The recent spotlight on systematic racial profiling and police brutality against Black boys and men has exposed a painful truth long known in the Black community: just about every Black youth and man seems to have a story about being stopped by the police, and all live daily with the understanding it can happen to any of them at any time.
Dr. Terrell Strayhorn is Director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise at The Ohio State University and a Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Studies in the College of Education and Human Ecology. He also has faculty appointments in the Ohio State John Glenn College of Public Affairs, Department of African American and African Studies, and Education Policy, Engineering Education, and Sexuality Studies programs. But none of these credentials mattered one bit when Dr. Strayhorn was pulled over by a White police officer a week before he spoke at the June Children’s Defense Fund training for college-age students preparing to teach at CDF Freedom Schools® sites across the country this summer. He shared this story with the 2,000 young mostly non-White leaders because it was an integral part of his message for the young teachers in training: “How to Keep Our Black Boys Alive.”
He’d just bought a beautiful new car. “So I’m driving my really nice car because that’s what you can do in this country, right? You can work hard and you can make good money, and then you can use your money to buy a car…So I’m in my car, in my good hard-earned money car, and then comes a blue light in my rearview mirror.” The promise of the American Dream was gone in an instant. Instead he wasn’t even sure whether he would “live the next couple of minutes”—“because my nice car, and my nice degree, and my nice money, and my nice bracelet, and my nice looks, and my nice feel, my nice shoes—none of it, none of it, none of it, none of it, none of it is a panacea for the problems that we have in this country. And I watched an officer who does not know me come up to my window and say, ‘Mister, I need to see your license and registration.’ And I got ready to reach for it, and he reached for his gun—and I said, ‘Oh, my God. I know how this ends.’”
Dr. Strayhorn had to make an immediate decision about how he would respond. “I put my hands back and I said, ‘Do I have permission to do what you just asked me to do?’ And the cop said, ‘Yes, you can now move.’” Only then did Dr. Strayhorn go ahead and pull out his registration and license, along with his university identification card, though the officer didn’t seem to care. “He said, ‘Do you know why I stopped you?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Because you don’t look old enough to drive this car.’ It sounded like a compliment, but then I had to remind him—in my head, not out loud—that in this country actually, [when] you get a driver’s license, you’re free to drive any car.”
Dr. Strayhorn knew he’d been stopped for no legitimate reason—a version of the “show your papers” demands Black men have faced since slavery—and he was furious. But he also knew that in that minute he couldn’t show it. That was part of the lesson he wanted to share with our young leaders: “When you are mistreated, deemed guilty before you are innocent, and oppressed by that form of unbridled, misused power and authority, it is infuriating. It is offensive. It is enraging…The rage just started in my pinky toe and it climbed all up my body. But, thank God, I had what I’m going to say is the number-one thing: if you’re going to teach [our children] anything—teach them literacy, teach them numeracy, teach them vocabulary, teach them history, teach them political science, but listen—teach them how to control their rage.”
He explained what he meant: “Don’t deny the rage …but teach them how to control it. How do I control it? How do I channel it? How do I redirect it? Because the word ‘rage’ means violently angry. But I love the second definition of the word ‘rage.’ The second definition of the word ‘rage’ is impassioned enthusiasm. You’ve got to teach them that there is ‘something inside so strong’ [the Freedom Schools theme song]. Tell them, ‘I know you can make it. I know. I know it’s rough sometimes. I know. I know, I know, I know, I know it’s unfair how police officers treat you, how some teachers treat you, but control and redirect that rage.”
He went on: “We’ve got to remember that while we’re teaching them how to control their rage, giving them the language to have that conversation, they need words for that encounter with the police officer, that encounter with the neighbor. The reason why people fight is because words are not present for them to have the conversation. Give them the literacy tools so they can have the conversation. Teach them rage is natural; rage against this thing; rage against inequality—but control it in the face of authority that can take your life, because the end of the thing is we want them to live.”
Self-control over rage at the right moment might help save a Black boy’s life, though even that has certainly never been a guarantee. But no matter what, the critical next step still has to be channeling rage at deeply embedded structural racism and blatant injustice into “impassioned enthusiasm” for the larger fight. That larger fight can and must start with all of us by getting ourselves organized and providing our children positive alternatives to the miseducation in so many schools and the dangers on the street from law enforcement agents. Dr. Strayhorn said: “What allows a young man to [have enough control to] sit there and say ‘hands up’ is that he knows that while his hands are up, someone else’s hands are on the job. I’m willing to put my hands up if I know your hands are on something, right? So I’ll put my hands up if your hands are on the educational problems in this country. I’ll put my hands up so long as your hands are on the problem of inequality in neighborhoods. I’m willing to put my hands up so long as my Black sisters and my White brothers and my Native American brothers and my Latino sisters and brothers are also putting their hands on the problem of racism … We fight for their freedom, and if they know that we are fighting for their freedom, they are more willing, they are more capable, they are more empowered to go through what they have to go through.”
And, Dr. Strayhorn concluded, this all-hands-on-deck call to rage against injustice and fight for freedom is for everyone: “We’ve got to pursue freedom and justice not just for Black people, but pursue freedom and justice for Latino folks, pursue freedom and justice for Native American people, pursue freedom and justice for gay people, for LGBT, for poor people, for rich people, for tall people, for short people, for people who don’t have anything at all, for first-generation people, for welfare mothers, for everybody. Freedom and justice for all.”
That’s the message every child of every color who is “different” must internalize to break the vicious cycle of deeply embedded cultural and structural racism that pervades so many American institutions including those too prevalent in the criminal justice system that too often takes rather than protects lives.