Race, Discretion, and Policing

As Bill de Blasio’s term as mayor of New York takes shape, I’m thinking about the stop and frisk issue. Just the other day his administration announced that they would not appeal the recent decision handed down against the most egregious of police practices. Police Commissioner Bratton then announced that the NYPD would no longer deploy squads of rookie cops to high crime areas as part of their initiation into the world of urban policing. I think that’s wise, but there is something more fundamental about policing that needs to be realized.

I taught cops, would-be cops, and retired cops for 35 years at the City University of New York. Here’s what I think I learned: policing is driven by rules that define your career and by laws that tell you what you can do, not what you must do. Consequently, police, who are civil servants, are conservative in their practice and jealous of their discretionary prerogatives. So, for instance, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few years ago when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by Sgt. James Crowley at the front door of Gates’ own home, Sgt. Crowley acted as many line officers would and as most supervisors regret–he arrested a man for challenging his use of police power discretion in choosing how to act. Many New Yorkers are aware of this dynamic. It’s not against the law to do what Gates did, but Crowley had the discretionary power to remind him just who was in charge. At this level, race was not necessarily a factor. Power, and I suspect, class, was.

That having been said, the other thing I know, from being a white professor of African American lit and having a Black son, now a man in his 40s, is that most whites assume Blacks are culpable EXCEPT for the Black people they know, whom they assume to be exceptions. White theories of the distribution of racial execptionality have no basis in fact, but they are deeply held. That’s why any given white man can tell you he has Black friends; he does. But he thinks his friend or friends are exceptions to the rule of Black sociopathology and suspects every Black person he doesn’t know. That’s where race enters into Sgt. Crowley’s practice.

Nevertheless, at the specific core of police mistreatment of civilians is the jealous regard for discretion, such that even Black police officers brook no question of their discretionary choices by Black civilians. Sgt. Crowley’s Black colleagues could have done the same thing Crowley did because they are cops; Sgt Crowley did it because he is a cop AND because he is white.



English teachers at every level, from pre-k to doctorate, watch with dismay (too weak! Horror?) as the apostrophe goes the way of the –whatever endangered species you are currently supporting with a tax-credited contribution.

 The poor mark causes such confusion that some (http://www.killtheapostrophe.com/; http://grammar.about.com/b/2007/05/31/the-campaign-to-abolish-the-apostrophe.htm)   have suggested that it be eliminated entirely to avoid chaos and, dare I say, guilt. Common eruptions of both arise when one is forced to make a plural, e.g. “tomato’s” or “Honda’s.” Or perhaps when one has to indicate ownership, e.g. “it’s” or “their’s.” All of these are wrong.

 The simplest solution from the old school was memorization but I prefer explanation. Everyone within the sound/sight of my voice/text can avoid the problem of the apostrophe by remembering one simple fact:

— the apostrophe is a mark that stands in for/takes the place of one or more missing letters–

 Here is an example. If I want to show that Walter owns a car, I can write “Walter’s car.” The reason I can do this is that the apostrophe stands in for the letters “hi” in the word “his.” The complete un-apostrophed construction is “Walter his car.” Similarly, but on the surface, contradictorily to our notion that apostrophes always make possession clear, “it’s about time” doesn’t mean “it his about time” but “it IS about time.”

 So, for another example, if you want to talk about the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, you would write “the Constitution’s Second Amendment establishes the right to bear arms” and you would be really saying “the Constitution its Second Amendment….” Here the apostrophe stands in for the “it” in “its.”

 [The trick with apostrophes is to know what letters are being substituted for. That is why, for instance, making the plural of “Honda” by adding an apostrophe and an s makes no meaning—in the construction “seven Honda’s” nothing is being substituted for; something (the apostrophe) is just being added for no good reason.]

 But you may well ask, could it not be that “the Constitution’s” might be read as “the Constitution his,” with the apostrophe standing in for the “hi” in “his”? Well, no, since the Constitution has no gender.  Unlike nouns in other Western languages, English nouns don’t carry formal gender identities. We use pronouns: “he,” “she,” “it” when we want to do that. The assignment is usually pretty arbitrary. But with apostrophes you can only choose between the male gender and the ungendered: “his” or “its”—never “her.” You can’t write “Linda’r car” and expect folks to understand you mean “Linda her car.”

 So, what’s (what is) up with that? Who OK’d (OKed) this gendered decision? No one knows, it seems, and aside from your reporter here, no one has much considered it. But it is, nevertheless, the case that English denies, in grammar, the capacity of female nouns to show possession except in the presence of a male construction.

 Here is my proposition: I think the historicized basis for this rule should be pretty clear. It was not until the 19th-cetury in English speaking countries that women could inherit property exclusive of male oversight, either by male relative or guardian. See, for example, the struggle over inheritance in “Downton Abbey” as Lady Mary’s share of the estate is seems up for grabs. By the time this situation was changed by the Married Women’s (ironic!) Property Act of 1870 [except for the peerage], the grammar rules covering the use of the apostrophe were long since fixed.

 Therefore, what we have is a grammar “rule “ (unlike the French, we have no academy that codifies such rules; we are fundamentally usage-driven speakers and writers in English) that reflects the condition of women under property law when the usage began to evolve, sometime prior to the 14th century.

 I’ll (I will) close now as my wife’r (wife her) desire to be on time at a brunch overrides my (and your, not “you’re”) all-consuming interest in this topic.


Here are two sonnets I posted earlier today to Facebook. I like them. They were written over forty years ago, when I was a graduate student. I told myself that winter that I would try out the sonnet. I saved ten of the twenty two I drafted and then kept four. These are two.




I have not walked on whiter days
Nor felt the sun’s ice-blue presence so
As on this day. Winter, as though
To claim dominion, lays
Too firm fingers on my soul
And all his nature’s strength
Invades my world; the length 
And depth of myself feels cold
And memory whispers images of past
Warnings, how winter’s gentle alarms
Sighed disaster, the cool arms
Of his messenger taking me at last.
How quiet a turn–the sun’s pale presence after winter rain,
The sharpening of summer loves into winter’s pain.

Winter dusk, in waves of grey despair,
Engulfs the world. White ices grown brown
And dead give off muddy clouds in the heavy air;
Black trees, dried grasses all broken down
Around themselves, an evergreen
Turns rusting red along its tips.
Back down cold hostile alleys once clean,
Now ragged with the husks of frozen rotted scraps, slip
Thin yellow ugly dogs with half-icy sores.
Their bleeding feet leave sign for other beasts
That come on winter nights to sniff such spoor,
To lick the rotting ice, to feast.
We cling at this late hour to the myth of day
But fear that winter’s night will have the final say.




Funny how things happen, no? No sooner had I posted the introduction to my desire for a new version of part of the past, than the present and future caught up to me.

That is to say, the very next day two new projects appeared in my inbox that I can’t really turn down and, as these matters go, they require me to be responsible for my time to others. Then, too, I found myself avoiding the unpleasant (if I call myself a writer) evidence that I don’t really know how to tell the story I want to tell—an absence of technique, an inability to control tone, something.

Most problematic has been the problem of memoir’s effect on those involved in it. The issue is that although my wife told the story as she experienced it eight years ago in print, the idea of me writing about those days too painful for her even now. I’m not sure what I think about this kind of problem. I can understand an argument that holds that her writing was cathartic for her in difficult times (obviously true) but my writing is simply a reminder of those painful times. Her telling of the story her way serves to, if not erase, then mitigate the consequences of decisions I made, while my writing about those same decisions do not mitigate their consequences at all but are experienced as actions, as if saying what I did, and why, is the same as doing it all again.

Some of you have written to encourage me to keep going with my attempt; some of you praised my candor. I really appreciate those notes and so let me try to live up to their point: I am glad I don’t have to write this. Living it was hard and painful for many people I loved; for others, and for me, it was that but it was also liberating. Writers are supposed to know how to live with pain, to own it, as I have written before in this space, but I am not sure that the pain we cause others can or should be embraced or celebrated, even in pursuit of our own growth. Oh, in the abstract, as a matter of principle that we can sometimes pass off as necessity, yes; but not really in the lives of people we know and love.

Well, that’s it. I won’t write it. A friend of both of ours (maybe more a friend of mine, though she is very fond of Nan) has written saying she wants to write it. Maybe she will. I have no idea what she understands. If she does write the story, I’ll be interested to see what she thinks happened. Meanwhile, you can all go to Nan’s book for the most current version.

So, thank you and I hope I can keep up with this space while I get these other projects underway. If I skip a week, I know many if not most of you won’t really miss it, but if you do, just check back in from time to time. I’ll catch up.


Version One: In June, 2002, after twenty-two years of marriage, I began dismantling it. Over the next two years, in fits and starts, I left my wife, alienated my children, and made most folks around me miserable; those that weren’t miserable were uncomfortable, to say the least. Then, in the spring of 2004, I came to my senses, left the young woman (37 years younger) for whom I had created this mess, and began a process of reconciliation with my wife that her best friends thought, I am sure, ill-conceived. This version is basically that described in my wife’s powerful essay, “Chapter Four You Break up: A Journal,” which she published in the book she edited in 2006, Cut Loose: (Mostly) Older Women Talk About the End of (Mostly) Long-Term Relationships (Rutgers University Press). I recommend that you get the book, not only for her essay but for the others therein.

Version Two: This version has yet to be written but will be pursued here. I undertake to do that because 2014 is the tenth year since my wife and I came together again after the events sketched out (somewhat one-sidedly) above. We have stayed together and it looks as though we will make it to the “natural” ends of things as we are both now in our seventies. I have wanted to give an account of those two difficult years from my perspective, not so much to correct “the record” (although some of that will be done) as to examine some assumptions and to give voice to experiences that have not, to my mind, found their way adequately before an audience.

 Preliminary: Before I start, I have to admit to some reluctance to take this on, for several reasons. One is that this blog has been considerably more personal already than I had intended it to be and I don’t want to seem self-indulgent or solipsistic. Another is that my wife’s essay is so well-written, so pitch-perfect in tone, and so painful (for me) to read, that I need to avoid any suggestion that I disagree with its fundamental evocations of loss and fear. How to write my own account with as much skill without seeming to be “answering” hers is daunting. And finally, I don’t know how much I want to say. I don’t want to open old arguments now long settled. I don’t want to force unwanted memories to the surface for my wife or my children (at least two of whom read this from time to time). Nevertheless, I want to try to do justice to those years, so let me begin, actually, near the end. One scene and then we will begin in earnest at the very beginning next time:

On the afternoon of March 9, 2004, Sue (a pseudonym) put the last of her things in the car she had borrowed from her brother. She took the comforter her mother had made for her to bring into our shared apartment and she took the new rice cooker. Except for a few books and clothes we had boxed up together, everything else had been taken away by her brother days ago, while I was at work. It was raining slightly, I think. Memory is tricky. Maybe it wasn’t raining; in literary studies we are told to beware the “pathetic fallacy,” that unfortunate tendency of the less-talented writer to make Nature respond to the protagonist’s emotional state. As a young student I was told to appreciate Flaubert if for no other reason than he made the sun shine and birds to sing at Emma Bovary’s funeral. Rain or no, we cried and then Sue left, as I had asked her to do. I never saw her again.

The Past is a Foreign Country


(*L . P. Hartley, The Go-Between 1953)

The old year closes, a new year looms. I start my 74th year thinking about the previous 73. I come across L. P. Hartley’s observation, above. If the past were, really, a foreign country, how might we get there. The technology may be within our reach, if the folks at CERN are clever enough. But what about the bureaucracy of travel into the past? Let us consider…

L. P. Hartley

Burrow House



Dear Mr. Hartley,

Thank you for inquiring about travel to Hastings for 1066. We have attached a list of small Saxon H&Bs in the area but if a hovel is not what you are looking for, there are some keeps and a few wattle and stick single occupancy huts still available for April.

If you don’t mind, we’d like to know what interests you in southern Angleond these days. We haven’t had much travel, although there has been an increase in cross-channel day trips of late. Yours is the first inquiry we’ve had from the twentieth century. Let me remind you that a visa is required for travel from any date later than 1105. Forms may be requested from Harald, Scribe, Weir-next-to-the-Suge-Brush, Essex 20012.

Hope to see you soon,

Aethelred the Ready (lol)


Hon. Anthony Scalia


Washington, DC 20543

Judge Scalia,

Matters here are running ahead of our ability to keep account but your request to attend the Constitutional Convention has been forwarded to me here in Philadelphia. As you may or may not know (I see your letter is dated January 1, 2014), 1787 has been an hectic year and to tell you the truth, our “national State Department” exists in name only; the “states” are fairly jealous of the right to control traffic in and out of their borders. So, if you wish to come to Philadelphia from 2014, I will have to ask you to submit proof that you are a white male landowner born on the continent of North America (excluding Canada and not in any land claimed by the French or Spanish crowns).  And could you perhaps give us some account of the origins of the name “Scalia”? You are not a Papist, are you? It would be good if you are a Quaker or a slaveholder in 2014.

As trade relations between the twenty-first and the eighteenth centuries are still in negotiation, I have to ask you the extent to which you intend to engage in commerce or labor while in the state and whether you intend to reside permanently. If the latter is the case, please give the names and addresses and titles of three (3) white male landowners who can sponsor your residency here.

Please apply for a visa for Pennsylvania, 18th Century, tour or guest worker as the case might be, at our office in the National Archives, your city (Washington? Really!?) and include the information and documents requested.

Please study the enclosed list of items not provided by the state and come prepared.

Hasbrouck Hollingsworth

Sec’y to the Undersecretary for Foreign Times and Places


The United States of America (more of less—lol)


Phillip Roth

c/o The Wylie Agency

250 W. 57th street

Suite 2114

New York, NY 10107

Dear Mr. Roth:

I’m afraid this office must deny your request for a visa to conduct research for a novel in Newark, 1933-35. We are aware that you have visited Newark in memory several times but that is just not the same thing, as I can imagine you already understand. Merely remembering a time and place does not establish permanent residency or right to re-entry. You are no doubt aware of the “Madeleine” case (documents attached). I am sure if M. Proust can make do, so can you.

We do not like to appear arbitrary, so let me remind you that certain protocols were established between the twenty-first century and the twentieth century, protocols that are designed to protect, in this case, Newark during the Depression, from exploitation and from unanticipated claims on our already strapped resources. It IS the Depression, after all, and if every son and daughter of old Newark rushed back here just as soon as technology allowed, how could an already distressed infrastructure manage the increase in demand for services?

On a personal note, let me just say that I know your folks and I remember you from temple and I was disgusted that day on the bus with you and the baseball mitt. I am sure you must have retired by now; you should leave well enough alone.

Elizabeth Slipmann (I’m not laughing)

Assistant to the Supervisor

Port of Newark

New Jersey


As it’s Christmas Week, it seems fitting to tell as much as I understand about my parents’ changing relationship to Jesus or Christianity or religion in general. It’s an unusual odyssey.

 They were both raised as Protestants, my mother from a long line of Methodists who brought their somewhat dour practices from Maine through Illinois into pre-Civil War Kansas. My father’s people were more fundamental in their beliefs, foreshadowing today’s evangelicals. They were poor white southerners the rigors of whose trek from 18th century Georgia to early 20th century Texas were ameliorated by a more demonstrative, Bible-centered belief.

 When they married, my father followed my mother’s Methodism and when I was born, albeit somewhat problematically and in a Roman Catholic hospital at that, it was into Methodism that I was baptized. I grew up, then, in a church-going family; we went together to Sunday morning services, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday night prayer meetings. I spent even more time at the church, whatever town we were in, at Methodist Youth Fellowship.

 In Shreveport, Louisiana, we attended Mangum Memorial Methodist Church and my father served on the Board of Stewards there when I entered high school. My mother taught adult Sunday School there and much of our social life revolved around relationships formed there. In my senior year of high school, however, my parents left Methodism.

 I had already decided I was an atheist but my parents were not interested in my arguments about the existence of God. Theirs was a social problem, a very real social problem. Sometime in 1957, two Black families appeared at the church to worship. They asked to enter and to join the membership of the congregation. This was still the Jim Crow South and our church was made up of white, mostly lower middle class and working class strivers, men and women unsure of their own place in a changing America. The Board of Stewards met and denied the Black families’ request and added a section to the church’s bylaws that not only set down a rule of segregation but suggested in its rhetoric that African Americans were not fit for God’s love.

My father was angered by this and resigned. My mother was less incensed (she had voted for Strom Thurmond on the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948, but that sort of political and racial myopia was pretty much in her past by 1957; she had resisted efforts by the local White Citizens’ Council to organize teacher resistance to desegregation in the school for the deaf where she was, at that time, an uncredentialed but skilled teacher) but she supported my father’s decision even though it sundered almost all of their  social ties in the neighborhood.

They had other friends, however, John Wray and Margaret Mary Young in particular, who supported them. John Wray was the director of the local little theater group to which my mother had dragged my father two years previously as she rehearsed a small role she had got. As it turned out, they both became stalwarts of the theater and acted in almost every production for John Wray. They also became quite close to the Youngs and when Dad told John Wray and Margaret about his decision to leave Mangum Church, they, Roman Catholics, invited my parents to come to church with them. Before long, my parents began to take instruction in the Church and formally converted just after I graduated from high school. Their respective families were surprised and disappointed. My maternal grandmother told my mother’s siblings that my mother had “turned” Catholic.

 They remained in the Church for many years, as their fortunes ebbed and flowed. My father loved the ritual and the physical beauty of the church but my mother was only lukewarm. The reason, I have come to believe, was that the church was too institutional and too much focus was on the priest, not enough on my mother. I know that sounds like a harsh evaluation, but subsequent religious events may support my sense of things.

Many years passed and one year, when my parents were almost desperately poor and caring for my mentally ill aunt in Denver, my father decided to go up into the Rockies with some Jesuits for a retreat to seek guidance, to make a novena, a specifically targeted series of nine prayer regimens. When he returned, he had no precise plan but felt God had heard his request. My mother assured him that indeed He had and she knew just what was to be done. While he was gone, she had met a woman who introduced her to Buddhism and in a few short, intense days she had decided that their lives would change if they embraced Buddhism. That, she convinced my father, was God’s plan.

 My parents remained practicing Buddhists until their deaths. I told them that I hoped this would be their last conversion because the only step left was some sort of pure evanescence, some translation of selves into essential smoke. My mother did not think that was funny; in fact, she was quite angry with any of us (me, wife, children) who would not follow her into the Lotus Sutra and she would cry and express her sense of filial betrayal when I would refuse to teach my children her beliefs or let her do so. I know she did so despite my disapproval.

 My sense of my mother’s religious practice was its centeredness on her presence. Somehow she appropriated every part of the ceremony and it was her performance of it that was crucial to its authenticity. Every refusal to participate was not a loss to the reluctant one but a betrayal of her; if you did not accept her offering of this treasure, then she was diminished, invalidated. She was trapped and yet owned her own trap.

My father, I came to see, took the path of least resistance, as he often did, and practiced with her, celebrating her excesses of piety but shrugging ruefully to me on my visits home when I asked if he were happy in his belief. So when he came to die, I was not surprised that my father asked me to see to it that he had a Roman Catholic death—priest, last rites, a funeral mass. He missed the Church, he told me, had never lost his affection for it, and had tried to make my mother happy by following the forms she set for their Buddhism but at heart, at 84 he was the Roman Catholic he had become at 39. He told me he had told her this just that day and I promised I would talk to her about it.

 My mother assured me she understood my father’s feelings and so I left Kansas and returned to New York. A week later he was dead. I returned to Kansas with my family and found, of course, that there were no priests, there had been no last rites, and there was to be no funeral mass. She had no intention, my mother told me, of letting a priest anywhere near my father.

 I confess that I did not make an issue out of any of it. After all, as an atheist, I realized there were no consequences to any of these decisions. As my father was dead, he most certainly was not disappointed and the Buddhist ceremony was no more exploitive by my mother than many other of her religious impositions on us all. As for the competition among the gods for my dead father’s soul? It already belonged to my mother.

 Too grim, so let me say that I enjoy Christmas, enjoy the memories of crèches and carols and trees and I do not feel conflicted about having those memories.