When I was 12 years old, I wore a Mickey Mouse wristwatch every day and would beg my mother to help French braid ribbons in my hair.
I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but I was terrified of summer storms, cowering under the covers at the first clap of thunder. I’m sure I considered myself grown. But I was a child.
When Tamir Rice was 12 years old, he liked to draw. He played basketball and joined the school drum line. Playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland, Ohio, park across the street from home, Tamir was shot in the abdomen by a rookie police officer who discharged his weapon within two seconds of arriving. Tamir Rice died on that cold Cleveland pavement, bleeding out for four full minutes before receiving first aid.
He must have been so scared. And as we learned last week, no one will be charged in his death.
Tamir was a child then. And he will be a child forever. Because in this nation, bound and branded by centuries of systemic racism, which devalues the lives of black children and their parents, Tamir Rice doesn’t get to turn 13.
The governor of Ohio and other politicos have called the killing “unfortunate” and a “tragedy.” Chalking another dead child up to misunderstanding is an easier way for us to sit in the aftermath.
But this isn’t a story about a tragic accident. Research shows that something more insidious is at play. A study published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has linked greater police aggression on black youth to a belief that, by age 10, they are “responsible for their actions” and “less innocent.”
Dehumanization starts even earlier than age 10, with another study by the Department of Education finding that black preschoolers are suspended nearly five times the rate of their white peers. The truth of these studies is ugly because it lives within each of us.
As a nation, we may have evolved beyond publicly condoning a biological racial hierarchy, but the weight of racism’s systemic entrenchment continues to blur our perception, with fatal consequences for our brothers and sisters of color. If you look at a photo of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and don’t see a child, I challenge you to sit in that a moment. Sit in the hard parts of what that means. Wrestle there.
Dismantling this status quo is a good New Year’s resolution for the nation. Tamir’s death exposes how racism wages war on black bodies. But racism robs all of us, white people and people of color, of our humanity. Our co-opted participation in this system of oppression warps our ability to build relationships, grow communities and improve society.
With white folks like me making up 84 percent of Missouri’s population and 87 percent of Kansas’, systemic racism won’t change until white people change. Many want to do something but have no idea what to do. Many more are hesitant to speak out for fear of saying the wrong thing.
But our paralysis only serves the status quo. As white people, we must do the hard work of educating ourselves about racism in order to disrupt our role in it. We must confront and disrupt the ugly parts of our subconscious, which refuses to see 12-year-old boys for the innocents that they are.
Like shy, smiling 14-year-old Emmett Till before him, Tamir Rice will be a child forever. If the measure of a nation’s greatness is how it treats its children, we have a long road to walk, America. Let’s get to work.
Molly Fleming of Kansas City has been a community organizer for nearly six years. She leads the PICO National Network’s campaign to end predatory payday lending in America. She also coordinates Missouri’s grass-roots community organizations in their work to put ordinary people at the center of democracy. To reach her, send email to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.