Photo credit: Neon Tommy

With all the certainty of a woman clutching her purse and crossing to the other side of the street, an officer in a helicopter sized up a man far below: “That looks like a bad dude.”

The officer had little information on which to base this judgment. Below him, a man walked with his hands in the air. He was not suspected of any crime. His vehicle had stalled in the middle of the road.

But he was large. He was male. He was black. That was all the officer needed to know.

Terence Crutcher lived his life in a body that our country has deemed a threat. And because of our entrenched biases, his life was cut short.

Analysis of data on police shootings has shown that black people killed at the hands police are less likely to pose an actual danger to responding officers than white people shot by police. And yet, unarmed black people are roughly 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than unarmed white people. Police are far more likely to use force against black people than white people, even when accounting for disparities in crime rates.

I can only imagine the quick judgment that being a police officer requires. When an officer must react in a potentially life-threatening situation, he or she may rely on preconceived notions, whether conscious or not, of what a criminal looks like. Those assumptions act as a kind of shorthand for assessing the risk a particular person represents. The problem is that this shorthand has steered our policing system wrong and led far too many officers to respond with excessive, often lethal, force in situations that likely could have been de-escalated.

But these ideas of who is and isn’t a “bad dude” don’t just shape the actions of police forces in America. They shape the identities and sense of self-worth of black children across our country.

After Terence Crutcher was killed, his daughter’s school held discussions with groups of students about what had happened. These students, many of them children of color, talked about why the nation’s eyes were turned to Tulsa, just as they had been to Ferguson, and Baton Rouge, and Baltimore, and so many other cities over the past few years.

One teacher’s description of the day is well worth the read. What was most poignant and heartbreaking to me in the story she shared was the window it gave into the evolution of students’ understanding of what had happened. The youngest students, fifth graders, had questions for their teachers about why this was happening and why something like skin color could lead to such divisiveness and consequential violence. Why had they called him a bad dude? Was he a bad dude? Did they think he was bad because he was black? (I’m playing fast and loose with the students’ questions here, but reading their teacher’s words, you can see these children working to connect the dots in what this event told them about the world and about themselves.) They cried.

The group of sixth graders, classmates of Terence Crutcher’s daughter, had little to say. They were hurting, for their friend, for themselves. They consoled one another as they cried. They were quiet, perhaps struggling internally with the messages this tragedy had for them about their value, about what our society considers black lives to be worth.

The final group, seventh and eighth graders, were angry. Perhaps they felt the truth of how unfair the situation was. Perhaps they felt the sting of the events they’d seen play out on the news hitting closer to home. Perhaps they were decoding the shorthand comments from that officer in the helicopter and the shorthand reaction from the officer who fired her gun. Perhaps they felt the fear of what this could mean for their own fates–that even if they were unarmed with their hands in the air, even if they had done nothing wrong to warrant police response, an officer could fall back on that shorthand and shortchange their futures.

In the aftermath of each of these shootings, we tend to focus on the details of the scenario, to try to understand what happened, how it could have gone differently, whether we can learn any lessons.

What we often fail to consider is the cumulative psychological impact these deaths have on people of color, especially children.

If you are a white person, remember yourself back in middle school, a ball of insecurity about who you are and what you are going to become. Really think about it. What shaped you as a budding teenager? How fragile was your sense of self as you navigated puberty?

Now imagine if, while you are in the midst of trying to figure this out for yourself, you are constantly barraged with stories and images that tell you you are less worthy than others around you, that your body is a threat, that something fundamental and innate about you is bad or dangerous or wrong, that your safety and your rights and your life are secondary to someone else’s fear and prejudice.

How would that shape you? How would you overcome that?

After Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed this summer, #CarefreeBlackKids2k16 began trending on Twitter, showing videos of black children just being fun-loving, adorable children, showing the world the love and light that is at stake in national conversations about the value of black lives.

Want to do something to show those black children that they matter?

  • Educate yourself on the issues surrounding police brutality and join Campaign Zero, the platform of reforms that Black Lives Matter has proposed to address violence against people of color.
  • Listen to and respect what black people need, from your friends to activists and writers of color. Shaun King, Ijeoma Oluo, W. Kamau Bell and Derrick L. Weston are among the activists whose words are expanding my own understanding and how I can be an effective ally. Feel free to share your own suggestions of others in the comments.
  • Vote for local, state and federal candidates who seek out the input of communities of color and actively work to represent their interests and protect their rights and humanity.
  • Use your financial power to support black-owned businesses and sign up for more information on the forthcoming Injustice Boycott.
  • Respect protest in its various forms, and if it makes you uncomfortable or angry, ask yourself why.
  • Use your voice and whatever platform you have to help those you know understand these issues.
  • But most of all, let the black people in your life know that you love them and they matter.

I’m far from perfect on all of these counts, but I’m trying to get better, motivated by the idea that one day, when a police officer says someone looks like a “bad dude,” we won’t all immediately know what that’s shorthand for.


One thought on “Shorthand

  1. Great article that gets to the heart of the effects of what is happening in our society. This generation is suffering now, but the long term effects on the children of this generation will continue to grow. We need change now!


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