America has come a long way since the first days of the Civil Right Movement, but the recent deaths of black men at the hands of police is a testimony to how much more work there is to do. This month, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling joined the too-long list of African Americans who have died needlessly in encounters with the police.
If Castile and Sterling's deaths — and the ensuing violence in Dallas that killed five police officers — have left America questioning its soul, for African Americans, there is the added layer of fear for their lives, the lives of others in the community, and most especially for their own children.
Michael Brown's fatal shooting in 2014 exposed the rest of the country to the horrific realities that African Americans have faced for decades now: If you are black — particularly a black male — you are more likely to be automatically seen as a threat, an entity to be dealt with harshly, often, as we continue to see, with fatal consequences.
In a Facebook post shared after the death of Alton Sterling, one mom, Monica Park Johnson, questioned the systemic issues in our society that lead to those kinds of painful outcomes. Written in part through her son's point of view, Johnson's post read:
I'm so cute now. Everyone comments on my beautiful skin, my adorable curls. But I ask you this — what about when I'm 25, and my skin gets darker, my curls get tighter...I'm wearing baggy pants, maybe a hoodie or a baseball cap...will you lock your car doors when I cross the street? Will you embrace and welcome me when I'm a full grown black man? Will you value my life the same way you value my white Mom's? Or like my Dad's...my black daddy who gets pulled over for "following too closely" (at a stoplight) or for doing 3 miles over the speed limit. Will you smile and take my ID and insurance card like my Mom? Or will you ask if I have warrants before even asking for my license, like my Dad? Will you make me get out of the car to check if it's stolen, in front of my family? Will you shoot me if I get an attitude...or while I'm running away...or while I'm handcuffed? When you see me on the street with my black friends, will you feel the same as when you see a group of white men? Will I still be cute to you then? Will my life be as precious to you then as it is now, while I'm deemed harmless and not intimidating?
Johnson told A Plus that she had initially written that post as a note on her phone, "as a way to process my own feelings." But with her sister's encouragement, she said, she decided to share it publicly.
"It was an emotional journal entry, written not as an activist or an expert, but as a mom feeling an overwhelming amount of sadness," Johnson added. "We look at our children is through an unconditionally accepting, unchanging lens. It's easy to project our own prejudices onto adults — to dismiss their stories, to ignore their struggles or the injustices they face when we can't necessarily relate. I think for some, my posing of the questions from Kai's (my son's) point of view took that indifference away. It made people think, it made them imagine these grown black men as someone's child, maybe even their own child, who may never need an article written defending their value."
At the end of her Facebook post, Johnson made sure to note that although she personally knows plenty of wonderful police officers, she said that should not take away from making cases like Alton Sterling's death visible.
"This is a real, systemic problem that has started at home for each of us. Human beings need to be held accountable, police are no exception as they too, are human. So when you scroll past the inevitable stream of media regarding this case and many, many others, I ask you to look inward and pay attention," Johnson wrote. "I am trying to do the same."