In Florida, an unarmed boy with dark brown skin, walking to a convenience store for some candy, is shot by a jittery, self-styled “neighborhood watch” vigilante. The reasoning of the white shooter and his supporters — who erupt all over the Internet and the political sphere, with astonishing malice and vindictiveness — is dismally transparent. He was a black kid wearing a sweatshirt with a hood, walking through a “good” neighborhood. He must have been up to no good. A thug-in-waiting. Any good citizen should have the right to pack a gun and solve this problem before it starts. Right?
On two separate afternoons in early spring of this year, in a small Midwestern town, several teenage boys pile into a car and cruise a residential area: old Victorian houses, watery sunlight on newly greening lawns, robins hopping over the grass. A small group of children, under ten years old, is walking home from the local elementary school; this community prides itself on being safe enough, neighborly enough, for children to do this. And usually it is.
The car slows and stops. The teenage boys offer the children ice cream and candy to get into the car with them; when the children refuse and keep walking, the boys continue to drive by the children and yell names, including racial epithets. The children’s skin is brown. The boys’ skin is white. All of the parties involved are upper-middle-class, from what anyone would call good families. Sentiment in the town runs high, including among friends of the boys’ parents, who wonder why everyone has to make such a big deal out of an unfortunate but innocent prank. We’re not racist, these good Midwesterners reassure themselves. We don’t see color. We just don’t understand why they — there is always a they — have to be so sensitive. This town isn’t like… that. Why can’t they understand?
I hunker on my sidewalk in that same Midwestern town with my neighbors’ little boy, whose skin is brown. I rest my hand on his head to “measure” him as he tells me, with pride, “I’m six! I’m so much bigger than I used to be!” I remember, I tell him, when you were just a baby: only this long! He’s showing me a blue potato from the patch we planted and harvested together at the side of my house, which has been heaved out of the ground by frost. Children are so deeply responsible to their world, seeing and noticing things that slide right on by adults. “We forgot to dig this one,” he tells me. “It’s smelly.” We’ll plant some more, I promise him, and then I show him how frost has heaved up my radishes, too, where they lie spent and hollow on their mulch. We crack one open to study the dry network of cells and veins below that skin. He identifies, without my prompting, catmint and lamb’s-ear and daylilies. He watched me plant those lilies last summer and asks me, now, when we’ll see them bloom. This year, I tell him. Keep watching them. This is the year.
So much anger has seethed in me as I’ve thought about that murdered boy in Florida and those children — under ten years old, bewilderingly and frighteningly harassed out the window of a car by other kids who Should Know Better — and the chancy reality of life as a child in our prosperous society. Women of any color and men of color have long been used to being judged and watched, used as political illustrations or fearmongering scarecrow figures. But every fresh sign of this is sobering. And every fresh sign of the hit-and-miss nature of the “good life” parents of any color plan for our children — give them every advantage, and you still can’t guard against calamity, or ensure honesty and good character — is sobering too.
What would a world look like where children were genuinely safe? Less like a world governed by jumpy gated-community-mentality nerves and more like a world where neighbors have come together to drive away crime in the open light of mutual recognition, shared space, and letting their children know — by example and not just words — which acts and attitudes are shameful. Where industries and corporations no longer squander our common inheritance, the world in which the next seven generations will live. Where children can get their hands in the dirt and make things grow, learning to recognize and take responsibility for what they see coming out of the ground. And where adults who should know how to do so already recognize them, fully, for the small, individual, and irreplaceable people that they are.