I often wonder what my 6-year-old son sees when he looks at the world. My wife and I learned long ago that he listens to everything we say, despite our hushed tones or reliance on spelled words. That’s why I am certain he sees everything, too.
He loves to sit on our windowsill and watch the street scenes outside. We live across from a popular urban park in New York—one that is home to an outdoor concert venue—so he usually has much to observe. Last month we watched the late-afternoon build-up for two large summer performances.
For both concerts, thousands began lining up hours early. They waited patiently, reading books, listening to music, sitting in lawn chairs, laughing. In these ways, the concerts were the same.
In other ways, they were starkly different. The artists were Chaka Khan and Damien Rice. The audiences seemed to be almost all black for Chaka Khan and almost all white for Damien Rice. But what was most noticeable to me was the difference in law enforcement presence.
For Chaka Khan, a phalanx of uniformed, armed police assembled long before the concert. Command and response vehicles dominated a main intersection. Officers fanned out in pairs into the park. They stayed in the neighborhood, patrolling the streets, until late in the evening.
For Damien Rice, there didn’t seem to be a police officer in sight. One “community affairs” representative, dressed casually in a blue polo shirt, parked his unmarked sedan at the main intersection and directed cars.
I am not an expert in law enforcement, but the differences in these responses are undeniable: an armed police presence for a middle-aged black audience listening to hits like “I’m Every Woman” and “I Feel For You,” and almost no presence for a younger white audience listening to “The Blower’s Daughter” and “9 Crimes.” Yet I’ve repeatedly read that the likelihood of drug use and distribution — one possible reason for a police presence, for instance — would be nearly the same for both audiences, as reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
I felt ashamed as I looked out our window. My shame was first driven by the realization that I have become too much of an onlooker to the inequality that unfolds outside of apartment windows, car windows, and office windows every day.
I also felt ashamed that this view of our country is the one our younger generation sees daily. I wondered what my son thought as he looked out the window. Countless other 6-year-olds in neighborhoods such as South Chicago, North St. Louis, and North Charleston, S.C., likely see worse out their windows every day. They see the evidence of our long-entrenched attitudes, beliefs, and systems of inequality. They see the world that we have left them.
It is past time for Americans to take part in building the communities that we would be proud to hand over to our children: communities that acknowledge, not deny or ignore, their inequalities; communities that cooperate to eliminate those inequalities; communities that embrace a diversity of experiences, perspectives, and heritages; communities that attempt to achieve unity by creating opportunity and hope for all.
Creating this scene will not be easy. It will require pulling back the shades to see what is really going on outside. It will require fighting the immobilization that comes from feelings of shame, shock, or despair. It will require turning the strong opinions voiced in posts or tweets or “likes” into real action. It will require that we all come out from behind the window and join the street scene itself.
How? Volunteer with or support an organization in your community that increases opportunities for everyone who lives there. Visit a neighborhood that is off your beaten path. Vote. Encourage others to vote. Learn about the issues that block opportunity for millions of Americans: economic inequality, educational inequality, and criminal justice inequalities. Talk to others about what you’ve learned. Seek to understand. Shake hands.
When I look over my son’s shoulder as he sits on the windowsill, this is the view I’d be proud for him to see.