Hands where I can see them
Wandering around Soho in Lower Manhattan, New York, on a Saturday afternoon, we don’t always agree on where to go: one wants to check out fashion, the other wants to check out books, the third wants to look for a record shop. But we all agree on the Apple Store. We are all suckers for iThis and iThat, and happy to play with the latest iSuckedYouInAgain. My daughter runs off and looks at whatever she wants, and I give her strict instructions not to leave the store, or panic if she loses us. I assume, wrongly, that this is the kind of thing all parents say to their children on a busy Saturday afternoon.
Kelly’s child is the same age as mine, and he too loves browsing in the Apple Store. But his instructions are completely different.
“I told him that if he picks up anything, he should look at it right there and put it back on the shelf. He should never walk around the store with anything. He should keep his hands where people can see them.
“As soon as he turned 11 and started looking less like an adorable baby and more like an adolescent, when he started being more independent, we had to start having these difficult conversations. I had to explain to him why he should always get receipts from delis and vending machines.
“At this age, I no longer worry about him being snatched or lost,” she tells me. “I worry about him being accused of something.” Kelly is white. Her son Jonah is black.
Recently the whole issue of black boys and men in the context of stereotyping and racial profiling has been a huge topic all over this country. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has studied New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” tactics and found that innocent New Yorkers have been stopped and interrogated by police more than four million times since 2002.
“Only 11 percent of stops in 2011 were based on a description of a violent crime suspect,” says the NYCLU website. “On the other hand, from 2002-2011, black and Latino residents made up close to 90 percent of people stopped, and about 88 percent of stops—more than 3.8 million—were of innocent New Yorkers. Even in neighborhoods that are predominantly white, black and Latino New Yorkers face the disproportionate brunt. For example, in 2011, black and Latino New Yorkers made up 24 percent of the population in Park Slope, but 79 percent of stops. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD’s) own reports.”
My daughter’s school, where Jonah is her classmate, has a high population of black boys, many of whom have already been stopped by the police. Recently, in the wake of these experiences, and the tide of disturbing stories (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner…the list of black male victims of a vicious system goes on),the school held a workshop for all students, run by the NYCLU, on what to do if you’re stopped by a policeman (can you imagine this in India? A workshop on what to do if there are communal riots, for instance?).
A couple of weeks ago, despite the department of education forbidding it, many parents and students marched to the Brooklyn federal district attorney’s office, and submitted a petition to file federal charges against the police officers who killed Eric Garner. The officers held him down in a chokehold despite the fact that he said, “I can’t breathe” 11 times. The school worked with the police department, who helped us along the entire route. Most of us feel generally positive about the NYPD. It was a brilliant exercise in community relations.
That’s the big picture. The small picture is the dinner table in Kelly and Jonah’s apartment, where the white woman, and the black boy she loves more than anyone in the world, have to sit down and talk about the inevitable moment when Jonah, walking down the street, bespectacled and backpacked, will be stopped by a police officer and asked to explain himself.
Sounds paranoid? I remember a moment 25 years ago, when I worked as a reporter in Philadelphia. I was riding in a lift with a group of black colleagues, and the doors started to open. “Watch,” said one man to me, “if it’s a white person, they won’t get on.” It was, and she didn’t. Everyone on the elevator laughed. “We’re so scary!”
“Subconsciously people see potential in a white kid that they don’t in a black kid,” Kelly told me. Statistics bear this out. Our entire justice system is rife with examples of unequal consequences for different groups. It starts at birth: when Kelly started her adoption process, the director of a clinic explained that black males are at the bottom of the priority list for the majority of adoptive parents.
Real change occurs when things get complicated. Jonah will grow up knowing about white racism, but it wouldn’t be easy for him to lump all whites as racists, given his family. The same thing goes on in my house: I can give an accurate description of white male privilege and its devastating effects, but the fact remains that I have my morning coffee with my very own white male, and it’s impossible for me to demonize the entire demographic.
The year is ending and, just like I get sucked into the Apple Store, I also get sucked into the entirely manufactured feeling of thinking a new year means a new beginning. And who knows, maybe it does. Maybe 2015 will be the year when mothers of black and brown boys all over this country will start to worry a little less about what could happen to their sons when they walk down the street.
Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.
To read Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns, click here.