It takes a village to raise a [black] child, but only one rogue neighborhood watch vigilante, one overzealous home protectionist, or one trigger happy police officer to end one. Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, and Michael Brown are recent tragic and resounding realities in “post-racial America” that send express and implicit messages to black boys and girls—that they are inferior, that their lives are not valuable, that simply being black may precipitate an untimely death.
History can and often does repeat itself, so in 2014 when we see images of tear gas, water hoses, and attack dogs used against protestors, images that eerily resemble those taken in 1964 after sit-ins and other racial integration protest, perhaps we as a society should not be surprised. We should, however, be embarrassed and motivated to pick up the pen of our history to write a future that reflects the principles on which we must stand.
Even as an African American woman practicing finance law at a prestigious international law firm in Chicago, I recognize that I’m Mike Brown. No, I’m not a 6’4, 290 pound black man who allegedly shoplifted some swisher sweets or roughed up a convenience store owner. But I am still Mike Brown. The current state of emergency in Ferguson, Missouri has compelled me to release a war cry that rallies “the village”, as I like to think of it, so that we transform this terrible tragedy into a catalyst for change. A time such as this necessitates that every villager take action and we have to start with our own children.
The reality is that we do not know exactly what happened between Trayvon and George Zimmerman, Renisha and Theodore Warren, Michael and Darren Wilson, but we do know that countless black boys and girls deserve the right to grow old and realize their potential. We can protest and demand government action, which are both appropriate reactions, but it’s far past time for the black community to also “stand our ground” by educating, or reeducating, our black children. I dare you!
Most black '80's babies and older remember some version of “the talk” that their parents gave them about being black in America. “The talk” should be re-invoked, to the extent that we’ve slacked, and expanded to include ways in which black children can remain safe when interacting with police in the event of danger. This is not conceding that black children are responsible for being victimized, but we must provide our black sons and daughters with the tools they need to protect themselves. For instance, know when and how to ask, “Am I free to go?” or when to say “I do not consent to a search” or “I’m going to remain silent.”
Despite my reality as an African American woman at a prestigious international law firm, whenever I see a white a police officer, my heart quickens because I know that an officer does not see my resume and may perceive me as a threat, unjustifiably or not. Look, most black people have had at least one unpleasant and unwarranted interaction with the police and I’m no different, I was pulled over for “driving while black” in a Benz in a predominately white neighborhood (which my parents live in). The difference is I was able to drive away unscathed. I’m sure the lessons that I’ve learned about how to interact, verbally and nonverbally, with police officers of all races, undoubtedly allowed me to deescalate that and other intense situations without bloodshed. We have to stop living in this artificial and deadly bubble of “post- racial” America, a bubble in which we ignore reality, and instead teach our kids how to function in the world as it exists. Our children, black children, need these skills to survive.
Beyond expanding the scope of the subject matter of “the talk” at home, we must reengage the village. These “talks” that arm our black sons and daughters must take place in our schools, the community center, the corner store, the barber shop, the hair salon, our sports team practices, and our places of spiritual worship.
These “talks” must also include our local police departments. I recognize that this may seem counterintuitive to some, as the Black community is generally united in our distrust and dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system, particularly for the police who are the first line of defense for the system. I appreciate and identify with the innate distrust of law enforcement. But I also recognize that we would be misguided not to include the police officers, security guards, and the home protectionists that pose the biggest threat to our youth. I’m a recent transplant to Chicago/“Chiraq” where hundreds of young black youth have lost their lives in senseless violence in the short time that I’ve lived here and we desperately need good police and community relations if we hope to stop the violence in our community. We, the black community, have to actively engage the police departments tasked with serving and protecting without bias and hold our law enforcement accountable. My law professor and mentor Montre Carodine’s law review article, “Street Cred,” is pregnant with a belly full of research that confirms that by engaging the police, the black community and the law enforcement both benefit.
We must also dispel some of the longstanding perceptions that young black children pose a physical threat to white society. I work in a predominantly white environment and recently a mentor, who is white, explained that I “hold up the mirror,” simply by being present in the workplace, for many of our white colleagues who have to confront and hopefully combat their own conscious and unconscious biases. Holding up the mirror is even more important here. By creating safe zones of interaction where white police officers, security guards, and home protectionist can communicate with young black youth and, frankly, the entire black community, we can assuage some of the subconscious fear that is ingrained on both sides.
Communication is not the silver bullet that will end all racial tension and end every senseless killing of a young unarmed black youth, whose life may be unjustly and untimely taken by a white person, but it is a start and we owe it to Trayvon, Renisha, Michael, and every black child to start somewhere. The reality is that as black people in America, we are all Mike Brown, whether we are vacationing in the Hamptons, teaching law at a top tier school, or going to college in the Deep South. Just like President Obama had to get off that island (Martha’s Vineyard) and address the nation, I had to put pen to paper in solidarity with my brothers and sisters. I challenge you to take the historical pen and write the movement that changed the nation by beginning with a “talk.”
Williams is a international finance lawyer working in Chicago.