When I was growing up I was warned to steer clear of “bad neighborhoods” where young girls might not be safe. This was not entirely a race issue (Hell’s Kitchen, for example, was predominantly Irish at the time) but certainly race had something to do with it, even if I was only peripherally aware of that. But recent events have shown us how much worse the problem is from the other side of the street. I can only imagine the fear that African Americans face when confronted by a whole world that has so very many bad neighborhoods where they are not safe, and the anger that black mothers feel when told that their smart, funny, wonderful babies are not to be trusted. The mothers of police officers of any color also fear for their babies. Why doesn’t this make us more tolerant of each other, more understanding, instead of less?
Last week Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer. The stonewalling and apparent institutionalized racism of the Fergusen, Missouri police force in response to the event has triggered riots that have now lasted for days. Is it about race? I suspect it is. Is it about power? I know it is. Here in New Jersey, from a safe distance of near 1000 miles, we can talk calmly about right and wrong, power and abuse of power, what’s the most effective way to promote peace and understanding. Is it calmly and conscientiously merging and integrating, or is it violently and vigorously demanding human rights? I don’t always understand the need to sit back, accept the situation and not makes waves, although I understand it has something to do with safety. I don’t always understand the drive to stand up in the spotlight and fight for a cause, even when it means personal injury or physical harm, although I understand it has something to do with justice.
What I do understand is that the shooting of Michael Brown is first and foremost about the tragic death of a boy with a name and friends and parents. Black parents have started talking openly about what they tell their sons, and sometimes their daughters as well: when facing a power play situation it’s safest to step back, step down, show your hands, submerge your pride, relinquish your dignity. It is infuriating. It is dehumanizing. It is hard. Criminally hard. And how long do African Americans have to wait for justice, equality and rights?
I don’t know, I wish I did. I wish I could say “soon” or better yet “today”. But for now I have The Talk with my sons: they have friends of all colors and what my sons think of as a perfectly safe situation may not look the same to their friends. Whether it would be better to be passive or to be outspoken, ultimately we must, as a nation, find a way to build a future where there won’t be so many bad neighborhoods for even one more generation of children.