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?