They saw me leave the house.
The two boys looked to be about fourteen years old. They had already passed my house and were walking down the middle of the street as I climbed into my car to pick up my kids from school. Something inside told me to wait a few minutes and watch. And no, it wasn’t because they were African American. Our city, neighborhood, and block are all majority black, so it would have been far more unusual to see white kids walking down my street. What was it? They were clearly school-age, and school hadn’t let out yet. They also weren’t wearing any of the nearby school’s uniforms. They were walking with a bit of a swagger down the middle of the street, not the sidewalk, laughing but looking intently at parked cars they passed.
I sat in the car and watched for several minutes. Once or twice I saw one of them reach out like he might be trying a car door. Are they casing cars, or are they just walking? I didn’t want to jump the gun and call in suspicious activity, but I was conflicted. After waiting another minute or two, I decided it was safe to go. I did drive past them, though, and took note of their physical descriptions, just in case.
When they were just small figures in my rearview mirror, I realized that they had turned to walk back up my street. Uh oh. But I rationalized the feeling away. It’s probably nothing. I’ll be back home in a few minutes anyway.
As my kids and I walked up to our front door, I saw Ms. Janice, our next-door neighbor, motioning for us not to go into the house.
“Two guys were trying to break in! They might be in the house!” she whispered urgently from her doorway. She had called the police after hearing repeated banging and had seen the two boys in our backyard. The cops arrived just then and scoped out the house. The boys—it was the same two I’d seen, according to Ms. Janice’s description—had fled, having unsuccessfully tried to get through our back door (but they did leave a mess of shattered glass). The boys were never found, though the police walked the alley and drove around the neighborhood looking.
Looking back on it, I wondered why I didn’t listen to my gut. Because I didn’t want to be that white woman. I didn’t want to be the white neighbor who calls to report “suspicious activity” when kids are just walking down the street. When I saw them reaching for car handles, I rationalized it away. I felt stupid afterward, when my suspicions were confirmed, and I was telling friends the story. But I also felt a sense of contentment that I had erred on the side of assuming the best instead of the worst.
I wanted those boys to be just kids on their way home from school. My children have friends, classmates, youth group kids, etc., in their lives who are young black children, and we love them. I don’t want any of them to become a statistic, to be wrongfully accused, to be sucked into the unjust system of mass incarceration. And I didn’t want any of that for these two boys whom I didn’t know. (Dear White Reader, it happens ALL THE TIME to people of color, regardless of innocence, education, or socio-economic status. Listen. Read. Learn.) I wanted it not to be what it was, more for their sakes than for my own.
I know I’m late to the conversation, having only in recent years begun to understand and learn about the insidious hold racism, both individual and systemic, still has on our country (thanks, Ta Nehisi Coates, et all, for the education–see various links below for a starting place). I used to think, “If people just obey the law, they won’t get into trouble.” I realize now what a myth that is for millions of people of color in this country; it shows that I was living in a dream. When you get up close to friends, neighbors, brothers and sisters in church, etc., who have personal experiences that contradict the narrative you’ve always believed—that “all that was taken care of in the Civil Rights Movement”—you realize that it’s time to wake up from the dream. (By the way, the ability to live your whole life in the dream? That’s privilege.)
Coates, who was born and raised here in Baltimore, writes to his son:
“[The Dream] is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long, I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our [black people’s] backs, the bedding made from our bodies” (from “Letter to My Son,” The Atlantic, September 2015).
Friends of ours recently had their first baby, a boy. I held him when he was about three weeks old, a wrinkly but handsome little guy with a high forehead and black downy hair that stuck to the crook of my arm with sweat—mine or his, I don’t know. His name is Emmanuel. God with us. God’s image in the face of this child, cradled in my arms.
But his mama and daddy carry this knowledge: all sweet on this earth is mixed with sorrow. “We worry about him growing up as a black child in Baltimore every day,” Christine, Emmanuel’s mom, says. Many will not see the image of God in this little boy, not once he’s tall enough to threaten just by walking down a street, or reaching for his license, or laughing a little too loudly with his friends in a store. And it won’t matter that his father has his master’s degree in engineering, or that his mother has her PhD in public health. It won’t matter that they are committed to their church, or that they are neighbors who will mow your lawn for you or babysit in a pinch. None of that is a guarantee that will save little Emmanuel from how others see his skin. I pray that this sweet boy is always seen as a person who carries the image of God in him, but it’s hard to be hopeful in light of reality.
If I could meet with those two boys right now, I would pray for the eyes to see the image of God in them. Foolish or not, I wouldn’t press charges. Not this time. I think I’d tell them how even though I had described them to the police, I didn’t really want them to be caught. Because “the price of error is higher for [them] than it is for [their] countrymen” (Ibid.). This is a well-documented fact.
I didn’t want to be “that white woman,” so I hesitated. Was I right or wrong? That question doesn’t keep me up at night, but what does is wondering where I still get it wrong—where I still find myself wearing “blinders” that I need friends like Christine to help me remove.
White friends, let’s not live in the dream, even though it’s so comfortable there. Let’s wake up, pray, listen, learn, and then stand in solidarity, doing what is ours to do.
Things to read if you want to go deeper:
Reconciliation and Justice Network: Craig Garriott (the pastor of our church here in Baltimore)