The Crime of Birdwatching While Black



By now we have all heard about the case of the black birder and white woman of privilege in Central Park in New York City. Why do I call her a woman of privilege when I don’t really know her or her circumstances? It is because she automatically has a privilege solely by virtue of the colour of her skin, while the black man has a disadvantage solely on account of the different colour of his skin. That is what systemic racism is all about—conferring automatic unearned advantage to people of one colour and at the same time automatically conferring an undeserved disadvantage on people of another colour of skin. It was a perfect example of what I have been blogging about.


In that case Christian Cooper asked a white woman, Amy Cooper, with an unleashed dog, to please put the dog on a leash as the rules of the park required. As Christian Cooper explained in his short but fascinating piece on the incident in the Washington Post, “She refused — and, as shown in a video that went viral, she was soon calling the police and telling them an “African American man” was “threatening” her.”

This article is interesting for 2 very important reasons. First, it shows exactly how systemic racism works. Amy Cooper quickly and automatically reached for her phone while trying to hold on to her unleashed dog and quickly started to phone the police even though it was obvious to us watching the video that she was in no danger from this polite black man. Yet, presumably, she thought she was in danger. Why? It made no sense, but the fact is that white women are quick to sense danger around black men when they are alone. Even when the white women are the real danger to the black men! Just like the white woman in To Kill a Mockingbird. She feared and then blamed the innocent black man. As well, she automatically assumed she as a white woman would be believed and the black man would not be believed. That is because that is how it usually works in the United States (or Canada for that matter).

Both of these are excellent examples of how systemic racism works. White women should fear black men and white women will be believed when they make accusations against black men, even if they are entirely without foundation. A system of racism makes that happen.

In this case it did not work to the woman’s advantage, only because of the fact that the video showing clearly what happened went viral. Had it not been for the video this might have ended very differently. It would not be unreasonable to expect that the police on hearing that a white woman was threatened by a black man would come charging in with guns blazing to protect the innocent white woman from the black thug. That is exactly what you would expect.

Christian Cooper had some interesting things to say about the case in his article in the Washington Post. First, he said,

“…it’s a mistake to focus on this one individual. The important thing the incident highlights is the long-standing, deep-seated racial bias against us black and brown folk that permeates the United States — bias that can bring horrific consequences, as with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis later the same day I encountered Amy Cooper, or just small daily cuts.”


Christian Cooper got it right. Examine the system; not just the individual racist. That is the enemy you won’t see as easily. The important racism is not the racism of individuals, at least in comparison to the racism of the system. That is much more heinous because the system is always more powerful than the individual and because it is much harder to see. The system is usually invisible. The individual—the white woman with a dog and phone in this case—are highly visible and so is her venality.

Christian Cooper highlighted the important issue in this case:

“Why did Cooper so easily tap into that toxic racial bias in the heat of the moment when she was looking for a leg up in our confrontation? Why is it surprising to no one that the police might come charging to her aid with special vengeance on hearing that an African American was involved? And most important of all, how do we fix policing so that scenarios such as this are replaced by a criminal justice system that is truly just and equitable to black people?

Focusing on charging Amy Cooper lets white people off the hook from all that. They can scream for her head while leaving their own prejudices unexamined. They can push for her prosecution and pat themselves on the back for having done something about racism, when they’ve actually done nothing, and their own Amy Cooper remains only one purse-clutch in the presence of a black man away.”


Finally, I found one more thing important about Christian Cooper. He was a man without resentment. He recognized that it was “important to uphold the principle of law, and that those who try to turn racism to their advantage by filing false claims against a person of colour should be held accountable”, but he chose instead to “err on the side of compassion” on the theory that his attacker had suffered enough by losing her job while he had suffered no harm. I found that attitude remarkably inspiring. I wish I could err on the side of compassion more often. Christian Cooper showed me the way.

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