Rachel L. Swarns is a New York Times columnist. She is also, apparently, a black woman. I say “apparently,” because I had no reason to know this until yesterday, when in her column The Working Life, she shared with us “A Conversation About the Police a Mother Didn’t Want to Have.”
I haven’t yet found the words to describe this column but know that everyone − especially anyone white who believes he understands − must read it. Of all the words written and said recently about the different worlds whites and people of color live in, Swarns’ essay is the best − calm, rational, lambent, urgent, universally comprehensible.
Gently, she brings us all into her life and into her profound concerns, simply by describing what it is to be the mother of a smart little boy whose skin is not white and who asked her some questions.
We were driving to Whole Foods on a blustery evening last month when my 7-year-old son asked me the question: “Can a police officer be arrested?”
Of course, I told him, as I navigated through the slushy parking lot. I reminded him about the Revolutionary War and the founding of our nation. We talked about the courts and the law. In America, I assured him, no one — not the police, not even the president — is above the law.
Then my heart started pounding: Why was he asking? Had he heard the news somehow?
I had rushed to turn off the radio that morning before he sat down for his bowl of oatmeal. I had snatched up the newspapers so he wouldn’t see the front-page headlines. I had done everything I could to keep him from hearing about Ferguson, Mo., but it hadn’t been enough.
“I heard a police officer killed a black man named Michael Brown,” my son told me. “Why wasn’t he arrested?”
I turned off the car and we sat there for a moment in the sleet.