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Black Female Lawmaker In Minnesota Worries About Teenage Son's Safety

NOEL KING, HOST:

Try to remember what it's like to be 17. Your whole life is ahead of you. Your feet don't hurt. You can pretty much eat whatever you want. But the best thing about being 17, according to Shawn Richardson, who is 17...

SHAWN RICHARDSON: The best part about being a 17-year-old is more freedom. I'm able to go out more with my friends. I can do things solo.

KING: ...Freedom. Shawn is a junior in high school here in Minneapolis. School is fine, but what he really loves is track. He can run the 100 in 10.71 seconds flat. His friend timed it. The track season was canceled because of COVID-19, but if he can run that time officially, he will have the school record. Distance running isn't his thing. Shawn is a sprinter.

S RICHARDSON: It's just kind of like - how do I explain it? It's like gathering energy and then just (snaps fingers) letting it go.

KING: Does it feel like freedom?

S RICHARDSON: It does. It does. I feel like I don't have to worry about anything on a track. I mean, my mind goes empty. It's just - you're just focused on that one thing that you want to do on the track.

KING: Winning.

S RICHARDSON: Exactly - winning, running, everything. I mean, I love everything about it.

KING: Now imagine what it's like to be state Representative Ruth Richardson. She's Shawn's mom. He keeps getting bigger. He needs money to go on a date. He eats everything.

RUTH RICHARDSON: Sandwich after sandwich. It can be cereal bowl after cereal bowl. It's just like whatever is in the house, it's there one moment, and then you open the refrigerator and it's gone.

KING: Still, he's such a good kid. For Mother's Day, he drew you a portrait. Now imagine what it's like to tell your kid that he can't do the thing he loves most in the world because it isn't safe.

R RICHARDSON: When Shawn was young, he's got a lot of energy. He's a runner. And all he wants to do is be outside. And I had to tell my little boy that you can't run in our neighborhood. If you're going to run, I need you in a track uniform, and I need you running with other people because even with that, you could still be seen as a threat. You know, he's got black friends. He's got white friends. I was like, you can't do the same things that your white friends do. It's going to be viewed in a totally different way.

And so, of course, teenagers, they're going to defy their parents. But I remember having a conversation with Shawn after I had told him that he couldn't run, and he had defied me, and he had been running. And he told me this story about how he was running and this woman drove in front of him and just kind of blocked off his space of where he was running and let down her window and asked him, did you just steal from that store? Is that why you're running?

KING: Shawn, how old were you when that happened?

S RICHARDSON: I think I was - I think 15.

KING: You were a kid.

S RICHARDSON: Yeah.

KING: And what is your thought when a white woman asks you, are you running because you stole something?

S RICHARDSON: At that time, I didn't really take it like, oh, you know, I'm African American and I'm running. I got stopped by a Caucasian woman and she asked me, you know, did you steal something from the store. It was just kind of like - kind of shrugged my shoulders, and I was like, oh, no, I didn't, and just, you know, finished my run. But, like, looking at it now, it's like that wasn't OK at all.

KING: You are 17. And the best part of being 17 is freedom.

S RICHARDSON: Yes.

KING: For sure. When you look at friends of yours who are white, do you feel like they have more freedom than you?

S RICHARDSON: Yes, for sure. But I feel like when I'm with them, it's almost like I feel like I'm really, like, one with them. I just feel like I'm more safe in a way. I feel like I'm more safe with more people around me than if I'm alone.

KING: Do you envy their freedom?

S RICHARDSON: Not really. I would say kind of, yes.

KING: Not really, kind of, yes. It's not like he'd come out and tell his friends that. It wouldn't change anything. So why focus on all this negative stuff?

S RICHARDSON: I mean, if I can't run in the neighborhood, it's like I can run on a track or something. You know, it's not the end of the world.

R RICHARDSON: It is the end of the world. It is the end of the world because if you can't run in our neighborhood, if you can't walk out into the world and just be seen as a 17-year-old boy who loves to run, there's something deeply wrong with that.

KING: Shawn?

S RICHARDSON: I definitely agree, for sure.

KING: Is your response to what your mom just said, there's nothing I can do about it?

S RICHARDSON: I mean, that's how it is. There's not much you can really do.

KING: Talk to me about a world in which you feel completely free to do whatever you want. What are the things that you will not do in your neighborhood now that you would do if everybody knew your name and knew you were a great kid?

S RICHARDSON: I would go on more walks around my neighborhood. I would run around my neighborhood.

KING: You just want to be outside.

S RICHARDSON: Yeah, I just want to be outside, yeah.

KING: Your son is saying that in his own neighborhood, he doesn't feel safe being outside.

R RICHARDSON: You know, I don't think it's just - it's not just about one neighborhood. It's about a reality in our neighborhood, in our city, in our state and around the U.S. that the impacts of racism, the impacts of discrimination have a long reach.

KING: A very long reach. When she was 19, she says a police officer shot and killed her cousin. She's seen the police report. It says he was shot in the chest. Ruth's mom, who was there, says he was shot in the back. He was running for his life.

R RICHARDSON: You know, people talk about how far we've come from being enslaved to the, you know, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act, you know, the Voting Rights Act. But regardless of all of that, we all just witnessed a police officer kneel on the neck of a black man. And that is a visual of everything that is wrong.

KING: What do you think the right response is?

R RICHARDSON: To address racism in our country?

KING: Yeah.

R RICHARDSON: I mean, that's a really big question because, look; you can change legislation, but you can't change hearts and minds. When I visited the site of George Floyd's death, there was a sign that said, smash white supremacy. And as I was watching the sign just kind of blowing in the wind - it was on a white sheet and spray painted with red letters - it was like the answer is literally blowing in the wind at the site of where George Floyd was murdered. The systems that we have built within this country have been built with racism at the core. People talk about our systems being broken. Our systems are working just the way that they were designed to work.

KING: So as long as the system works this way, she will tell him, you can't run outside, Shawn. This is how a mother protects her son. And he will tell her, it's not the end of the world, Mom. This is how a son protects his mother. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.