Commentary: What attention should we give to Ferguson?

About a month ago, my 8-year old son took a hit to his shoulders in a football game. He stayed on the ground for what seemed like an eternity. Trainers and coaches from both sides provided him with careful, deliberate attention. Later, we were told that he checked out fine long before he stood up and walked off the field. They were being extra careful because in a contact sport the indicators of injury may be elusive and they also needed to factor in his age as a variable.  A couple of days ago, my 8-year old posed an interesting question to me. He asked, “Dad, if you get hurt on the football field, do you think it’s better to get up or stay on the ground so someone can help you?”  Because I was too prideful to admit that I was uncertain of the exact source of his question and I didn’t know if we were about to experience one of those father/son teachable moments that would shape the rest of his life, I said, “I think it’s better to get up, bounce back, even if it’s only to rest  for a minute on the sideline before you get back in the game. Plus, all of the attention might worry your mom.” My son replied “Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but the pain was too much for me to get up.”

Pain is a subjective, elusive reality with both physical and emotional components and an agreed upon general purpose of demanding both behavioral and cognitive attention.  Too many young African American males are experiencing life as a contact sport and are enduring lots of pain. The pain of coming of age in a place with a  1 in 3 chance of going to prison,  1 in 2 chance of graduating high school1 in 6 chance of being unemployed, being more likely to have their level of melanin factor into the probability of employment, and a visible, public message that another African American male is most likely to murder you  within a reality that a White police officer killed an African American almost twice a week from 2006-2012 — those police data do not include the  August 2014 unarmed deaths of John Crawford (Aug. 5th, toy gun in Walmart),  Michael Brown, (Aug. 9th, surrendering/charging 35 feet away), Ezell  Ford (Aug. 11th. schizophrenic shot in the back) or even Eric Garner (choke hold in New York) or Victor White (suicide while handcuffed). Are we providing the sufficient amount of behavioral and cognitive attention to the pain these males alarmingly endure as they age?

Imagine the pain of walking daily on a college campus and wondering if you were successful at “disarming” your classmates while also arming yourself against them. Imagine the pain of hoping that incidents of Ferguson are not mentioned in your class, but feeling a need to find space somewhere on campus to speak out about them. Imagine the pain of being hesitant to leave your dorm room or office because you fit the description of a campus crime alert.

It is neglectful for us to see a child in pain and distance ourselves to either lessen our own emotional reactivity (as is recommended for the individual in pain) or to engage with their pain without taking the time to know its true source. It is irresponsible to expect poorly attended pain to only manifest itself as a childlike question or at worst a trending University of Michigan hashtag or UCLA video.  College-aged and college enrolled African American men are in pain. If we are not careful and do not pay attention, a local incident in the Twin Cities could easily lead to the unhealthy expression of that pain. What careful questions of attention are we taking the time to ask before those in pain stand up?

Opinions expressed in commentaries are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Minnesota.