WATERTOWN — When he spoke at Jefferson Community College in Watertown in 2018, journalist Leonard Pitts Jr. drew a huge crowd.
And this wasn’t a bit surprising. Pitts’s columns for the Miami Herald are syndicated in newspapers across the country including the Watertown Daily Times. His essays are among the most popular in our newspaper, which carries him in the Sunday Weekly section.
At JCC two years ago, Pitts examined whether our nation wallowed in denial regarding its racial history through his presentation titled “United States of Amnesia.” Fans from throughout the north country packed the large auditorium to hear him speak.
And Pitts truly delivered. He made a compelling case that we as a nation have forgotten and/or ignored how we’ve historically treated black people. He opened by quoting the biblical passage Hosea 4:6: “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.”
“We’re losing the America we could be because we won’t face the America we were, the America we are,” he said.
It was a privilege to listen to a well-respected public intellectual lay out the facts about our tragic failure to confront this country’s legacy of racism. His determination to compel whites to acknowledge what life has been like for him and many other Black Americans serves as an inspiration for his legion of admirers.
I found it puzzling, then, to read some recent columns by Pitts in which he addressed the phenomenon of referring to some women as Karens. He wrote about this in a piece on July 7, titled “Scared whites will pick up a gun but are too scared to face the truth about themselves,” and then again on July 14, titled “What’s in a name? Less than meets the eye — unless you’re a thin-skinned ‘Karen’” (we ran this column in the July 19 edition of the Sunday Weekly section with the title “Sorry you feel bad, Karen, but nobody roots for Goliath”).
In his July 7 column, Pitts chronicled instances where whites brandished firearms when confronting Black people for incredibly dubious reasons. He correctly pointed out that they’re safeguarding something other than themselves and their property:
“Taken together, these incidents — all caught on video — paint a grim picture of how many white Americans are responding in this summer of racial justice uprising. Namely, with the desperate panic of people who think the race war has come to their doorsteps. They’re breaking out guns and circling the wagons in defense of privilege and prerogative.”
I agree with Pitts that this behavior creates a volatile situation where violence becomes more likely. Black Americans shouldn’t face death or injury merely because some anxious whites refuse to accept the inevitable changes of society.
But using derogatory memes to label women carries its own risks. Calling someone a Karen is to wedge that person into a stereotype, whether it fits or not.
As much as any noted columnist today, Pitts understands the perils of prejudging other individuals; he’s often written about the problems that his fellow Black Americans have experienced as a result. So his willingness to invoke this stereotype is odd.
The Karen meme has certainly evolved over the last few years. A story published July 31 by BBC News offers this:
“To give some examples, ‘Karen’ is associated with the kind of person who demands to ‘speak to the manager’ in order to belittle service industry workers, is anti-vaccination and carries out racist micro-aggressions such as asking to touch Black people’s hair. But a predominant feature of the ‘Karen’ stereotype is that they weaponize their relative privilege against people of color — for example, when making police complaints against Black people for minor or even, in numerous cases, fictitious infringements.”
In today’s climate, Karens are definitely the villain du jour.
“Visuals of Karens exploiting their privilege when things don’t go their way have become Internet shorthand of late for a particular kind of racial violence white women have instigated for centuries — following a long and troubling legacy of white women in the country weaponizing their victimhood,” a Times magazine article published July 6 reported. “In a larger sense, the mainstreaming of calling out the danger that white women and their tears pose has been building up to this moment. There’s the oft-cited stat that 52 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Meanwhile, the constant lies of white women like Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders in service of the Trump administration have made it abundantly clear that white women can and are often complicit in oppressive systems. Coupled with the rise of social media and the smartphone camera, the longtime narrative of white women as helpless victims in need of protection is now being challenged by video evidence of them as instigators of not only conflict but violence.”
There are obviously many instances where the Karen label appropriately describes the woman in question. And it’s true that the idea of the scary Black man menacing white women has been used to subjugate those who have been perpetually victimized by a racist culture.
However, today we too quickly jump to conclusions and render verdicts on the actions of people about whom we know little. We throw around the popularly accepted Karen narrative to belittle women with virtually no consideration of their life stories.
In response to a reported increase in Karen-like incidents, the state Legislature two months ago passed S8492: “An act to amend the civil rights law in relation to reporting a non-emergency incident involving a member of a protected class.” This new provision provides for a civil penalty if someone calls a law enforcement agent “without reason to suspect a violation of the penal law, any other criminal conduct, or an imminent threat to a person or property in whole or in substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation of a person, regardless of whether the belief or perception is correct …”
The legislation resulted in part from the May 25 case of Amy Cooper — the so-called Central Park Karen — involving a confrontation she had with Christian Cooper (no relation), who asked her to put her dog on a leash. She refused, and he tempted her dog with a treat. She called police and said that an African American man was threatening her and her dog.
Christian Cooper videotaped part of the incident and posted it on his Facebook timeline; his sister posted it on her Twitter account. Amy Cooper was pilloried on television, in the press and on social media. She lost her job and offered an apology.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office charged her with filing a false police report, a misdemeanor offense carrying a maximum penalty of incarceration of up to one year. But Christian Cooper declined to cooperate with this investigation, stating that we need to focus on the overall issue of racial bias rather than one individual.
This is utter madness! If a woman believes she may be in danger in the presence of a man she doesn’t know, this law now creates a huge disincentive for her to call for help if she believes she needs it.
It’s already a crime to file a false police report, a charge that must be proven in a court of law using evidence. How many potential Karens need to be assaulted or killed before legislators realize this new provision is harmful?
What if a sexual predator uses dog treats as part of his method of entrapping his victims? A woman will either need to move closer to the man to retrieve her companion animal, thus exposing her to greater peril, or leave the area without her dog.
Calling police to report a perceived threat allows the woman to remain at the scene while maintaining a safe distance. But now she risks having her life destroyed by being labeled a Karen and possibly losing her job, being charged with a misdemeanor crime and facing a civil penalty.
Amy Cooper should have had her dog on a leash from the beginning, and Christian Cooper was well within his rights to ask her to do so. And like every other American, he’s also well within his rights to not be subjected to law enforcement action due solely to his race or ethnicity.
But women are within their rights not to interact with men they don’t know. Videos of Karens doing their Karen thing don’t always tell the whole story.
We don’t know much about their personal background. Could some previous incident have given them a legitimate reason for suspecting strangers under specific circumstances?
Stereotyping anyone is wrong because it leads us to draw conclusions about people with few facts — let’s heed what Pitts reminded us about the lesson of Hosea 4:6! The consequences of stereotyping can be catastrophic, but we now seem more determined to increase these dangers for the sake of momentarily appeasing public sentiment.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com.