When I was a first grader riding in the backseat of my mother’s car, we were pulled over in a routine traffic stop.
The white police officer approached our vehicle, and before saying anything else to my black mother, he asked, “Do you know what I would do to you if you ever even looked at my wife or kids the wrong way?”
My mother shrugged, and suggested that he would lock her in prison.
He responded, “I’d kill you.”
I was so young that I had no idea how to make sense of what the officer said to my mother that day, especially considering that earlier in the week the police department visited my school to talk about their role in keeping us safe and protecting us from the bad guys. She was pulled over because her vehicle registration was out of date.
My fear during that conversation burned the exchange into my memory, and I still recall it vividly. My confusion from that day has been undone by a deeper understanding of the powerful impact of racism in America. I grew up in a lower middle class town in South Florida that had pockets of segregation, and where racism was common and happened to be the driving force behind the officer’s hateful speech to my mother. My neighborhood was almost all black, and nearly all of my classmates in elementary school were black. I did well in high school, graduated from the University of Michigan with honors, and obtained a JD from Yale Law School. My peers became whiter at each level of education, but I stayed black.
Since that day the police officer threatened my mother, I have tried to rationalize what I considered an irrational fear of the police. It was silly, I thought, to reflexively put that second hand on the steering wheel whenever a patrol car neared. If I’m not doing anything wrong, why be fearful? But feeling a certain discomfort in our own skin is a unique yet ubiquitous experience for black Americans. It extends from Ferguson, Missouri, to the South Side of Chicago, westward to BART platforms in Oakland and back east to Barney’s on Madison Avenue in New York.
For me, that discomfort survived an Ivy League education, and I still instinctively attempt to “look innocent” when cops pass by, even though I live in the same building as Chicago’s superintendent of police.
One thing has become clear to me. This pervasive feeling of second-class status is not just some irrational thought complex. It is a wholly justified and incessantly reinforced reaction to a society that will murder the innocent among us, systematically depress us economically, and then tell us to stop complaining about it. “Look at the violence in Chicago; that’s black on black crime,” they’ll say.
Every day I grow more fearful that these realities we face as black Americans will not change.
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