Just for today, take one small step to remember Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, one year ago today. Read one story (doesn’t have to be this one), say one prayer, send one check to an organization working for racial justice, talk to one family member or friend about race. Just for today, take one step, and then tomorrow, take another. One step after another, getting on the road.
Today, dozens of news reports say that Michael Brown’s family is still mourning his death, one year later. Well, yeah. Lots of families still mourn: Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Samuel Dubose. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Walter Scott. Eric Harris. The list goes on and on.
Last year, when Michael Brown was shot by a police officer, we didn’t know how many people were shot and killed by police in the U.S. every year. No government agency counted these deaths. A British newspaper stepped up. The Guardian’s The Counted project documents people killed by police in the United States. So far this year: 700. At the beginning of June, the Guardian reported:
“The Guardian’s statistics include deaths after the police use of a Taser, deaths caused by police vehicles and deaths following altercations in police custody, as well as those killed when officers open fire. They reveal that 29% of those killed by police, or 135 people, were black. Sixty-seven, or 14%, were Hispanic/Latino, and 234, or 50%, were white. In total, 102 people who died during encounters with law enforcement in 2015 were unarmed.
“The figures illustrate how disproportionately black Americans, who make up just 13% of the country’s total population according to census data, are killed by police. Of the 464 people counted by the Guardian, an overwhelming majority – 95% – were male, with just 5% female.”
Race matters. Race matters in life as well as in death. Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in “Letter to My Son” that: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body— it is heritage.” He asked readers to respond with their own stories of racism. They did, by the hundreds, their responses published in three separate Atlantic articles. One of the stories in the first article comes from a 35-year-old Florida reader, who begins:
“Crazy. Today is Sunday, July 5th. About two hours ago, I saw a tweet from Bomani Jones about Ta-Nehisi’s piece “Letter to My Son” and read it of course. It was a break from some work I was completing. I saw the request for personal stories about “The Talk.” (One of the commandments my mother gave me: When I get pulled over, pull over in a populated area so there will be witnesses.) I thought I would email a story later this week. I resumed my work but realized I needed a book I had left at the office. It’s about 20 minutes from my house, so I hopped in the car.”
He details the police following him, his stop at a gas station, what they say and do, and what he thinks, on a Sunday afternoon, near his home, before he is finally released to go get his book and resume his life:
“We walk up to my car so I can get my ID. I am fuming. I get my wallet and slam my door. ‘Calm down, I could be worse,’ says the other officer. I say, ‘I’m stopped here. Gun drawn on me. You’re right. I could be shot.’ He responds, ‘You don’t understand.’ I bite my tongue before I go off. I don’t understand? It’s a Sunday afternoon and here I am standing in a gas station parking lot, with my hands on my head, after having a gun pulled on me and patted down by an officer, all while another officer circled my vehicle with his hand on his weapon. He had a point; I guess the threat of being shot is better than being shot.”
Read the stories — Part I, Part II, and Part III. Today most white Americans say they are satisfied with the way that black Americans are treated. Not surprisingly, most black Americans disagree. One encouraging sign — the percentage of white Americans who are satisfied has dropped from 67 percent in 2013 to 53 percent in 2015. We can learn.
We must learn. And we must act. The problem with racism in this country goes far beyond policing. Racism shapes housing and segregation. Racism deforms education. Denial perpetuates its reign.
So step one: Read one story. Say a prayer. Send a check, Talk to someone. Take one step today. And another tomorrow.