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There should not be a different level of risk based on race

October 6, 2018

A recent conversation with a friend about our sons’ upcoming college break reminded me how different our worries are about their safety. My son and other members of an outdoor club planned to hike out west during spring break. There were things that concerned me about the trip: whether he could afford it, if he had the proper clothing, would they drive safely.

After listening to my concerns, my friend said her son and his friends had hoped to drive to Florida over break. After consideration, she told him no, explaining, “four black young men in college driving cross country is not safe right now. We don’t want to prevent you from enjoying life, it hurts us as much as it hurts you, but that’s the world we’re living in.” Like me, she was worried about her son’s safety, but the conversation reminded me that being black in America is quite different than being white.

Parents of young black people worry that their children might become victims for having their hoodie pulled up over their heads in a gated neighborhood (Trayvon Martin), for taking their airsoft rifle to a local park (Tamir Rice), for reaching for their ID (Philando Castile) or knocking on the wrong door to ask for directions after getting lost on their way to school (Brennan Walker).

My friends who are black have talked to me about the racist indignities they experience day-to-day, similar cases have made the news recently. Two men were arrested for arriving 10 minutes early for a meeting at Starbucks and not ordering: sitting while black (Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson). A man was beaten, Tased and arrested for jaywalking: walking while black (Johnnie Rush). Security routinely followed customers through CVS stores without any justification: shopping while black. My friends, too, have no shortage of stories of racial discrimination to share.

Studies show that black people are disadvantaged in many ways. According to the Wall Street Journal’s 2017 index, Racine was rated the fourth worst city in America for black people. Nationwide, a typical black household makes 61 cents for every dollar earned by a typical white household — in Racine, its 35 cents on the dollar. Racial bias in our healthcare system results in high mortality rates for black mothers and infants.

Black Americans have lower graduation rates and lower homeownership. They experience higher levels of poverty, unemployment and incarceration. Wisconsin is consistently rated one of the worst states to live in if you are black, with some of the highest disparities between black and white residents. Milwaukee’s pattern of racial segregation and housing discrimination is so extreme it has been nicknamed the “Selma of the North,” referring to Selma Alabama’s oppression of black citizens during the civil rights movement.

Black children in America die at 10 times the rate of white children in gun violence. Black drivers are eight times more likely to be stopped by police, 20 percent more likely to get a ticket, are searched on the basis of far less evidence, are five times more likely to be incarcerated, and receive sentences that average 19 percent longer for the same crimes as white people. Black people make up 13 percent of the population but are 26 percent of those killed by police.

I’ve had conversations about race with white friends who claim, “I don’t see race” or “I see people, not skin.” The claim to colorblindness is denying a fundamental reality of another person. Ignoring race not only denies the beauty and pride someone may feel about themselves, but it is also willfully ignorant—there are people in our country dying because of the color of their skin.

Parents worry. But a person’s choice to drive anywhere, to wear an article of clothing, to wait for a friend before purchasing coffee, to live in or travel through a certain neighborhood, or to ask for directions should not come with a different level of risk for our black neighbors.

I remember reading Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh over 10 years ago. It opened my eyes to the difference between my reality and that of people of color. When talking about spring break with my friend, I realized my worries about my son were trivial compared to hers: that her son might be victimized or even killed because he is black. When you are white in America, it is easy to forget this. Black parents can never forget.


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