The recent spotlight on systematic racial profiling and police brutality against Black boys and men has exposed a painful truth long known in the Black community: just about every Black male seems to have a story about being stopped by the police. All live daily with the understanding it can happen to any of them at any time.
Terrell Strayhorn is director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise at the Ohio State University and a professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Studies in the College of Education and Human Ecology. None of these credentials mattered when Strayhorn was pulled over in his new car by a White police officer in June.
“…So I’m in my car, in my good hard-earned money car, and then comes a blue light in my rearview mirror. … And I watched an officer who does not know me come up to my window and say, ‘Mister, I need to see your license and registration.’ And I got ready to reach for it, and he reached for his gun – and I said, ‘Oh, my God. I know how this ends…
“I put my hands back and I said, ‘Do I have permission to do what you just asked me to do?’ And the cop said, ‘Yes, you can now move.’” Only then did Strayhorn go ahead and pull out his registration and license, along with his university identification card, though the officer didn’t seem to care.
“He said, ‘Do you know why I stopped you?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Because you don’t look old enough to drive this car.’ It sounded like a compliment, but then I had to remind him – in my head, not out loud – that in this country actually, [when] you get a driver’s license, you’re free to drive any car.”
Recounting the story for the Children’s Defense Fund training for college-age students preparing to teach at CDF Freedom Schools, Strayhorn said: “When you are mistreated, deemed guilty before you are innocent, and oppressed by that form of unbridled, misused power and authority, it is infuriating.
It is offensive. It is enraging…The rage just started in my pinky toe and it climbed all up my body.
“But, thank God, I had what I’m going to say is the No.1 thing: if you’re going to teach [our children] anything – teach them literacy, teach them numeracy, teach them vocabulary, teach them history, teach them political science, but listen – teach them how to control their rage.”
Teach the language
He continued. “…While we’re teaching them how to control their rage, giving them the language to have that conversation, they need words for that encounter with the police officer, that encounter with the neighbor. The reason why people fight is because words are not present for them to have the conversation. Give them the literacy tools so they can have the conversation. Teach them rage is natural; rage against this thing; rage against inequality – but control it in the face of authority that can take your life, because the end of the thing is we want them to live.”
The critical next step has to be channeling rage at deeply embedded structural racism and blatant injustice into “impassioned enthusiasm” for the larger fight.
We must organize ourselves and provide our children positive alternatives to the miseducation in so many schools and the dangers on the street from law enforcement agents.
Strayhorn concluded, “We’ve got to pursue freedom and justice not just for Black people, but pursue freedom and justice for Latino folks, for Native American people, for gay people…for everybody.
Freedom and justice for all.”
That’s the message every child of every color who is “different” must internalize to break the vicious cycle of deeply embedded cultural and structural racism that pervades so many American institutions – including those too prevalent in the criminal justice system that too often takes rather than protects lives.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org).