Earlier this summer George Floyd died after allegedly passing a bad $20 bill buying cigarettes. He was Black. He was killed by law enforcement on Memorial Day, our holiday honoring those who die serving in the U.S. military.
I watched the video recorded in front of Cup Foods only once. Never again. My stomach keeps knotting. I cannot even look at the stills now. I cannot bear to see his face and I am just this side of vomiting every time I think about his death.
After reflecting on this, I think I have figured out why. Fifteen years ago, I passed two counterfeit $20s bills and nothing happened. Not only did nothing happen, but I did not even remember it until Floyd was killed.
To my memory, it was a sunny warm weekend in Minneapolis. My wife, Sue, and I were short of wine for the weekend and we wanted sandwiches for lunch. It is a classic Saturday Minnesota ritual: off to our favorite wine & cheese shop. It’s the best place to go for wine, sandwiches and any cheese we could think of.
Sue had just completed her annual garage sale with a good friend and offered me some cash. I took enough to cover the cost.
The clerk checked our stuff through. I paid her with two $20s to cover the bill, about $35. Moments later she said, “These are both counterfeit.”
“That can’t be. How can you even say that to me? If you give them back my bank will replace them.”
“No. Can’t do that. We give the bills to the police at the end of the shift. I need your name and address and phone number now. And you need to pay for this.”
I had two more $20s from the garage sale and I gave them to her.
“You’re good.” This after she tested the bills.
Then Sue and I walked out and continued our happy afternoon on a bright golden day in Minneapolis.
Why didn’t Floyd have that outcome?
For a lifetime I’ve rejected out of hand any reference to “white privilege” because I always worked hard to make the cut. Nothing was ever handed to me. But I realize that what happened with those two counterfeit $20s precisely embodies white privilege: Because of my skin color, in spite of my irritation & impatience, I got the benefit of the doubt. Floyd did not, and now he is dead.
I’m 82, and this is the first time in my life I have recognized such privilege in my life. Until Floyd was murdered, I never understood that there have likely been many ways where I got the benefit of the doubt.
Jacob Blake is maimed now. Breonna Taylor, killed. My dread has deepened. Another memory has surfaced.
A more frightening event occurred in the late 1970s when my son and daughter were still school kids. I was driving a rental car on a business trip in California. Again a lovely summer day and this time, a routine traffic stop: A trooper signaled me to pull over. I pulled over.
There is no explaining what I did next — I hopped out of the car and walked back toward the trooper. She instantly dropped flat to the ground with her sidearm out and at me. She shouted “Halt!”
It is almost unbelievable that I am still alive. I knew I had not been speeding. I doubt any Black dad would have done what I did.
During a traffic stop in July 2016 Philando Castile played by the rules and stayed seated in his car in St. Paul. He was shot and killed by a police officer. With white privilege, a disease toxic and unseen, both Floyd and Castile have lived and died with a counterfeit liberty.
My hope is that memories of personal moments similar to mine return to many white men and women like me. We need to recognize guardrails of white privilege present in our everyday lives. What seems normal is clearly not — the liberty I have always taken for granted is as counterfeit as the $20 bills George Floyd and I took from our wallets.
We must recognize the cultural forces protecting white people, allowing many of us to err, to blunder and then continue the hard work of building a family and a life and a career. At the same time many others lose their lives and opportunities.
It is crucial that whites like me do this now because the more we recognize ourselves in younger Black men and women, the more we can use our influence to help them receive the benefit of the doubt. Then and only then will we all know and have an authentic liberty in our own lives.
Please listen to Black men and women peacefully working for liberty for every one of us. And at a minimum, if you recognize your life in mine, please donate to one or all three of these nonprofits: NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund; the ACLU; Equal Justice Initiative.
Boyd H. Ratchye is a retired trial lawyer and a current docent at Mia, living in the Twin Cities.
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