I can’t even pretend to internalize what’s going on through the hearts of Mike Brown’s family. I can’t pretend to internalize what African Americans all over the country are feeling at young Mr. Brown’s execution.
I can ask a few questions.
What was the last time a white teenager was killed for stealing a candy bar?
What was the last time a white teenager was killed by a community watch vigilante for walking down the street?
What was the last time a white father was gunned down by police for handling an air rifle at Walmart?
If you are scratching your heads trying to come up with the answer, the answer is simple: never.
If your answer then is to say “Well, they [all those black folks] looked suspicious”, then you’re part of the festering racism which works to hold back this country.
I straddle two worlds. As a child of Cuban immigrants, I’m putatively in the Latino world. You can ask Chicanos from East L.A. of their run ins with police.
However, the Latino community is as diverse as the broader American community. It spans my black Dominican friends with whom I grew up in New York, to my brown Mexican sister in law, to my immdediate family, virtually indistinguishable from “white America”. You can be Latino and not have that fraught relationship with the police which so many African Americans have. I remember my mother having a version of “the talk” with me; her version was “Don’t be afraid of the police. They’re on our side.” That’s not the talk African American parents have with their black sons.
Abraham Lincoln said that a country cannot survive half slave and half free. A modern variation on that aphorism would be that a country cannot survive half free and half under siege. What happened to Mike Brown is what happens to a community under siege, policed closely, any infraction a possible cause of death by police fire. What was so threatening about that young man that he had to be shot ten times? Was there no other course of action the police could have taken to prevent a needless death, a family’s anguish, a community’s outrage? Too often, the police work to “serve and protect” one segment of society while keeping other segments under a heavy thumb. That shouldn’t be how police operates. Entire communities shouldn’t be suspect and subjected to oppression. Police should work with all communities in respect, making sure all communities are safe. When police see entire communities as suspect, that leads to a morgue full of Mike Browns.
I will never be pulled over for “driving while white”. I will never have shopkeepers follow me around in department stores, making sure I don’t steal. I don’t even think of these things, until something like Ferguson happens, and I’m forced to consider my own privilege. For any white father reading this, who may disagree with me, ask yourself: Is “the talk” you have with your son about sex, or about the police? Which facts of life you teach your son about reflect the privilege in which you live. It’s such a comfortable cocoon that you don’t even know it exists. But it’s there, nevertheless.
There is much that is wonderful about this country. But to pretend that it doesn’t operate under the shadow of the original sin of racism is to bury your head in your sand. Yes, it elected a black president. But this same president has been subjected to an opprobrium which none of his white predecessors have been, solely because he’s black. America is not post-racial. Barack Obama’s career has been in the teeth of racism, not because it has vanished. Until communities like Ferguson are policed in the same manner that communities like Brentwood are, any talk of “post racial America” is as so much fairy dust. It’s work as old as the Republic, and will continue for some time. But it’s the only thing we can do; otherwise, we may as well expect the fire.