Last Sunday as we left church, my 4-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Daddy, I prayed to God for a baby brother.” Now, as the father of three young daughters, this statement would seemingly be music to my ears. However, in the wake of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and most recently 12-year-old Tamir Rice, I’ve found myself reevaluating what it would mean to raise a young Black boy in America today.
I’ve often daydreamed about the many things I would share with my son and the lessons I would teach him. How to respect women like his mother and sisters. How to shoot and dribble and maybe even help me relive my glory days on the court. The way to prepare for his first shave.
I also know that I will have to teach him more painful lessons. How simply running down the street as a young Black man can be seen as threatening. How to make people feel comfortable around you in small spaces like elevators and staircases. And, most important, how to act around law enforcement — stay calm, don’t move too quickly, and above all, always ask permission before reaching for anything.
It’s a routine that has become second nature for me, even after serving as an AmeriCorps member with the Montgomery County Police and an honors intern with the FBI. Most recently, I had to summon these skills on a trip to Colorado where I was ironically invited to speak on a panel about President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which is all about improving outcomes for boys and young men of color.
On this particular trip, I was fortunate to have my wife Michele join me and we decided to fly to Denver and drive the almost four hours to Aspen and enjoy the scenery. About 50 miles outside of Aspen, we passed through a light that turned yellow while we were in the intersection. Ten seconds later, a police cruiser was behind us with its lights flashing.
Surprised, I pulled over as a series of questions (that are probably normal for anyone who’s ever been stopped by the police) ran through my head. What did I do? Was I speeding? Did I have a taillight out? Then a few seconds later, my much more important training kicked in and I told myself be calm, be respectful, hands on the wheel and no sudden movements.
I thought about how my wife was feeling, probably panicked as these interactions are so incredibly difficult for her. I was also thankful and relieved that my children were not with us because almost nothing scares me more than worrying that they would be witness to their father hurt, in danger, or even worse, powerless and unable to do anything to protect them.
As I redirected my mind to what was happening, I realized I was in autopilot — a process that has been honed over many years and dozens of police interactions where I literally weigh my life versus any prospect of disagreeing with the officers claims.
Then, as if he flew from his car to mine, the officer was at my window and asked sternly, “Do you know why I stopped you?” I said, “No sir” with as much respect as I could muster with those two words. “You went through that light back there as it turned red.” He looked at my wife and me and was examining our backseat through the windows. “It was close but I’ll tell you what I’ll do, give me your license and registration and I’ll run you in the system and if nothing shows up, I’ll let you off with a warning this time.”
I asked if I could reach into my bag in the backseat to get my rental agreement which served as the registration. He responded: “Yes, just make sure I can see your hands.”
There has been much written about police stops performed under the pretense of a minor offense or, in the case of New York’s Stop and Frisk program, no offense at all, simply so the officer can search for something more serious. Perhaps it’s an outstanding warrant, marijuana or a gun. Much less has been written about the corrosive effect it has on the psyche of the victim and the long term damage it can leave. Soledad O’Brien recently documented some of these effects in a compelling article, "The Human Toll of ‘Stop and Frisk’."
Hours later, I retold this story to the audience during my panel and I got emotional, as I finally allowed myself to unpack the event.
I mourn for the thousands of young men who do not have "my training" when they are stopped, frisked, arrested and increasingly shot and killed. I think of my daughter’s prayer for a baby brother — one that’s made sincerely, innocently and without the fear I carry with me after years of these interactions. I wonder when she will realize that her unborn brother is seen by far too many people as dangerous, something to be feared, controlled and, absent that control, put down.
I remember it like it was yesterday — the first time I realized that my blackness was perceived as a threat, something that could be looked at negatively by another person. I was 8 years old, in the 4th grade walking home from school in Silver Spring, Md., when an elderly white woman grabbed her purse and pushed passed me on the sidewalk and told me to “watch where you're going you stupid little n****r.”
It was the unwelcome awakening that began my training. And it couldn't have started any sooner, for we now know from a recent American Psychological Association study that Black children are perceived an average of 4.5 years older and less innocent than their white counterparts. The study also tells us that police are more likely to use force against Black children when officers "dehumanize" Blacks. Was I, at 8 years old, seen as a 13-year-old and a threat to this woman? Was I seen as something other than a little boy walking home from school?
I recently participated in a forum with Black male high school students in Maryland to hear from them about their experiences growing up as young Black men in America today, especially in light of the recent killings of their peers. Hearing these young men voice their fears — if they would make it to 21, fearing each interaction with the police and the possibility of being the next Mike Brown — made my heart hurt and made me again think about my unborn son and others yet to be born. Would these be their fears? Were these still my fears just manifested in the voices of 14-, 15- and 16-year-old young men?
Just when I was at the tipping point of my despair, a young man, slight in his build but with a conviction in his voice, reminded me why the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative matters, why the protests in Ferguson and across the country matter and why the hard and painful conversations that the country is having right now matter. The young man stood up and said, “I know I can make a difference in the world by using my voice.” And there it was again. The seed of hope, the reason to get on another plane, take another rental car to talk about our important shared work to serve our young boys of color.
The challenges we face are real, persistent and vast. But so too are the hope, optimism and the determination of young people all over this country who know their voices and their lives matter.
So I will keep working, speaking life into these young men I see as reflections of myself and continue on the journey. I know my fears are real, but I know even better that so is my optimism. And on this Sunday, I look forward to joining my daughter in prayer for her baby brother.
Will Jawando is dedicated to public service with a particular focus on the intersection between policy, politics and business. He formerly served as Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, where he led White House outreach efforts in the areas of education, poverty and on issues relating to children and families.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photos from left: Big'mike Jr Brown via Facebook AP Photo/Courtesy Richardson & Kucharski Co., L.P.A.)
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