It happened because a white man was scared.
Chase Coleman was on a park road, probably lost and confused, having straggled far behind the pack — he’s a cross-country runner from Syracuse, N.Y. — when the white man got out of his car and shoved him. A witness said Chase flew back 10 feet and landed on his backside. Because that white man was scared.
He had no reason to be. As described by witnesses in the Washington Post and on Syracuse.com, Chase is a gangly black kid, 15 years of age, who weighs about 130 pounds. The white man is said to be very tall and to weigh twice that. But that white man was scared.
Fifty-seven-year-old Martin MacDonald told police he feared that Chase — on foot, unarmed, wearing a runner’s uniform with a number pinned to his chest — might mug MacDonald’s wife, who was in the car next to him. MacDonald was also incensed the boy did not respond to his commands to get out of the road. But Chase has autism and is nearly nonverbal. He doesn’t respond to much of anything.
Except running. He’s not very good at it, often finishes last. But his mom says being on his high school track team is one of the few ways he has ever been able to participate with others, to connect to the world beyond his unknowable thoughts. He loves running. Or did. Chase turned in his uniform after the Oct. 14 incident.
His mother sought a warrant to arrest her son’s attacker on a charge of harassment, which carries a maximum 15-day sentence. In an act of breathtaking moral obtuseness, a judge in Rochester, where this happened, turned her down. In a victory for systemic bigotry, the judge is African-American. On Monday, police said their investigation was ongoing.
Which is all well and good. But try to picture some burly black man assaulting an autistic white boy. Try to conceive of authorities still hemming and hawing about it almost three weeks later. You can’t. Not even Stephen King has that much imagination.
How many times have black people bled because white men were scared? Of retribution or uprising. Of robbery or rape. Of social equality and the loss of place and prerogative. Of blackness itself.
Tamir Rice was shot and killed within two seconds because a white man was scared.
Trayvon Martin was stalked and killed because a white man was scared.
Levar Jones was shot while complying with a state trooper’s command because the trooper, a white man, was scared.
White men’s fear has long been the story of black people’s lives and deaths. It is a story told in spectacle lynchings and burning schoolhouses, in poll taxes and restrictive covenants.
Someone will say violent crime statistics justify a white man’s fear. They don’t. To the contrary, they warn that if you are fated to be victimized, the attacker will probably look a lot like you. Someone else will say that not all white men are scared and that some actively fight against fear. This, of course, is true.
But what does that matter to Chase? How do you explain any of this to an indrawn boy who had been used to adults being kind to him? How do you tell him that he terrifies some people just by standing in a road, lost? How do you make him understand what can happen when white men are scared?
Consider that a man assaulted him, then justice betrayed him, and that our whole history suggests it could have been much worse. Then ask yourself: Who should be frightened of whom?
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.