The wounds of the past week are deep and raw. I grew up just outside of Baton Rouge and graduated high school 10 minutes from where Alton Sterling was killed last Tuesday. I’ve grieved for this complicated place of my childhood as I’ve witnessed its turmoil through the eyes of friends and family still there. One friend posted a photo of her children and their cousins beside the mural of Sterling, saying that children, especially black children like hers, could not be sheltered from the realities of the world. Another friend shared how her daughter ran down the hallway as her father, a white police officer, prepared to leave for work, fearful and begging him not to go.
The anguish is real for so many, in Baton Rouge, in Falcon Heights, in Dallas, and across the country. The fear is warranted. The anger is valid.
But this is not a post about feelings, least of all mine. This is a post about choice.
So often in these situations, the narrative boils down to a trope of black people vs. cops. The #BlackLivesMatter folks are pitted against the #BlueLivesMatter camp on social media. The news endlessly loops images of police in riot gear and angry protesters going toe to toe. And then something like Dallas happens, and the tragic loss of five officers threatens to undercut the momentum of an important movement for racial justice, a call for necessary reforms to our law enforcement system, a plea to hold our police officers to the highest of standards, and an opportunity for heightened consciousness and empathy in our country.
Black lives and “blue” lives are often presented as two opposing sides of the story, two halves of a whole history we are in the process of writing right now. But there is a crucial difference between black lives and blue lives in America.
Being a cop is a choice.
It is a choice that I recognize many, many men and women make out of a genuine desire to serve their communities, and it’s a choice that means great personal risk and sacrifice. It’s a choice that means stress and sleepless nights and, sadly, sometimes heartbreak on the part of loved ones as well. It is a choice that involves years of dedication. It can be a noble choice. It can be a magnanimous choice.
But it is a choice, plain and simple. Officers can leave the force at any time if they feel they need or want to.
Just by virtue of having been born black in America, black people face a system that is structured to treat them as criminals. They have no choice in the matter.
Black America didn’t choose to live in a country where the excessive presence of police in predominantly black schools funnels students into the criminal justice system for minor, often non-criminal, disciplinary issues. Remember the young girl arrested and body slammed by a school resource officer because she wouldn’t put her phone away and leave the classroom with him? What does that teach younger generations of black kids about their relationship to the police? Are they going to grow up seeing cops as their protectors or their enemies?
Black America didn’t choose for police to have little to no citizen accountability or investigation following officer-involved shootings or claims of excessive use of force.
Black America doesn’t choose to have their towns treat them like cash cows, criminalizing acts like putting a basketball hoop in the front yard, levying hefty fines for these racially-based infractions, and arresting those who can’t pay, jeopardizing their current employment and future opportunities.
Black America didn’t choose for their Supreme Court to declare it constitutional to stop someone for no reason whatsoever, a ruling that Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent this June warned will only exacerbate the huge racial disparities we already see in how we are policed, giving cops license for racial profiling and further straining relationships between black communities and police.
Black America didn’t choose decades of redlining that cordoned many of them off in separate neighborhoods and, bit by bit, drained those neighborhoods of economic investment and job opportunities. Black America didn’t choose an educational system funded by local property taxes that, by design, fails children in poor neighborhoods.
White America chose all that.
I don’t say any of this to portray black Americans as powerless over the course of their lives. Throughout our history, black Americans have chosen to fight for justice, in large and small ways. Indeed, today, we are seeing black America present a strong platform to help our country achieve greater equity and begin to heal. We are seeing black America raise a loud and collective voice to call out injustice.
It’s time that the rest of America chooses to listen.