Growing up in Baltimore and then Columbia, Maryland, my parents sat me down and told me, “You could be walking down the street, and a police officer could stop you, and question you, and they won’t know that you’re an honor roll student, and it won’t matter to them, and it wouldn’t be your fault if they harassed you, it is just so dangerous outside for Black kids like you.”
I’m referring, of course, to the coming-of-age conversation about racial awakening that Black families know so well, commonly referred to as “the talk.”
I imagine that parents across the United States—all over the world, in fact—have had similar conversations with their children about what it feels like to be under-protected in the age of George Floyd and COVID-19. They probably sound a lot like my folks did back then. I can still hear them now: “Honey, you must stay calm, but also vigilant. I’m telling you this because I love you.”
When social scientists of the future study the spring and summer of 2020, they’ll try to understand how a slate of high-profile police killings and the corresponding uprisings in numerous US cities were related to the pandemic that took hold of the world at the same time. There will be many theories about why, in the midst of a global health crisis, a racially diverse group of people, young and old, from all corners of the world, risked their lives to take a stand against police violence.
Preliminary as it may be, I’d like to offer a hypothesis.
I think that being isolated in quarantine made Americans pay closer attention to the brutal effects of police violence. Sitting in their homes, with nowhere to go, people were shaken, in a visceral way, by the injustices they witnessed. In the process, something remarkable happened. As tens of thousands of people fell ill and died from COVID-19—and millions lost their livelihoods—we could not escape an equally visceral sense of our own vulnerability.
This shared sense of vulnerability reminds me of the enduring dialogue about the law and the police that Black parents have been having with their children for generations: conversations inseparable from the troubling contradictions of American history that a growing number of citizens, organized under the banner of Black Lives Matter, have forced into the light.
In an interview with Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept, the historian Robin D. G. Kelley identified the problem precisely when he called out “the contradictions of a society that claims to be a democracy and claims to care about people, but actually cares more about property and wealth accumulation than the lives of the most vulnerable.”
I think about vulnerability a lot these days.
My grandmother passed away in a nursing home in New York City at the height of COVID-19. She lived a full life, though. In fact, she was considered a “miracle baby.” She was born during the Spanish flu, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. My son, Langston, was born two months after my grandmother died. I dread the day that I’ll have to have “the talk” with him.
When I think about these intimate transitions against the backdrop of the explosive scale of uprisings in 2020, it’s clear to me what our country needs, now more than ever: a larger alliance committed to uniting people around human dignity and connection. “Hope is a discipline,” the prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba once said. I realize now that my loved ones have been teaching me, for as long as I can remember, to maintain optimism and resolve in the face of injustice.
This essay appeared in the fall issue of Radcliffe Magazine.
Laurence Ralph was the 2015–2016 Joy Foundation Fellow at Radcliffe. A professor of anthropology and the director of the Center on Transnational Policing at Princeton University, he is the author of two books, most recently The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2020).