By Andrew Hairston, J.D.
The warm rays of sun welcomed us on to I-40 just as we passed downtown Oklahoma City. My father and I found mutual excitement in the road trip that awaited us. After a summer of preparing for and taking the bar exam, I was particularly enthused about the journey that would lead to the start of my career. Like the sun, the future seemed fairly bright. Despite these positive feelings, a sense of nervousness also registered in my mind. The primary cause of my being on edge was a reflection on the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Korryn Gaines over the summer. The killings of police officers in Louisiana and Texas certainly didn’t help.
Like many Americans, these losses of life weighed on me heavily. The killings that took place in Baton Rouge especially hit home because I went to law school in the city. Though I’d engaged in racial justice work before, each event added more burdens to my psyche than the last. As I drove east with my father, the thrill of an imminent career as a civil rights attorney constantly mixed with the dread of the continual loss of Black lives. It resulted in quite the paradox.
The uneasy feeling confirmed itself just a few weeks later. News of Terence Crutcher’s death manifested itself on my social media accounts, along with yet another horrifying video of the entire encounter. My mind immediately jumped back to that road trip. Though I-44 carries travelers from Oklahoma City to Tulsa, the parallel route of I-40 is close enough to put the tragic end of Mr. Crutcher’s life in context.
My father and I, two Black men, could have easily found ourselves in that position. At the young age of 40, Mr. Crutcher essentially represented the mid-way point between my age and that of my father. During our trip, Lord forbid that the rental truck we drove had broken down on the interstate. This sense of fear characterizes the experience of Black people in the United States, both now and historically.
All of these events make me recall the trepidation experienced by Dr. Robert Pershing Foster, one of the protagonists in Isabel Wilkerson’s masterpiece, The Warmth of Other Suns. Dr. Foster migrated from Monroe, LA to Los Angeles in the middle of the twentieth century. During the Jim Crow era in which he found himself, Dr. Foster made his journey half-way across the country without the ability to stop at a hotel and rest when he grew tired. His trip became that much more perilous because of his dangerous level of fatigue. Though temporary accommodations are much more accessible in the twenty-first century, the fear felt by Dr. Foster, Mr. Crutcher, my father and me transcends generations. It is a fear that is as American as the national anthem.
Perhaps more unsettling than Mr. Crutcher’s death is the fact that my father and I could have been gunned down as we walked through Charlotte a few weeks ago. Reports of the killing of Keith L. Scott flashed on my phone as I rode to work. In the surreal manner that I easily placed myself in Mr. Crutcher’s shoes, I did the same thing with Mr. Scott’s story. I went to law school and embarked on a career as a civil rights attorney in an attempt to right at least some of the societal ills that plague this country. Although I will strive to employ effective legal strategies to address issues rooted in systemic racism, I do wonder where the morality and compassion are in these situations.
Would Korryn Gaines have been slaughtered had she been viewed first as a mother? Would Terence Crutcher have bled out on that highway had he been viewed first as a brother? Would Keith Scott still be living and laughing had he been viewed first as a neighbor? The immense amount of work that awaits our nation must be informed by these questions. If not, the blood of slain Black men and women will continue to drip from the flag that symbolizes the land of the free and the home of the brave.
I will work to my dying breath to ensure that, in a few generations, the young person of color that embarks on the journey to a bright future from America’s heartland can do so without a crippling sense of dread of what is to come. In light of the challenges ahead, I particularly urge Black lawyers to continue to lend their support to protestors and demonstrators. Effective advocacy is critical to ensuring that equal justice is administered under the law and showing the world that Black lives do matter.
Andrew Hairston, J.D., is the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s George N. Lindsay Fellow and Associate Counsel with the organization’s Educational Opportunities Project.