The importance of Black Lives Matter in a white rural West

A Westerner reflects on racial injustice close to home.

 

Two weeks ago, Stanley and I watched in misery as the Dallas police assassinations unfolded on the television in our trailer. Stanley is a directional driller, a Nigerian-American immigrant, and the first black person I’ve worked with in my three-plus years in the oilfield.

Entering our work trailer can feel like donning a virtual-reality headset: We escape from the deafening diesel engines outside only to watch America shoot itself up on our television and separate computer screens. Earlier in the day, Stanley and I had watched the videos of the Alton B. Sterling shooting from Baton Rouge and the aftermath of Philando Castile being shot in Falcon Heights.

As we watched Sterling struggle with two white police officers, I tried to draw Stanley into an intellectual debate. Was Sterling grabbing for a gun in his pocket? How long should an officer wait before pulling the trigger? Did the officers respond from fear and hatred of black people or through fear for their own lives? As Stanley paced between our two offices, I heard the pitch of his West African accent rise. For him, I belatedly realized, this was no intellectual problem. “You’re not using your heart,” Stanley told me. “You’re just trying to reason.”

In 2004, during a post-graduate visit to Texas A&M University, I was riding in a car with my black-studies professor when she was pulled over by police in Bryan, Texas. Before the cop reached her window, I saw her chest heave with deep breaths, and heard her voice quiver when she asked if I had weed on me.

During lectures, when another one of my black studies professors described a “retrenchment” of racial equality — “the white man gives, and then the white man takes it back,” she said — I heard my black classmates sigh with frustration. All of us learned about institutionalized racism, about lynch mob justice, about the Tuskegee Experiment, and about mass incarceration, but there seemed to be something that happened inside my classmates’ guts, inside their chests, that never occurred in mine. 

Stanley lived in New York City for six years before finding a job with an oil company and moving West, but his worldview and self-image were shaped in Nigeria, where law enforcement and other institutions are both run and staffed by black people. He said he’s not as self-conscious about racism as his black friends in New York, and the prospect of finding work in “white town,” as his friends called Colorado, did not deter him. But as we debated the shootings, Stanley told me that he’d been pulled over by small-town police twice already this year. Though both stops were uneventful, he was careful to put his hands on his steering wheel and extend every courtesy to the officers. While police in Nigeria rarely pull a gun, he told me, he’d already seen plenty of footage of U.S. police shootings of black people. He thought of his two boys and he took no chances.

One night, as I walked my bike through the back alleys of Fort Collins, a police officer questioned my route home. I cut him off mid-sentence, riding off to retrieve my notebook from the bar before he gave me permission. I didn’t look behind my back, but he didn’t pursue me. He was white. I am white. Whether it was what I said or how I looked, he was easily convinced that I wasn’t the prowler he suspected.

Living white in the rural West tends to segregate me from all the conflict I see on cable news, and from the visceral fear it engenders within those who live it, to the extent that I have the luxury of complacency, as other white rural Westerners do. After all, very few of us see police interact with black people, and we don’t hear about it firsthand: The vast majority of rural Western counties report a black population of less than 5 percent. But I know, from my conversations with Stanley that racism exists here, fear exists here, anger exists here. As my college courses reminded me, racism is a problem of psychology. Research shows that bias toward other races can occur unconsciously, even in people who claim to have none.

The federal Justice Department announced on June 27th that all agency personnel would receive new training to address implicit bias. For the safety of black residents in the rural West, for all races, for anyone who looks or acts differently than people in our relatively isolated region might expect them to, and for the safety of police, state and local law enforcement should also adopt bias training. Rural Westerners can show solidarity by demanding new efforts toward fair and impartial policing, whether or not a civil rights infraction has been observed. You can even take the bias test online.

I believe that our internal and external environments predict behavior, and building awareness around bias will help communities get ahead of the types of conflicts seen on cable news. Communication technology is far too efficient to excuse myself from addressing these problems. I can get it done from this work trailer.

Neil LaRubbio is a writer and award-winning documentarian. He is writing a reported memoir about his work in the oilfield.