sigh of relief when the perpetrator is not one of us. Double ditto when the wrongdoing happens in Detroit, where a bad act brings down not only a whole race, but a whole city as well.

When responding to Saturday's Free Press story about the tragic 911 incident, bloggers weighed in, revealing what many are thinking. Readers posted messages like:

"What else do you expect when your hiring pool is from the wonderful city of Detroit. Did you hear the 911 operator?? Talk about a ghetto hood rat."

Another blogger said,

"Fire her. She has no right to decide who's pranking or not. Dumba** n****r."

People regularly hurl personal, racial invectives at me as if I had something to do with management of the Detroit Zoo, the ending of bulk trash pickup and the political foibles in the city. I'm not sure my white colleagues suffered as personally when Patrick Selepak was charged in a killing rampage in Macomb and Genesee counties, when a Rochester High student threatened a Columbine-like massacre in an effort to get out of school, or when an Oakland County judge was caught spending more time at the mall than on the bench.

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh at Wellesley College's Centers for Women wrote the essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." "I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color," she wrote. "I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race."

The dispatcher on Feb. 20 may have been a jerk. Or maybe she has a stellar record of discerning which calls are bogus; about one out of every four is a prank. But no matter which employee she turns out to be, she's not a reflection on all black people or on the entire city. If you insist on coloring us with one broad brush, then the shame isn't mine, it's all yours."

Contact DESIREE COOPER at 313-222-6625 or

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