Last Thanksgiving, I was at my in-laws’ house in Pennsylvania. I was sitting at my computer, refreshing the Google News site every minute or so. I was waiting to read what would happen to the police officer who killed Michael Brown.
The answer? Nothing. Not a single thing.
And I immediately thought of my son.
This is Jackson:
In this picture, he is 9 years old. He will be 10 this month. He’s short for his age, so people often think he’s 7 or 8. He hates that. He hates that he’s only 10 inches taller than his 4-year-old sister. But I am grateful for the genes that keep him shorter than the other kids in his class. Maybe, just maybe, that will be enough to keep him “adorable” for a bit longer.
Last week, another verdict came down. The police officer who shot Tamir Rice, a child holding a BB gun in a playground, the officer who didn’t even properly stop his car before he shot Tamir, the officer who had a history of mental health problems, the officer about whom a firearms instructor stated his ability with a handgun was “dismal”—that officer was found not guilty of any wrongdoing. He shot a child in a park in 1.5-2 seconds. And, according to our justice system he did nothing wrong.
Tamir Rice was 12 years old. He was 5 feet, 7 inches tall. Jackson is only 51 inches—that’s 4 feet, 3 inches tall. So he has about one more foot before he stops being “cute” and becomes a “thug.” Yeah—that was the excuse the police officers used. They thought Rice was about 20, they said. But people always think that black children are “older and less innocent” or “bigger and older than they actually are.”
There’s a quote from Christopher Hayes making its way around social media: “Ohio is an open carry state, and the cops say they thought Rice was an adult, so what law, exactly, was he breaking?”
What law was he breaking? He was black.
That’s it. Black people are only innocent until deemed suspicious. That’s why Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and hundreds of other black people are dead, but the guy who shot nine people dead in a church was apprehended alive and taken to Burger King.
Research in the last decade showed that both police and civilians were more likely to press “shoot” when they were presented with images of black people. They were also slower to press “don’t shoot” when presented with images of unarmed black people.
This is what goes through my head when I let my son out to play. He’s already been told by his “friends” that, when he grows up, he’s going to shoot people, because all black guys are criminals. (Nice parenting there, by the way, white folks.) We don’t even let him bring Nerf guns out of the house anymore. It’s too dangerous.
I feel terrified, angry, and defeated. This kid wasn’t worth anything—that’s what this verdict means. And if Tamir Rice wasn’t worth anything, to those people, my son isn’t worth anything.
If you believe that Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and hundreds of other people of color deserved their deaths, if you think their executions were somehow justified, then you are a part of the problem. At best, you’re naive. At worst, you’re racist, even if you won’t acknowledge that you are. You are the reason I am scared out of my mind for my son. You are the reason mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers—anyone who loves a person of color—live in fear that their loved ones will die at the hands of the law enforcement officials who are supposed to protect them.
If you’re someone who sees the hashtag #blacklivesmatter and respond with #alllivesmatter, you are in denial. Sure, all lives matter. But there are still too many people—and you may be among them—who believe that, the darker the skin, the less the life matters. We do not live in a post-racial society. It pains me to say that race does matter, the color of one’s skin does make a difference. It absolutely should not be that way, but it is.
I don’t know how to change that. At this point, all I have are words. Open your mind. Stop being so damn defensive every time someone brings up white privilege. No one expects you to feel guilty for being white, but maybe don’t feel like you’re being persecuted when someone points out that the white man who shot more than 70 people in a movie theater was arrested, while the black kid who had a toy gun in a park was shot without any warning.