Home > Family, Parenting, Reflections, Safety > Ferguson: the color of justice

Ferguson: the color of justice

Tonight I asked my husband permission to discuss Ferguson with our five-year-old son, Li’l D.

That wasn’t exactly how I phrased my question. What I said was, “Are you OK with me explaining why I’m listening to talk radio tonight?” The Missouri National Guard has been activated due to protests anticipated around an imminent Ferguson grand jury decision.

“Yes,” my husband replied. “Tell him the truth, in simplest terms. Tell him some people are silly and believe skin color is important. We don’t, but some people do.” My husband and I believe honest, open conversation is the best policy, preferring that our sons learn about important issues from us instead of from classmates, strangers, or media representations.

“Good luck,” he added before dropping the call.

I took a deep breath. “Sweetie?” I asked.

“Uh-huh?” Li’l D replied.

“Do you remember learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. earlier in the year? About equality and respect?”

“You mean Jesus?” he asked.

“No, no, Martin Luther King, Jr. was his name. He lived much more recently than Jesus.”

After determining Li’l D didn’t really remember much, I gave him a quick refresher. I explained that some people still believe that others with darker skin are innately different than those with lighter skin, and more dangerous.

“Do I have white skin?” he asked me.

How do I even answer that? There are no easy answers for some of his questions. “Not really,” I said. “It’s … tan. Only people with albinism are really white, so it’s weird that we use words like ‘white’ and ‘black.'”

I moved the discussion a little closer toward Ferguson. “Police officers are people, too. Even though most of them really want to protect people, they’re still people. Some of them still believe weird, wrong things, like that people with darker skin are more likely to be violent.” I explained that this leads to young black men without weapons being shot by police officers many times more often than unarmed white men. According to ProPublica assessment of federally available data, an unarmed young black man is 21 times more likely to be shot dead by a police officer than is an unarmed young white man.

“But they didn’t have weapons!” protested Li’l D.

“I know. That’s why it makes so many people sad and angry.”

“Tell them they’re wrong. Tell the police they’re wrong and they shouldn’t kill those boys and that they have to make the boys come back to life.”

“It’s not that easy, sweetheart,” I told him. “So that’s why people are so curious to see whether this police officer will be put on trial.”

“What’s ‘trial’ mean?”

I explained that. I explained, too, that some people will say this case isn’t really a big deal, that it’s just one more case of a criminal shot by police. Indeed, the talk radio personality I listened to described the case just so, as if there is only one way for trained policemen to respond to an unarmed assailant or potential assailant: by shooting to kill. Such people have the luxury of looking at this incident as an isolated, unique incident completely separate from any other.

As the mother of biracial children, I have spent the last five years becoming keenly aware of how prevalent these instances are. They are systemic, not standalone. I have gone from worrying that people wouldn’t like my kids based on the abundance of melanin in their skin to fearing that my children might someday be killed because armed people attribute too much significance to that melanin.

So tonight, as I wonder about Ferguson and who Michael Brown might have become had he not been killed, I am really wondering about the color of justice in this country.

What it will take for police officers everywhere to approach men of all melanin levels in the exact same way, treating shooting as a last case resort in all cases.

My sons’ future.

“But they won’t shoot me?” Li’l D asked.

There are no easy answers for some of his questions.

“Probably not, sweetheart,” I told him. Remembering I was talking with a five-year-old, not a fifty-year-old, I amended that. There will be a time for more nuanced discussion; that time is not now. “No. They want you to be safe. They want people everywhere to be safe.”

That is the truth. I hope that there are additional new truths by the time Li’l D and I revisit this subject down the road. I hope that unarmed young black men won’t be so very much more likely than their white counterparts to be killed by those sworn, without limitation for skin color, not to kill in the misbegotten name of protection but to protect.

Only official accountability can stop young men needlessly dying today’s truths and lead us to living newer, more hopeful ones.

The question is: Where and when will accountability begin?

  1. November 17, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Reblogged this on MrMilitantNegro™.

  2. November 17, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    Excellent post, Deb and you tackled a difficult, but crucial, topic with your son. It IS strange that we still use the terms “black” and “white”–I read an interesting article recently about the origins of this distinction in America’s history, and I believe the gist of it was that it served the landed, wealthy class as a way to control the lower class of different ethnicities. And yes, the question certainly is “where and when will accountability begin?” I’m hoping it begins now.

    • November 18, 2014 at 10:21 am

      Any chance you recall where you found that article? I’d love to read it! If not, I’ll do some naptime googling and see what I can find. Thank you for pointing me that direction, so I have something other than “good question” to say next time I’m asked.

      I, too, hope it begins now. It’s not my expectation, but it’s absolutely my hope.

  3. November 17, 2014 at 9:58 pm

    Kids’ questions are razor sharp and there’s no easy way to answer them. It’s admirable that you tackled a topic this sensitive, and tackled it right.

    • November 18, 2014 at 10:25 am

      So true re: those razor sharp questions! In retrospect I wondered if the “permission” bit might strike some as odd, but I know the conversation is different when held by me versus when held with my husband and me. I was glad to be able to proceed with a little of Anthony’s insight in my answer, especially since mine can sometimes be a little less reassuring by virtue of my professional training. I’m glad I’m learning a little from Anthony on that front.

  4. November 17, 2014 at 10:24 pm

    Thank you.
    And I so hope that accountability finds a permanent home.

    • November 18, 2014 at 10:29 am

      Me, too. My concern is that even if there’s an indictment here, it would be not precedent but a fleeting exception. The longer failure of accountability persists, the more lives needlessly lost and the more communities disrupted in pursuit of accountability. I wish as a nation that we’d embrace accountability sooner instead of treating each case as anomalous … and enduring longer term consequences of taking that bizarre, harmful stance.

  5. herunveiling
    November 17, 2014 at 10:32 pm

    If every home had this conversation, then we wouldn’t have this issue on the streets. The ‘I have a dream’ scenerio would be a reality. Homes brew hatred as well as love, justice and fairness.

    • November 18, 2014 at 9:15 am


    • November 18, 2014 at 10:35 am

      I absolutely agree. I wish I could see this happening, but it’s so easy to turn eyes–and discourse–away when it’s inconvenient, as if true discourse could be even a fraction as inconvenient as even a single life entirely obliterated due (in part) to its absence.

      I feel remiss when I think back six years ago to when I believed racism was an artifact of bygone times. Where would I be now, had life not situated me to see? I fear I’d be among the “out of sight, out of mind” contingency. In fact, I’m almost certain I would be.

      Now I do what I can to share my family’s conversations, hoping others might be wiser than I. That they might not need their own experiences to change to understand how things–like skin color–that seem so irrelevant to one not experiencing certain truths day to day can be to the person who can’t avoid experiencing them.

  6. nicciattfield
    November 18, 2014 at 1:23 am

    One of the greatest impacts of structural racism is the opportunities which get killed off. For Michael Brown, and for many others, it was a life. I think of my own, previously unacknowledged privilege of walking the streets in a hoodie and looking in car windows, and how this would be seen as suspicious, were I to have different levels of skin pigment.

    For the sake of the children, transformation is crucial.

  7. November 18, 2014 at 3:57 am

    I read this with tears in my eyes. How tragic there is need for this conversation, it makes me want to weep. When I consider the difference between the conversation you must have with your son and the conversation my grandson will have with his parents, truly I want to stomp the Hades out of those who don’t understand, those who don’t hear or see. It simply infuriates me, even while it breaks my heart.

    I love you for having this conversation, even while it breaks my heart for the need.

    • November 18, 2014 at 10:41 am

      How tragic there is need for this conversation, it makes me want to weep.

      I was pretty level through yesterday’s conversation, but I almost started crying when Li’l D asked for reassurance he wouldn’t get shot. I wish I could offer it 100%. I know he and his brother will avoid certain immediate bystander assumptions because their skin is comparatively light.

      I feel moments of thankfulness for that coupled with terrible, wrenching guilt and dismay; what kind of world is where that’s a point of gratitude? Where another mother who has done nothing better nor worse than me won’t see her son graduate high school, or college, or get married, or have kids, because he was born with darker skin? There’s no sense in it, nor acceptable reason.

      Such sadness … and such avoidable sadness, too.

  8. cardamone5
    November 18, 2014 at 5:27 am

    It was so good of you to address this topic with your son, and it deepens the pain I feel over this issue because it personalizes it (your son because of his bi-racialness is more likely to have something like this happen to him, but he’s an innocent boy, the product and embodiment of love so how is this possible, but then how is it possible that Michael Brown was murdered, also the embodiment of love.) I listen to these horrible statistics, sometimes with less attention than I should, and my heart breaks, because bottom line: they are children, just like mine, and what would I do if something like this happened to one of my children? I’d behave a lot more aggressively than the people of Ferguson. It’s a sad fact that in our country, my children are safer than others because of their skin color.


    • November 18, 2014 at 10:48 am

      Even I have a hard time tuning in to all of the statistics. There’s so much heartbreaking data that … it’s impossible to absorb it all.

      Pardon my poor analogy, but it reminds me of going clothing shopping. I loathe going into big stores because there’s just too much. I get overloaded. I go in search of a smaller shop with fewer options and find myself much more able to digest what’s there.

      When I’m hit with a hundred true, important facts, I feel lost in them. It’s so much easier for me to make sense of just one or two at a time, then go in search of other ones elsewhere. That’s why I tried sticking to the one, most pertinent point here: it’s a startling disparity best digested alone, or–potentially–as a starting point for further inquiry.

      I’d behave a lot more aggressively than the people of Ferguson.

      My younger sister and I, having grown up around predators, once candidly discussed what we’d do if our kids were hurt as we were. Much as I believe it’s important to act in pursuit of justice, not retribution, the truth–as I imagine it now–is my rage would be its own beast.

  9. November 18, 2014 at 6:49 am

    I have a sinking feeling that the grand jury is going to make an unpopular decision and that the resulting chaos is going to justify the summoning of the National Guard. Just this past week a grand jury here failed to indict a white cop for killing a young white woman for failing to stop at a DUI checkpoint. He twisted things around to make it appear his life was in danger and shot her multiple times. He won’t be punished.

    Racial bias and profiling is a huge problem in this country, but I fear that cops and all the power they have been given is another huge problem. Cops are rarely held accountable for their actions. Who polices the police?

    • November 18, 2014 at 10:57 am

      My expectations are in line with yours. I, too, am concerned with lack of accountability for police actions. With police typically policing themselves, what kind of justice–or change–can citizenry expect? I first started considering these questions while reading the book Crazy in America: The Hidden Tragedy of Our Criminalized Mentally Ill.

      Reading that was both illuminating and shocking as I came to understand how gentle was my mom’s life in the throes of untreated mental illness compared to others throughout the country. So many people in similar situations ended up imprisoned or dead at the hands of officers not equipped to address situations involving mentally ill people. My mom could have been a statistic. To many that would have been no loss, but even in the throes of mental illness, she was still a person. Still my mom. Still occasionally emerged to show me glimpses of the woman who really raised me. It pains me to type this, but that she was able to die in her own bed in her own home surrounded by her children … that was an uncommonly graceful end for someone in her circumstances, and that is wrong, so wrong.

      We need better police training. We need better, independent assessment of each instance of these recurrent wrongdoings. Without these things, we are doomed to repeat these eminently avoidable heartbreaks.

      I’m hopeful recent entreaties to the United Nations will help blow starting breezes of change this way. I can’t really wrap my mind around the audacity it takes to act as world police but then not expect to ourselves be held accountable on a global scale for recurrent atrocities.

      • November 18, 2014 at 11:53 am

        I’ve always wondered exactly what moral ground we’re standing on when we condemn what happens in other countries. There is so much wrong here. It blows my mind that we try to fix other countries when this one is broken.

        As for the mental health aspect of it, I agree with you. My mom ended up getting arrested when a medicine she was put on for her bipolar backfired and had her behaving in ways she would never behave.

        It might be unrealistic to expect police officers to have both legal and psychiatric training, but each department should have SOMEONE who can identify mental health symptoms and advise officers how to respond to folks who might have gone manic.

        • November 18, 2014 at 11:56 am

          Not psychiatric training, per se, but even brief training about how to identify mental illness and avoid treating its symptoms as police-defying aggression would avoid an astonishing, heartbreaking number of deaths (based on preliminary programs). But then, without investing in such training (and, perhaps, training in identifying and circumventing any biases in handling certain individuals), status quo will forever remaining …

          • November 18, 2014 at 11:57 am

            It’s shocking how many people are content with the status quo…

  10. November 18, 2014 at 7:29 am

    That must have been very tough – trying to educate him while letting him still feel safe as every child has a right to feel. I hope accountability begins and ends in our courts.

    • November 18, 2014 at 11:05 am

      I want him to feel safe, but I also want him to be able to identify–very, very early–when he might be in situation that calls for extra care. I wish it were easier to know exactly where the right balance is. I’m heartened that every single one of our intense conversations has quickly turned to cartoons and junk food. I want him to be aware but not afraid, and this response tells me I’m doing an OK job finding that balance for him. Still not sure what it will be like with his brother, of course, but time and growing to know Littler J’s own way of viewing the world will guide me.

      I hope accountability begins and ends in our courts.

      I share a hope similar but not identical to yours. Our courts are fallible and often fail to serve justice. I believe additional, non-court address will be required to effect change.

      That being said, I do not believe “street justice” effects (positive) change, either. I hope folks throughout our nation listen to Michael’s parents’ entreaty to behave not immediately out of anger, but instead to plan and take actions more likely to result in positive, enduring change.

  11. November 18, 2014 at 11:38 am

    You are such an amazing mother and woman. Any subject, including the difficult ones, should be handled with honesty. It’s how we grow thinkers who will, hopefully, go on to right the wrongs in this world. Excellent post!

  12. November 19, 2014 at 9:52 am

    Strange how we’ve come so far and yet have so far to go. We have a black President and yet these racially-charged incidents. How sad Michael Brown never got a chance to grow up and become a man.

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