Being African American in the United States is hard. This suit of blackness we wear is heavy and tedious, a constant reminder that we have to be wary of our very existence in everyday spaces and places no matter where we are.
Whether it’s being threatened with calling the police while bird-watching in New York City’s Central Park, being accosted by armed men and killed while jogging in southern Georgia or losing your life in the Twin Cities of Minnesota in an altercation with police, we don’t feel safe.
As a middle-aged black man raised on the south side of Chicago, I didn’t grow up to fear law enforcement, but in today’s climate that has changed dramatically. I dread any potential interaction with police, for fear that I might become the next tragic victim of an innocuous situation gone deadly wrong. It is a fear shared by my wife, Bridget Shears — who is also African American and a south side Chicago native.
“We can’t even be in a place where we’re just standing around. We can get arrested for anything and it takes (authorities in Minneapolis) this long for them to (arrest the kneeling officer),” she said. “I think that’s appalling,” she told me as we discussed the violent week in our Wasatch Front home.
Noting the rage of demonstrators in the Twin Cities that has led to days of civil unrest, my wife lamented that the protests seldom result in justice for the victims of police brutality.
“We’re saying that we’re angry and we don’t get anywhere with our anger. We can talk about it, we can protest, but we have a president who calls us thugs versus people who are carrying firearms and being threatening to (lawmakers) in (Michigan) and that’s OK because those are just good people who just want their life,” she said. “But how about just letting us live?”
She, too, lives in constant fear for the safety of friends and family who happen to be black.
“I’m always afraid. That doesn’t go away. I mean, as a mother, as a sister, as a wife, I never get to put my guard down about being afraid,” she said. “Afraid of you all leaving the house and encountering the police. And so you start thinking about how at least we identify the police as an enemy, but there are (white) people out there that we don’t know, who are also our enemy.”
She continued: “There’s always a fear, and it doesn’t seem like there’s ever a point at which it gets better. Sometimes just hearing from people and making sure that they are OK is a relief — that at least they’re hopefully in their home and safe. But as soon as they walk out the door, there’s always a fear that they won’t return and it could be nothing that they have done except being a black man that is threatening to their livelihood, to their life.”
Yes, being black in America can feel like the sword of Damocles is constantly hanging overhead and going to drop. Recent incidents involving African American men and Caucasian antagonists have become stark reminders of that very reality.
In New York, avid bird-lover Christian Cooper asked a white woman to put her dog on a leash. When she refused, he started filming, then the woman called 911 and said that “an African American man is threatening my life.”
In Brunswick, Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed on Feb. 23 during a confrontation involving three white men as he was jogging through the Satilla Shores neighborhood. And this week, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police who were called to investigate the alleged use of counterfeit currency at a retail establishment.
Having lived in Utah for almost 20 years, we often compare our lives today to the environment we grew up in the Midwest. Race has always been an issue, but we seem to be facing many of the same societal challenges decade after decade. And what’s more, in some ways the divide has widened.
We want to believe that life for our 7-year-old grandson may be better and less socially threatening in the years ahead, but part of us worries the future could be fraught with many of the identical concerns currently at issue.