On being rich and white when the cops knock on your door

When I heard a knock on our door at 5:30 in the morning, I was pretty confused. The UPS folks don’t usually come by until about, oh, 12 hours later than that. And while we do have one annoying neighbor, these days he saves his critiques of our lawn management for people who aren’t me.

I was awake and C-Man was not, so I pulled on my robe and went downstairs. I turned on the light. I saw a uniformed Austin police officer. That made me feel perfectly safe, so I opened the door.

The officer, and his partner who showed up soon thereafter, were not looking for us. (If they had been, I would have been even more confused. I do not have time for criminal behavior right now.) They were looking for a young man who got in a fight and now has a warrant out for his arrest. (Why he wasn’t arrested at the time is beyond me.) He gave our address as his home address. (Why they didn’t check his ID is beyond me.) I visited with the extremely polite officers for several minutes about who lived in the house, how long we had lived here, the rental history of the house before we bought it. I told them I had never seen the man on the arrest warrant. They thanked me for my time, apologized several times for waking me up, and departed.

I went back to bed.

There are so many issues wrapped up in that one encounter between a homeowner and two police officers. When I answered the door, they encountered a thin, pretty (?), white woman speaking well-organized English with an American accent. When I told them we owned the house, they probably made some assumptions about our financial situation. And even before they got to the house, they drove into a well-kept residential neighborhood that’s mostly occupied by white folks. There was almost nothing I could have added to make them more likely to treat me politely, except possibly a nightshirt with “I Love Jesus” cross-stitched on it.

This is privilege, people. Race privilege, class privilege, the privilege that comes with having a body and mind that currently operate the way society thinks they should, the privilege that comes with passing for straight because I can use the term “husband” as long as I don’t mention my undying love for Mira Sorvino, and so on.

How many of my privilege categories could disappear before they would have insisted on searching the house and waking up my family? What if my previous encounters with police meant that I didn’t even feel safe opening the door? How many of the categories would go before the encounter was 100% likely to end with a police officer pulling out a gun?

Cops have to make risk assessments. It’s part of their job. But when my dad says that if you end up in jail you most likely did something wrong, that’s crap. How could cops not be just like the rest of us? Heads shoved full of racist and other garbage by the society we live in? Giving me the benefit of the doubt because I look right, act right, live in the right neighborhood. For all they know, I could have a meth lab in my kitchen. (Which I don’t. My mother in law’s steamed chard is plenty hazardous enough for me, thanks.)

If anything had gone awry that morning and I had ended up in jail, or shot dead, it would have hit the news. It would have been unusual and shocking. But because of my privilege, I didn’t have to think about that much when I opened the door. Having the police show up before sunrise was little more than a curiosity.

I’m pretty sure it’s not that way for most people.

3 thoughts on “On being rich and white when the cops knock on your door

  1. angelina

    I really love this post. You bring up very important questions. I look a lot more suspicious than you do on the best days, I live behind a metal ghetto door, have a scary black dog, and I still get the benefit of the doubt when the police come looking for the miscreants who used to live in my house before we bought it. What makes them so sure I’m not related to the people they’re looking for? But I never stopped to consider that as a privilege, which it most certainly is.

    What’s really truly disturbing to me is that many of the similarly privileged white folks in my town are paranoid about the police, they think police are just here to push the “regular” folks down and force us to submit to unconstitutional searches of our property- what’s sick is that none of the people I’ve met who have this view (lots of them in this weird little town) have absolutely no personal experience to warrant such paranoia and they have been experiencing the same degree of privilege that I have in that the police actually treat them with automatic respect that they might not even deserve, just because they’re white and speak well enough, and seem like “good” god-fearing people. They have no idea how much worse it is for good people in this town who happen to be Mexican.

Comments are closed.