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Yale Law Professor Discusses National Unrest Following Deaths Of 2 African Americans


In this moment when unrest and inequality roil so many U.S. cities, we want to turn to Stephen Carter. He's a professor of law at Yale, once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and has written several bestselling novels, including "The Emperor Of Ocean Park." He's also a columnist for Bloomberg View. Stephen, thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHEN CARTER: Thank you for inviting me. I'm sorry it has to be on an occasion of such tragedy and mourning.

SIMON: Well, I am, too, but there's nobody to turn - nobody better to turn to, I think, when we need voices of wisdom and experience. Millions of people have seen the video by now of a Minneapolis police officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd. They've heard that man's cries for help. But is this just one moment - visible moment in a long and often hidden history?

CARTER: It's certainly a long history, and it's certainly a hidden history. We're seeing more of it now. Because of the miracles of technology and social media, we see things that happened in the shadows before. But the truth is, sad though it is, that black people are killed by police at an alarming rate. In fact, one recent study tells us that black people have a five times greater chance per capita of being killed by police when unarmed. It's really quite remarkable data. And so this is simply the latest addition of this terrible, terrible tragedy.

SIMON: Stephen, I hope you don't mind if I put this to you in utterly personal terms. You are a black man. You are the father of a black son. What kind of conversations have to go on in your experience in African American families?

CARTER: I do worry for my son and for all young black men, and some perhaps not so young. Years ago - I remember when our son first got his driver's license, and we warned him about if you're ever pulled over, keep your hands in sight, speak respectfully and so on. If you have to reach into the glove box, tell the officer that's what you're doing - all these things that, really, you would think in a civilized world we shouldn't have to say, but we all know why. We all know why this is true. Because, you know, for centuries now, so much of the West, including America, has been infected, if I can use the word, by a pandemic of hatred, a pandemic of suspicion that rests on the fundamental lie that black people are inferior and white people are superior. That's the lie that permeates our society. And until that lie is undone, we're going to keep seeing incidents like this one.

SIMON: Your family, I know, works with a group called Community Healing Network. And I know you want to talk about what kind of work can be done in communities.

CARTER: So Community Healing Network is founded on the proposition that until we deal with and work toward extinguishing these terrible lies of white superiority and black inferiority, we're not going to make the progress that we need to make. And in particular, we won't stop these instances that happen in these crazy moments when - it could be a police officer, it could be anyone, sees a black man, sometimes sees a black woman, and reacts in a way that is very different than the reaction we all know would happen if that same person were white.

SIMON: Is this as simple a matter of people getting to know each other and not staying inside their own silos?

CARTER: People getting to know each other is always a good thing, and I don't want to suggest that it isn't.

SIMON: Yeah.

CARTER: But it runs deeper than that. These lies themselves so touch our interactions. And I just worry. Thirty years ago, I wrote an article called "When Victims Happen To Be Black" that talked about these stereotypes and how they increase these interactions. And it grieves me to look at how little has changed since then.

SIMON: Professor Stephen Carter of Yale, also a novelist. I can't thank you enough for being with us today, Stephen. Thank you very much.

CARTER: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.