The Original Karen

In 1955, a Mississippi white woman accused a 14 year old black boy from Chicago of groping her sexually and looking at her menacingly. As a result, two white men marched to the boy’s aunt’s home where he was staying and snatched him from it, threatening the family that if they said anything, they’d kill them. The two men then proceeded to beat the boy brutally in a barn – loud enough for plenty of witnesses to hear his cries – before tying him to a fan from a cotton gin, driving him to a nearby river, shooting him and tossing his body in the water.

The boy was almost completely unrecognizable to his family who had to identify him. At his funeral, his mother insisted on an open casket that showed his bloated and beaten face to the world and is widely considered one of, if not THE, catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Those men – who were later acquitted of murder by an all-male, all-white jury – admitted to the murder in a magazine interview years later. The woman? In 2008, she admitted she made up the claim that killed the boy in the first place. As of this post, she is still alive and will likely die a peaceful death one day of old age – a luxury robbed of the young man who died as a result of her false accusation. Her name is Carolyn Bryant. The boy’s name was Emmett Till.

In recent years, social media in the US has been inundated with stories of “Karen,” (or, depending on the incident, I’ve seen “Becky” “Sharon” and “Connie”) an amalgamation of the I-need-to-speak-to-your-manager, entitled upper middle class constituency of white women who often clutch their pearls in the presence of unfamiliar Black men and simply can’t when Black people appear to be overly jovial. “Karen,” as these stories demonstrate, is highly sensitive to Black “misbehavior” and is quick to call in the cavalry (i.e. the police) when Black people won’t comply with her earnest demands. Some of these stories have been so off-the-wall, they’re almost comical. Some have been more sinister.

The reason, however, this “Karen” trend isn’t just some unfortunate, but insignificant viral video phenomenon is because it’s part of a very well-established history of white women – knowing that in this country, perhaps nothing provokes the ire of a certain population more than the idea of a Black man threatening a white woman – making threats to Black men & boys, very much aware of the real possibility that the ensuing result could be fatal for the Black man. The thing all of these “Karen” videos have in common is that the unspoken premise behind them is mutually understood: if I call the cops on you, they will believe me over you and they will protect me from you. If they come, we both know you won’t be the one they came to serve.

That’s why it’s important we not make the mistake of disconnecting the direct relationship between the recent so-called “Central Park Karen incident (when Amy Cooper, a supposedly liberal white woman, broadcast her intent to make made a false 911 call on Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher who had just asked her to leash her dog) and the heinous, disgusting murder of George Floyd.

Amy Cooper had heard the stories. Amy Cooper knew what happened to Tamir Rice, Terence Crutcher, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Walter Scott, Ahmaud Arbery, and the endless list of names that became overwhelming hashtags in the wake of their deaths at the hands of merciless police officers and vigilantes. Amy Cooper knew the police were more likely to side with her than a Black man. Amy Cooper knew that by warning the officers in advance that Christian Cooper was, in fact, that kind of Black man, they’d be even more likely to shoot first and ask questions later. Amy Cooper knew that in America, even if all of that was caught on camera or there were witnesses who clearly could rebut the initial narrative, no one would be held accountable if something happened to Christian Cooper. Amy Cooper figured Christian Cooper knew this too. Her first warning that she was going to make a false report was Amy Cooper cocking her deadly weapon. When she actually made the call, she had effectively begun firing shots at Christian Cooper’s head.

We keep calling racists ignorant. Let’s stop: they know exactly what they’re doing. Amy Cooper called the police in hopes that upon their arrival, they would do what the slave patrols did to Black enslaved persons generations ago, what the Ku Klux Klan did to terrorize Black citizens in the Deep South during the post-Reconstruction era, what those white vigilantes in Mississippi did 65 years ago to young Emmett Till, and what would tragically happen to George Floyd at the hands – and under the knees – of 4 Minneapolis police officers a week later. Amy Cooper was making a direct threat to Christian Cooper’s life and she knew it. She was banking on the presumption that he knew it too. We all knew it. We’ve all known it.

So, when I said stop treating racists as ignorant because they know what they’re doing, this is what I mean. This has been going on for generations. When we talk about systemic racism, what we are talking about is a system so embedded with bias in its very processes, that no matter who or what you insert into the variables – no matter how many Black police chiefs you hire, no matter how many Black officers you recruit, no matter what the political zeitgeist is at the time – the outcome is still racist, oppressive to vulnerable communities of color, and protects the existing power structure that has historically marginalized Black and brown people. Both in the story of Emmett Till and the story of Amy Cooper, the white antagonists were confident in a system that would side with them over Black people. Their cavalier attitudes in the midst of effectively putting a hit out on another human being is a reflection of a system and the people who relied on it who had so grown accustomed to our societal de-humanization of Black people that both would challenge the mere premise of that context.

There’s simply no time to continue playing stupid when it comes to the people who purposefully call the police on Black people in a clear attempt to terrorize them and, in some cases, inflict violence on them. This is not to say that Black people should be above the law. But Black people shouldn’t be underneath it either. If there was true equality under the law, Emmett Till would be an old man today and Amy Cooper would never have even thought to make that 911 call.


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