Editor’s Note: Arick Wierson regularly writes for CNN and is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television producer, and former senior media adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He currently advises political and corporate clients in the United States, Africa and Latin America. He and his family live in Excelsior, Minnesota, an area a few miles west of Minneapolis. You can follow him on Twitter @ArickWierson. View more opinion at CNN.
My wife, Gilda, is Black.
We met years ago when I was working in Angola, her native country in southern Africa. Together, we have two mixed-race children, Haakon and Gabriella, ages 6 and 3.
On the evening of May 25, Gilda and I were finishing up a Memorial Day dinner with some friends; we had enjoyed a sunny afternoon boating near Excelsior, a quaint little touristy town on Lake Minnetonka, an affluent area just west of Minneapolis where we live. As we were wrapping up our dinner, we were completely unaware that just a few miles away, a Minneapolis police officer was digging his knee into the neck of an unarmed Black man named George Floyd, ultimately killing him in broad daylight.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I first saw the video clips of then-Officer Derek Chauvin pinning a handcuffed and defenseless Black man to the ground. As I watched the video detailing the moments during which Floyd was killed, my life changed forever.
I am White, educated and consider myself fairly liberal on most social issues, and – up until recently – I generally viewed the police as the “good guys.” Growing up in Excelsior, the totality of my interactions with law enforcement were limited to reruns of shows such as “Adam-12” and “ChiPs” – where the cops helped those in need and tracked down bad guys who were truly up to no good, or the occasional “Officer Appreciation Day” when a member of the local police department would come to school and talk to students about all the good they do in the community.
I was raised to revere and trust law enforcement, and that upbringing, I believe, has framed the mindset of many generations of White Americans like me.
Years later, while I was in my 30s, I spent nearly a decade working at City Hall in New York as a senior member of the Bloomberg administration, where I had somewhat regular interactions with top NYPD brass; for the most part, those meetings had always been pleasant and productive, and did nothing if not cement my idea that, generally speaking, cops are people just trying to do the best they can, sometimes in very difficult situations.
This is why, even in the face of undeniable video documentation of police brutality against people of color, my default setting to making sense of extraordinary events of racial bias was to assume that there must have been some set of extenuating circumstances that justified the use overwhelming force. Cops and robbers. Police and bad guys. That’s the way it has always been for people like me.
Of course I was certainly aware that there were long-standing policing issues between African Americans and law enforcement – the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile was another well-documented case that also happened in my hometown. But even when gross displays of bias happened to my own family on a personal level, as much as it pains me to admit it, it was hard for me to see them for what they were.
Since moving with me back to the United States in 2016, my wife had endured a number of – if not dangerous – extremely uncomfortable interactions with law enforcement, all of them ultimately stemming from her being a Black woman who drives a nice car in an overwhelmingly White, upper-class community. On each occasion, instead of confronting the systemic issues at play, I chose to chalk up the incident to an individual misunderstanding or somehow justify them in my own head as derivative of other mitigating circumstances.
My wife, who has been living in the US for only a few years, has struggled to understand these same incidents through her own cultural filter; in her home country of Angola, police stops are frequent, but not racially motivated; they are generally nothing more than attempted shakedowns for petty cash – either a small bribe or having a senior member of the police force on your speed dial will generally enable you to go on about your business.
There is one particular situation that played out last summer that I have been replaying in my head since the death of George Floyd. My wife and I were on our way out to lunch and I needed to run an errand, so I stopped to go into a store while my wife waited in the car and began talking on the phone. Several minutes later, a passerby had evidently found it suspicious that there was a Black woman sitting alone in the passenger side of a black Mercedes SUV and decided to notify the police.
The White officer responding to the call approached the situation as one of pending danger, asking my wife repeatedly whether there were drugs or firearms in the car. When I emerged from the store, and he realized that I – a White 45-year-old – was her husband, his demeanor instantly changed, and he apologized for the inconvenience.
At the time I thought it was a bizarre situation, but even so, I was reluctant to see it for what it was: extreme bias on both the part of the passerby as well as the responding officer based on the color of my wife’s skin. A situation like that should have set off alarms left and right, but my own cultural bias persevered, allowing me to brush off the incident as just small-time Midwestern antics by people who have too much time on their hands. At the time, I was still well within a bubble of denial that prevented me from seeing things not as I wanted to see them, but as they indeed were.
What I saw in the video of George Floyd finally ruptured that bubble. The video was clear and audible – there were no extenuating circumstances that my mind could latch onto to justify the continued use of force once he was handcuffed and on the ground. That this happened only a few miles from where I live was incredibly jarring and certainly contributed to my reaction, but what really connected with me on a visceral level and ultimately shook me was one of the words a dying Floyd cried out in search for mercy: “Mama.”
While I watched the slow-motion killing of Floyd, my thoughts drifted to my son and daughter. With their darker complexion, curly hair and African facial features, society – and more importantly, law enforcement – will certainly see them as Black when they are older. What I realized while watching the video of the man foaming at the mouth on the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis is that Floyd could be either of my children a decade or two from now.
As a grown man, helplessly pinned to the ground, likely knowing his life was ending, Floyd cried out for his ‘mama.’ His mother, who was known as Cissy, had passed away, but in this hour of most dire need, he called out to her – his protector, his source of unconditional love.
That cry pierced the bubble of my own White blindness, awakening me to the reality of what it means to be a parent to Black children. For too many years – my entire life, in fact – I had failed to realize that by and large law enforcement has one set of rules for dealing with White citizens and another for people of color.
Admittedly, coming to grips with how little I previously understood my wife’s reality as a Black person living in this country – the same reality that awaits my children in a few years – has been hard; putting those same feelings in writing is perhaps even harder. I’ve heard quite a few stories in recent days, such as the one recounted by Bryan Monroe in his opinion piece for CNN, of the challenges facing Black parents who have had to impart on their children a special set of instructions for dealing with the police.
As a father, your most primal instinct is to protect your kids. You teach them how to behave in public, to be courteous, to not take unnecessary risks and to avoid physical confrontation if at all possible. Here is the big question on my mind now: How do I, as a White father to two Black children, teach them that because their appearance is somewhat different than mine, they will need to abide by a completely different set of rules than I do when interacting with law enforcement? It is both disgusting and enraging. I don’t pretend to feel Black America’s hurt, but I now feel an intense yet indescribable pain as I think about the world that lies ahead for my children unless society makes tremendous strides in the coming years.
I’m also angry and extremely disappointed with myself for never having seen things for what they were before Floyd’s death. I understand why so many White Americans are in denial about the racial bias of law enforcement; like me, they probably have never had a single disagreeable interaction with cops beyond the occasional traffic violation. White America was and still is largely brought up to venerate law enforcement.
The video of the death of George Floyd was a rude awakening for me. It made me realize that despite all the trappings of privilege that my children have and will continue to enjoy as they grow up – good schools, lots of travel, a loving and stable home – being Black will be the singular component of their identity that will most clearly define them not only vis-à-vis law enforcement but in society in general. They will not have the freedom that I as their father have always had – to always assume that interactions with police will be uneventful. A random traffic stop for me has always been nothing more than a pesky annoyance on the few occasions they have occurred; for my children – and my wife – routine stops like these could very well turn into life and death situations.
I was pleased to learn that the Minneapolis City Council is poised to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department; it has long been a hotbed for abuse. What comes in its stead remains to be seen. This much, however, is true: Changing decades of institutionalized police conduct will not be an easy lift.
Despite the prodigious multiracial protests that have engulfed major cities around the country and the world, it won’t be easy to get vast swaths of White Americans to really understand why the system is broken and why deep reforms are urgently needed. It took the brutal death of George Floyd to crack open the shell that I was living in – because for once, I saw policing tactics not through the optics of a White man in his 40s, but through eyes of a father to two beautiful Black children and husband of a Black wife.
I believe that the uproar over the deaths of George Floyd and, more recently, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, as well as other well publicized incidents, show that we as a country still have a long way to go before we can disassemble the relationship between the police – and how law enforcement is viewed by White America – and its interaction with people of color.
My hope is that these nationwide protests not only shine a light on the issues of policing and race, but ignite and fast-track White America’s realization that we as a country still have a long way to go to address systemic racism, racial inequality and a biased criminal justice system in dire need of reform.
We have to understand that policymakers won’t be able to legislate the end of racism and police departments will struggle to root out bias from within their ranks. Changing society will take time. And it will have to be a group effort. No one man or woman can shoulder this entire movement.
We have to realize that we are in this for the long haul, but the death of George Floyd has ensured that, at least for now, White America is beginning to openly talk about the uncomfortable issues of race and bias in this country. And I now see it as my job to help keep that conversation going.
My kids are counting on me.