After re-engaging my gym rat status, I hit the locker room for the standard shower and wardrobe change. As I’m putting my shoes on I encounter a fellow baller, basketball specifically. You know those guys, the ones who, after a few intense ball games, you develop a distant but solid bond that encourages cordial banter. After we spoke about pro-sports and recent gym observations, I got up to leave and offered him a pound (aka the fist bump–can’t stand that name btw). As our fists hit, the 30-something year old black man looked at me with a casual, but earnest look and said, “Be safe out there my dude.”
The words echoed in my mind for much longer than I would have ever imagined. “Be safe out there?” From what? From who? A decade ago when someone told me to be safe out there, it meant to protect myself from myself or from the mean streets of wherever the local gang and violence was. BUT NOW, a whole new worry has saturated my mind: law enforcement.
Let me just say that I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. Sue me. So I don’t completely believe that the police are barbarically and mercilessly trying to intentionally/consciously shoot young black men. [ Sidenote: I do, however, think unconscious bias is a serious issue in policing decisions.] But in that moment, that baller’s salutation led to a personal mental scroll through a gallery of police images, most of which were negative. “Be safe out there my dude.”
In the past few years, we’ve been inundated with story after story, statistic after statistic, and video after video all leading us to think that the police are the people who need watching. Couple that with the fact that in most of these images, stories, and videos, it is young, often unarmed, black men getting shot. It gets you thinking: “I may have to watch my back around the cops,” “My skin color resembles a bullseye,”or “Am I a threat?” Rarely did such questions enter my consciousness before. Maybe I was sheltered growing up in Nassau County and the dynamic between law enforcement and people of color has always been this way. But regardless, lately, I cannot avoid the countless reminders that I, or someone I care about, could be next.
It reminds me of the Henry Louis Gates solution. You know, the Harvard Professor who attempted to “break and enter” into his own home and had a…let’s say “challenging” encounter with police. The incident itself is one thing, but what I am reminded of is President Obama’s solution. He sat them both down and talked race over a beer. Remember that? It was a “teachable moment.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could get law enforcement to sit down with the prevailing minds in the black community and just talk differences, perceptions, and ideas over a nice cold beer? You know, hash it out like civilized people. Is that too far fetched? Are our biases so solidified that there is little hope to change for the better?
As I grow older my thoughts are less about my own well-being and more on my current and future family’s. How far have we really come when studies continue to show that someone is instinctually more likely to shoot a black man with his hands raised than a white man with a weapon (See: Melissa Harris Perry and Project Implicit Weapons test)
It is dreadfully unfortunate that anyone has to deal with this mental burden, but it is the reality that we live in. “Will I be next?” “Will my brother be next?” “Will someone I know be next?” I’m tired just typing that. It is also sad to know that I, and other black men, spend considerable mental energy being aware of our presence in public spaces and of the perception of others, taking away from the capacity to being completely focused on career, wedding plans or anything that a 30-something year old should look forward to. In reality, I am a positive person, with no intention of ill will, someone who always gives others the benefit of the doubt. But I just pray that if I should ever interact with law enforcement, for whatever reason, they offer me the same courtesy.