This week marks the first anniversary of both my marriage to my wife, Brianna, in Atlanta, Georgia, and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. What follows is a reflection written by my father that originally appeared on Brianna’s blog last fall.
REFLECTION ON A WEDDING — AND A KILLING
On a beautiful warm afternoon of Sunday, August 10, 2014, my son, who is 24 years-old and white, married a 23 year-old Black woman in an outdoor service performed by an Episcopal priest in Piedmont Park in the heart of midtown Atlanta, Georgia. On the previous afternoon of August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18 year-old Black youth, died after being shot six times by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As a 63 year-old lifelong resident of the South, I have been jolted by some contradictions inherent in these two events. The wedding was a personally joyous occasion for all involved, which was all the more to be celebrated because in 2014 it was not at all newsworthy. In the South of my youth, my son’s marriage would not merely have generated considerable notoriety and social stigma, it would have been illegal. Even if the couple had been legally married in a northern state, they would have been guilty of a crime had they then returned to Georgia and resided together.
Not until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Loving v. Virginia, that “anti-miscegenation” laws violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, could a “white” person in any of the former Confederate States legally marry any person with even a single “non-white” ancestor in the past four generations. The language used by the Georgia Supreme Court in a post-Civil War case discussing the state’s anti-miscegenation law expressed the typical view that such laws were not only permissible, but were a necessary expression of “natural law” and a reflection of God’s will:
“…moral or social equality between the different races…does not in fact exist, and never can. The God of nature made it otherwise, and no human law can produce it, and no human tribunal can enforce it. There are gradations and classes throughout the universe. From the tallest archangel in Heaven, down to the meanest reptile on earth, moral and social inequalities exist, and must continue to exist throughout all eternity.”
Lest anyone conclude that the Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967 merely reflected a new national consensus of moral revulsion against these overtly racist laws, polling at that time showed that 72% of adult Americans still believed that inter-racial marriage should be illegal and almost half (48%) favored criminal penalties for married inter-racial couples. Forty-seven years later – and how far we have come. . . . Yes, indeed. . . And yet. . . .
And, yet, once again: the too-familiar news story of Michael Brown, another young, unarmed Black man dying at the hands of a public servant who has sworn to serve and protect; dying in a manner virtually unheard of in most of the modern industrialized world – being shot by a police officer. The “arc of the moral universe” may in fact, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “bend toward justice,” but that bending arc provides cold comfort to the families of Michael Brown; of Eric Garner; of Trayvon Martin, of Oscar Grant; of countless Black men and youths whose violent deaths resulted at least in part from intentional or implicit reactions to the color of their skin by persons with both the power and means to inflict mortal injury.
My just-married son casts a fairly imposing physical presence: six and a half feet tall, a very muscular 200+ pounds. I imagine that, were he inclined to do so (which I hope and believe he is not), he could physically scare or intimidate other people. Yet it has never occurred to me that, as his father, I needed to have a serious discussion with him about potential dangers to him caused by other peoples’ (including law enforcement officers’) possible fear or negative reactions to him, based on his appearance. In recent weeks, I have been dismayed to learn (both through the media and directly from Black men) about several variations of “The Talk” that parents routinely deliver to their Black sons to aid in their survival when (not if) they are stopped or otherwise confronted by police officers. I have learned about the very specific directions given to Black sons regarding, among other things, language and tone of voice to be used, proper placement of hands, announcement of intention and request for permission before removing registration papers from an automobile’s glove compartment, and questions to answer and not to answer.
In my own experience (as a white male lawyer), I aim to be courteous and cooperative with law enforcement officials with whom I interact, but I do not believe I would hesitate to express my disagreement with and resist inappropriate, personally insulting, or illegal police conduct. What has now become apparent to me is that caring parents of Black youths, in the interest of their children’s very survival, typically find it necessary to insist that their own sons act in a submissive, if not humiliating, manner that precludes their maintaining any personal dignity, much less actively asserting (or even passively exercising) some of their basic rights as American citizens.
I wish I could feel confident that, should my son and his wife decide to have a family, their own children’s experiences, opportunities, and personal safety will not be adversely affected by still-existing, socially constructed, racial definitions and stereotypes. (To anyone who questions whether such definitions still carry great weight; consider the family background of our “Black president.”) I hope that that my son and his wife will not one day have to deliver The Talk to their own child. My inherent pessimism, exacerbated by the events of Ferguson, suggests that we will not arrive at such a point in my or my son’s lifetime, because we in “White America” appear resistant even to acknowledge, much less to address, the foundational role and continuing impact of our nation’s legacy of white supremacy, and the many ways that implicit racial bias continues to impede our attainment of a just society. Yet my spiritual and hopeful side, inspired by the very un-exceptionality in 2014 of my son’s wedding, reminds me that transformations – both individually and societally – are possible. Some have happened, even in my own lifetime.
– Thomas A. Cox
Photo credit: Lily Rose Photography