Let's All Breathe Again

As a father, a son, an uncle, a nephew, a brother, and a college president, I must ask myself, "How do I protect my son in a society where there is something structurally wrong with how young black men are treated by the criminal justice system?
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Where else but America can the great-grandson of a slave grow up in the streets of Detroit and become a college president? Where else but America can my son and daughter have the possibilities of having an abundant life through a strong faith in God, a great education, and all of the tenets associated with a very basic concept called freedom? You cannot achieve these things in Russia, China, or Syria.

But I can't breathe.

I am a 55-year-old, African-American male president of a Massachusetts college with more than 2,000 students -- 25 percent are students of color, and many of them are male. My wife and I have a total of six college degrees. But in the context of our criminal justice system, these things don't matter.

As a father, a son, an uncle, a nephew, a brother, and a college president, I must ask myself, "How do I protect my son in a society where there is something structurally wrong with how young black men are treated by the criminal justice system? How do I protect my students, whose parents have entrusted their safety and security to me?"

I pray and hope my son does not become a victim of circumstance, simply by being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with a police officer who may cause him harm. After all, I still feel uneasy when a police car pulls up behind me while I am driving anywhere in America -- I automatically get tense and feel a brief moment of fear -- even though I have done nothing wrong.

I unequivocally believe that the overwhelming majority of police officers are good, decent people and strive to do the right thing. They also deserve to go home to their families every night. But I can't breathe because I have a 19-year-old son who is growing up in America at a time when some law enforcement officers treat people who look like me and my son differently.

In light of recent incidents in our country, I had to once again sit down with my son -- a sophomore in college -- and tell him, "Here are some of the things you have to do if you are ever stopped by the police." While it's always important to be respectful, I noted that it is necessary to keep both hands visible and on the wheel. I told my son to never seem aggressive: "No matter what the officer says to you, do not talk back," I advised -- because, at that moment, it does not matter if you are right and the officer is wrong. Should he ever be pulled over, I also encouraged my son to pray to God for protection.

It is 2014, and I had to tell my son that you will all too often be seen by some, but not all, police officers as African-American first, and a U.S. citizen second. You have to assume the worst and hope for the best if you are stopped by the police.

Despite this fact and the other maladies of our criminal justice system and its treatment of African-American males, I still believe the United States is the greatest country in the world. We have come through the American Revolution, Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow, two world wars, the civil rights movement, the Korean and Vietnam wars, Watergate, 9-11 -- and the Republic still stands. I firmly believe America will come through this issue within our criminal justice system as well.

But if we all want to breathe again, so that every American can, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "live in a nation where we will not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character," then we must also take action:

* We must advocate and support the requirement for police officers to use the technology available to record encounters with the public.

* We need to make it clear that senseless looting and destruction of property are in no way acceptable, and frustrations and anger must instead be focused on lobbying every state legislature to reform the laws related to the grand jury process.

* We must also understand that the actions of a few are not reflective of the good and decent character of our law enforcement officials.

Perhaps most importantly, demanding an honest, open dialogue about race in America among all people will help us come together to put action into place that will offer real solutions to our problems. When we can heed the words of Edmund Burke -- "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" -- then we can breathe again.

I really want to breathe. Don't you?

Robert E. Johnson, Ph.D. is president of Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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