In the wake, both figuratively and literally of a stream of events that have demonstrated a very disturbing view of the intersection of law and justice with regards to the deaths of numerous African-American males in this country among others, we as a society again are having a conversation about race, diversity and justice. While the Michael Brown shooting was divisive for some, although it shouldn’t have been, Eric Garner’s death and subsequent lack of indictment by the grand jury has galvanized waves of protestors across the country of all races and ethnicity. While Ferguson for a minority, produced, property damage and violence, the other protests have been no less angry but even more poignant through sit-ins, die-ins, blocked freeways during rush hour in Washington, DC or in the middle of the night in New York City and Los Angeles or Dallas.
Meanwhile on social media, Twitter in particular has exploded with hashtag conversations about racism and white privilege. When juxtaposed #Crimingwhilewhite and #AliveWhileBlack in addition to #Blacklivesmatter paint a stark and often depressing contrast of the existence of white privilege and the countervailing discrimination faced by black men and women and other minorities. So many of the posts highlight cases where on one hand merely being white represented safety or lack of prosecution while black participants for the same crime were prosecuted. On the other hand cases where unfair burdens of expectation, disbelief, and proof are often required for minorities.
While I have numerous personal examples, too many to name here, I’ll never forget my #alivewhileblack contribution which occurred the day after high school graduation. I was ecstatic about embarking on the next stage of my education and clothing store in Princeton, NJ where my grandparents had come to visit and see where their first generation grandson would be attending college. The notion that it actually occurred across the street from the university makes the following exchange with a white customer even more stunning.
“Congratulations, on your graduation, where are you going to college?” she asked excitedly.
“Princeton” I replied with a sense of accomplishment.
She laughed and responded, “No really where are you going?”
“Princeton” I replied again, after a pause and in disbelief.
“Oh” she replied with a blank stare.
These hashtag conversations are a personal and often, frustrating reminder of realities I have lived as an African-American male my entire life. As a pre-teen, the son of a Detroit father who had lived through the 1967 rebellion/riot(depends on who you ask) I received “the talk” about how to navigate through the streets. That talk had nothing to do with GPS-like directions but everything to do with arriving safely at my “destination” each day. It was a warning to be wary of wrong-doers, fellow citizens at night in particular in Detroit and in DC. Sadly, it also included a warning about law enforcement, which in the wrong circumstances could be just as or more deadly than some criminals. Basically, it included “Beware of cars with tinted windows”, sadly those twin dangers could come riding in cars that looked very similar.
It mattered not that I attended a private school, or an Ivy League university.(I’ve had police traffic profiling encounters near both institutions) It wouldn’t matter if I wore a suit or a hoodie (I’ve worn both and not been able to catch cabs at night.) This issue, which can be tracked back decades, isn’t based specifically on class or socio-economic status, ill-fated chance can be just one traffic stop away. The talk included the use of de-esecalating and non-threatening language. Ironically, things law enforcement officers are trained to do.
I am not anti-law enforcement. I have friends and family members who are police officers and believe the majority of them conduct themselves as they should, sacrificing for the safety of the public. However far too many, STILL, exert undue force, aggression and deadly force. I support marches and protests. However we need POLICY changes. Effective change in these cases must occur before the fact, in Federal, state and local police regulations, particularly with regards to the use of lethal force and the use of the officer’s weapons. Cameras can be helpful, so that we wouldn’t have doubt about what occurred, but it is about more than viewing the incident, as Eric Garner’s family has painfully discovered.
This won’t perfectly address every issue, some of these matters are issues of the heart to be honest, but it will greatly reduce the numbers of people who suffer at the hands of law enforcement run amok. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity in all of the marches and protests, true and lasting change must occur.
On any other day, I would be conciliatory, but today, I am angry. Angry that an issue that existed for my father and his father and his father, still exists for me. Angry that lives are still being lost. Angry that justice isn’t being served. Angry that the reality still exists it could happen to me. Angry most of all, that sadly one day in the near future, I will have to one day sit my yet unborn children down and give them that talk, the same one my father gave me.