“These situations create in me a mixture of emotions: Anger, Fear, Sadness, Frustration, Helplessness ... We teach (our son) right from wrong. Teach him how to be respectful but does it even matter when he can do all these things and still be viewed as a threat ... Just because he has a better natural sunblock than the majority. Makes me very much a scared parent of a young black child. Unfortunately his innocence is being eroded before my eyes and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it.”
“If every person contacted by police officers were to remain courteous, cooperative, and compliant, there would never be a need to employ force.”
Both of these appeared in my news feed in the last week. And that friends, is the real legacy of Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland.
And the next town, wherever it maybe, where a police officer’s threat assessment will mean a gun is drawn, or a chokehold applied, and one human being will snuff out the life of another.
Both of these men spoke the truth as they know it, reflective of the world in which they live and work. Both are hardworking, taxpaying men with jobs and families.
Their truths couldn’t be farther apart.
Those are the Two Americas we must somehow bind together.
Because it will happen again. What we can change is how we respond, as individuals who together make up what we call society.
I know that individual action matters, especially when it comes to race, because I’ve seen the consequences of my actions when they have fallen short of the goal.
The Dream is the nation where we are judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.
I was a 22-year-old young reporter working in Huntington, W.Va., an Ohio River town whose heart belonged to Marshall University.
West Virginia then, as now, struggled with the legacy of its two leading exports: coal and bright young people. Both left the state as quickly as they could get up from the ground.
In the 1990s, the economy was sliding. Blue-collar manufacturing jobs that once were the city’s lifeblood, were leaking away.
Drug dealers from the larger cities along the Interstate 64 corridor were discovering the untapped market they had in places like Huntington. They were turning the housing projects in an African-American neighborhood into an increasingly dangerous venue.
I was working the cop beat one night and the news cycle took me by those projects. On the way back to the newsroom to meet deadline, I came to a red light.
There were two black men standing at the corner in big jackets. Hanging around late at night.
I locked my car door.
A few weeks later I met Tommy Hill, director of the A.D. Lewis Community Center, at a community meeting with the goal of improving race relations in the community. He worked every day to make sure he could reach as many kids as he could, making the center a safe place for them to go to.
He was a good man doing the right thing, and he became a reliable, honest source upon whom I called often over the years.
He was the man whose mere presence had caused me to lock my door.
I didn’t realize it until I heard him telling a story at that town hall meeting. About how he had been at the center late one night, closing it up and was standing at the corner talking with a friend when a white woman in a green car stopped at the intersection and locked her door.
It hurt him, he said, to think he would be judged that way. And then it hurt him to think that people had such fear that they locked their doors at an intersection at the sight of two black men standing on a street corner.
That, he said, was what we had to change.
I will never forget the feeling that crawled into my stomach as he told that story. How I saw the ripples of my action that night bounce back to me.
I learned then every action has an equal and opposite reaction, from grand gestures to little things. Especially, in fact, the little things.
And I have tried to take that lesson to heart ever since.
And doing that means looking for the shades of gray in a world that too often reduces us to black and white.
Originally published Dec. 9, 2014