The Conversation

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Last year was not good for race relations in the US. To be honest there really hasn’t been a “good year” but there have been non-bad years  2014 though was not one of them. A lot of people on my Facebook feed seem to think this stuff springs out of nowhere. They think the recent protests are stirred up simply from comments from politicians, government officials, pundits, and of course the “liberal media”. They think that the protesters are sowing anti-police rhetoric and making the police less safe and as a result the country less safe. They argue that ultimately the problem is a lack of proper respect for the men and women wearing the badge. They argue that black and brown people just need to learn how to interact with the police. And if the police in their infinite wisdom decide to arrest you then you must capitulate immediately despite any anger, frustration, confusion, or uncertainty you may have. They argue that black and brown families should sit down with their children and teach them how to properly deal with the police. Let’s set aside for a moment the arrogance that assumes these conversations don’t already take place. Let us also put aside the obvious parallels between these discussions  with the ideas that we have to teach our young women to not wear anything that could possibly spark a violent man’s libido. Let’s commit to the thought exercise. Based on the last few years here is the conversation we as black and brown people must have: 

Son please have a seat there are some things I need to talk to you about. Now that you’re getting older and there will be times when you are out without me here are some things you need to know.

Since the holidays just past I know you watched A Christmas Story with your uncle. I know you are thinking about what it would be like to have a bb gun. Well you’re black and because you’re black you can’t have one. In fact I can’t even walk around in a store with one if I wanted to buy you one.

I know sometimes you like to save up your allowance and go to the store for some snacks, just make sure you do it in broad daylight, don’t wear a hoodie, and for good measure make sure you don’t eat too much. We have to make sure you don’t become to big and start to look threatening.

Don’t hang out with friends after school in a large group, people are watching and if they see too many black kids in one area they are likely to think there is a gang around. Matter of fact,  don’t have too many friends because the police may use your friends Facebook feed to bring you up on charges.

When you do get stopped by the police, and chances are you will more than once even if you’re just walking to and from school. Let them invade your personal space without probably cause, because otherwise you’re suspicious, and they may use that as probably cause because somehow there is always a chance that there is a vague alert to police about a suspicious black person in the area.

If justified or not let the police arrest and detain you for hours without contact with family members or Coworkers or anyone for that matter because in public with actual witnesses is not the place to question the authority of the police.

I know this seems rather unfair, I know most of your white friends never have to think about things like this but you will have to think about this everyday. We will have to talk about it again next week because by then there will be more things that you have to worry about.

The sad thing is I’m only partially making this up. I will have to have this conversation with my child everyday just like I’m still having this conversation with my parents. If this sounds anti-cop then you’re not understanding the stakes. Black Job applicants with college degrees and no criminal record still have higher unemployment than their white non-graduate counterparts even in some cases if they have a criminal past. What this means is every interaction with a police officer regardless of age or possible offense is a high stakes affair. There is no excuse for youthful dalliances. Consider our last two presidents and the difference in attention paid to their admitted use of drugs during college. More importantly though this means that this also has little to do with the police. The police aren’t forcing employers to screen out job applicants based on criminal records, nor are they telling them to avoid hiring qualified black applicant in favor of potentially less qualified white applicants. The institutional racism in our society creates the stakes. In many ways the police are wrongfully the recipient of the frustration and anger as they at times are only a small cog in the apparatus that disenfranchises swaths of the american population. On the other hand though given their position they do have the ability or rather the discretion to use their status to dramatically affect the lives of the people they interact with. Police officers know this, and some, I dare not guess at a percentage, abuse this ability.It is in these cases in particular that the racial edge to this “discretion” is laid bare. You have the civil forfeiture abuses, the no knock warrant raids, and the low-level drug possession enforcement  that disproportionately go after minorities.

At the same time I’m sometimes tempted to give even that a pass as much of this is a function of the disparities in the way we treat and police the poor vs the rich. Tempted but not swayed, because as Attorney General Eric Holder pointed out even he has been stopped while he rushed through the street late one evening to get to a movie. The fact that we police the poor differently than the rich is awful and unjust, but at least theoretically you can escape poverty. What Holder’s story illustrates is that race is used as an indication of poverty. The police treat the poor badly by because the police don’t have to worry as much about a lawsuit. Black and brown people are treated badly because they aren’t likely to be believed.

This may all sound very divisive. Believe me that is not my aim. That is unfortunately the reality. We live in an artificially divisive world. The system is hardwired to pit the minorities against cops. The broken window police tactics may have contributed to the city being safer but it absolutely pitted the cops against the citizens. The intention of the policy wasn’t racist. The people acting on that policy were not all racist but the effect was decidedly disproportionate in terms of race. That cannot go unnoticed. The fact that more black and brown people are in jail due to low-level drug possession when white people use drugs just as much and as openly cannot go unnoticed.

If there is a conversation that needs to take place it is one about going above and beyond to incorporate police officers into the community. It is one about federal grants not for body armor but to support the police athletic league, and community outreach programs. If there is a conversation that really needs to take place in this country it is and has been for far too long a conversation about dismantling the apparatus that condemns minorities and the poor to substandard treatment by our government and our society as a whole. Until that day comes though, I guess I will have to keep having the only conversation that will keep my child safe, one that demeans both of us and should be shameful to the nation as a whole.

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