Column: In critical moment, calling all allies

America is experiencing a critical moment.

The killings of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement have, once again, forced the country to reckon with its long history of systemic racism and, more specifically, police brutality.

In the weeks following their deaths, protesters of every hue have flooded the streets across the country to preach what should be a universal truth: Black lives matter.

The movement to make that statement a mandate and not just a slogan is not new. It is more than 400 years in the making. But to ensure this moment is not squandered, the work can’t be shouldered by Black people alone.

We need allies, especially white ones. It’s time for their privilege, and all the comfort it affords, to be used for a greater good. We need allies willing to speak truth to power.

We need allies to act as though their lives depend on ending the disease of systemic racism as much as Black lives do.

I work for the media group of the National Football League. In the wake of the deaths of Floyd and Taylor, the company held numerous open-forum-style Zoom conversations to discuss race in America.

During one of those meetings, a non-Black colleague asked me, “What is it that an ally can do?”

It’s a question I’ve thought a lot about.

The answer is, there are several things an ally can do. However, I’ll focus on three.

Engage in empathy

I believe showing the willingness to at least try and understand the everyday struggle of being Black in America could improve the collective psyche of our society. The video of Floyd’s killing, specifically, seems to have awakened the conscience of white America to accept that challenge.

That makes me hopeful. I understand that you won’t ever fully grasp what it means to be a Black man like me in this country. Even in that truth, you can empathize with how it felt the first time I got pulled over by the police, a feeling I’d never wish upon anyone.

I was 16 years old and living in Inglewood, California. As I was driving to school in my mom’s white 1996 Mitsubishi Galant, I was stopped because I “fit the description” of someone stealing cars in the area, according to one of the officers.

They ordered me to get out of the car, then handcuffed me and forced me to sit on the curb. I felt the disdainful looks of drivers crawling past, peering at me like I was a criminal even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.

It’s hard, even now, to describe the embarrassment. My license and registration were legit. I hadn’t stolen anything. That I feel compelled — even now — to clarify those points is infuriating.

At one point, I noticed the two officers standing on the sidewalk between their car and mine, not doing any police work but, instead, conversing while simultaneously looking at me and the traffic. It dawned on me years later that they were sending a message to all the onlookers: You don’t know this kid, but you should be afraid of him.

After a while, one of the officers came over to me. He stood me up and after facing traffic for a few silent seconds he said, “I think you’ve had enough. What do you think?” He uncuffed me and let me go.

It was my initiation to driving while Black. The hurt I felt from that encounter, which was my first with police in that scenario, I’ve carried with me for the last 24 years.

I’m a father now. When my son gets his license, I’ll celebrate that achievement like any other parent. But I also know it will come with a level of danger that I’ll need to prepare him for.

My encounter that day also injected me with an anxiety toward police officers and their ability to disregard my well-being, degrade my humanity and steal my confidence — all because they can. If you think I’m the only Black man who feels this way, then you haven’t cared enough to pay attention.

We carry that dread with us each time we leave our homes, or, in Breonna Taylor’s case, while we’re asleep in our own beds.

Again, I get it. It’s impossible to fully understand that mentality if you don’t live it every day. However, if you can engage in empathy, then you can at least understand my perspective. And if you’re honest with yourself, doing so will force you to realize that the law enforcement you’ve always viewed as protection is wielded with savagery on Black people far too often.

That’s a healthy discourse to have. It can lead to compassion, which is sorely needed if we’re really going to tackle systemic racism.

Educate yourself

More than 80% of the U.S. population owns a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center.

We’re in an age when information is accessible from the palm our hands. So, it’s no longer acceptable to utter phrases like “I wasn’t aware,” “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t understand,” when you can Google terms like “racial profiling,” “mass incarceration” or “war on drugs” to learn why Black people are fighting for our lives to matter.

You no longer need to leave your home to find educational tools like books, documentaries or films to learn about the atrocities committed against Black people.

So, frankly, willful ignorance to the generational plunder of Black people in America will no longer be tolerated.

Hold yourself and others accountable

When you see a racist act, when you hear racist language or when you know where racial injustice is taking place, call it out for what it is.

Here’s an example. You’re at a family gathering. The family member who always tells racist jokes starts telling racist jokes. You don’t laugh. You’ve never laughed because you’ve never thought the jokes were funny. But you don’t speak up for fear of making the mood uncomfortable.

I implore you to make the mood uncomfortable! That’s what an ally does! An ally is willing to accept the consequences of being a voice of reason. Your Black friends can’t always be there to take up the mantle.

Personally, it’s paramount that the country moves in the direction of equality for Black people. My son is 2 years old. I’m already preparing for the talks he and I will need to have, so he is properly equipped to handle a world that will perceive him and his Black skin as a menace to society.

Right now, it’s cute that because of his size and the clarity in his speech that he’s often mistaken as a 4 or 5-year-old. But I’m already thinking about when he’s 8 or 9 but looks 13.

How will I explain to him that while I still see him as my sweet little boy, others will see him as a threat?

It was the same question my mother must’ve asked herself when she had those conversations with me as a 13-year-old. I may have been her sweet little boy, but I was also 6 feet, 5 inches tall. I didn’t fully understand when she would say things like, “I know you’re only 13, but most people don’t see that. They see a grown man. You need to know that and conduct yourself accordingly when you’re away from this house.”

I get it now. And if you think that’s hyperbole, go talk to Tamir Rice’s mother about her 12-year-old son, who was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer who thought he was 20 years old.

Black parents, especially those of us raising Black boys, don’t want this burden of having to lecture by means of protection. But we won’t have a choice if America stays comfortable in its racial intolerance.

Empathy, education, accountability. Three action items that could lead to effective change if they’re practiced with a sense of urgency. It shouldn’t take another George Floyd gasping for his life under the knee of a police officer to create it. We must do something different. The lives of our Black children depend on it.

Thomas Warren is a Sr. Editor for the NFL Network in Los Angeles, a graduate of Howard University and a former editor and reporter at WTOP Radio. Contact Thomas at

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Rayshard Brooks’ name.

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