Sunday, September 28, 2014

White Privilege and Young Black Men Dying - Why Ferguson Hits so Close to Home

Watching all the events unfold these past months in Ferguson, Missouri - to say nothing of the ongoing violence against unarmed black males generally - I have grown increasingly weary, as well as sad and angry.  Perhaps its because I grew up in a church congregation that still prides itself on having more white members get arrested in Baton Rouge's civil rights movement then any other; perhaps its because I once watched a Grand Wizard of the KKK miss getting elected governor by only a few 1000 votes; perhaps its because I graduated from an inner city high school in the south, where the student population was 64% black (nearly a decade after court ordered desegregation); perhaps its because one of my youngest daughter's bestie's is black, and her mom is my oldest son's "other mother."

Or, more likely, it's all those things, plus growing with a mom who led a ticket buying sit in to get all the tickets to a movie house so her black dorm-mate could join her for a Saturday matinee. All those things compel me to speak out about racial injustice - which the killing of Michael Brown most certainly was.

Yet in the wake of the Ferguson killing (and killings closer to home), my need to speak is more urgent, more compelling, and VERY personal.  You see, any one of those teenagers and young men could be my nephew, which would vault me into the now cliched role of the uncle who speaks for the family.

My sister in law has 3 half African American children, the youngest a son. My nephew is now 7, and as he continues to make his way in the world, he's already having to deal with the fact that his skin color, his hair texture, his facial features mark him as different from his mom, or his favorite uncle.  More then once when I've been with him on family visits I've noticed well meaning people of all backgrounds and ethnicities look at he and I as we go about our business with more then passing glances.  In this day and age no one says anything - though there have been a couple of older ladies who smile sweetly as if to acknowledge that male role models are important no matter what the circumstances.

But those kind looks will one day - if the statistics are to be believed - be replaced by locking of doors, crossing of streets, and lowering of academic demands.  All over his skin color.

Unfortunately for my nephew, his neurology will be working against him just as much as his skin color.  Thanks in part to several minutes of oxygen deprivation as an infant, he now lives with several mental health issues, two of which make it seriously hard to control his impulses and to permit him to empathize with others.  Both, thankfully, are under some control with medicine, but more then once a grown up has had to intervene with him because he started hitting a cousin he claims to love because said cousin was "annoying him." Equally disturbing are his very occasional statements about being in-between two arguing angels on his shoulders -like on TV Uncle P! - and the fact that its getting harder to listen to the good angel.

So, here you have a young black man (who is half Norwegian) growing up in a time of significant distrust of young black men, who can't always control his tendency to violence, who thinks very concretely, and wants what he wants when he wants it because he's not physically wired for delayed gratification.  Say he hits 14 or 15 or 18, and this manifests itself with police getting involved.  Maybe someone "annoyed" him.  Maybe he thinks someone took something from him.  Maybe they said something about his mom.  Whatever the reason, unless he meets a cop trained to recognize and deal with mental health issues there's a very good, and very sad, statistical likelihood he'll end up dead, because his brain's wiring will be working against him without anyone realizing it until its too late.

So sure, tell me white male privilege means I don't get to get angry about this.  Yell at me that I don't know what its like to live as a black man today; warn me the you are coming for me the next time a young black man dies at the hands of cops.  I'm fine with all that - I'm happy to let you vent - so long as you show up for my nephew's funeral, look me in the eye, and tell why putting me on the sidelines was a good idea.  Tell me how angry young African Americans, now clearly taking up the mantel of their elders, don't need my help just as much as my mom's dorm-mate did in the 1960's.  Do that while you help me hold up my grieving, white, sister in law, and you can dismiss me all you want in the here and now.

Or, stand beside me.  Work with me to hold all police, politicians, and leaders accountable for the abysmal failure of our Nation to fully embrace people of color.  Demand that all our children be educated about the true roots of our institutional racism and the real reasons our nation nearly tore itself apart in the Civil War,  Let me be angry with you, so you don't have to help me bury another innocent young black man.

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