I don’t normally write about race. I don’t consider myself any kind of an expert. But the news has been distressing me lately, until it’s almost all I can think about. Michael Brown, gone from his family, his death unnecessary and the wrong not righted by the justice system. Tamir Rice, a boy my own son’s age, gone from his family, taken also by a police officer. It’s heavy, so heavy.
The response of some people on Facebook and Twitter has been so disappointing. I've seen people writing about the fact that there are also black people who kill white people, as though that somehow is relevant to the matter at hand. This is not about that. Yes, crimes are committed by criminals of every race. Yes, media doesn’t cover all of that. Yes, cops of all races are over-stimulated to commit murder. But this is not about that.
This is about our brothers and sisters turning to us and saying, “We’ve had a huge problem for a long time. We are not safe in our own neighborhoods, we are not safe from police.” Is our response going to be “No, no, you must be mistaken?” Because that was the response of the L.A. Times toward my mother-in-law, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who spent her career in the eighties and nineties trying to expose violence by the LAPD toward the black community in LA. She must have been incredibly frustrated, as the paper acted as a great big gatekeeper of her words, only allowing her to publish what they wanted, turning many of her articles away. And then came the video tapes of Rodney King, and there was proof! America had to take notice. Unfortunately, the justice system didn’t. My mother-in-law passed away in 1999, but I’m sure that today she would be happy about the increased ability of her people to have a voice, to photograph and record violence, to show that the force used against unarmed black people is unnecessary.
Since the verdict that Darren Wilson will not be indicted was announced, there have been peaceful protests around the country. There has also been violence and rioting. (Let me be clear that I am not describing the previous peaceful protests as "riots" as many news channels did.)
Here’s the thing about riots. When a system is against you, and the justice system you are supposed to trust it continually works against you, you protest. And sometimes your protest turns to rage and you say Jeff it. That’s it, just eff it. Nothing is going to work for us anyway. Because for white Americans, it’s just a verdict. But for people living in projects or the ‘hood, it is another nail in their coffin. Another time that someone says, “No one is going to stick up for you, even in death, even if your death, or the death of your child, or the death of your father, is unjustified and at the hands of those sworn to serve and protect.”
And here’s the thing about crime. You don’t need to tell black people that crime happens, by black people, in ghetto neighborhoods. Believe me, they know. Housing segregation is part of an ongoing, difficult reality that most white people will never have to know. (Here's a good podcast to read to learn more about that.) But here’s the question, what do you tell people to do when they’re in trouble? Should they call the police? Because when I was a young white girl in Canada, my parents told me to find a police officer if I was lost or in trouble. We don't tell our kids to do that. We tell our sons, (if we’re in the U.S.) be careful of the police. I tell them, be wary. I tell them to find a nice business owner or woman if they are in trouble.
“The police?” My husband would say about his childhood. “Why would we call them? For one thing, they wouldn’t come for ages. For another, it’s dangerous. Who knows what would happen?” (I'm paraphrasing.
He has stories. Once, when he was a kid and running through a neighborhood in L.A., he and his brother found themselves surrounded by squad cars and screamed at to “Get down on the ground!” Do you think that should happen to any kid running through their own neighborhood? That they should find themselves with their faces in the dirt? For running? Do you think Tamir Rice’s parents told him, “Be careful of your new BB gun? If you play with it in public, you might get shot and killed? By the POLICE?”
Just recently this issue came home to me very clearly. We were in L.A. on our recent trip to the U.S. and one day we went to visit a friend. When we arrived at his house, we decided to walk with the kids to the playground nearby, and as we were sitting and playing there, a man came running out of our friend’s grandparents’ house, screaming, “He’s got a gun! Hide your kids! Call the police!” Behind him was another man, following, with his hand behind his back. (Neither of them were black.) We gathered the kids quickly and headed to the other side of the park. A woman next to us called the police. Chinua and his friend decided to pull our cars away from our friend’s house so we could leave. They drove the cars to the other side of the park and stood in the street there, far from the house, as the police pulled up from our side.
When the policemen saw Chinua and our (Asian) friend, they made some quick assumptions and stopped near them, jumping out of their cars, guns locked and loaded. Chinua and our friend made some quick motions, gesturing at the house on the other side of the park. “Over there! Over there!” It felt tense for a moment, as the police officer weighed what they were saying, then turned and drove toward the house, other officers following by running through the park. We left quickly.
It was only later that I saw the danger Chinua was in. Officers saw my husband, a tall black man in a mostly white neighborhood, and immediately assumed he was the gun threat. Thankfully, they were quickly convinced otherwise, or things could have gone very badly.
Here’s the fear that exists if you are a black male: if the circumstances are slightly off, if the people around you feel uncomfortable, if you are walking through a white neighborhood, if you are too close to a crime being committed, if you put your hands near your waist, if you are wearing a hoodie, if you walk a certain way, if you are too tall, too big, too black, you could end up dead. The likelihood of you being killed by an officer are much higher than you being killed by terrorists. We don't execute without trial in the U.S., except, sometimes we do.
And it feels like an accusation to white people. Being called privileged feels like an accusation. White police officers being held accountable in the media feels like an accusation. But no one is accusing you of anything. What people are doing is revealing a wrong. And what can we do in response? As white allies of our black brothers and sisters, we need to not begrudge the media attention these tragedies are getting. It is warranted, and white rights are under no threat. Police rights are under no threat. What is under threat is the same thing that has always been under threat. The lives of black children, youth, adults, and old people. For hundreds of years.
Here’s what you can do, America:
Don’t say it’s not a problem. Don’t listen to the cries of our brothers and sisters for help and turn to them and say, “You’re wrong. Racism doesn’t exist.”
Stop being afraid of black people. I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to be afraid. Next time you see a group of tall black men, think, “That’s probably Rae’s husband, cousin, and brother. They’re the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.” Because it’s true. Being tall, being big, being black, doesn’t equate to being violent, being a criminal, or being scary. Every black man has a story of a woman clutching her purse while he simply was trying to walk by. Of being side-eyed while walking down the street. It happens to Chinua all the time. The kindest, gentlest person you will ever meet.
Stop letting your kids watch movies that vilify black men. I wasn’t ever allowed to. My images of black men growing up were Bill Cosby and Donovan Bailey. (A Canadian Olympic runner, one of the fastest sprinters in the world. In Canada, we don’t have nearly the same amount of racial tension, so I didn’t really grow up around racism in the same way. I notice it now as soon as I cross the border into America.) (And here's a good podcast about being profiled.)
Oh, I hate racial tension. It makes me crazy. And I know, I know that it doesn’t need to be here. I know there are deep, old stories, frustrations that go back for centuries. But God has deep forgiveness and love for all of us toward one another. I know because I have the blessing of being within a family that contains people who have been wronged, and hurt by white people, who completely accept and love me without question.Let’s not use our black friends’ grief as an opportunity to polarize each other. Let’s try to understand, to grieve together, to make amends. Let’s tell the police that they may not take any more of the lives of our citizens. The good news is that because this has been going on since forever, though media coverage may make it look like it’s getting worse, it’s not. It is coming into the light. And that means it will get better. It must. But it starts with the rest of us not daring to invalidate, contradict, or negate the cry for help from our brothers and sisters, who are trying to tell us that something is desperately, terribly wrong in the world, and it takes all of us to make it right.