After young Trayvon Martin was killed by “neighborhood watch” member George Zimmerman, White America “discovered” that Black families have “the talk” with their children—especially their male children. No, it’s not the so-called “birds and bees” talk about where babies come from or how to avoid a potentially life-threatening sexually transmitted disease. That’s the talk ALL parents have to prepare to have. The talk that Black parents have to have with their children is the talk about how to interact with authorities, specifically law enforcement authorities and especially if said law enforcement authority is White.
Interesting, when Geraldo Rivera made his rather ridiculous assertion that Black boys should not wear hoodies (as if hoodies were the reason Black children are killed), I recognized the truism that Black parents have to share with their children—how you dress may (but not assuredly) save your life. Much of what we have to say to our boys sounds as far fetched as Geraldo but we’re desperate and we’ll say anything if we believe it will keep our children alive. So, below are some of the things I have told my own sons if they were in an encounter with law enforcement:
1. Always refer to the police as “officer”—not cops—and conclude your responses with “sir” or “ma’am” depending on gender.
2. Keep your hands in plain sight at all times. In a car this means at the top of the steering wheel or atop the dashboard.
3. Request permission before you do ANYTHING (e.g. reach into your pockets, glove compartment, etc.)
4. Describe to the officer what you are doing as in “I’m going to open my glove compartment to get my registration.”)
5. Avoid anything that can be construed as confrontation, even if you are totally in the right and feel your civil rights are being violated.
6. Stay alert. Look at the officer’s badge. Try to remember the name and badge number.
7. If you are a passenger in a stopped car say NOTHING unless asked. If asked follow directions #1-6 listed above.
8. This is not a time to exercise your “manhood” or air grievances. You don’t have to be doing anything for them to treat you like you did.
9. No, none of this is fair but because you are in a life or death situation you can’t quibble about “fairness” in that moment. Just focus on trying to stay alive.
10. Try to stay calm. Despite the temporary embarrassing nature and violation of civil liberties these encounters represent don’t do anything to escalate the situation.
11. Make sure you have your parents/guardians in an “ICE” (In case of emergency) speed dial on your phone (This is a new rule brought on by the ubiquitous use of cell phones).
Having to tell these things to a 10 – 18-year-old multiple times is wearying. Having to live in perpetual fear every time your youngsters go out to play or just “hang out” with friends is agonizing. I am from a family that has had a young person walk out the door in the morning but not return than evening—ever! And the cause of that death has not always been a police officer or other authority figure. But, that’s not the way any parent in a “free” society should have to live. Having been afforded the luxury of living in university communities for much of my adult life I learned that my White neighbors did not live in the constant fear that I did. They worried that Chad would not pass an AP exam or get high SAT scores. They worried that Matt’s “unfortunate incident” with being drunk at a school dance would show up on his record. They worried that the mid-April letter that arrived during Josh’s senior year from the Ivy League school would be a “fat” one. They worried that Tyler would lose his starting quarterback job to a talented but clearly “going nowhere” Black kid or that Wes would not be the class valedictorian because of the recent influx of Asian descent students. They worried that Jeff would not follow in their footsteps and become a physician or engineer. But we worry that our children will be alive!
We keep having “the talk” but apparently it’s not working!
Stay Black & Smart!