A Guest Post By: Janet Mary Cobb
August 20, 2018
I remember November 24, 2014 like it was yesterday. The dreary weather in Chicago matched my spirits as I drove to work, wanting only to turn my car around, pick up my children from school, and head home.
I’d learned just hours earlier that twelve-year-old Tamir Rice had been gunned down by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio while playing in a park. I couldn’t help but think, “that could’ve been my child.” My children were twelve, sixteen and seventeen; a daughter and two sons; African American. Tamir Rice was playing in a park. He wasn’t in a gang, didn’t live or hang in a ‘bad neighborhood,’ and was threatening no one. He was a child!
I pulled into the parking lot at the high school, turned off the car, and said to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”
My mind twisted in knots trying to figure out what I could do to protect my children, but I had to walk into a building pretending that a tucked-in shirt and a good education would prepare these Black and Latinx students (and my children) for the dangers they would face on the street.
I realized that many of the choices we’d made to give our children a good life could actually put them in danger. We lived in a safe (i.e. white) neighborhood. We sent them to the best (i.e. white) schools. We exposed them to cultural (i.e. white) activities and enrichment opportunities to broaden their horizons. We taught them how to be respectful, hardworking, and honest. We taught them to respond to anyone in authority – particularly police officers, with deference.
But Tamir didn’t have a chance. He didn’t have a chance to talk back, run away, question why he’d been stopped, or resist arrest – all the excuses officers give for shooting young black boys and men. I couldn’t help but think, “that could’ve been my child.”
I’d been wearing my gray hoodie – my uniform, my habit – for almost two years. My gray hoodie, worn whenever possible, in honor of Trayvon Martin who’d been shot and killed while walking home from the store in Florida because ‘he didn’t belong’ in the neighborhood. (February 26, 2012.) I couldn’t help but think, “that could’ve been my child.”
Not Isolated Instances
These shootings are not isolated instances. The marches, the protests, the outcry after each and every police-officer-involved shooting since Trayvon Martin’s death do not make a difference. The list is too long to recount here. Each time, I think, “that could’ve been my child.” Fast forward two years – 2016. On July 6, Philando Castile was shot in his car during a traffic stop. I couldn’t help but think, “that could’ve been my child.” – Or my husband.
That summer, my son needed to commute on weekends from Notre Dame University in Indiana to Chicago. He looked at his beat-up car with a broken tail light and simply said, “I can’t drive this. I could get pulled over, and we all know how that could end.” We all chuckled nervously – but I couldn’t help but think, “that could’ve been my child.”
My children (and husband) travel in circles of statesmen, bishops, and wealthy business people and frequent high-end establishments for meetings and fundraisers. They are brilliant, fun, compassionate, and passionate.
My son is small in stature and unassuming in gait but plopped on the couch when he arrived home recently saying, “So a white lady crossed down the middle of the street just now when she saw me coming.” My son has been pulled over for driving five miles under the speed limit – twice; been stopped and frisked when walking home. Yesterday, while attending a golf-outing fundraiser, others assumed he was ‘the help.’
When the world looks at my two sons (and my husband), all they see is a black man, and therefore, a threat. I can’t help but think, “that could be my child (or husband).”
I can’t begin to recount the times my husband has been questioned about his presence in a neighborhood someone believed he didn’t ‘belong’ in. Or how often we’ve been pulled over only to have the officer approach the passenger side to find me. The throat-clearing and hesitation would be comical if it weren’t so frustrating.
The hashtags and memes, the videos and social media posts highlighting the various benign activities of black people for which the police are called are disheartening and exhausting. Can you imagine living under that kind of pressure?
I can only liken it to the uncertainty and angst felt by children of alcoholics and victims of domestic violence. How can you exist when you never know from when or where the next punch is coming? Just try to imagine when the violence and abuse isn’t coming from just one identified individual but from all sides.
But what about?
Don’t remind me that hundreds get shot every week in Chicago – black on black crime. Instead ask how this situation came to be – and what needs to be done to fix it. This means educating yourself and not assuming the answers are simple.
Don’t remind me that not all police are racist, that they have a tough job. Admit that SOME police are racist, and that better training and screening is required.
Don’t tell me to stop playing the race card because not everything is about race. For people of color, everything is about race.
But wait, I’m not…
Most of you – I imagine – are not police officers trolling for troublemakers. Many of you won’t cross the street or lock your car doors when you see a black man coming towards you. You’d never use the N-word and you have a black friend or two; you don’t consider yourself racist. You agree that Black Lives Matter. You think everyone should be treated equally. You’re enlightened, progressive, woke.
But if you don’t hear the news and think “that could’ve been my child,” please ask what you can do to ensure no other mother – or individual – needs to live in constant fear, anxious about how others will perceive or treat them because of the color of their skin.
What can you do about it?
One morning, the local radio show hosts were inviting listeners to chat about traffic stops and to tweet their best ‘get out of a ticket’ tricks. I texted: You realize this is one of the most ‘white privilege’ conversations imaginable. You can joke, but black people die when they get pulled over.
- STOP making excuses.
- STOP laughing at jokes that ignore the daily reality of people of color.
- CALL OUT racism and avoidance of the race discussion EVERY time you see or hear it.
- DEMAND diversity – at your workplace, in your neighborhoods, on television, in ownership, in the board room, in politics. Point out when it doesn’t exist and actively make it happen.
- SEEK OUT black-owned restaurants, stores, and businesses to frequent because economic development matters.
- EDUCATE yourself. Read. Watch movies. Take a class. Don’t believe everything you learned in K-12 or even college – you most likely received a white-washed version of history AND current events. Don’t expect people of color to educate you.
If you are not familiar, begin with – and ponder – two poems by Langston Hughes:
Or consider binge-watching from a shortlist of movies:
Eyes on the Prize
I Am Not Your Negro
Sorry to Bother You
The Education of Sonny Carson
Remember the Titans
Akeelah and the Bee
Free of Eden
For a more complete list, visit My Thoughts on Black Movies Everyone Should See (Full disclosure, written by my husband Willie Cobb, Jr.)
I began this essay attempting to share how I cope with the fear inherent in raising African American children. The fear is neither imagined nor exaggerated – racism is real. Fear must be lived with – until the root causes of racism are addressed – until we confront the truth in ourselves, our society, and our history.
Today I encourage you to consider what you can do, right here and right now, to make a difference so that no other mother needs to think, “that could’ve been my child.