Black people are America's most enduring emergency.
They cause panic wherever they go: When slaves were caught escaping during the 1800s, their freedom so threatened white authority that their owners often amputated their limbs as punishment — a finger here, a toe there — sending a message to the other slaves while also, somewhat ironically, dulling their utility as labor.
This practice might seem counterintuitive at first. Why would you cripple someone you need to harvest your crops, build your homes and otherwise shore up your wealth? But American racism has no time for such logic — its survival is always worth the terror needed to sustain it, no matter how cruel, no matter how destructive. Protecting racism is all that matters. And few bigger threats to that exist than black people moving about as they please.
Today, this logic takes many forms. Maybe the most prominent is America's pattern of involving the police whenever black people go places, or engage in activities, that they don't think black people should go to or engage in. In one incident after another, we've seen this end violently: a request for mental health intervention becomes an execution in Dallas; the same happens in Atlanta a few months later; and the mother of a a neighborhood watchman impatient with police inertia takes matters into his own hands, turning Trayvon Martin into a household name.
The panic extends to black behavior as well, with the most innocuous activities becoming symbols of menace, imagined threats worth hysteria and legal intervention. Even the uncontroversial grows contentious — black families are issued arrest warrants for cheering at their child's graduation; black boys are threatened with police action while merely waiting to speak to a college counselor.
McKinney, Texas, is just the latest example of this absurdity. On June 5, a group of black children attended a graduation party at a community swimming pool in the Forth Worth-adjacent suburb, a city that is 77% white and which CNN Money dubbed the "Best Place to Live" in the United States in 2014.
BuzzFeed News reports that these black children — a small number of whom did "not live in the area or have permission to be there," according to a McKinney Police Department Facebook post — were greeted with racism and hostility from white adult residents. This lead to a brief altercation (witnesses say a white woman threw the first punch) and a phone call to the police.
In a video captured by a 15-year-old bystander, a white police corporal named Eric Casebolt is then seen cursing at, chasing, threatening and handcuffing black children on the ground, before dragging one bikini-clad 15-year-old black girl by her hair and sitting on her to keep her from moving. At one point, he pulls his gun on other children he deems too close for comfort, sending them scattering in fear.
White adults can be seen hovering the entire time, declining to object to Casebolt's behavior. A photo later surfaced of a sign reportedly posted at the pool after the incident: "Thank you McKinney Police for keeping us safe."
But safety was never really the issue here. None of the children were armed, after all, and the only violence that occurred was reportedly instigated by either white residents or police officers. What seems more likely is that these black children had the bad luck of entering a space where they were fundamentally not welcome, despite the invitation of their friend, who hosted the party and lived in the area.
And as the white teen who shot the video told BuzzFeed News, "I think a bunch of white parents were angry that a bunch of black kids who don't live in the neighborhood were in the pool."
Shocking. So, we come to the root of the problem: Throughout the 20th century, maintaining this kind of white space — from neighborhoods to schools to pools — has been a key facet of racial inequality, centralizing resources and scooting non-whites into various levels of deprivation. Such spaces also come with their own kind of entitlement: A defining feature is their ability to regulate interactions with black people, making uninvited blackness a major cause for concern.
Black encroachment into these spaces was met with brutality during the Jim Crow period, seen in the violent beatings leveled at blacks during Civil Rights-era lunch counter sit-ins and other similar protests. And while this vicious regulation has since been made legally defunct, it still exists de facto: Don't want black people around? Call the police. Don't like what black people are doing, even if it poses no actual threat to you? Call the police.
"Call the police," is America's go-to solution for any black-involved concern, violent or otherwise. Even some police officers are getting tired of hearing it:
"People. People. People," one officer wrote on Reddit. "If you're going to be a racist, stereotypical jerk... keep it to yourself. Don't call the police and make them get involved into your douchebaggery."
If only more Americans could exercise such restraint. And if only the police who respond could keep it together long enough to keep from starring in another racist cop video. Maybe then we could avoid another McKinney altogether.
Correction: Jan. 3, 2017
A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the age of the teenager who was thrown to the ground by a police officer in McKinney, Texas. She was 15 at the time.