Home is for letting your hair down, being comfortable, feeling safe, and enjoying loved ones — unless you’re black and living America. In that case, home has always been a glass house — a place where you can eat, sleep, and sit in relative comfort but not without a silent anxiety always simmering in the back of your mind that your home is a place of comfort until it’s not.
This silent anxiety is transgenerational. Not every member of a black household may admit it, but we know that the front door could be kicked in at anytime by law enforcement because of any ridiculous claim — real or imagined — made by a neighbor. For black families, danger has always lurked, even while we seek refuge in the privacy of our own space. The most recent example of the was the killing Saturday of Atatiana Jefferson, who was shot to death in her home by a white Fort Worth, Texas, police officer.
Obviously during bondage, slaves had no right to private space, but shortly thereafter, when the Civil Rights Act of 1866 made all people of the United States citizens, that slowly began to change. However, the threat of violence for blacks increased as groups like the KKK were formed in order to intimidate black voters. Lynchings were normalized. Families were terrorized and our homes were no less of a safe haven than the streets.
Abram Colby, an African-American legislator from Georgia, gave his testimony in front of a congressional committee in 1872 about the violence he experienced in his home as a result of the KKK. He said, “On the 29th of October 1869, the Klansmen broke my door open, took me out of bed, took me to the woods and whipped me three hours or more and left me for dead. . . . Some were first-class men in town. One is a lawyer, one a doctor and some are farmers. . . . The worst thing was my mother, wife, and daughter were in the room when they came. My little daughter begged them not to carry me away. They drew up a gun and actually frightened her to death. She never got over it until she died. . . . When I got home they just peppered the house with shot and bullets.”
In 2014, Yvette Smith, a 47-year-old woman, called 911 to help settle a dispute she wasn’t involved in. Police shot and killed her when she opened the door. In 2010, 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was asleep in her bed when police entered her home and shot her in the head, killing her. In 2008, Tarika Wilson was in her house hiding behind a door when police entered to perform a drug raid. The officer blindly shot and killed her and also shot her 1-year-old son as well. Wilson was not the intended target of the drug raid.
The list of unarmed blacks not just killed by law enforcement, but killed in their homes, is extensive. Amber Guyger, the disgraced former police officer who was recently convicted of killing unarmed Botham Jean in his home is not an anomaly, or something to be dismissed as a freak accident. This is a historical legacy that can’t be forgiven and forgotten with a hug and a prayer.
According to a study published by Rutgers University researchers, African-Americans in the United States are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Another study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America concluded that 1 in every 1,000 black men and boys can be expected to be killed by police as opposed to 39 in every 100,000 white men and boys.
I do not believe that law enforcement is a monolith of racist officers or evil people. However, I do know that it takes a person roughly 10 years, in addition to an undergraduate program, to obtain a license to save life by practicing medicine as a doctor. Why does it take just 6 months in the police academy to obtain a license to kill?
No individual police officer can be blamed for this systemic failure. Rather, it is the result of faulty training. Many officers have never come in contact with a black person until they are on the street as law enforcement. Their only mental construct of African-Americans may have come from television shows and movies where blacks are often portrayed as one-dimensional criminals, junkies, and informants. How is a young police officer, or even a veteran, supposed to know how to interact with a human being about whom they have no previous interpersonal experience to refer to? Even if we put the best spin on things, and say that these officers are afraid for their lives, state and federal institutions should be held accountable for inadequate training.
I’m a religious man, but we can’t pray this problem away. We have to hold our local city and state institutions accountable to fund police training that includes racial sensitivity, implicit bias, and cultural responsiveness. Otherwise, we’ll continue to witness this very sad and frustrating reality.
Imam Taymullah Abdur-Rahman was the Muslim chaplain at Harvard University from 2015 to 2017.