“What’s that,” he said, adjusting his Jansport® backpack. Nathaniel, a first semester community college student, had a solid A in my class due to his impeccable study habits and his professional approach to college. That day, he looked no different than he had every other time I’d seen him—like a stereotypical Ivy League co-ed: short hair, styled fashionably; wire-rimmed glasses; starched button-down shirt; dark blue jeans with a leather belt; and dressy shoes–Sperry’s® I think.
The question I had for Nathaniel arose from a conversation I’d had with an acquaintance the previous day. That month in our community, a 19 year old African American man was shot and killed by a police officer. The young man was allegedly breaking and entering, and officers believed he was carrying a gun. (When he was shot, he was in fact unarmed, though he had been carrying a weapon earlier. You can read the full story here.) This shooting death hit close to home: AJ Marion had graduated with my oldest daughter. He’d been a promising football star and by all accounts, just a really nice guy. Undoubtedly, he’d made some poor choices along the way; most assumed though, that he’d right himself sooner rather than later.
Anyway, I’d seen a mom I knew from my kids’ elementary school days. Her son was about the same age as my kids; I asked if he’d been friends with AJ. She explained that indeed her family and AJ’s were connected through church and family ties and that they were all shocked and devastated.
We talked for a while about the prevalence of police shootings of African American men and then she said, “Oh yeah, I tell my son that if I ever catch him out without his id, I’ll take him into the police station myself.”
Huh? “Um, say what now?”
She repeated herself, but it didn’t help. I had no idea what she meant.
“You don’t make sure your son has his id when he goes out?” she asked me.
“Well, I mean, I tell him not to drive without his license if that’s what you mean.”
“No. What I mean is a police officer can detain anyone and ask for identification. If you don’t have your id, they can take you in for questioning.”
“Absolutely. So I just randomly ask my son for his id just to make sure he always has it with him,” she laughed a little cuz-I’m-the-mama-that’s-why laugh.
“Oh my gosh. I had no idea,” I said, as realization dawned. “I guess I didn’t have to know though. My son is white.”
She nodded. “Mothers of African American boys live in fear of our sons being wrongly accused or worse.”
Heartbreaking. Unbelievable. And in 21st century USA.
I thought of my student Nathaniel. Could this be his reality as well?
“It’s a nosy question, Nathaniel, so feel free to tell me to get out of your business.”
“Sure Ms. Aileen, what’s up?” (Despite the fact that I invite my students to call me by my first name, Nathaniel never did, opting for a title he deemed more respectful.)
“Have you been stopped by police and asked for your id?”
He laughed, “Today?”
“Ms. Aileen, I’m stopped several times a week, sometimes every day. I get stopped walking from my car or downtown. I’ve even been stopped walking away from this campus. If I have a ball cap or hoodie on, I know I’ll be stopped.” He patted the pocket of his designer jeans. “Got my id right here.”
“This is outrageous!” I said, “How do you not stay furious every single day?”
“Oh, I used to,” Nathaniel said, shaking his head. “But it really doesn’t help to get angry about it. I just figure I’ll keep working on myself, keep going to college, keep moving up, ya know?”
Actually, I didn’t know. I could not imagine how hard it would be to keep a positive attitude while facing such blatant discrimination. “You’re a fine man Nathaniel. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. I had no idea.”
“Thanks. It’s all good. Gotta go to class. See ya Thursday.”
My son, a 6’3”, 18 year old who regularly wears hoodies and ball caps, has never been stopped by the police. Never.
Nathaniel, a 5’8” twenty something who looks for all the world like a future lawyer, doctor, or banker gets stopped weekly, at least.
It’s not all good. Not even close.
*Nathaniel’s name has been changed to protect his identity. I asked my daughter to give me a man’s name that sounded like a doctor’s name. This is what she chose.Still think racism doesn’t really exist? Take a look at this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti5ZFmglzV4 Want to know how big the problem is? Then watch this video: http://youtu.be/tkpUyB2xgTM