THE BLOG
07/24/2013 02:35 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2013

'The Talk' Has a Double Meaning for Black People

All parents dread the day they must have "the talk" with their teen-age son or daughter. That's the day parents officially face the possibility that their "child" is already having sex, or at least seriously considering it, so it's time to deliver the warning about unwanted pregnancies, the dangers of STDs and the emotional, long-term turmoil either can create.

That's a universally uncomfortable conversation, but as shown in the aftermath to the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial, parents of black boys carry the burden of delivering a second "talk" of even greater significance. If it's not given, the result may be the incarceration or death of their child at the hands of police or the so-called friendly neighborhood watch volunteer.

No one wants their child to become the next Trayvon Martin, whose innocent walk with a bag of Skittles and a juice drink in his hands ended in a coffin. What's most unsettling about Martin's fate is that no black parent --no matter how watchful or even paranoid -- would have thought to issue a warning against "walking with Skittles." Trayvon's offense? WWB: Walking While Black.

I also can't imagine finding a black man who has not had a "the police are not your friend" experience. Mine came in 1960 when I was about 11 years old growing up in Buffalo, New York, with my parents and my 15-year-old brother, Laughton, who is called Denny within the family. We lived in a very small, second-floor apartment in a converted factory building at 309 Walnut Street, and Denny and I entertained ourselves by playing indoor basketball. We shot a rolled-up pair of socks at the open hallway door, and if the sock hit the wall and dropped behind the door, one of us had just scored a basket.

There was no air conditioning in our place -- AC? we didn't even have central heat -- so we were very sweaty one day when two policemen rang the bell at the front door to our building. My brother ran downstairs to see who was there, and then the chaos began.

"When I went to the door and opened it," Denny recalled, "They said, 'We're looking for Laughton Thomas.' I said, 'I'm Laughton Thomas,' and the police officer put a forearm in my chest and slammed me against the wall. It was like (getting hit by) a football player."

There was absolutely no reason to strike my brother. The Thomas men tend to be slender and Denny estimates that he weighed 105 pounds at the time, so there's no way he posed a threat to that officer. Secondly, the front door opened into a hallway no more than 4x6 feet. Even if my brother had wanted to run away, there was no place to go.

An officer walked upstairs with Denny, accused him of stealing a car and claimed that he was sweating after running away from wherever the car had been found. I explained that no, he was sweating because we had been playing basketball in the house. Then the officer accused me of lying, warned me that if I wasn't careful I was destined to follow my brother to jail, and drove away with him to the police station.

I called our mom at work, and you can imagine her confusion as her blubbering kid tried to explain why Denny had been taken away by the men in blue. Evidently, she figured it out because a few hours later, she took a bus to the station, told the police that we were telling the truth and brought Denny home.

Meanwhile, Denny got lucky; nothing else bad had happened to him in the police car. "Once I got to the police station, they actually treated me very nicely," Denny said. "They didn't try to bully me or anything. It was, 'You go sit over there and we'll wait for your mother to come.' They may have caught the kids who stole the car by then."

How did my brother get caught up in that mess? This occurred while he was in high school, but in junior high he had played the tuba in the band and had written his name and address on his sheet music. Whoever stole the car evidently was using Denny's old music and left it in the car when he fled. That's how police found our address.

By the way, whatever happened to my brother, the suspected criminal? He'll soon retire after 35 years as an Episcopal priest.

With this type of guilty-until-proven-innocent history in mind, at the NAACP convention Attorney General Eric Holder recently recalled "the talk" he received from his father about how to conduct himself with police. Then he sadly referred to "the talk" he gave to his 15-year-old son after Trayvon Martin was shot to death.

"This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down," Holder said at the convention.

Then Holder recounted being stopped by an officer in Washington, D.C., while he was "simply running to catch a movie." Ironically, at the time, Holder was a federal prosecutor. And last Friday, when President Obama referred to women (he didn't say "white women," but he didn't need to) gripping their purses when a black person joined them in an elevator, he endeared himself to African-Americans everywhere.

We've been telling these stories for centuries and many (probably most) white people refused to believe us. Maybe, now that two of the most powerful people on Earth have talked about being racially stereotyped, we'll all be believed.

However, as former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm explained on Meet the Press Sunday:

I think that this was the president speaking as a witness to white people. It was really a conversation to explain to white people why there was so much angst in the African-American community about this. And the reason why this was an important moment is because we have not arrived -- and those in the conservative community that would say that this was not about race need to understand that the moment they can say that, "I would trade places with an African-American person and feel like I've not lost any of my benefits or privileges," that's the point we will have arrived.


But haven't gotten there yet.


My friend Mike Brown, one of the nation's first diversity consultants, points out that however noble your heart "racism is like pollutants in the air" that land on your shoulder as you walk through life, and Americans haven't brushed them all off. Many don't bother to try.
With this country's long, well-documented history of black men being beaten, killed or jailed by law enforcement for no justifiable reason, a black parent who doesn't give "the talk" to a teen-aged boy is guilty of negligence. I was fortunate; I didn't have to give the talk because I have a 21-year-old daughter. But, even as a 63-year-old college professor who has had many positive experiences with police officers, I still periodically give the talk to myself:

"Be pleasant. Follow instructions. Move slowly. Keep your hands visible at all times. Get permission from the officer before you do anything."

I'm an avid tennis player. When I used to drive to the court, I would toss my wallet into the glove compartment when I got into the car. But, ever wary of DWB (Driving While Black), long ago I decided to keep my wallet on the passenger's seat. There's always a chance that I'll get pulled over by an anxious, overly aggressive or even racist officer, and if I reach for the glove compartment to get my driver's license, my fingertips may never reach their destination.

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