The Amy Cooper Problem Is a White Problem
“I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner, NYC, July 17, 2014
“I can’t breathe.” George Floyd, Minneapolis, May 25, 2020
Look, I am not the first to write about this incident. And, with any luck, I will not be the last. Others (here on Medium and elsewhere) have made very astute, very coherent, and very emotional cases. And, yet, here I am. Because this— apparently — needs to be said again, and again, and again, and again….
Amy Cooper is just one very recent and very visible example (thanks to Christian Cooper’s cellphone video) of white privilege in the United States. The white citizens of the US need to hear this, and then they need to spread it far and wide.
What Amy Cooper did in the Ramble in Central Park was straight up racism, a product of white privilege. We cannot abide Amy Coopers in this society. Not one. Yes, they have been emboldened in the current political climate. But make no mistake, they have been here all along. One, they are now more brazen, and two, cell phone videos have brought more of them to light.
One essay that I have sometimes used in my classes is entitled “Hablando cara a cara / Speaking Face to Face” by the philosopher and feminist María Lugones. In this essay, Lugones brilliantly makes the case to white people (in general) and to white feminists (in particular) of their complicity in racism and ethnocentrism. Lugones’s essays tends to make students uncomfortable by way of its performative element. It both Others readers, and it puts them on notice. It makes them question their own beliefs and practices. And, for that, it is effective. White people need to be aware of their privilege. They need to be conscious of it. They need to be aware of the ways in which they benefit and perpetuate the institutional and personal injustices. And then they need to stop.
I thought (again) of Lugones’s essay in the wake of the Christian Cooper / Amy Cooper encounter in Central Park because Amy Cooper seemed so utterly oblivious to her own privilege. A black man challenged her perceived freedom, her perceived right to do whatever she pleased, her perceived right to break the law. But it didn’t end there. She then escalated the situation and endangered Christian Cooper’s life. Over a dog leash.
But it wasn’t about the dog leash. It never was. It was always about her privilege in this world; it was always about her perception of him as an inferior being; it was always about her knowledge that she could neutralize him by calling the police.
A lot of people (or, a lot of comments on the internet) suggested that she must be a Trump follower. A MAGA fan. Turns out, she was not. No, in fact, she identifies as a liberal and has donated to a number of Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Pete Buttigieg. And that’s Lugones’s points. No one gets a free pass. Every white person has to examine their own privilege, no matter what party.
Amy Cooper has issued an apology, and in it, she asserts that she is “not a racist.” Such a statement is disingenuous, at best, and cold-heartedly lying, at worst. One simply cannot announce that she is going to call the police and tell them that a black man is threatening her, and then claim that that was not a racist sentiment and statement. Her apology is hollow and self-serving.
Fortunately, this particular incident ended with no bodily injury to Christian Cooper; it did not end in his assault or death. He did not end up pinned to the ground, unable to breathe as did Eric Garner and George Floyd (and so many others). But, you see, that’s just dumb luck. It should never come down to luck. Society failed him; liberals failed him; white people failed him; the institutions failed him.
Black men like Christian Cooper have to take extraordinary steps to stay safe in public. They alter their gate; they paste on a smile; they respond politely and calmly. Just as Christian Cooper did — was compelled to do — in Central Park. This is NOT the behavior of equal citizens.
Christian Cooper is a citizen of the United States. Full stop. He should be a full participant in public life. Full stop. His life, his liberty, his movements should never be infringed. Full stop. He should be able to go birding in Central Park. Full stop. And until that is the case, we do not live in a democracy. We do not live in a free country. Stop lying to yourself. The only way to make the United States great is to — finally — live up to the promise and potential of a society of equal citizens. And we are not there.
White citizens of the United States, do something. Read María Lugones, and Audre Lorde, and Roxanne Gay, and Ta-Nahisi Coates. Examine your own privilege. Use your privilege in an appropriate way to ensure that everyone is fully a citizen, that everyone can live freely. And breathe.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.