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What Should We Teach Them Now?

07/12/2016 10:47 am ET | Updated Jul 12, 2016
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In 1984, my brother and I were fortunate enough to survive an encounter with the police. It occurred near the beginning of a drive from Princeton, New Jersey to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was completing my doctorate at Harvard University. I was joined by my fiancé, who was completing her doctorate at MIT, my brother, who was completing his at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and his wife, who was about to enter medical school.

When two Princeton officers flashed us to a halt, my brother and I knew what to do, based on "the talk" our parents had given us years before. We were taught to comply with all orders issued by the police and respectfully reply to any questions they may ask. By doing so, we were told that the encounter would probably have a safe and desirable outcome.

Accordingly, we slowly got out of the front seats with our empty hands in clear view, we placed them on the hood of the car, and we spread our legs, all as sternly instructed. As we were patted down by one officer, the other kept his hand on his gun.

After I respectfully asked the officer why he stopped us, my brother and I worked hard to remain poised once he answered, "You have out-of-state plates, you don't look like you live here, and you have a car full of belongings!"

I say we survived the police encounter because "the talk" worked for us. We respectfully did as we were told, we quietly absorbed the undeserved humiliation, and we eventually drove away.

So, the most remarkable thing about the recent fatal police shootings of black men is that Philando Castile, who perished in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, clearly heard and heeded "the talk," too. Although a full investigation is pending, Mr. Castile seems to have conducted himself with the same cooperation and respect my brother and I had, and that so many young black men have been successfully disciplined to display in such situations. And yet, Mr. Castile was brutally shot and killed anyway.

Why? And how?

My wife and I have a 21-year old son, and I now serve as president of Morehouse College -- a campus with more than 2,000 African American men.

What should we teach them now?

Three things come immediately to mind as a message to black and minority boys and men. First, stay disciplined. Our parents and teachers were not wrong when they gave us the talk. Because the talk is fundamentally about how best to negotiate the world, it is essentially consistent with the values we work to instill in all men of Morehouse - namely, we want them to demonstrate acuity, practice integrity, exhibit agency, commit to brotherhood and lead consequential lives. We are called to be our best selves even and especially when others are at their worst. Disciplined poise in the face of danger can still save lives.

Second, stay determined. President Obama correctly referred to this peculiar vulnerability of black and other minority males as "an American issue that we should all care about." It is. It has no place in the America that most of us envision. Even Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota wondered whether this would have happened if Mr. Castile and his passengers were white, and he concluded, "I don't think it would have." Many Americans know that, at least where police shootings are concerned, there has been a race-based double standard. And many Americans have grasped the obscenity that being a black male makes you more likely to be killed in a variety of settings, including: after buying skittles in Orlando; while playing in a public park at the age of 12 in Cleveland; after selling loose cigarettes in New York City, and; in countless similar situations where the imminent danger posed by the victims remains nearly impossible to identify.

It is important to stay determined and avoid being trapped and neutralized by crippling fear, apathy and cynicism. In my judgment, this is the only way we realize an America where equality under the law is the norm for all, and where the content of our character is more readily recognized and weighted than the color of our skin.

At Morehouse College, we celebrated our fourth Rhodes Scholar this past spring. But I worry that some police officers will see his tall, lean, dark body and think of him as a menace, rather than a mensch. I worry that his Rhodes Scholarship will no more work for him, than our prestigious graduate pursuits worked for us on that small, dark road in Princeton back in 1984. Being in mortal danger for no other reason than because we are black men is a disgusting feature of an America that we must remain determined to change.

Finally, stay on the high road. Our national "justice for all" agenda will not be realized by responding to violence with violence. By all means, we must shun all tendencies toward hatred and retribution. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind." The random assassination of white police officers in Dallas or anywhere else will only exacerbate our challenges rather than help us to meet them.

I join others in calling for a high-road, national conversation about police/community relations, with a particular focus on the experiences of African American men. Because whether or not a black man walks away from a confrontation with police cannot be determined by chance. In the same vein, law enforcement officers should be able to support and protect peaceful protestors without randomly becoming the victims of a self-appointed assassin.

Unless we teach in a way that remedies both black distrust and blue fear, we have little chance of realizing the America we are otherwise destined to become.

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