My heart is heavy upon learning that yet another young black man, Michael Brown, has died much too soon. A few days later, Kajieme Powell, was also gunned down. As the mother of two sons and six grandsons, I'm constantly praying for their safety and protection. Like so many black parents, I've lived with the fear that police harassment could lead to physical harm or their untimely death. I believe good police officers outnumber the bad, but for generations my family has most often dealt with those who harass black men for sport.
My father was dark-skinned. My mother was so light that she could pass for white in her younger days. The police would often pull over my father when he was traveling with my mother. This was Georgia in the 1940s and '50s. They thought he was traveling with a white woman, which would have led to his arrest or worse, his death. Once they confirmed that my mother was black, they would still warn my father that he'd been lucky this time. He would always respond to the police with the "right" amount of docility -- "Yes, sir, sir" -- because he wanted to live. He endured this humiliation and lived to the age of 84.
Several decades later it was my husband in the driver's seat, though he lacked my father's docility. This was Tucson in the 1980s, and we were out for a ride in our brand-new 1984 BMW. My husband was active-duty military at the time, a Vietnam veteran, and had just returned from a special assignment in Sudan. A police car with flashing lights pulled us over. A white officer approached and asked for my husband's driver's license. "Who does this car belong to?" he asked.
"This is my car," said my husband.
"How did you get the money to buy this car?" said the officer.
"None of your damn business!" said my husband, who is 5-foot-9, to the 6-foot-3 officer with a gun.
The officer made him get out the car and threatened to take him to jail. My dear husband responded, "Go ahead!" Being raised in Georgia, I discreetly asked my husband if he'd lost his mind. I explained that we had two children, and that even if he didn't want to live to take care of them, I did. My husband calmed down, and after another half-hour of harassment, the officer said, "I'm going to let you go this time." I could feel my husband's anger and anguish after that incident, and others.
When my sons got their driver's licenses, I wasn't worried about the high cost of auto insurance or what car was best for them. I was terrified of what they would experience driving while black. It was time for "The Lesson" on how to survive when stopped by police. The Lesson is not about talking their way out of a ticket. It's about survival! We drilled our sons with The Lesson. Number one: Keep both hands on the steering wheel and always in the officer's sight. Number two: Be respectful and respond "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" when questioned. Number three: Under no circumstances do you argue or show any disrespect, even if you're disrespected. The officers will typically call for backup for black men, they have guns, and they will shoot you. We want you to live!
I've also experienced police harassment. I have a short, natural hairstyle and wore a baseball cap while driving early one morning. I was pulled over by a sheriff who wrongly accused me of speeding. Having driven the route for almost 10 years, I knew the speed limit, and I was not speeding. The officer asked where was I going at 5 a.m. in the morning. My husband's response 30 years ago flashed through my head for a nanosecond, but I remembered The Lesson. I said I was going to the canyon to walk with my friends. He told me he could arrest me and take me to jail but was going to let me go this time. As he got back into his vehicle, I sat for a moment and wondered how different this scene would have been if my sons or my grandsons had been driving.
Some argue that profiling is appropriate. After all, more black men are arrested and incarcerated, so they must be committing more crimes. Of course, this is false. Historian David Levering summarizes the thinking this way: "Whites commit crimes, but blacks are criminals." This is the kind of attitude that leads cops to shoot first, and it also serves as a defense of the status quo. Meanwhile, black America is trying to shake this stereotype. When my community hears of a high-profile criminal, we all say, "Lord, I hope he's not black." I've never heard my white friends say, "Lord, I hope he's not white."
It's 2014, and black men still endure humiliation upon humiliation to avoid being shot and killed by the very people we employ to protect us. It doesn't matter if they wear pants below their butts, work on Wall Street, or teach in universities. They are still seen as criminals. We can teach young black men The Lesson, but it's time for police and others who criminalize black men to change their thinking and actions so that The Lesson becomes obsolete.
There has to be intentional relationship building and partnering between black community leaders and police. Such partnering should focus on breaking down barriers and stereotypes that impede effective communication and mutual understanding and respect. Neither should see each other as the enemy but as coexisting forces promoting the greater good of the community. Police departments must also hire black officers who represent and connect with the black community.
Racial profiling and police harassment of black men won't end anytime soon. Therefore, black parents must teach our sons The Lesson. I was blessed recently by the most beautiful sermon from a dynamic young pastor, Joseph Sissac, at Center of Praise in Sacramento, California. Pastor Sissac said we have to teach our young men to guard their ears and their hearts. He shared his version of The Lesson as "P.A.R.C. and Move On and Stay Alive!" "P.A." stands for "Pay Attention": Listen and watch attentively to what's being asked of you. "R.C." stands for "Respectfully Comply": Do what is asked of you without resistance, hesitation or argument.
I want to see young black men reach their full potential and live long, productive lives. Sadly, in my America, The Lesson is key to their survival. God bless my America.
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