The author’s father, Morris Price Sr., served in the U.S. Air Force starting in the 1950s and worked against systemic racism. Photo: Courtesy of the author

A friend recently asked how I’m doing.
“I’m fine,” I said.
I lied.

In that moment, it was too easy to roll off those words, to deny I am having difficulty. In fact, I carry real and collective pain as a Black man in America. I am anything but fine.

I have realized, since the gruesome murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day, that this collective pain – my pain – includes that borne by my father. Born in the segregated South, he was valedictorian of his high school class, student body president, and the leader of school groups, including the math club and honor society. He had ambitions to pursue an academic career in science. Unfortunately, that was not an option for a bright Black man who attended all-Black schools in the segregated South.

When my dad graduated, a local white businessman offered to help him pay for college to become a pharmacist, with the stipulation that he would work in the Negro part of town. The businessman told my dad, “Your problem is, you’re just too damn smart for a colored boy.” Not wanting his future defined by racist views, my dad opted to join the U.S. Air Force in the mid-1950s. As he rode by bus from Louisiana to the Northeast for basic training, my father and fellow Black recruits ate meals outside as white recruits dined in “whites only” restaurants. It was clear that mistreatment of Blacks wasn’t a Southern white thing; it was a white thing.

Over the next 23 years, Dad built a successful military career and retired as a first sergeant. At one point, he served as a race relations instructor, what we today might call a diversity and inclusion instructor. More than an exemplary military leader, he also raised a family and provided his son and two daughters with the opportunities he was worthy of but was never allowed to have for himself.

More than 60 years after my father enlisted in the military, I am saddened that racism and racial inequality continue to stain the lives of far too many Black Americans. As much as I would like to think I have reaped all the benefits of my father’s sacrifices and hard work, and those of many men like him, I know, in truth, Black men have offered their service to this country since its founding, only to find that the very freedom they fought for was denied to them. My father was no exception.

Thanks to his work, I have attended well-funded schools, have graduated from a traditional residential university as a first-generation student, have traveled across the country and abroad, have worked for universities and philanthropic organizations, and have served as a senior congressional staffer. I often wonder how far my father could have gone if he had not been limited by prejudice.

Yet, even with a fortunate life, and even at age 57, I realize I am not immune. I am one fateful moment from being another name on a long list of names – those of Black Americans targeted by racists and brutalized by overzealous police. There are too many examples of seemingly innocuous events that have ended in death: Black men who have been pulled over, have been accused of making a false move, have been at the wrong place at the wrong time, or have been holding something a prejudicial observer “thought was a gun.”

I regularly check my car’s taillights so I’m not pulled over for that problem; when a police car approaches on the road, my hands instinctively move to the 10 and 2 positions on the steering wheel, as Dad drilled into my head, to reduce possible signs of suspicion. I make sure my wallet and cellphone are easily seen in my car and can’t be mistaken for weapons. These are day-to-day signs of well-founded fears and illustrate the collective pain of many real incidents that weigh heavily on my mind. So I must admit, no, I am not fine.

I thought I was fairly inured to the racial unrest expressed through social media after George Floyd’s murder. I mean, regrettably, this is not the first time a vicious assault on a Black man has been caught on video and widely broadcast. But over the past few months, I’ve seen too many “Karen” videos, capturing entitled white women attacking people of color for lawful everyday activities, such as grocery shopping, bird watching, and peaceful protesting. Add to this all the Black lives lost, and I realize I am just as emotionally and psychologically impacted by injustices as any young activist.

I have walls of awards in my home and work offices, recognizing my contributions to the causes of equitable education and civil rights for Black and LGBTQ people. My 35 years of work have taught me that the push for full equity is a marathon, not a sprint; today’s protests are not new, but are an extension of the same marathon my father was running. Even so, this summer has come as a painful gut punch: Once again, we see that not all gains are permanent, and we are not done fighting.

I do see reasons for hope that changes underway are real and long term. I see neighborhood yard signs stating boldy and proudly that Black Lives Matter. I have received phone calls and text messages from white friends who are allies working for change. I had a conversation with my white pharmacist, who described how the recent unrest has prompted her to teach her young sons how race has impacted this country.

Historically, the success of this work has depended on multiracial and multigenerational activists and advocates. We’ve seen it in the abolitionists who fought against slavery; in the teenagers who skipped school in the 1960s and stood up to Bull Connor and his attack dogs in Birmingham, Alabama; and in the straight allies who have helped secure marriage equity in states across the country. It takes a collective to move toward true change. And it requires not just policy shifts, but, most important, hearts and minds.

A quote often attributed to Mark Twain rings true: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” It may seem odd, but I am still pursuing that why. I hope the recent turbulence and historic changes will fuel my fire to continue ensuring that the sacrifices Dad made, the things he suffered through, were not in vain. It will require more accountability among public servants, more policy change, more just court rulings, more progression in personal opinions – and broad, honest acknowledgment of the emotional costs and impacts of enslaving Black people for nearly 250 years in this land. We are on a long road to removing the stain of racial inequity that steeps the fiber of this country.

I hope Black Americans in the next generation can answer honestly when asked if they are doing OK: “Yeah, I’m doing just fine.”

Morris Price Jr., a CSU alumnus, is vice president and executive director of City Year Denver, which advocates for educational equity and promotes educational access and success for students in under-resourced schools. He was earlier national program officer for the Gill Foundation and received the 2019 Charles A. Lory Public Service Award from the Colorado State University Alumni Association.