Over 20 years ago, my friend and I were jogging in my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood, one in which rapid demographic changes had seen a mostly white area turn more black and brown.
Just a few yards from my house, a cop stopped us. He asked us -- a young Indian man and a young black man -- what we were doing in the neighborhood? When I pointed to my house, he proceeded to ask me if I knew the people who lived at certain addresses on the block. All of those homes had black people.
My neighbor and classmate used to joke that whenever he got pulled over in his 1987 Pontiac Trans Am, he would always simply respond "Yes sir" or "No sir" to avoid escalations. His mother and stepfather told him that would be the only way to avoid a jail cell for something as minor as a traffic violation. In high school, he would tell me of the number of times he'd been pulled over that week. Sadly, my friend would disobey his own advice 10 years later, leading police on a 15-mile car chase through several adjoining Philly suburbs.
While my own experiences lie at the periphery of police interactions with communities of color, I've seen firsthand how dehumanizing it is for African-Americans -- particularly young black men -- to have their very right to exist questioned by police. The disproportionate singling out of young African-Americans in police stops, and sometimes violent confrontations, also is part of a larger issue of institutional racism: the disenfranchisement of Blacks through social and economic segregation, often enforced by the criminal justice system or white vigilantism.
Mutual distrust and double consciousness
Perhaps the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by the killings of five Dallas police officers, has created an opening for the long-promised (but never materialized) conversation and action on race in our country. Even some conservatives, long resistant to the idea of systemic racism, are finally acknowledging that there's a problem.
But Black Lives Matter -- and the visceral reactions the term has drawn from various sides -- has also exposed deeper problems: that law enforcement's interactions with communities of color cannot be painted with a broad brush, and that our society's polarization is framing these issues as black-and-white, whereas the vast majority of experiences exist firmly in the gray.
Ironically, while some police groups view BLM activists as adversaries, and vice versa, the relationships between police and communities of color seem to be marked by an unsaid co-dependency. For the lost black lives to get justice, police need to act responsively. When I was in college, my fraternity brother's cousin was murdered in Gary, Indiana, in front of 20 people. When the police tried to investigate, none of those witnesses were willing to cooperate. More than 20 years later, the case is still cold, and my fraternity brother continues to utter the line, "There is no justice in the world," referencing his cousin's murder.
Similarly, my best friend, a math teacher, has been pulled over by police just blocks from our neighborhood for the most spurious reasons. The anger he has felt at being singled out for the perception that he was in the wrong place is palpable, just as his sadness and frustration resonated in the text he sent me following Sterling's death two weeks ago.
While I came of age with friends with a distrust of police, some of my friends also chose careers in law enforcement and became acculturated to believe that there were elements of their own communities to be viewed as adversaries. This is what many police officers of color, particularly African-Americans, struggle with the idea that they want to serve their communities, even when their own communities distrust them or when their colleagues harbor deep-seated suspicion of minorities. And even within structures that are disproportionately adverse to Blacks and Latinos, there are police and community activists who are trying to find common ground.
No more talking past each other
There has to be a way to police our communities, particularly those in which justice is too often delayed or denied to victims, without the mutual distrust that seems to be figuring prominently into the spate of incidents in Baton Rouge (twice), Falcon Heights, and Dallas. For law enforcement leaders, acknowledging the dehumanizing feeling for young Black men (and women) to be pulled over or questioned with no cause would be a significant step. There also needs to be more for civic leaders and politicians to acknowledge that the boundaries (real and imagined) erected to keep young African-Americans from having equitable opportunities need to be addressed. Mike Davis, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have all written extensively about how the criminal justice system is used to enforce spatialized racial segregation. Just look at how many times Castile was pulled over for simply crossing into neighborhoods in which young Black men were deemed out of place.
But in acknowledging and addressing the institutional racism that continues to impact our society's efforts to become a more perfect union, it might be worth the time for BLM activists to begin the sort of constructive engagement necessary for real and meaningful reforms. This doesn't have to be a waiting game, in which police and activists are pushing each other to make the first move.
Since 2014, there has been small but meaningful progress in that regard, with a number of BLM activists joining commissions to change the way police serve their communities, and the movement itself helping to inject new blood into venerable civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League.
If there's another significant outcome that can't be ignored, we are as a country finally acknowledging the disparity in how Black lives are treated. And it's drawing Americans of all racial and religious backgrounds into an uncomfortable yet necessary conversation about how equally we fit into America's social landscape.
Baton Rouge police officer Montrell Jackson saw the pain of Alton Sterling's death and how it ripped apart both communities he belonged to--police officers and the African American community. He made a plea for peace and sought to be the change he wished to see, writing last week on Facebook:
"Please don't let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better. I'm working in these streets so any protestors (sic), officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer. I got you."
Officer Jackson was one of three officers killed in Baton Rouge over the weekend in an ambush by a lone gunman. Just as we owe it to the memories of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, and others, we equally owe it to the legacy of officers like Montrell Jackson to be better than this.