Let's stop circling the topic of race

Originally published by USA Today on July 29, 2016.

Ignoring the issue hasn't worked. Neither have calls for empathy. To improve policing, we must confront it head on.

It’s hard to talk about race in America. This much we know.

A common request is for empathy, to imagine whether these unspeakable acts  — such as the killings of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner or Freddie Gray  —  happened to your brother or sister, but clearly that doesn’t work. The longer we talk around the margins of what really needs to be said, the longer it will take to heal. The senseless killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge only add to America’s wound. Though the right words seem hard to find, we must try to have a dialogue among all people who find themselves shaken in the wake of these never ending tragedies.

These difficult conversations require people to reflect in a way that may be uncomfortable, particularly if it forces them to confront the unjust white dominance throughout America's history. To start, it’s important we acknowledge some facts:

  • Despite being only 13% of the U.S. population, 30% of the people who die at the hands of police are black.
  • Black male teens were much more likely than white male teens to get fatally shot by police during a two-year period ending in 2012
  • Nearly 2,000 people have been killed by the police in the past two years
  • Stockton, Calif., had three fatal police shootings in five months, more than Icelandhas had in 71 years. 

These are not perceived injustices. Those sworn to protect and serve use deadly force at alarming rates  —  force that is disproportionately aimed at black men. I, as a black man, am more likely to be confronted by police today. No résumé, career or family can save me from those statistics.

When police killed Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I saw faces that looked like friends and family. That’s when these shootings really take their toll on me. Any time I forget to signal before changing a lane while driving, a hot flash of adrenaline runs through my veins. A minor traffic infraction has become so much more to people of color who remember Sandra Bland and the police officer’s words to her: “I will light you up.”

The night of Castile’s death, I had dreams of a war zone — our own streets, where militarized police forces resemble occupying armies. The threat of terror is real. And I’m not supposed to  —  or allowed to  —  carry that baggage the next time a cop decides to scream in my face.

But, as we’ve learned from grainy videos streamed on social networks and other first-person accounts, my experience is not unique. Most black men have a story of being pulled over and harassed by police. It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEOa successful politician, or an officer of the law yourself. No amount of “doing the right thing” stops this from happening.

What is it about the culture of policing that thrives on the aggression of assaulting and berating black people? Police are authorized by the state to kill, and that responsibility requires the utmost scrutiny and accountability. Far too often, scrutiny is categorized as disrespect, and accountability is non-existent. How can we heal if we cannot seek answers to hard questions?

It’s undeniable that most cops are good cops. What’s also clear is that any path forward requires the action and voices of those good cops. Consider Ta-Nehisi Coates’ words forThe Atlantic the next time you hear the argument that this is only the work of a few bad apples: “It will not do to note that 99% of the time the police mediate conflicts without killing people anymore than it will do for a restaurant to note that 99% of the time rats don’t run through the dining room.” Right now, too many people see that rat in the dining room and claim it’s a puppy.

When black people try to initiate a conversation, such as with the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s resisted by the very people who need to be listening. Diversion tactics are deployed, meant only to further marginalize the validity of black pain. Empathy is a prerequisite for this country to heal. Without it, we will find ourselves right back here in no time.

Black people are often told that we make everything about race. The thing is, when you’re not seen as the “default,” as white people are in this country, to forget about your race is to risk death. Black people are consistently reduced to scary threats through coded language  —  our children are given labels like “super-predator” or “demon.” Describing black people as non-humans leads us down a road that ends with Cleveland cops seeing 12-year-old Tamir Rice as an adult worthy of execution for holding a toy gun.

Until we can send our nieces and nephews to the playground without worry, race will have a lot to do with it.

“Every time another black person dies at the hands of police, it feels like we’re slamming into a wall,” Jezebel’s Kara Brown laments. “The state and white supremacy have perfectly crafted yet another tactic to keep us scared and compliant. As with lynching, it’s less about the total loss of life  —  though the numbers are horrific  —  and more about the constant state of fear it breeds.”

We must be honest with each other if we’re going to have a dialogue. There will be discomfort. We’re going to have to talk about why we have a criminal justice system that doesn’t see killing a 12-year-old boy as a crime. Our police forces must have better resources, be demilitarized and live where they patrol. We cannot go another day without researching and teaching better de-escalation tactics, because clearly the current coursework is insufficient. Never again can we resort to shooting first.

We must stop killing the nation's sons and daughters — police and civilian alike.

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