I do not claim to be an expert on the issues related to race or racism. No matter how much formal education I have had around multiculturalism, there is always tons of information often affected by personal and cultural perspectives that I default to others to educate me. What I am an expert on is what I have experienced and what many of the individuals in my family and spheres of influence experienced themselves.
One of the issues that have always been at the forefront of my concern, even as a child, was the way that Black Americans were treated, portrayed in the media, and ultimately viewed by the world. Eventually, this treatment and portrayal often determined how someone that had never met me would initially respond to me in different scenarios. Being born and basically raised in Compton, California, many of my friends and family members got a play-by-play expectation of how to deal with law enforcement if ever we were to encounter them.
Although I received “The Talk” at a young age, I was not taught to fear or hate police officers. The tough part as I sit here as an adult is the idea that I recall feeling like everyone in the country was getting the same speech. I had no idea that it was different for me then it was for anyone else. “The Talk” included my own father warning me that as I became old enough to drive that it would be a problem if I chose to have friends in the vehicle with me. And in the instance I was pulled over for any reason, the goal for me would be to get home to him and my mother alive.
My father had given in to the idea that an altercation was almost guaranteed, and it would have very little to do with me provoking it. My dad told me, “Someday you’ll get pulled over, and they are going to beat that a**. You don’t get into with them people and you just get home alive.” This came from a man who was involved, who protected and supported me through every step of my life. At the time, I did not think twice about his admission that he could not protect me from this. Now that I have my own children, I can put myself in his shoes and imagine the sense of helplessness that he must have felt seeing my life through those eyes.
My mom and dad grew up in Compton in an area segregated between Blacks and whites, wealth and poverty. Matter of fact, the home that I was raised in was in part of the city that less than 15 years before had been predominantly white and for middle- to upper-middle-class families. It seemed like a million times, my father shared with me, as we crossed the train tracks coming from school, practice, or work the stories of how police officers monitored blacks as they crossed the train tracks from the “Black side” to the “white side.” Although this was his reality, it was not mine. We did not have a lot of white police officers in the city. My parents working for the City of Compton allowed us access to several the Hispanic and Black officers that made up the police department. So, for me, the stories dad shared were quite the unbelievable stories, and I believed him but just figured things had changed substantially.
I was about 10 or 11 years old before I encountered any police officers outside of the ones we knew personally. My parents’ house was 1 or 2 miles away from a major freeway being built. For years, the land that they used to build the freeway was all dirt and gravel that we used as a bike riding track of sorts. It was years from the day we first used the land until they finally started construction and fenced off the area. We went from riding there every day, to there being an on-ramp being built and do not trespass signs erected.
The last time we rode our bikes there, there were four of us. I was the youngest of the group of four young Black boys ranging from 10-13 years of age. We decided we would ride up the on-ramp and race down to the bottom. Just as we got to the top of the of the on-ramp, a helicopter began hovering above us. They shouted through a megaphone and told us to leave the ramp immediately, and we did. As we came over the hill of the ramp on the way down, we could see three or four police cars.
All I could think of was how upset my dad was going to be when they drove us home and told that we were there. As we approached the three police cars, I could see that they were standing outside of their cars and aiming their firearms in our direction. I do not think that any of us expected or feared that they would shoot, but we knew it was not a joke and the fun was over.
We stopped our bikes and let them fall to the ground. The officers told us to put our hands on the car as they patted us down. We did not have anything on us, and did not usually, so the search was not much of a concern of ours. The hood of the car was warm and one of my friends kept resetting his hands to stop from burning. Sure, he was overdoing it because the car was not that hot, but he felt the need to do so anyway.
The officer that spoke the most was a middle-aged white man with a deep voice. I just remembered him being big in comparison to us and the other officers. He called me to the back of one of the police cars, so when my friend was lifting his hands up and down off the car, I wasn’t next to him when the officer yelled out, “Keep your f***ing hands on the car.” I did not think it was funny, but I kind of giggled under my breath. The officer did not hear me. But my friend snickered much louder, and the officer yelled out, “You think this is a joke?” Then he pushed me in front of him towards the front of the car where my other friends were.
The friend that was being reprimanded had tears and sweat all over his face and decided to wipe his noes while the officer was addressing him. The officer yelled out, “You aren’t nothing but a snotty-nosed n*****.”
I was less shocked about what he said than how he said it. I cannot say that I had never been spoken to with such authority because I had. My father was a cusser. And matter of fact, he had spoken to the guys I was with just as bad as they had ever probably been spoken to as well. The “N-word” thing went over my head also. The idea that we were being held at gunpoint by police officers who were obviously very upset at a bunch of kids made everything quite real.
Right before they let us leave, the white officer, who must have believed I was the oldest of the group because of my size, told us that if he saw us over there again he would make sure we never got out of jail. Once again, the comment was much less the focus because this was the first time, I knew my father would not find out what we were doing. I knew there was no way on God’s green earth would he ever catch me over there again. It never crossed my mind to tell my dad what was said and how we were treated because that would have meant I’d have had to admit to doing something I was not supposed to be doing in the first place. And in that moment, I decided never to tell my parents what happened.
Years later my father made a joke that made me believe that he knew what had happened. Being that our families were so close, I figured one of the guys said something knowing that they would get away with it because their parents were much less likely to blame them than my dad was to blame me for my role in the interaction.
Because I had friends who were gang members and who did commit crimes, I spent most of my life justifying the way they were treated simply as the way the country viewed the people in my community. Since there was crime and violence, there was this belief that we got lumped in the same box and deserved to be treated accordingly regardless of our involvement.
It was not until I got around people from different areas that I recognized my experiences and views were much different than others. I had grown to excuse the fact that I may evoke fear in a person because of my size and the idea that I am a minority in almost every situation I experience. I have justified how that fear and misunderstanding could lead to someone calling the police on me or even worse, shooting me dead over a disagreement. Since childhood I have been aware of the fact that because of how I look, I create a sense of uneasiness in those that do not know me personally. I have even prepared for the day I end up standing my ground to protect my family and I never make it to see the next moment.
However, I refuse to continue to take more responsibility than I deserve for simply existing as a large, Black man with tattoos. You can certainly judge and blame me for the tattoos. The others, I had very little to no choice, as they were decided for me.
Being a Black man in America is tough. Being a Black man everywhere that I have ever been was tough. As I have gotten older I have realized more that although it’s much different for me than it was my father, my uncles and my grandfathers, it does not diminish the reality that there’s always a sense of overcoming in spite of.
Personally, I have had my share and a few other people’s shares of second and third chances to be successful. But I am an anomaly. I am so far out of the norm that my story is nothing like anyone else’s I know. The better I do in life, the more I move away from people who look like me and started from where I did.
And still, when the lights turn on in my rear-view mirror and we are getting pulled over, I change my posture. I change my speech. I make sure that I am overly respectful out of fear that I as a Black man do not give a reason for an officer to think I am up to something I should not be.
The reason that sharing this is so important for me is because of the four children I have and specifically my two sons. Although both are biracial, I am only an expert of leading from the perspectives I know best. One of the perspectives I know best is that of a Black man.
My oldest son, 16 now, who may have been no older than 6 at the time, was a passenger in the car with me as I got pulled over for having my “high beams” on as I drove down the street late at night in Arizona. The officer going the opposite direction made a U-turn and got behind me to pull me over. We pulled over and waited a while before two other police cars pulled up behind him. He approached the car and explained to me that my high beams were on and that is why he was stopping me.
The car I was driving belonged to my wife, and it was not anything special to say the least. The headlights were out and so when I turned them on, I just simply turned until I saw lights in front of me, not even thinking that I had turned the high beams on. My son, Joe III, jumped in the car with me because he wanted to ride and did so without grabbing his shoes. So, as we rode down the street toward the gym where I owned and operated a youth sports training facility, he sat in the backseat of the car, shoeless. When the officer returned to the car after running my information, he asked me and my son to step out of the car. I gave Joe III my shoes so he did not have to stand on the side of the road barefoot. I stood by the trunk of the car in the street, and Joe III and the three officers stood up on the curb. We all just waited for my wife to bring the information for insurance and registration that I could not find in the car, which also did not have an interior light.
While we stood there, the three officers spoke to each other rather casually and everything seemed fine. I was only worried that my son was scared and could not really understand what was happening. As my wife pulled up to meet us, I stepped from the trunk area of the car, which was in the street, up on the curb where Joe III and the officers were standing. When I did so, one of the officers nearly jumped out of his shoes and put his hand on his holster thinking I was doing who knows what.
The realization was made that night and after that interaction, I would be burdened to have “The Talk” with my son. And although half of his blood belongs to his white mother, he will certainly be viewed as a “Black man” someday. And based on who is making that determination, their misunderstanding, their fear, their prejudices can lead to me and my wife identifying my son’s body. And growing up where I have, I know that no parent is the same after burying a child.
This is no indictment of all law enforcement. No indictment of white people in general. No indictment of inner-cities or the Midwest. No indictment of America for that matter. The aim of this for me was to bring light to the issues of fear, which stem from misunderstanding, and continue to make it more likely that incidences like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd occur again.
Personally, I have been “stopped” numerous times. A great majority of the time I have had run-ins with the law, the men and women I dealt with were easy to speak to and respectful. Every single time, the incident has ended with me being able to go home without a fight or any violence.
But, when you see the things that happen to others, it forces one to think about what could have been had not I responded so favorably? What if the idea of being called out of my name triggered a response in me and the response created more anxiety for both sides? Does my nature as a human being to react to disrespect and prejudice in ways out of our normal calm character at times, justify me not being able to raise my children?
It is certainly not just about the possibility of getting assaulted physically every time I get stopped. It is more about the level of disrespect and insinuation tied to questions like “Whose car are you driving?” … ”What are you doing around here?” … “Do you sell drugs?” …”Who do you play for?” … All things that in different points of my life, I have accepted with the territory.
This disrespect, the prejudice that these questions reveal, I almost always have chalked it up to my exchange for my key out of neighborhoods where I never felt safe.
To have my children and wife live in places where we do not worry about being robbed, accidentally shot, or targeted for much crime at all, I have traded in my sense and feeling of belonging and acceptance. I have learned to maneuver in the same way my dad taught me. If something ever happens, I just focus on the need to find a way to make it home alive.
But now, I must find a way to deliver the same story to my sons and agree to absolutely strip them of their innocence. That realization has developed out of the same fear that I believe makes people act so poorly to those unlike themselves.
Joe Hall Jr. of Manhattan is the director of football student-athlete development at K-State. He also played for the Wildcats and went on to play in the NFL.