Jason Stanford, 12/8/2014 [Archive]

Letter to the Next Generation

By Jason Stanford

Dear boys,

Dad here. I want to tell you about something that happened to me yesterday.

A friend of mine at the office, a black woman, asked me to join her at a protest about that unarmed 18-year-old who was shot by that police officer in Missouri. I felt a little funny about going, as if a white, 40-something dad had no place at a civil rights rally, but my friend asked, so I agreed to go, as did a bunch of us.

On the way over I ended up talking with a couple black men I work with. They're in their twenties, which might seem old to you, but to me they seem close to your age, just kids really. And because we were already thinking about what happened to that boy in Missouri, they started talking about the times that police officers had pulled guns on them.

Times. Plural.

Like the time one of them was playing basketball with his white friend in a public park. No sooner did his friend go home to get them some Gatorade than a patrol car pulls up. A cop shouted questions about what he was doing in a park in a neighborhood where white people lived, then more cars showed up, and a gun was pointed at him. Then his friend returned, and eventually the cops left them alone.

Later he was arrested when he was 14 because he fit the description of a suspected thief: black, between 5'2", or as tall as you are now, and 6'4", or as tall as an NFL quarterback. The thief could almost literally have been any black man in America, which is kind of the point.

There were other arrests, other times they were thrown in jail with violent criminals for bureaucratic mistakes and supposed offenses. And not that it matters, because this kind of discrimination and harassment should happen to no one in America, but these were good boys. One of them has a gentle, sweet disposition and attended a fancy private school. The other was a valedictorian. But they looked like criminals to the cops.

The worst thing I heard at the rally was something called a "jump out." That's when police jump out of an unmarked van with their guns drawn, shouting at black teenagers passing by to get down on the sidewalk. It makes no sense to me, but it happens enough to black people that it no longer seems strange. If it happened to me or to you, I'd burn down a police station. But they just comply, hoping that the police don't hate them enough to pull a trigger.

This isn't something that starts suddenly when black boys become teenagers and wear man-sized clothes. Black students are much more likely to get disciplined than white students in public schools across the country. The black boys you go to school with are three and a half times more likely to be expelled than you are. In Texas, almost every single black male student—83 percent—will be suspended at least once, and those kids who get suspended are three times more likely to get in trouble with the law later.

The guys I was talking to knew they had a target on their backs even as kids. Their parents told them to always be extra polite to the parents of their white friends and to never be in a room in their house alone in case something went missing. They never were allowed to play with squirt guns lest they got shot by a real one. And when they got pulled over for driving through the wrong neighborhood—something that happens to them frequently even today—they rest their hands out the door so the officer doesn't suspect danger, and they record it all with their phones, so the officer can't later claim otherwise.

None of this, they said, made them unusual. Everyone they knew—their black friends, that is—had similar stories about being harassed by the police. But being commonplace doesn't make something right, and I'm sad to say that it's up to you to be more aware of this so you can help change it.

Love, Dad.

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©Copyright 2014 Jason Stanford, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at stanford@oppresearch.com and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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