For Whom We Worry, and Why: Fear in Black and Blue

As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

I have family members and friends who have been and are currently police officers [1]. When I read or watch on local news about a police officer being shot or killed, I hold my breath for a second.

When I was dating my wife, we sat watching TV many evenings until very late waiting for her father to come home; he was a career highway patrolman. His walking through the front door was always a kind of relief, especially when he came home some times much later than usual.

There is something about living with the unspoken but ever-present fear of being a police officer, of being in the family of a police officer that is hard to understand if you have not lived it yourself.

But police officers choose their profession knowing it is inherently dangerous. There is no way to be relieved of that fear for their safety because the job—to protect and serve—cannot be separated from danger, the risk of death in the line of that service.

I also believe very strongly in professions of public service, having been a public school teacher for almost two decades.

Public service is a noble calling.

And then there are my son-in-law, granddaughter, and soon-to-arrive grandson.

My son-in-law is black and my grandchildren, bi-racial.

I worry about them as well, I fear for their safety.

My granddaughter is two years old now, becoming more and more verbal; she understands and uses more and more words.

Soon, too soon, she will discover that she lives in a world of racial slurs. Maybe one will be directed at her, maybe one will be used about her father.

I suspect “maybe” is naive, too much hedging here.

At the very least, to be black in the U.S. means living in the ever-present violence of racial slurs, and the systemic racism that appears invisible to whites.

I fear for these family members for the fact of their race—not something they have chosen, not some inevitable reality of pubic service.

Simply for existing with a degree of observable skin difference that allows bigots and people with good intentions to judge them, call them names, pay them less, deny them opportunities.

Soon, too soon, my granddaughter will begin to read this world and the constant drumbeat of one single message: black lives do not matter as much as white lives in the U.S.

Sure, there was a time when the counterculture slurred police officers with “pigs,” and I am certain—justified or not—there is a good deal of negative sentiments among some, or even many, about police officers.

But to protect and serve behind the badge of the state is a choice made by adults. Even without those negative sentiments, the job is dangerous. And any officer, any time can simply quit that work and do something else.

To be black in the U.S. is not a choice, not something from which someone can take a vacation or something someone can simply walk away from.

Every day black children discover the world is hostile to them simply because they are black. Not because they have done anything to deserve that hostility.

So, of course, all lives matter, and blue lives matter.

But using those slogans to reject, erase, marginalize the need for #BlackLivesMatter is spitting in the face of the very real violences that are guaranteed black people through no fault of their own simply by living in the U.S.

So just imagine two children—one the child of a police officer and one the child of a black man, woman or both.

One day you sit down the child of the police officer to explain that the job is dangerous.

One day you sit down the black child to explain the word “nigger.”

There is absolutely no way to avoid the first discussion.

And in the U.S., white folk have decided there is nothing we will do about the second.

[1] This same pattern holds for my family and friends who are in the military.


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