Will Blackness Be the Thing that Gets You?

Have you ever heard the name "Danroy Henry?" I didn't think so—at least, not if you're white.

A year ago, a Pace University quarterback was shot by a white police officer—either when he started pulling his car away from a bar instead of stopping as he'd been instructed, or when, with no warning, he was shot through his car's windshield. As The New York Times reported, "Mr. Henry, known as D. J., was a football player ... with no record of trouble, whose arms, which held the car's steering wheel, were tattooed with the words "Family First."" The Pleasantville, New York police officer had never shot anyone before.

The football player is dead. The officer got an award as officer of the year. A week after that award, the young man's parents brought a lawsuit against the Pleasantville police.

Did D.J. Henry die because he was black?

This one haunts me. I am a white woman raising an African-American child. Less than a mile from where we live, a white cop arrested professor Henry Louis Gates for trying to get into his own house. It brings tears to my eyes to think that in just a few years, some cop might look at my tall, strong, funny young man—the kid who likes "Another One Bites the Dust" and can't get enough math—and might see not a person but a dangerous black kid, and arrest or shoot him. Or that such a thing could happen to one of his equally unique and beloved friends, the kids who tumble in and out of my house and yard and car, the kids I stare down when they get too rambunctious on my watch and who hug or high-five or fist-bump me when I pass them on the street. Parenting my eight-year-old has changed my racial identity, even more than having other black and biracial relatives has, in ways that are hard to describe (although others have tried). I was easily outraged about racial unfairness before, but now I have a nauseating fear about how easily my boy could be harmed for no other reason than the color of his skin.

On Monday, Boston radio host Callie Crossley had an hour-long discussion—well worth listening to—about why the death of Danroy Henry has rippled through the black media while the deaths of so many other young black men are forgotten without any discussion. Because this happened to an "exemplary family," said one of her guests, to parents who are well-spoken and affluent, "the Huxtables." Because D.J. Henry was a "good" kid who did everything right: sports, manners, schooling. He wasn't the gang kid, or the street kid, or even the nice kid in the projects who took a stray bullet. Those children should not be killed either. But somehow, Americans assume that living by middle-class rules will protect us from being shot for no good reason—including preconscious assumptions based on color. Or is that magical thinking?

As Crossley's guest, professor Phillip Goff put it, D.J. Henry's killing resonated because it says: "Even if you do everything right ... blackness will still be the thing that ends you. It resonates with those of us who have been successful. I am a professor. I have a Ph.D. from one of the finest institutions in the land." And yet, he said, he's still afraid when a police car pulls up behind him. D.J. Henry's story makes him, and people like him, feel that, nevertheless, "There will never be a point where we have earned our way into full acceptance."

This shouldn't happen to anyone's child. I feel sick thinking how easily it could happen to mine.