The break-in that wasn’t: on raising black sons and interacting with law enforcement

Last night we had a experience that rattled me to the core. In the middle of the night, I heard the sound of glass breaking. But that's not the part that has me still reeling. Because we thought it might be a break-in, we immediately called the police. They came out and searched out house and yard. The kids were still sleeping. As they searched the backyard, with guns held up in front of their chests asking an intruder to make himself known, they woke Jafta and he screamed and ran down the hall into my room. And suddenly I had the thought - what if they had been in the house at that moment, with their guns in hand, as a black male, who is about my size, came barreling down the hallway? What could have happened as they searched for an intruder and saw a child who looks like a man, who doesn't fit what they might expect a family member of mine to look like?

I couldn't get back to sleep thinking about how badly that could have gone - and about the video on implicit bias I've show to countless students over the years that illustrates the way our society perceives black men to be a greater threat than they are. (For more on what I'm talking about, read this.)

Everything ended fine – Jafta was safely tucked back into bed and we discovered the noise was an animal breaking a planter in the neighbors yard. But it was hard going back to sleep with the vision of what could have happened. I couldn’t help but think of Tamir Rice, who was the same size as my sons, who was gunned down in broad daylight while playing with a toy in the park.

It was a reminder to me that parents of black children have to be constantly vigilant with every interaction with law enforcement. In retrospect, I should have identified all members of our household, and their race, to the 911 dispatcher and again to the police before letting them in. And not because I think police officers are racists, but because we are all swimming in this insidious bias that can be life threatening, and that requires careful attention.

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