How A Mother Protects Her Black Teenage Son From The World

Minnesota state Rep. Ruth Richardson and her son, Shawn, stand outside the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul, Minn. She represents areas south of St. Paul, about 15 miles from where George Floyd was killed.
Minnesota state Rep. Ruth Richardson and her son, Shawn, stand outside the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul, Minn. She represents areas south of St. Paul, about 15 miles from where George Floyd was killed.Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for NPR

The best thing about being 17, according to Shawn Richardson, is freedom.

“I’m able to go out more with my friends,” he says. “I can do things solo.”

Shawn is a junior in high school in Minneapolis. School is fine, but what he really loves is track. His friend timed him running the 100-meter dash in 10.71 seconds.

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.

“It’s like gathering energy and then just letting it go,” he says.

Running track feels like freedom.

“I feel like I don’t have to worry about anything on the 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,” he says. “Winning. Running. Everything. I mean, I love everything about it.”

Shawn’s mother is Minnesota state Rep. Ruth Richardson. She represents areas south of St. Paul, about 15 miles from where George Floyd was killed.

She has a lot on her plate. Shawn keeps getting bigger. He needs money to go on a date.

He eats everything, she says. “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.”

Shawn has a talent for art, too. For Mother’s Day, he drew his mom a portrait. He’s been encouraged to think about majoring in art in college.

But he’s a runner at heart, and his plan right now is to keep running track in college, too.

That’s why it’s been so hard for Richardson to tell her son that he can’t do the thing he loves most in the world because it isn’t safe.

“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,” she says.

Shawn has black friends and white friends.

But “you can’t do the same things that your white friends do,” Richardson remembers telling him. “It’s going to be viewed in a totally different way.”

Once, when he was 15, Shawn broke her rules. He went running outside.

A white woman drove in front of him. She let down her window and asked, “Did you just steal from that store? Is that why you’re running?”

At the time, Shawn says, he shrugged his shoulders, said no, and finished his run. He didn’t think about it as a racist incident.

“But, looking at it now, that wasn’t OK at all,” he says.

Age 17 is freedom for Shawn. But Shawn’s white friends have more freedom than he does.

“I feel like when I’m with them, it’s almost like I feel like I’m really like one with them,” he says. “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.”

Shawn is an optimist by nature, his mother says. He doesn’t make too much about not being able to run in his neighborhood. “If I can’t run in the neighborhood, I can run on a track or something, you know?” he says. “It’s not the end of the world.”

When he says that, his mother immediately responds: “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.”

Shawn agrees with that. But adds, “there’s not much you can really do.”

Not just the neighborhood

When Richardson was 19, she says a police officer shot and killed her cousin in St. Paul. The police report of the incident says he was shot in the chest, Richardson says. Her mom, who was there, told her the man was shot in the back. He was running for his life.

She hasn’t talked about the shooting much publicly.

It’s part of a larger reality, she says. “And our neighborhood, and our city, and our state, and around the U.S., that the impacts of racism, the impacts of discrimination, have a long reach.

“People talk about how far we’ve come from being enslaved to Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act, 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.”

She’s asked what the response should be to racism in the U.S.

“You can change legislation, but you can’t change hearts and minds,” Richardson says.

“The systems that we have built within this country have been built with racism at the core,” she says. “People will talk about our systems being broken. Our systems are working just the way that they were designed to work.”

So as long as the system works this way, she protects her son by telling him he can’t run outside. And he will tell her that it’s not the end of the world — how a son protects his mother.

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