White friends, I need you to let me know you're safe.

“I’m writing a new blog series about HIV now that we’re home,” I told her, barely balancing the phone between my chin and shoulder as I carried the basket of dirty clothes to the laundry room. Laundry still overwhelms me now, of course. It was even harder then as I was newly adjusting to our life as a family of eight. Going from three to six kids - all aged 6 and younger then - in one adoption is no joke.

“I’ve heard whispers that some people at church were worried about having their child in class with mine, but no one has said anything directly to us. So, have you heard anything?”

The silence was so loud on the other end that I thought we had gotten disconnected. I said her name and “hello?” 

She said, “I’m here,” as I moved laundry from the washer to the dryer.

I thought, perhaps, I needed to rephrase the question. I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t fishing for her to tell on anyone or name names or anything like that. This time, I asked, “Are there any specific concerns people have that I could address on the blog to clear things up?”

“Well,” she started and then paused. “Well, no. I haven’t heard anything from anyone else, but… well, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this.”

“Huh?” I dropped a couple items. I couldn’t bring myself to pick them up. Something about her tone made me freeze. I waited on her words.

“Well, we’ve decided we aren’t comfortable with playdates anymore. We love your kids. We do. But with HIV, we just don’t know. [Husband] isn’t okay with that. I didn’t know how to tell you.”

“Oh.”

I’m honestly not sure how I ended the phone call. I know I finished swapping the laundry. I remember emailing her with fact sheets and links, in hopes that this was a simple lack of education. My husband and hers sat down to talk it out. We tried to assure them that our child with HIV posed no risk to theirs.

(After all, HIV – other than mother-to-child transmission – is spread through blood transfusions, organ transplants, and sexual intercourse. I think we can all agree that those activities should be off the table for playdates, right? So, no problem.)

They were resolute, though: they could tolerate our child with theirs in Sunday school, but we didn’t want to risk any more contact than that. We could still be friends, they offered. (That didn’t really work, as you might imagine.)

I felt numb for weeks. I stopped inviting people over, not knowing who else might reject us. I felt more unloved and betrayed than I had since my childhood. No one seemed safe if this best friend wasn’t, I figured.

That was almost three years ago. Yet I’ve been thinking about that experience a lot this week. As I continue to lament what this past election showed me about our country, I'm lamenting anew at the denial of justice for Walter Scott and his family in Charleston. His name became a hashtag in April 2015 because Officer Slager shot him eight times in the back while he was 17 feet away. We watched the video. It also showed Slager depositing his taser next to Scott’s lifeless body, planting evidence to match the lies he planned to tell, saying Scott had his taser when he never did. (Not while he was alive, anyway.)

If we hadn’t seen the video, I think of how the narrative might have been different. If we hadn’t seen the video, I think of how many of my friends would have believed Slager’s lies. If we hadn’t seen the video, I think white America would have ignored another black man’s blood.

But even with the video, the trial ended in a mistrial, a miscarriage of justice, as the jury was able to render a verdict but proved unwilling to do their job.

I feel numb again, like I did after Tamir and Trayvon and Sandra and Keith and Philando and Alton and Eric and Levar and John and Tyre and Laquan and Ezell and Akai and Aiyana and Dontre and Jonathan and Samuel and Freddie and Rekia and others. (The list is too long, my friends. Too long. Lord, have mercy.) I grew up the daughter of a law enforcement officer, taught to respect the badge. Now I watch story after story play out of those wearing badges who neither respect their own code or the humanity of those with skin like three of our children. I feel so numb. No one feels safe when officers aren’t.

And if those officers are just a few bad apples, then why the lack of accountability? Why aren’t their colleagues the first in line to say that this sort of behavior doesn’t represent their work? Why isn’t the justice system willing to be just when the offender looks more like my father than my son?

Just like in those dreary months following my former friend’s declaration, I’m not sure who I can trust now. I’ve heard white friends defend the hatefulness of Trump’s campaign and followers, as if their words didn’t sting. I’ve seen posts and comments about how black people just need to not run and then they won’t die. I’ve been told, “your kids will be fine because you’re raising them right,” with no realization of the racist implication held in those words, the suggestion that black mothers and fathers aren’t good parents like we are.

Somedays it’s easier to just avoid you, white friends, unless you’ve explicitly told me or shown me you are safe. I know silence doesn’t equal racism. I’m not saying it does. I'm not saying that being quiet and white equates to being racist. But I am saying that silence from white people right now equates to uncertainty for me. It means you’re a wild card. It means you might be safe for us but I can’t know that for sure. It means that if I’ve never seen you show solidarity with those who have experienced racism, then I can’t know where you stand when we do.

And when I’m feeling particularly raw, I won’t turn to you if I don’t know you’re trustworthy. I can’t. I’ve been hurt too often for that. While for many white friends, the Slager mistrial feels like just another news story, it feels personal to people of color (and those of us raising black children). As I see white friends shocked by the mistrial, most of my friends of color aren’t surprised; they’re weary from carrying pain we’ve refused to even acknowledge. How can we heed the words of Galatians 6:2 to fulfill the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens if we try to pretend they don’t exist?

Please, friends, try to understand. Listen. Ask. Engage. Enter the hard conversations so that we can all grow. (As an example, you’ll find an amazingly helpful conversation under my friend Laura’s comment on my post here. That might be a good starting place.)

And once you can empathize, even just a little, then do something. I’m not asking you to speak out in all the ways I do. What a boring world it would be if we all used our voices in the same way! If posting on social media isn’t your thing, I get that. I really do. (Some days, it maybe shouldn’t be my thing either.)

Maybe doing something means having a conversation with a neighbor. Maybe it means texting a black friend to say, “I know the past month has been full of heavy race-related news… how are you feeling?” Maybe it means clicking “like” on something to let a friend know they aren’t alone. Maybe it means something more, something bigger, something bolder. Or maybe it means something simple, something in your school, something in your church, something in your home.

I tried to patch things up with my old friend, but our relationship basically ended with that phone call. She wasn’t willing to treat our child like anything but a threat. I learned then, though it broke my heart, that sometimes you have to walk away from friendships. I still love her. I still miss her. It's been almost three years, and I still can’t type these words without tears. My heart is still broken over this loss, to be honest. I’m still grieving.

But a friend isn’t a friend if she can’t see my children as fully human and worthy of love and belonging. A friend isn’t a friend if he chooses the fear of my children over the truth about them, whether the topic be HIV or race or immigration or disability or gender. A friend isn’t a friend if I share sorrow and the knee jerk reaction is defensiveness instead of care again and again. (Once or twice gets a pass, though I’ll call out that behavior for what it is. But we all have bad days. I don’t think it helps any of us to drop friends lightly.)

What I’m trying to say is that it’s hard to know which friends are true friends right now. It’s hard to know if all our friends are safe. It’s hard to know who would stand with us if it had been my son murdered with evidence planted next to him instead of Judy Scott’s son.

In other words, white friends, I need you to let me know you’re safe. I don’t know how to guess at that anymore. Too many people who have shown us love in every other way have surprised us with indifference or hurtful responses about racism.

And – while I know HIV status and race aren’t the same – I can’t bear to have one more conversation with someone who I think is safe who instead replies, “Actually, I’m the one who doesn’t want my kids playing with yours.” 

I want to help you understand my lament.

I'm hurting, friend. I'm hurting deeply. And I'm being told to suck it up and put away my pain and move on. Rather than call those responses insensitive, I want to help you understand my lament, if I can. 

My heart is so tender, and I'm praying with each word that they will be received in the manner in which I intend. I know a lot of voices are shouting right now. I hope to be a voice that pulls up a chair to chat over coffee and share my heart. 

I occupy a unique space. Here is our family from a couple Easters ago.

I'm white, but four of my children aren't. I was born here into a family that dates back to the pilgrim days, but four of my children are immigrants from Asia and Africa. I have ancestors who fought under the Confederate flag, but I've been targeted online as a "race traitor" for adopting outside of our ethnicity. I easily pass as having no disabilities (though I live with chronic conditions that are invisible yet can be disabling plus I have minor physical disabilities from childhood abuse), but I'm raising children who live with autism and cerebral palsy and HIV and visual impairments, including one who uses a wheelchair. My husband and I are straight and fit into accepted gender norms, but we have dear friends and neighbors who aren't or don't. I'm a Christian, but last year a Muslim friend of mine and her son waited at the preschool until we arrived to walk in with me and Zoe because she was afraid to walk in by herself after the Paris terrorism attacks.

And I occupy one common space: I am a woman who, like 1 in 6, has been raped. I am a woman who was sexually harassed in my workspace and whispered about when I filed a grievance against the man in power who objectified me. I am a woman raised by a father who doesn't "read books by women because they aren't any good." (And I'm a writer, so the hurt is doubled there.)

I am grieving. Many are reading this as being a sore loser. But that's not how I'm feeling. I have voted in five presidential elections, and my candidate only won one of them. It's not new for me to watch election results and see that it didn't go the way I voted.

But I've never felt this way before. And I want you to understand my lament. I want to try to help you grasp the depth of and heart behind this pain.

Before that, let me be clear about what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that I feel this way because the candidate I voted for wasn't elected; that's not the basis of my feelings. I'm not saying that I don't trust God; I do. I'm not saying that I reject anyone who disagrees; I find beauty in our diversity of all forms. 

What I am saying is please don't dismiss my pain or put a timeline on anyone's grief. Hold space. In the words of James 1, please be slow to speak and quick to listen and slow to become angry. 

(And if you're wondering, I've confessed to God and others when I've fallen short there too. I'm not pointing to a speck in your eye while I have a log in my own. I promise. And I wrote these words today instead of yesterday because I couldn't ask others to repent yet then without words dripping with my own sinful arrogance.)

I'm not going to list every way Trump acted or spoke in hurtful ways about groups to which my family belongs. This post isn't about him. He is our next president. I am praying for him. I'm even rooting for him. I genuinely hope none of the grave concerns I have about his leadership, character, and policies will be accurate. I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong.

But I believe Maya Angelou is right when she said, "when people show you who they are, believe them." This post isn't about who Trump is. We've known that for a while. This post is what the votes of white evangelicals have shown me about who they are. 

I don't believe most people who voted for him did so because of his expressions and actions of racism or ableism or xenophobia or misogyny or sexual assault or religious discrimination. I'm not saying that's who you are if you filled the bubble by his name. I want to think the best of my neighbors, so I'm telling myself you were driven by other reasons. 

But? Whatever your reasons, a vote for Trump required a rationalization. 

What he said about "the blacks" is terrible, but...

What he said on mic about sexually assaulting women is awful, but...

How he mocked several people with disabilities isn't okay, but...

His statement that immigrants are rapists and criminals was out of line, but...

I could keep going. I think you get the idea, though. In order to vote for Trump, something mattered more to you than his mistreatment or discrimination of certain groups. Whatever followed the "but..." is why you voted for him. Maybe it had to do with the economy or the Supreme Court or his anti-establishment vibe or [fill in the blank]. I trust that you had your reasons. Some policy aspect of his was compelling (or of hers was so awful to you that you felt like you had to vote for the person with the best chance of stopping Hillary).

But here's the deal: Your policy stance followed the "but..." Our personhood preceded it.

So to me, here is what I hear:

What he said about Patience, Philip, and Patricia is terrible, but...

What he said on mic about sexually assaulting someone just like you were assaulted is awful, but...

How he mocked Zoe and Robbie and you isn't okay, but...

His statement that Patience, Philip, Patricia, and Zoe are rapists and criminals was out of line, but...

Can you pause for a moment and empathize with how that feels?

You can say I'm being too sensitive. You can tell me I'm taking it too personally. You can try to dismiss my feelings. (You wouldn't be the first.)

I'm writing this because I want to help you understand my lament, though. I do. But it is sensitive and personal and rooted in some valid feelings. So trying to help you understand means I have to be vulnerable and open myself up to criticisms from the cheap seats. 

My heart was broken when I realized Trump had won. I didn't have much time to work through my feelings, though, because I'm a mom. Our kids had been being told by classmates that they would be sent back to Uganda if Trump was elected. I had been responding with truth and compassion, but I also didn't think he'd win. When he did, I had to struggle with how to find the words to help her feel secure and prepare her for how to respond when those kids said anything that day after, emboldened by a Trump win. (This is the same child who had a classmate yell, "go back to Africa!" at her last year after Trump's campaign had taken off with racist undertones.) I coached her white sister through how to respond and how to have her sister's back. I walked them in to the elementary school, and I spoke with my kids' teachers to make sure they were aware of these concerns. 

And then I walked back to my van and wept. 

And then I went on social media and was told that my grief came from being a sore loser, that I was being divisive by sharing my hurt, and that I was more concerned with the gospel of Shannon than the gospel of Christ.

And I wept some more. 

I don't think most of my white Christian brothers and sisters intended their votes as racist or ableist or misogynistic or anti-immigrant acts. But? Overwhelmingly, white evangelicals voted for Trump, deciding that their "but..." reasons trumped discrimination against our family. This isn't an isolated event, though; our previous church supported the adoption of black children but then members became critical of me and my faith when I began speaking out about racial injustice, and every week I hear from families who are asked to leave their church because their children's disabilities are too much to accommodate. That makes me feel like the church - at least the white church - isn't for my family, if their political priorities are more important than our personal pain. 

I knew how to handle it when my daughter didn't feel safe at school. But the church - especially the white evangelical church - does not seem safe to me right now for my family. I'm not sure how to handle that. I am listening to try to learn and love better, but what I'm hearing is often hurting me more deeply. I want to understand you, but I'm being wounded in the process. I really don't know what to do with this.

Right now, I'm feeling like the man left beaten and bloody by the side of the road, while my religious neighbors pass on the other side. A sizeable chunk of my white Christian brothers and sisters - maybe you among them - voted for a man who unapologetically disrespected so many groups to which our family belongs: immigrants, women, people of color, those with disabilities, and sexual assault survivors. It's good that my faith in God is firm, because right now my faith in his church is shaky.

I'm still for the church. I'm just not sure the church - at least the segment that looks like me - is still for me. 

And that's why I am lamenting. 

maybe white pushback against the African American History Museum is about something more

I shouldn't have been, but I found myself surprised at the white pushback I’ve seen to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, either you haven't read any comments on news articles or visited Twitter.)

Why an African American Museum? I hear. (Um, because these stories need to be told.)

Where’s the White Museum? I hear. (Um, how about every other museum there is?) That was my first response, and I felt like it was right and good. I saw others expressing the same sentiment.

But then I thought a little longer, and I became uncomfortable with the realizations I uncovered. I have to admit now that the National Museum of African American History and Culture tells my story too (and I’m not talking about my three black children when I say that).

throwback picture to when we were an all-white family with only one child and to when I wore suits and pearls 

throwback picture to when we were an all-white family with only one child and to when I wore suits and pearls 

I haven’t been to the museum yet, but I expect there are exhibits on slavery. My ancestors include white slave-owners in the South. That’s my history too.

I haven’t taken a deep breath while standing before this museum, but I expect to read about how our Constitution didn’t value black Americans as full people. My ancestors supported that. That’s my history too.

I haven’t walked into the hard-fought-for museum yet, but I expect to find stories of the Civil War. Maybe I’d find excerpts from states’ articles of secession, as these four cited slaves or slavery 83 times in their reasons. Some notable examples include “we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery” from Georgia and “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world…. a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization” from South Carolina and a commitment to “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time” from Texas. Actually, to spotlight Texas for a moment, I want to quote this too: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.” I’m spending so much time pointing out the racist roots here because I’ve seen recent pushback against them and because I am dismayed by my own history here. My ancestors fought for the Confederate States in that war, and I’ve heard that our family tree includes Jefferson Davis, the president of those states. That’s my history too.

I haven’t gotten to bring my children into that museum yet, but I expect to see stories of black soldiers who fought in WWII and the Vietnam War. My ancestors fought in those wars too, with both grandfathers in WWII and my father a Green Beret in Vietnam. The difference is that they fought to preserve rights already extended to people who look like me while those black soldiers fought for a country that denied them many of those same rights. That’s my history too.

I haven’t yet shed tears in the halls of that museum, but I expect to see stories of white people who stood for segregation in school and communities and who opposed (or still oppose) affirmative action. My ancestors and even some living relatives are among those white people. That’s my history too.

I haven’t had my heart broken to see Emmett Till’s coffin in that museum, but I know he died at the hands of people who look like me. I know he didn’t get justice because of people who look like me. I know his grave was disrespectfully dug up, which is why his coffin can be displayed, as even his dead body was devalued by people who look like me. I know my ancestors were involved in other – maybe even similar – acts of treating people of color as if they weren’t made in the image of God, even though we all are. That’s my history too.

When we, as white people in this country, say a museum of African American history doesn’t tell our stories too, we’re lying. It does. It just tells stories that don’t put us in the best light, stories that show our ancestors on the wrong side of history, stories that we’re simply not proud of.

Maybe your story isn’t like mine. Maybe your ancestors weren’t here at the beginning of this nation. Maybe you want to shrug off our racist past as not being your own. If so, I get that. But I’d also challenge you to think about the privileges we – all white people – get when people who look like us have held the most power in politics and business and churches and education and more in this country. That history is why skin-colored bandaids are made to match us while I have to special order ones for my black children. It’s why shows that feature people who look like me are simply called shows but ones that feature a primarily black cast are called black entertainment. It’s why, out of the top 500 grossing companies in our country, only 5 have black CEOs while the vast majority look like me (or, more accurately, my husband). It’s why for the past 21 years, only 10% of children’s books included multicultural content while it’s easy for white children to see themselves reflected there. It’s why, even in 2003, the same resume from a stereotypically white-sounding name got 50% more callbacks than an identical resume from a stereotypically black-sounding names. I could go on – as this famous piece does – but I think I’ve made my point. Even if your ancestors didn’t engage in the racist acts that mine did, the benefits of white privilege afforded to me are also available to you.

African American history is American history. It is. But as white people have historically gotten to write the history books and control the biases there, we have been able to rewrite stories to favor us a bit more. (One reason black homeschooling is on the rise, in fact, is this failure for public schools to teach history through anything but a Euro-centric lens.) For example, one textbook recently raised eyebrows by referring to those brought by the slave trade as immigrant “workers” with the implication that they were paid or came by choice. Even the misunderstandings about slavery’s role in the Civil War can be traced back to textbooks whitewashing our history.

Maybe white pushback to the African American Museum isn’t about black history. It’s about white history and the discomfort we have in owning it all. And maybe it isn’t about history at all. It’s about the current state of racism in our country and our refusal to see how the past has brought us to this point.

Maybe it’s time to clean out our closets and come face to face with some skeletons there. That will be hard, certainly. We might have to admit that the 26% of white people (and 40% of Trump supporters) who believe black people are lazy (leading to their poverty and other societal issues) can only do so by denying a history in which people who look like me oppressed black people by enslaving them with no pay and then confining them to the lowest wages and the worst conditions in housing and school, restricting them from colleges, job training, and welfare programs, and preventing them from positions of political, economic, or social power. We might have to admit that while we’re quick as white people to decry the black crime rate, the ways in which whites oppressed blacks created higher rates of poverty which thereby result in higher rates of crime (and, while we’re at it, higher rates of absent fathers and homelessness and educational difficulties and other symptoms we like to talk about while ignoring the causes). We might have to acknowledge that many of these realities are recent in our history, such that my parents' public schools didn't admit black children and at least one of my grandparents grew up with black servants who, while not slaves, were paid and treated in a less dignifying way than white household workers would have been. We might have to get comfortable with these stories on the lower levels of the museum, the stories of white people treating black people as subhuman, instead of camping out with the stories of those black stars we regard as superhuman in their exceptionality: Gabby Douglas and Ben Carson and Muhammed Ali and more. But maybe it’s time to look at and own the hard parts of our history too.

Maybe it’s past time.

And maybe once we do, the idea of this much-needed National Museum of African American History and Culture will make more sense to us.

one of those days

All of us have had one of those days: a day we know, for sure, will be recounted again and again. The story of the day will live on as the calendar pages turn and the years change and new generations rise up. Now we might call such a day “epic;” who knows what lingo we might choose in the future.

Last fall offered one such day. Jocelyn has always been heavily involved in the boys and girls chasing each other scene at recess. In kindergarten, she chased them. By first grade, they were mostly chasing her, as they recognized her speed had surpassed theirs. They laughed and ran and played. Then they did it all over the next day.

Well, last fall Jocelyn had a new pink coat. It was furry and soft and came with a matching beret-like hat. She loved that jacket. And the boys, seeing that, snatched the pink softness at recess, and they ran. And she chased. And it was fun.

Until it wasn’t.

Now my girl didn’t just inherit my propensity to hang with the boys. She also inherited my moxie. She decided that day to end the game. She wanted to wear the coat again. She wanted it back. NOW. So the chasing became goal-driven instead of game-making.

The boys? As it often goes in third grade, the boys didn’t clue in to what their girl friend wanted. They didn’t know the game was over. They kept playing.

And then, as they ran, they ended up in a part of the schoolyard beyond the reach of teachers’ eyes. Jocelyn, done with the game, was trapped. The group of boys, still playing along, were clueless. One of them taunted, “We’ve got you cornered! What are you going to do now?”

And so, she punched him.

I heard secondhand that his mouth was bloody. A teacher said his tooth was loose, adding that it might have been a permanent one. Rumor has it that she landed a few kicks and blows among the other boys too.

I love my children dearly, but I neglect my answering machine. I’m a holdout who still has a home phone, and the teacher called that number to talk to us about what happened. Of course, I didn’t listen, not at first. No, I found out about the incident after school when another mom texted me to say, “I’m friends with ____, [bloodied-mouth boy’s] mom, and she asked me to tell you that she is mortified about what happened on the playground and so sorry for what her son did to Jocelyn.”

Naturally, I called Jocelyn over to ask if anything noteworthy happened at school that day. She shrugged. “Maybe during recess?” I offered.

“Oh,” she said. “That. Well, I probably should have made a different choice, but some boys cornered me and no teachers were around and so I hit and kicked them some. I talked to Ms Benson about what other choices I can make if it ever happens again.”

Well, as you might imagine, it hasn’t happened again. The boys in her grade know Jocelyn is not one to be messed with. The boys in other grades have heard too. They know she’s a warrior girl.

Before I move on to the next story, I want you to think about Jocelyn. How would you have felt if you were me? Proud, maybe? (I certainly was.) Comforted that your brave daughter is able and willing to stand up for herself? (YES.) Thankful that she knows other choices can be made. (Of course.) And maybe even unwilling to dole out a negative consequence because she clearly knew right from wrong. (That’s how we handled it.)

 

Now let’s flip some calendar pages to earlier this week.

We saw the aftermath of a Groundhog’s Day scenario. Another video showed the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of those meant to protect and serve, this time in Tulsa. A video from another city – St. Louis – caught other officers conspiring to falsify charges against a protester. And then a man in my own state was killed by officers who came to serve an arrest warrant for someone else, and none of the stories match in his death, though the authorities are refusing to release the footage of the incident to the public or the deceased man’s family.

If this was one isolated week, that might not be a huge deal. But we all know that’s not the case.

And so, protests – even violent protests – broke out. I’m not saying two wrongs make a right, but I’m saying that heaps of wrongs that haven’t been made right create anger. I’m saying we, as a society, have backed our black neighbors and friends into a corner and told them to stay in their place there.

What are you going to do now? we taunt.

Walk home in your neighborhood wearing a hoodie? You die.

Enter a convenience store? You die.

Pick up an air rifle in WalMart while talking on the phone to your wife? You die.

Walk with a toy gun as a child, maybe 12 or 13 years young? You die on video, or maybe you die in an alley with the police cameras mysteriously not operating.

Legally carry a concealed weapon? You die.

Carry a closed knife? You die.

Walk down the street with your hands in your pockets? You die.

Enter a stairwell with your girlfriend? You die.

Sleep on the couch in your living room? You die.

Sleep in a park downtown? You die.

Sell cigarellos on the streets of New York City? You die.

Sell CDs at a gas station? You die.

Run away without threatening anyone? You die.

Seek help after a car accident? You die.

Start your car after a traffic stop? You die.

Fail to signal a lane change? You get arrested unlawfully and then you die.

Get arrested and transported by police? You die.

Run from an officer who can’t tell the difference between his gun and his taser? You die.

Talk too loudly with your friends? You die.

These aren’t mere stories. They each have a name. In order of the list above, they are Trayvon Martin. Levar Jones. John Crawford. Tamir Rice. Tyre King. Philando Castile. Laquan McDonald. Ezell Ford. Akai Gurley. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Dontre Hamilton. Eric Garner. Alton Sterling. Walter Scott. Jonathan Ferrell. Samuel DuBose. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Eric Harris. Rekia Boyd. (And there are more I didn't list.)

So you’re cornered with examples of systemic racism and police brutality on all sides.

So, what are you going to do now? we taunt.

We see Jocelyn, cornered in the schoolyard, by a group larger than her both in numbers and body size, with no one in authority offering help. And we say “atta girl” when she punches.

But we see our black brothers and sisters, cornered by institutional racism, by a group holding greater privilege (perhaps a group to which you belong, like I do), with those in authority doing the killing and the covering up, while good cops who would never do that sort of thing allow it to continue by never speaking out against those who do. (And those who do speak out, God bless them, are few.) And we shake our heads and insult them when they protest peacefully by taking a knee during the national anthem.

So then why are we surprised when they throw a punch in response, in desperation, in a desire to be seen and heard and validated, a hope that one day the wrongful death of a black man at the hands of a white officer will be met with the same care and justice as the wrongful death of an officer is? No one is saying that black lives matter more than police officers’ do. But our culture and courts are showing that police officers’ lives matter more than black lives.

 

Why are you making this about race?

I hear this question often. The answer is simple: because. it. is.

Bias studies, like this one, indicate that police are more likely to shoot unarmed blacks than unarmed whites.

In real life, research has shown that for the same crimes, blacks are treated unfairly by our justice system. In NYC, for example, blacks (and Hispanics) are more likely to be detained, convicted, and incarcerated for the same crime of misdemeanor marijuana possession than their white neighbors. In urban areas (Seattle, Chicago, and Baltimore, in this particular study), even after controlling for actual neighborhood crime levels, a higher percentage of young Black men in a community was associated with greater perceptions of crime.

In areas in which we’ve had recent racially charged incidents, the Department of Justice investigations have found disturbing trends in the policing. In Baltimore, they cited a pattern of unlawful use of enforcement against black citizens, including disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests, as well as the use of excessive force and frequent retaliation against black individuals for constitutionally-protected public expression, as compared to whites. In Ferguson, the report showed a greater likelihood to issue citations, use person-to-person force, use police dog-to-person force, and issue arrest warrants for blacks than whites – as well as a lesser likelihood to dismiss charges against blacks than whites – without any indication that people of different races actually committed crimes at different rates in that area.

And if your knee-jerk response is “what about police lives?” I understand your perspective. After all, I’m the daughter of a retired law enforcement officer who devoted his career to criminal justice after serving in Vietnam. I care deeply about police officers, and I grieve their deaths and injuries too. That said, this movement isn’t merely about death; it’s about justice. When a police officer dies, we’re all confident justice will be done, as the offender will be sought and arrested and charged and found guilty and sentenced for the crime. When someone is wrongly killed by an officer, however, that officer will be placed on leave for a while and might lose the job but accountability for those actions isn’t likely. So, yes, police lives matter, and that’s shown in our justice system. Meanwhile, according to the same system, black lives don’t matter or matter less. Furthermore, fewer police officers died in shootings in 2015 than the previous year, even as that year and prior years saw racial unrest come to the surface with greater awareness, largely due to social media and the filming of police brutality incidents. (Now, some statistics show that they might be higher in 2016, but seeing a drop in one racially charged year and a rise in another shows that the race-related strife isn’t the only factor here.)

And what about the resounding pushback about black-on-black crime? Well, FBI homicide statistics show that the majority of homicides committed from 1980-2008 were by white murderers against white victims. Those same stats show that white offenders are more likely to kill children or senior citizens and more likely to commit sex-related, gang-related, and workplace-related homicides than blacks. Furthermore, white offenders were more likely to commit mass murders as well. This wasn’t just true during those years; the most recent year of data available from the FBI shows this pattern too. I could offer other examples as well. The reality is that we live in segregated communities in this country, and we’re more likely to victimize or be victimized by someone in close geographic proximity to us. So until we’re willing to admit that white-on-white crime is a problem and acknowledge that the black community has been taking action against black-on-black crime, the words “but black-on-black crime” feel like dirty distractions drenched in racism.

I’ve only skimmed the surface with the citations above, but – as the mother of black, white, and Asian children – I’ve deep dived into it all. This and this are great resources for reading further on this issue, as well as the books The New Jim Crow, Between the World and Me, and Just Mercy.

Simply put, one of my sons is more likely to have positive encounters with the police than the other, unless something changes.

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So what can we do?

1. Be a changemaker.

Just like Jocelyn wouldn’t have been cornered by those boys if those in authority had made different choices (like positioning teachers on duty so no blind spots existed), senseless killings and overpolicing in the black community can be changed by different choices too. Use your online presence to speak out against injustice or to amplify the voices of people of color. Listen well – online and in person – to those whose lived experiences are different from yours without saying “but…” or telling them to hold back their emotion until more facts are available. Contact your local police department to ask what anti-bias training officers currently receive. (The good news in the research is that some kinds of anti-bias trainings have been proven effective.) Once you know that, write your local lawmakers to share what you’ve learned and, maybe even using the statistics I shared above, ask for consideration and funding to better equip officers. Do or say something. Now is not the time for silence out of fear or apathy.

2. If you choose not to be a changemaker, don’t judge those who punch when cornered.

If you won’t do anything more than shake your head at violence toward black communities by some in law enforcement, then you don’t get to shake your head when their anger spills over. I don’t like kids fighting at school, but I was proud that Jocelyn punched that boy. I don’t like violence, but I can’t say I don’t understand why some people feel like that’s the only way to get white neighbors to care. After all, people lost their minds because a black football player didn’t kneel, so if we won’t pay attention to peaceful protests, we can’t act surprised when the peaceful part gets left behind.

3. When you’re part of a system that benefits from another group’s cornering, recognize that.

I was moved by the mother of the boy Jocelyn punched, when she – knowing my daughter’s punch made her son bleed – apologized. She didn’t corner Jocelyn, but as his mom, she’s part of the family system that did. All white people and all officers don’t engage in police brutality against black people, but we do live in a system that privileges white skin (which I unpack more in this post) while others aren’t as #blessed. No civil rights movement achieves success unless those who already hold the rights and privileges stand with those who don’t. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963,

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

While we’re at it, when you cherry pick which of Dr. King’s words you share, remember he was killed for being too revolutionary. He wasn’t welcomed. And about violence, he said in 1968,

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?... It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

In other words, don’t invoke his name against riots unless you’re willing to wrestle with all of his words. As far as other names, the ones I listed above, I could have researched facts about each. I considered offering the sorts of vignettes we do to humanize people, to make them multidimensional, to show that their lives had value before a bullet cut it short. But here’s the thing: THEY ARE ALREADY HUMAN. We shouldn’t have to say Aiyana loved Disney princesses or Terence was about to start community college or Tyre was only 4’11” and not even 100 pounds to say that their lives matter. Furthermore, no criminal records or past drug use or divorce could make their lives matter less.

(Why is it that we share swimming stats for convicted rapists while we malign the memory of unarmed black men killed by police? This is not okay. No one should have to earn their right to be treated as human, but I worry that one of my sons will more than the other.)

Our country has been having a lot of those days: days we know, for sure, will be recounted again and again. The story of the day will live on as the calendar pages turn and the years change and new generations rise up. Now we mark these days with hashtags, daring to say their names and recognize their humanity so that we might know better and do better in the future.

At the end of these days, I pray that my children can be proud of where I stood and with whom I stood at this moment in history. 

the three Simones in my news feed this morning

One Simone we’ve been talking about for weeks. One Simone just caught our national attention last night. And one Simone might be not be on your radar yet.

All three are amazing black women. All three have powerful stories. All three warrant our attention.

Let’s start with Simone Biles. She is a joy to watch, and I’m glad she’s become a household name, with her team gold and all-around medal just the start to the medals I expect she’ll bring home.

She’s creating amazing conversations too. Discussions of her adoption, including some uneducated remarks, have forced our language about adoptees and family into the news. As for her legacy, I love this quote from her: "I'm not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I'm the first Simone Biles." 

Source:  CNN

Source: CNN

But Simone Biles isn’t the only American Simone making a splash (pun intended) at the Olympics this year. By now, I expect you’ve seen the footage of Simone Manuel winning gold in the 100 freestyle in Rio. If you haven’t, please find it and watch. On the NBC broadcast, the commentators referred to her as the “other American” swimmer, as they focused back on the favorites for the race. It isn’t until the final 25 meters that they took note of Simone. And then? The look on her face when she realizes she’s won gives me goosebumps.  

Source:  USA Today

Source: USA Today

Simone’s blackness isn’t just a side note here. It isn’t like saying the first blue-haired swimmer won gold as part of a relay a few nights ago. (Bless your heart, Ryan.) Race matters here. In 1964, shown in the picture below, a white motel owner poured acid in his pool in an effort to scare black swimmers out of it. Before that, black actors Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr., in separate incidents in the 1950s, found hotel pools drained, simply because they had used them, with Dandridge merely sticking her toe in the water according to some stories. After Brown v. the Board of Education ruled that segregation in schools are unconstitutional, a federal judge decided that pools could stay separate because they "were more sensitive than schools."  

Given that context, I found Simone Manuel’s words to be powerful.

This medal is not just for me. It is for some of the African-Americans who have come before me, like Maritza, Cullen. This medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find love and drive to get to this point... Coming into this race tonight I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me...

I’m super-glad I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport, but at the same time I’d like there to be a day when there will be more of us and it’s not ‘Simone – the black swimmer’. The title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or break records. That’s not true. I work just as hard as everybody else and I love the sport.

That brings me to the third Simone in my newsfeed this morning, Simone Butler-Thomas. She lives here in Raleigh. Her son, Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas, died this past weekend at the hands of a man who her family’s lawyer has called “Zimmerman 2.0.” You might have missed it because, sadly, an innocent black man dying has become an all too frequent story.

Source:  ABC News

Source: ABC News

In Thomas's death, an officer didn’t pull the trigger. Thomas was walking home from a party. A neighbor shot from his garage, telling a 911 operator “We're going to secure our neighborhood. If I were you I would send PD.” Thomas died at the scene. Unlike many incidents in recent news, though, Thomas’s killer is in jail right now, largely I suspect because he was shot by a civilian rather than an officer.

(Let’s all remember that the movement against police brutality isn’t simply about the deaths of black people at the hands of officers but rather the lack of justice in the aftermath. When officers are killed, the act is wrong too - of course - but their killers will be charged with their crimes, found guilty, and sentenced to punishment, something which is usually not the case for black men and women when their lives are taken in incidents of police aggression. And just as I'm not criticizing all parents when I call for action against abusive ones or blasting all teachers when I demand accountability for bad ones, I - as a parent and a former teacher and the daughter of a retired police officer - am not attacking all police officers when I point out the violence by some.)

After her victory, Simone Manuel took a moment to address these hard realities.

It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.

She wasn’t “playing the race card” – a phrase which is regularly used in attempts to silence minority voices – but rather pointing out a reality that white America is finally seeing with the spread of social media and camera phones. Police more readily use force on black Americans [1] - at a rate of 3.5 times more than whites and 2.5 more than the general population according to one study[2] and at a rate of more than twice as likely as whites according to the DOJ [3]. A detailed study from UC-Davis last year showed, from 2011-2014, that unarmed black Americans were 3.49 times more likely to be shot by police than unarmed white Americans [4].

Well, maybe black people are being more violent to warrant such a response, some suggest. But, no. A Washington Post data analysis found that "when factoring in threat level, black Americans who are fatally shot by police are, in fact, less likely to be posing an imminent lethal threat to officers at the moment they are killed than white Americans fatally shot by police." [5]. Again and again, investigations into specific areas - like Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, Greensboro, and San Francisco - uncover blatant racism and gross bias in policing practices. (Here's a post that examines some of these studies as well as others.)

Simply put, according to this research, my black son is more likely than my white son to be stopped, searched, met with force, arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced harshly in the same circumstances. This reality isn't okay. 

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Don't get me wrong: As I see our nation celebrate Simone Biles and Simon Manuel, I cheer too. Their athletic feats and historic victories are inspiring. I’m amazed, too, by their poise and care in using their voices for others. Americans of all races and religions and backgrounds are rooting for these two Simones.

As I see Simone Butler-Thomas weep, though, I don’t see the same diversity in those who are mourning with her. When she says, “I'm going to bury my child. He was a good kid and I don’t have him no more and there’s nothing I can do,” are we hearing her? When she cries "I just want justice for my son," are we joining her in that? I’m not hearing my white friends talk about this Simone and her grief for her dead son. Why are we comfortable empathizing with Simone Biles and Simone Manuel but not Simone Butler-Thomas?  

If we want to celebrate blackness in sports but turn our backs to the disparities blacks face in ordinary life, then we’re not saying they matter. We aren't. Our humanity isn’t based in our contributions, but when we wear their jerseys and celebrate their accomplishments but refuse to share in their grief, we’re saying we value their performance but not their personhood. Our language betrays us, as we claim our black brothers and sisters in victories – “we won!” as if I helped by holding my breath in suspense as I watched from my couch – but separate ourselves in sorrow – “they need to wait until all the facts are available” or, again, "they are playing the race card."

Simone Biles matters. Simone Manuel matters. They do.

But Simone Butler-Thomas matters too, and so does her son Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas.

Black lives matter. They do.

And I’ll keep saying it until they do to all of us, as much when they’re walking home from a neighborhood party as when they’re representing our country on an Olympic podium.