imaginary conversation about real questions

“Really, Paul, tell me what you think. Do you believe America wages war on black youth?”

That’s what I call a direct question! Put to me by a friend this morning over coffee. We were talking about last evening’s announcement of the St. Louis grand jury’s declination to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Brown’s death sparked local community and some regional and nationwide protests, some violent, and confrontations with law enforcement officials. These demonstrations have continued for three months and, last night, took on renewed fervor.

“Really, Paul, do you believe that?”

Looking across the table into my friend’s earnest eyes, I, perhaps oddly, for he is someone I trust, felt compelled to inquire, “Why do you ask?”

Because,” he was quick to answer, “I value your opinion and, well…” he hesitated, “you’re black.”

Somehow I thought that – not so much his first reply, but his second – was it. I, the good friend, and the older, sage black man might debunk some disturbing urban mythology. “May I ask you a question?”

Another one?” he smiled.

I chuckled at his swift repartee; just the sort of reply I might have given. “Yes, another one.”


“Do you believe America is waging a war on black youth?”

He pursed his lips, clearly perplexed. “Well, I’d like not to think so. That would be a terrible…a tragic thing. But I just don’t know. I’ve followed the story since August. And so many of the people in Ferguson and in other places, along with charges of racial profiling and concerns about policing of minority communities, claim the police are gunning literally for black kids.”

“Which, if true, would make it systemic, not situational.”


“Which, if true, would make it about America, not one community or neighborhood here or there.”

“Yes.” He leaned forward, clasping his hands tightly together.

I sighed. “I don’t know either. I, like you, would like to believe it’s not so. But I don’t live in Ferguson. I live on Capitol Hill. And I’ve not been in St. Louis for years. And since graduating high school, I’ve never again lived there year-round. Too many racially-charged memories. All that said,” I shook my head, “I just don’t know, but I don’t, I can’t discount the experiences of those who believe it. Something…many things form their perceptions. I also confess I have a built-in racial lens. Eventually, I see everything through that lens. My parents raised my brother and me to know the difference between white and black and that society favors whites. I grew up with that teaching, and, I have to say, it’s served me well. To be aware…to be wary at times, not to be naïve about expecting fairness from individuals and institutions. And what’s sad, very sad to me is that Michael Brown’s parents have to be at least two generations younger than mine and, clearly, they sought to teach their son the same lesson that America isn’t fair…and in Michael’s case not safe, even fatal. So, no matter what you or I believe, we haven’t progressed much as a nation in terms of the disparity of our perceptions across lines of race.”

“So, Paul, where’s the hope?”

“Another good question. Right now, my hope, really, my wishful thinking…my desire in the face of things I can’t control, is that the rioting in Ferguson will end, that there will be no loss of life, that looted businesses can recover. And my hope, my conviction about possibilities, is that the protests will continue for change in the system to address racial profiling, minority policing, and, yes, what we’ve been talking about, which for some is untrue, for others, an open question, and for still others, a living reality…a living hell.”

He nodded. “Then I hope you’re right about all your hopes.”

“Well, here’s another one. That you and I do something.”

“What can I do?”

“Yet another good question, which begs another. Do you wake up in the morning or at any time during the day and think about being white?”

“What does that mean?”

Do you?”

“No, why would I?”

“That’s my point. I wake up every day and within five minutes, if not sooner, I acknowledge to myself that I’m black. It’s something I don’t risk forgetting especially when I step out into the world. And I think for you consciously to see yourself as white is for you to be aware of your American privilege. The opportunities America affords you that…”

You don’t have? C’mon, Paul! You’re not being honest about your privilege.”

“Fair enough. Yes, I do have privileges. I have a good education. A job I enjoy. I’m well-read and well-traveled. I have credit I can use to get things I want. I have a wide circle of friends. I live in relative security. Yes, I am privileged. I also have memories of being denied credit because of where I lived or of being asked a few more questions than seemed obligatory before it was granted, and, in some cases, still denied. And there were jobs I didn’t get because I was black. In more than one case, it was patently obvious. Have you ever felt you were denied employment because you’re white?”

“No, never.”

“Not that that, in and of itself, proves anything, except that, for me, it does, even if only because you’ve never felt or had to feel that way. I have. But more to the point, no matter what advantages I have, I also have little doubt that the Michael Browns of America have less, and that disadvantaged status is rooted…remains rooted in race.”

“So, what you’re saying is that the situation is hopeless.”

“Nope. What I’m hinting at is that more folks who are conscious of the disparities…and let’s broaden it beyond race to class, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, pick an issue…and who act wherever they are, doing whatever they can, whenever they can, whether individually and, even better, in union with others, to address inequalities not only can make, but also do make a difference.”

“Like I said earlier, I hope you’re right about your hopes.”

4 thoughts on “imaginary conversation about real questions

  1. A very powerful conversation!! With more than 170 protests in cities around the country yesterday, people are definitely doing something. That said, I’m still not sure how much hope I have for change. I keep saying to myself, Black Lives Matter, but as I’ve also said many times before, I’m beyond happy that my grandchild is a girl, because it gives me a little more hope that her life won’t be cut short by a bullet.


  2. More than interesting for me, verily, poignant that you would mention your granddaughter in this context – because I thought about her (and all black girls) as I recorded as a blog this conversation that transpired in my head and in my heart. I thought about her for I first wrote the reference to police assaults on black youth, adding “especially males”, which I subsequently deleted for, I fear, the/my concern includes all black/minority youth, both boys and girls, young men and young women. Too, in thinking of her, I pray her safety as I do for all youth.


  3. Thank you, Pablo. I, too, saw and read Benjamin Watson’s reaction to “Ferguson” (I place in quotes what before August 9 was a word denoting a St. Louis suburb largely unknown to most folk that now has taken on symbolic meaning for many). I found Watson’s testimonial to be broadly nuanced and deeply compassionate. Again, Pablo, thank you.


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