Daniel called us on the phone to tell us what had happened. My stomach turned in knots and my heart started racing. In my head I could see horrible images of young men killed by gunfire. Once I was able to process the information, thinking what had happened - but more importantly, what had not happened, I just thought, "Thank God my son is white." This thought has stuck with me ever since.
I believe that if Daniel had been black, he would have been killed that day. In this case, the police may have been justified for shooting. They believed the young men were carrying automatic weapons. But thankfully they took a breath and gave them a chance to drop their fake weapons.
If you happen to be the parent of a young white man, consider all of the experiences he had while growing up. Think about the times he got into trouble at school, drove too fast, drank underage, got rowdy at a party, or talked back to authority. Most of our children engage in some of this type of behavior while they are navigating through adolescence. If your son is black or brown, he will likely suffer unjust consequences for his actions. If your son happens to be white, he will be less likely to be suspended from school. He will be less likely to be arrested. If he is arrested, he will be less likely to go to jail. He will be less likely to be shot. Instead, he will be more likely to know how to read, graduate from high school and go onto college.
We are horrified and outraged by the killing of Michael Brown. Even though we don't yet have all the facts, we know that an unarmed young man who was heading to college is now dead. But our outrage needs to extend beyond this one injustice. We need to consider all of the things that are impacting young men who are not white. Our mistreatment of them begins long before they reach adolescence. It happens in virtually all of our social institutions. This is well described in "Michael Brown and Black Men," an op-ed piece written by Michael M. Blow.
Throughout my career I have personally witnessed the criminalization of typical misbehavior of boys. I once visited a detention center where the population was double the capacity allowed by law. Most of the boys, who were mostly Hispanic, were placed there due to arrests at school. When I asked about specific offenses, I was told almost all had disrupted a school function, which was against the law. I met one boy who had talked back to a teacher and another who had kicked a trash can when he was frustrated about a difficult assignment. These boys were in jail, some for months, because they had done something that would only result in a detention in a typical white suburban school. The worst offense I learned about that day after talking to dozens of children and their intake officer was a lunchroom fight with no injuries.
In schools where security staff do not have the power to arrest, we will likely see much higher suspension rates for black and brown boys than any other group. Nationally 28.3% of black male middle school students will experience suspension annually, according to the report "Suspended Education; Urban Middle Schools in Crisis." What is truly fascinating about the suspension data is how little attention and outrage it receives. I have had the experience of changing a school's suspension policy so that only truly serious incidents (that posed a safety risk) would result in a student being removed from school. To my absolute horror, teachers and parents complained about the shift in policy, arguing that we needed to throw these kids out. There was no desire among those opposing the policy to understand the consequences of suspension or even the potential success of any alternate disciplinary measure. They just wanted to throw the kids out.
If you are the parent of white boy, you can be thankful your child's life will be easier and much more just than his peers who are black or brown. You can take comfort in the fact that a police officer may take a breath before pulling the trigger. If you are the parent of a black or brown boy, you can teach him how to respond in a way that might mitigate his odds of being unjustly suspended, arrested or shot. You can hope and pray that he will not fall victim as Michael Brown did. But all of us together must begin to be honest about how children are treated differently based on the color of their skin.
Right now we are outraged by the killing of Michael Brown. This is not enough. In order to change things, our outrage must translate into action. As you read the stories and feel the anger, consider what you can do today in your own community to improve the odds that ALL children will receive a good education, be treated justly, and have a chance at success.