April 05, 2016
On Easter Sunday, my godson, Elijah, had his first encounter with the police. He is not yet three years old. His mother was pulled over because her Volkswagen Touareg has tinted windows. The tint is legal, and she wasn’t given a ticket. Nonetheless, in thinking about law enforcement and how to explain the situation to Elijah, we all grew anxious. We recognize that this will be one of many discussions we will need to have with him about the law, the police, and discrimination — simply because he is a black boy living in America.
The lessons we intended to teach Elijah on Easter — how to properly crack an Easter egg, why the Easter bunny brings baskets only to good little boys, and how Peeps expand dramatically in the microwave — were all interrupted by the lessons we felt compelled to start teaching him about what it means to be a black man in America. My cousin, Elijah's mother, is a critical care nurse, her husband a doctor. They live in an affluent neighborhood in Maryland. Yet I can't help but dread the day Elijah stops being seen as "adorable" and begins to be perceived as a "threat." What will we need to tell him then about how to behave in public? Will we stop him from wearing hooded sweatshirts so that others don't automatically think he's a "thug"? Will we tell him he can't run through his own neighborhood with his friends out of fear the police might see them and assume the worst?
Even if we teach him all the "right" things, and even if he actually listens (which, if he's anything like his godmother, he won't), we still won't be able to guarantee his safety. That's the concern that comes with being responsible for a young black man in America. I would never wish for Elijah to be white, but I do wish he didn't have to bear the burden of being a black boy. And the lack of control over the situation I feel surely is only a fraction of the anxiety that must haunt his parents — a shared anxiety that, despite their advanced degrees, fancy jobs, and above-average paychecks, will continue to fester as they, and I, work to guide Elijah safely into adulthood.