Earlier this year I began organizing a non-profit mentoring group which reaches out to urban youth in the Rochester community. We shuttle them to colleges and universities to discuss high school graduation, college enrollment and various other topics. While recruiting for an event on the phone, a parent asked me about transportation. We provide public bus passes, I said.
“No,” she responded.” I don’t want my child shot dead by any cop,” and she hung up.
I remember sitting by my office phone for what felt like an eternity, trying to grasp the magnitude of what I had just heard. To put it stupidly, I was shocked. I had never heard anyone speak with such transparency on such a grave matter. In an ugly moment I began to blame her. Why distrust a system designed to protect her? Doesn’t she get it? In my experience, police had always protected and served me! It made sense that the system would work for everyone else too.
But as the cold unsettling silence of the dial tone began to choke me, I realized that my limited, pampered perspective did not grant me a right to judge a fear I did not understand.
No shocker here
I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. Coastal California. Where nearly everyone graduates on time from suburban high schools, and the kids are not shot by cops or dealers, and the one girl who did disappear (over twenty years ago) has a large wooden reward sign still posted, reminding the town of its rarity of misfortune. We don’t fear the police. The only time you fear the police is when do something wrong: you are a criminal, you are on the highway speeding, you are drinking underage (or are indulging in some rebellious combination of the three).
I inherently trust the police. I was taught to. I now have a cousin who is a cop and he is a wonderful human being; once, I was even let off of a speeding ticket just for knowing him.
So there I am hovering over the phone in my delirious state. I think of the kids I have met and have worked with: smart, wonderful teenagers trapped in an environment that undervalues them. I realize for the first time in my life—a year removed from moving to Rochester, and after months of mentoring urban youth—that their fear was horribly real. A pervasive fear, unending. I think of all the statistics I’ve heard about and have seen, and I realize racism isn’t just an idea or an inconvenience, but that it is actively working against them, inhibiting their lives.
White culture shock. How embarrassing. It shouldn’t even be a thing, I know. But it is! The world I grew up in was an insular luxury. Truman’s Seahaven. “Fight the Power” was on MTV, and I consumed the entertainment. Now I find my wonderful world has a bitter aftertaste of ignorance.
The new world around me
- Rochester, most segregated schools in America
- Rochester, 9% on time high school graduation rate for black and Latino males
- Rochester, teenage black males are arrested while for waiting for a city bus
- Rochester, recognizing its 50th anniversary of the Rochester Race Riots
- Rochester, where black parents fear the police before they fear their city’s crime
None of this fits into my white world, none of it. I was told we were living in post racism: where we all begin with the same available resources and we all have the same opportunities to succeed.
A PhD candidate I know—a master’s graduate and man of color, well dressed, respectful (which I shouldn’t have to say)—was recently stopped by two white police officers at night because his license plate did not match the neighborhood he was driving in. For thirty minutes he was verbally assaulted until the police abruptly left without an apology. The next day, he tells me the story on the verge of tears; he was rattled, hurt, and disenchanted.
I couldn’t relate. Could you?
I had hoped stories like these were uncommon. Exaggerated. Embellished. But it happens all the time. And for me, at least, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore.
You know this don’t you?
Racial tension, profiling, police brutality, rampant drug use, perpetual entitlement dependability: these are just some of the incredible racial concerns that activists, academics and policy makers dedicate their lives towards solving. And yet, we watch a television program, we judge through the narrow scope of our own experiences, and we assume we have enough information to form prescriptive opinions.
Rarely do we speak with both parties and listen without agenda.
Rarely do we sacrifice the time for reading and research.
Rarely do we do protect others before we protect our own biases.
Instead, we cling to easy answers. We invent categorial blames because it makes us feel accomplished: evil cops, delinquent blacks, “Us vs Them” narratives—narratives that do nothing but widen the chasm of misunderstanding and miscommunication.
Ferguson should have sparked a national dialogue, and for a short time it did. But quickly we caved in and replaced the important questions with sensationalized verbiage and biased jargon. We made decisions about it. We placed labels on it.
And then we walked away.
So what can we do about the black community and police brutality?
The most tempting solution is to join a predetermined side, but I urge you to be better than that.
Real problems require realistic perspectives. I recognize, now, that police officers have been criminals and bullies to minorities in problem cities. Does this statement invalidate good cops everywhere? No. Of course not.
We need to turn away from the easy (non)answers and the either/ors. We must commit ourselves to total understanding, an understanding that comes from listening to all sides, all data, all stories, approaching with immense consideration, knowing police officers can be both good and evil and in between and that blacks are humans and as problematic and as sinful as white people, knowing we may never find an easy solution but believing always in hope and restoration.
I implore you to examine your understanding of modern racism and uncover whatever biases may be influencing it. Otherwise we will continue to breed more ignorance into a population already saturated with indifference, misinformation, and easy determinism. We must do better than that.
My kids require it.