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“I wasn’t trying to offend anyone.” This seriously has to be among the most ludicrous cop-outs of all time. These six silly words make it clear that 1) The speaker or writer actually knows that he or she offended someone; 2) The speaker or writer is pathetically unaware of the difference between effect and intent; and 3) The recipient should suck it up and get over the allegedly unintended and non-harmful remark.
Despite the clearly ridiculous logic that underlies this huge dodge of responsibility for what one freely emits from his or her vocal cords, a quick perusal of news will find it to be a common refrain from people of all sorts. While always problematic, it is even more so when uttered by people in power, as their institutional position and social status should make them models for the most thoughtful and careful rhetoric. That is often not the case.
The latest example that got me ranting this morning came from a report in my local newspaper, The Miami Herald, which discussed the firing of three rookie police officers in Miami for exchanges in a group chat in which they described using predominantly black neighborhoods as target practice. Yes, that’s right, these officers somehow thought it was funny or clever to refer to Overtown and Model City, two of the city’s historically black neighborhoods, as a location for practicing their accuracy with a lethal weapon. They even referred to the residents as “moving targets.”
This behavior comes amidst national attention to police shootings of black males, and at a time when the department is under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Justice for a host of questionable shootings. Nearby, officers in N. Miami Beach were found a year ago to be using real photos of black men for target practice.
Naturally, the fired officers and their defenders claimed they were just joking and that they did not intend any harm. Because one of the officers is black and another has a black grandfather, the police union has argued that they cannot be considered racists and that they should have been reprimanded but not fired. As if we aren’t all influenced by the toxic air of racism that rains down on us every day. Others have argued that the officers were merely young and did something dumb.
When your job is to protect and serve the very communities for which you have expressed clear disrespect, these remarks are far from just impulsive and stupid. They speak volumes about the way you are likely to interact with residents and do nothing but set back the efforts to bridge the divide between police and some black communities.
The most absurd response has come from the officers’ attorney, Stephan Lopez, who maintains that they have grounds to sue the city for discrimination because…wait for it…others who have made even more racist remarks faced lesser sanctions. If that isn’t just too much.
Since the officers and their defenders seem befuddled by their firings, I shall bring some much needed clarity with a series of declaratives. Yes, your remarks are racist. No, the color of your skin does not absolve you from discriminating based on race—there have always been people of color who suffer from the internalized oppression and dominant culture pressure to target their own. Yes, you control what you say or write so you are responsible for it. No, you do not get to determine whether someone else is offended. Yes, you should apologize, but that’s probably not enough. No, you should not be allowed to work with communities you describe with disdain, disrespect, or prejudice, let alone work there with the authority of the state to carry and use a lethal weapon.
And for all of us: Can we please stop pretending our words don’t matter by saying “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”