Tall, handsome, confident, almost commanding, the young man who identifies as African-American spoke to 300 people about his assigned topic of civility. He described to us the first time he had been "broken." To him, broken means when your personality or your identity has been squashed. He played in a tournament as a 13-year-old when some of the opposing fans yelled the n-word at him. With derisive sneers, adults hurled at that little boy this most laden of epithets. Why? Everyone on the planet understands that the slur has nearly nuclear implications; it's contemptuous, insulting and uniformly condemned. At a minimum it says that black people are inferior. It summons up slavery and segregation. At its worst, the n-word represents loathing, detestation and complete dismissal as a human being.
If an African-American throughout his or her life has encountered this and other racial epithets and the dismissive and hate-filled attitudes that accompany them; if a black person sees public safety officials treat his or her family or neighbors with bias and suspicion, regardless of circumstance or culpability; if an African-American sees the police arrest or choke or shoot or kill another — grossly out of proportion to what was called for and to what a white citizen would likely have received under similar circumstances — then one must objectively concede that a black person may rightfully be fearful, resentful and indignant about police officers abusing their authority. This is not to say that all officers are racial bigots. But these things happen so often that it justifies a black person's fear about interacting with police.
This is why black lives matter. It's not that police lives or white lives don't matter; it's not that African-Americans claim special or greater rights or have a higher claim to fairness and humane treatment than anyone else. It's the opposite. Because black people are justifiably scared, because they have lived with epithets, because they and theirs have been treated in unfair, biased and illegal ways, they've stood up and said, "Enough."
It was only in the 1950s and '60s that public schools and colleges were integrated. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional sports in 1947 when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers — and yet he faced daunting challenges in traveling and getting served in restaurants. Some on his team and some baseball fans in general didn't easily accept him. If Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Tiger Woods, Willy Mays, Serena and Vanessa Williams and thousands of other African-American athletes had come of age before the 1930s, they would likely have never competed in America's major sports leagues.
Who wasn't at least a little nervous about starting kindergarten, junior high or high school? Who hasn't had butterflies when trying out for a team or playing sports or performing in front of a crowd? Think of adding to the near universal concerns about being unpopular, nerdy, too tall or too short, having pimples or no stylish clothes, the additional factor of having a different skin color than the majority.
Racial identity is obvious. For some, the difference in skin may be definitive. And such an impression is unlikely to be positive because "different" for most people means bad. Others may have been raised with some level of racial prejudice toward people of color. But people of color have to face all of the above. That's a heavy burden for any child and teenager.
Seven years later, our eloquent young speaker told of that time when a racial epithet broke him. But he didn't stay broken. Mature minds taught him about people who say such things, about how we can't let others define us or control our emotions; we can't give them that power over us. He said he is now repaired and whole.