Growing up black in the inner city taught me that police violence is a problem for all of us

I am the direct descendant of slaves.

When emancipated, members of my family traveled from Tennessee and Georgia to Northern Kentucky in hopes of equality. Over a century later, it seems like we are still looking for it.

When I was a child growing up in Covington in the 1980's, my mother acted as a cloak, protecting me from much of the ugliness of racism. But like many African American mothers, she could only shield her son for so long.

Growing up, we lived in Covington’s predominantly white Westside neighborhood. I spent many days after school and on weekends at the Boys and Girls Club, playing tag football with friends on city streets or, in the summer, at Randolph Pool in Randolph Park in Covington’s Eastside, the city's predominantly African American neighborhood.

I asked my mom one day when I was young, why we were going way across town to Randolph when we could go to Goebel Pool in Mainstrasse, which was just as close, but in the white neighborhood.

“Baby,” my mom took me in her arms. “For people who look like us, there are just places that are safer for us not to go.”

I was a nerdy kid, no more than six years old, and I didn't understand her meaning at the time.

That was also about the time I saw that things outside my mom’s sphere of influence were different for people that looked like me.

I remember the day that I was first called the “N” word. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old. I was in the car with my mom, and she was trying to switch lanes on a city street in Covington. It seemed as though the driver, just to the left and slightly positioned behind my mom’s rear bumper, was going to let her over because the driver stopped his car with enough room to let her over. So we attempted to change lanes. At that  moment, he pulled ahead, causing her to swerve almost onto the sidewalk.

As he pulled ahead of us, the driver honked his horn and yelled the "N" word out through his open window.

It was the first of many instances in my life where my skin color made me look scarier than I really am and seem like more of a threat than I really was.

Like that time in high school when the school counselor took umbrage when I asked to be enrolled in advanced placement classes. This was when I was transferring from another high school, a college prep school where I was able to bypass the 7th and 8th grades.

“It just doesn't look as though you can handle the coursework,” the counselor said to me without batting an eye.

Or the time, just a few years ago, when I was a bartender in Covington, and was outside in the back alley on break, when two police officers drove up in their squad car, headlights positioned directly on me. The two officers got out and barked for my identification. Unfortunately, I did not have my ID on me because it was in my work bag, inside the bar. The officer then grunted for my Social Security number, which I gave without hesitation as my years of being schooled on how to react when two white officers were surrounding me in a deserted alley took over.

"I'm just checking to see if you have any outstanding warrants," the officer's voice bounced off my chest, his words as foreign to me as Icelandic cuisine. But to him, those words seemed as though they were as familiar as his grandma's cherry pie cooling on a window sill.

The other officer went into my place of work to verify that I, in fact, was employed there.

Finding no warrants, and verifying my employment, only then was I free to return to work.

I won’t even tell you about the myriad of times that I’ve been eyeballed when walking into a clothing store or how many times a salesman shrunk away from me when I walked onto a car lot.

It does not matter that I once served as a non-commissioned officer in the United States Army. It does not matter that I can hold a conversation in Korean or French, depending on which type of restaurant we are in. Despite all this, before I open my mouth to speak, I am still seen as poor, uneducated, and a threat just because of the color of my skin.

If I had a dollar for every time I recognized the look of shock on someone's face after our initial conversation and they said to me, “You speak so well,” I would have a house in Indian Hill by now.

This type of negative prejudgment has permeated our country and is wrecking the very fabric that holds our society together and is manifested in the worst way: by killing African American men … and, many times, boys.

Just with this year’s police-involved incidents, we find ourselves, once again, trying to understand how misconceptions and misunderstandings lead to multiple deaths and a nation saddled with grief and outrage.

The Washington Post's database that tracks the number of individuals killed by police officers shows that, in 2019, the rate at which African Americans were killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans, even though African Americans only make up 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Despite this, we know that police officers are the backbone of our community and there is no doubt that those who serve in this role have an exceedingly difficult and highly honorable job. Their split-second decisions could dictate whether a woman is murdered, a child is abducted, an elderly resident’s property is vandalized, or a lone gunman commits mass murder or is peacefully apprehended.

We need police officers in our society and we want them to protect and serve.

Because of the aforementioned, we grant these officers the right to ‘Protect and Serve’, but there are those officers who abuse the power we give to them and it's way too rare for those abusive officers to be held accountable in a court of law when they take advantage of the power we give.

And every time a police officer shoots a person, especially an African American male, we still face the possibility of falling into the same cycle we have seen over the last week: additional senseless killings, and a resurgence of violence. Thankfully, we also see a mass community outpouring of love and renewed community dialogue.

The sad truth is, the African American community has long pointed out the presence of police brutality and the fact that wide, sweeping reform is needed. Another truth is that reform is not going to happen until the ugliness of police brutality hits America in the heart.

Up until now, to most of America, police brutality has been “Your Problem”. But the protests over the last week have proven that we are now calling it what it has always been: “Our Problem”.

Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.
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