The fatal shooting in Florida of an unarmed black teenager at the hand of a neighborhood watch captain has ignited national furor over racial profiling and vigilante justice.
Trayvon Martin's killing has had an especially chilling effect on black parents who see their sons as no different from the 17-year-old Martin, who was cut down while walking through a gated community. It has reinforced their fear that at any moment, in any environment, their boys could be viewed with suspicion — suddenly the target of a wary neighbor or shop owner or overzealous police officer.
I am a black man. This is one of the realities I have lived.
My parents prepared me for it.
To be sure, my parents taught me to transcend matters of race, interrogate them when necessary, and even ignore them where possible. However, they also gave me "The Talk."
For other boys coming of age, parents may end "The Talk"
after a lecture about sex, drugs, alcohol or Internet porn. The rite for black boys often is more rigorous: We're also drilled on a set of rules designed to protect us against suspicions too often associated with the color of our skin.
"There is still a tendency to see you first as 'here comes a black man,' so we teach our black children how to handle other people's problems," says professor William E. Cross Jr., of the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Cross is a leading scholar in black psychology and an author of the seminal work, Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity.
"People in authority have the power to impose their problems on you. We have to negotiate that," Cross says. "In most cases, we don't have to negotiate a gun like Trayvon Martin did."
Rules To Live By
In a column earlier this week, The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, who is African-American, shared some "don'ts" given to him by his mother. My parents gave me a list of "nevers," which governed everything from shopping in a mall to dealing with police.
I got the talk at a pivotal period. I was a pre-teenager growing up in a racially mixed neighborhood a mile outside Washington, D.C. But suburban stability couldn't shield me from the effects of a city next door beset with the nation's highest murder rate.
My father, informed by his upbringing in the segregated South, and my mother,
who faced racism in the integrated Midwest, were convinced this unofficial set of rules would save my life. Here are several of them:
1. Never Leave A Store Without A Shopping Bag
When it comes to shoplifting, black women and Latinos say they, too, are often viewed warily. But the suspicion is "heightened" with black males, Cross says.
In college, I was in orientation for a job at The Gap and the store manager told us how to handle a suspicious customer. He said we should approach them, smile and say, "Hi there. Can I help you find something?"
The words struck me with jarring familiarity. It's the "greeting" I'd received as a customer for many years, in any store, along with furtive glances as I walked the aisle.
But I'd been prepared by one of my mother's rules: "At the counter, always ask for a bag because they will assume you stole it. Because that's how they think."
2. Never Loiter Outside, Anywhere
Sweep isn't just an act performed with a broom. It's a police action, as my father once explained while removing me, by my collar, from a busy street corner where I'd been hanging out with friends.
When police look for a suspect, my dad said, the first place they go is to any group of black males loitering curbside.
"You can't be standing around, doing nothing," Dad said.
Possessed of an oratory best described as brutally eloquent, he continued: "See, in the mind of a cop, association brings on assimilation. ... No matter how well-intentioned you might be, you will always be remembered as that little [N-word] who runs with so-and-so. That's how profiling starts."
3. Never Go Anywhere Alone
My parents believed there was no bigger target than a black boy walking a street alone. My mother worried I might be approached by a suspected pedophile (which happened once), on top of her lament that missing black kids weren't a priority for police.
My father's concern was that the sight of a black kid walking a racially mixed neighborhood might alarm a white person and prompt a call to police.
This rule confused me as a teenager because they'd also
warned me that traveling in a group posed an even bigger threat (think gang). Unsure which course was safer, I tried both, and kept my head swiveling for trouble in either case.
4. Never Talk Back To Police ... And Never, Ever Reach Into Your Pocket
In my youth, I had any number of worrisome and even frightening encounters with police. The least of them included a patrol car that followed
me for miles until I reached home. (It didn't pull off until my mother open the door.) And I'd been stopped and searched because I "fit the description" of a suspect seen nearby. Always, I stayed calm and quiet.
But my father still worried that my quick tongue and sarcastic wit would get me arrested — or worse. Because, as my mother would say, "they are just waiting for you to run your mouth."
Over and over, she
told me that in the presence of police, I must never, ever reach into my pocket. Not even to give them my driver's license. Just don't. This was many years before the case of Amadou Diallo.
5. Never Doubt Trouble May Strike Anytime, Anywhere
The circumstances of Trayvon's
death reminded my parents of an encounter years ago that involved my brother, Clay.
We were visiting a cousin in an affluent Virginia subdivision
one night, when Clay, about 26 at the time, went outside to retrieve something from his car. A neighbor spotted him and called the police. The reaction might seem odd since we'd met several of the neighbors at previous visits over many years.
"It just goes to show," Mom said, alluding to another of her rules: Always be mindful, because suspicions can cause you trouble at any moment.
As my brother walked back to the house, "they came out of nowhere," he recalled.
"Two or three police cars, maybe three or four cops. They didn't pull their guns out, but they had their hands on their holsters. 'Stop! Where are you going? What are you doing?' "
My brother seethed with anger.
But he kept his mouth shut.
Fortunately, my cousin is an attorney, and he was prepared. He asked the police, "What's your PC [probable cause]?" The officers stood down.
"By the grace of God," Clay, now 44, said as he thought back, "it didn't turn out like the Trayvon Martin situation."
These rules are black parents' attempt at what Cross, the professor, calls buffering, or girding against a potential danger. He says doing so effectively is not unlike threading a needle.
"One of the things that black parents have done, and rather successfully," Cross says, "is on the one hand talk about a sense of being aware — being cautious — while also avoiding what we call destructive paranoia."