Walking While Black
I still remember the first time it happened. I was dropping off my 17-year-old cousin at a friend’s house in the wealthy, white Massachusetts suburb in which I lived and where my father is still a professor. We knocked on the wrong door. Minutes later, I was pulled over by the police. Slight, young and scared, I was interrogated about my activities, whether I was delivering drugs and what I was up to.
I remembered. My parents had sat me down months before when I got my license.
It doesn’t matter that you’re female. It doesn’t matter that you’re an honors student. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never been in trouble a day in your life. It doesn’t matter that you are leaving to start attending Stanford this fall. When most of these police officers see you, all they will see is a young black girl and that can be dangerous. So, when you are harassed — and you will be — try to stay calm. Try not to be afraid, and call us as soon as you can.
A black teenager’s rite of passage.
Since then I, a minivan-driving soccer mom of three, have been stopped because I “looked suspicious.” My husband, a partner in a Dallas law firm, has watched white women clutch their purses in the elevator out of fear of him. One of my best friends from college, a Wall Street banker, was stopped last year after leaving a midweek choir rehearsal at his church and arrested for “looking suspicious” in his own tony Westchester suburb, and was forced to spend the night in jail. And my 26-year-old brother-in-law, a Princeton honors graduate, an ordained minister, and a Habitat for Humanity staff member living in Harlem, was stopped and questioned while walking home from work by four white police officers just six weeks ago because they thought “he looked suspicious — like he was looking into a van.” Thank God none of us were shot out of “self-defense” since our brown skin made us look so “suspicious.”
I am scared. It is not a new fear, but one that has never gone away and is heightened as I look at my three beautiful boys. These precious ones, for whom my husband and I have lovingly and willingly sacrificed much; with whom I have stayed up countless nights, wiping noses and reading bedtime stories; for whom I have visited dozens of schools and spent hours of research, trying to secure them the best education; in short, the sons for whom I have given my life could find themselves in danger through no fault of their own.
Now they are growing up from babies into fine young men. And that should be nothing but pure joy. Yet, in our society, that also means new danger for them. Not just from the random violence that can touch any life, but due to the particular violence that is visited upon black boys — especially as they begin to look like young men.
We have to prepare them for what they will encounter because of someone else’s perception of what they are, based on media images that portray black boys and men as predators, pimps, and thugs — even though my sons have no personal reference for this. No, the black men in their lives are loving, responsible, and hardworking fathers, uncles, teachers, and friends who model courage and conviction, values and virtue, family and faith.
So, how could Trayvon Martin’s tragic slaying last month in Florida not break my heart, trouble my soul, and compel me to action? How can it be that, a month later, his shooter has not even been charged with a crime? How can it be that we live in a country that we fight to defend, but where the taking of our sons’ lives does not even warrant their killers’ arrest? How can it be that this child’s life was taken simply because he was walking while black? How can this be the America that I love?
Sadly, so little has changed.
My well-meaning white friends have no idea why so many African Americans distrust or fear the police who have vowed to protect and serve. And they have no idea what it is like for black parents to have to prepare their children to deal with a public that often still judges them by the color of their skin. They are so committed to the idea that we live in a color-blind society that it is hard for them even to perceive, let alone help change, the reality that impacts our lives and the lives of our children daily.
I learned in law school, and it is still true today, that it is the color of the victim, not the perpetrator, that is one of the greatest determinants in criminal sentencing. The harshest penalties are given for crimes against white women and the least harsh, even for the same crimes, are meted out when the victim is “only” black.
So, I can’t make nice. I can’t pretend. The murder of Trayvon Martin could be the murder of any black boy going to the store for iced tea and candy, including my sons.
The clock is ticking, and justice has not been served. The clock is ticking, and my boys will be young black men soon.
The clock is ticking, and my husband and I must prepare to have the same talk with them that our parents had with us: You are bright. You are funny and smart and sometimes silly. Your laughter and smiles fill up the room when you enter. And your warmth and your hugs fill my heart with more happiness and joy than any one person has a right to expect in one lifetime. You are capable of being anything you want to be in this life — even President of the United States. But when you walk out of the safety, protection and loving arms of our home, you are walking while black, and only our prayers can protect you then.