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Black families experience 'year from hell'

Black families experience 'year from hell'
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It’s been a tumultuous and difficult year for Black parents since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Many Black parents remain on edge amid police killings of Black Americans that have continued since Floyd’s murder, which sparked nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.

Black Americans separately have endured a disproportionate burden during the coronavirus pandemic, with recent data showing higher death rates for Black people. There are also fears that Black people, women in particular, are being left behind in the nation’s economic recovery.  

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‘A year from hell’

For Black families, these past 12 months have “been a year from hell,” Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, the country’s largest historic civil rights and urban advocacy organization, said in an interview with The Hill.

While the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was a “positive” that showed the the “justice system can work,” Morial said “it doesn't work most of the time.”

“It's not as though once George Floyd was murdered, we had no more police killings,” said Morial, adding that many parents remain worried about police brutality while raising their children.

“It always comes up, particularly with parents that have children, and particularly Black boys,” said Morial, who has a 19-year-old son. 

As the nation marks the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder on Tuesday, Morial says the biggest question for him is whether the “racial awakening” seen in the nation in the past year will represent “a moment or a movement.”

Parents more ‘on edge’

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Black parents have grown more “watchful” over their children in the past year, said Marquita Stephens, director for education programs and policy advocacy at the Urban League Twin Cities.

“I think they're more watchful overall over their kids, particularly the younger ones,” she said. “More alert, deliberate about how they move, where they move, what activities they put their kids, what activities they’re in.” 

Black Americans weren’t “taken by surprise” by Floyd’s killing, Stephens said, but she added that she thinks “the combinations of COVID, in addition to what Black families go through, the police killings,” have made parents “more alert and on edge.”

Kiana Sams, a mother of two boys, ages 6 and 3, near Marlboro, Md., said she is more “hesitant” to let her oldest son play outside.

“He'll ask me to go and ride his bike and I’m just like, I don’t want someone calling the police on us because they think we’re not watching you because you’re on your bike,” Sams said.

She expressed concern about the possibility of a police officer coming to her home, which is in a majority-Black neighborhood.

“Then the police comes up to [him] and they’re like, ‘Hey, where you at kid? Where do you live at?’ And how quickly that could just go wrong, from him answering and maybe they don't hear him and then he starts riding his bike away,” she says. 

“Then, just like that, something can turn tragic,” she said. “So it's like, on one hand, it feels like hyper-vigilance. But on the other hand, it is true. It's very much the reality that could happen to us.” 

Sadiqa Reynolds, president of the Urban League in Louisville, Ky., another city that was thrust into the national spotlight last year following the police killing of Breonna Taylor, said Black parents have been taking extra precautions to try and keep their kids safe.

One parent, Reynolds told The Hill, created a pocket mechanism for her son to “keep his ID, registration and everything on him, so he doesn't have to, so his hands are always showing.”

“He never has to dig in his pockets or do anything like that when the police pull him over,” she said.

“Those are the kinds of things that we've seen Black parents create, and I’ve had white people who said to me, ‘I would never even worry about something like that, it would never even occur where my son's hands are when he's pulled over,’ ” she continued.

‘The talk’ is happening sooner for some 

Some Black parents say they are having “the talk,” a phrase used in some Black households to reference the conversation parents or guardians have with their kids about racism and how to act when around police, earlier with their children.

“It used to be the talk around policing was more a conversation for high school age, you know, kids that were learning how to drive and all of that,” said Stephens. “It is now being shared with kids that are younger.”

Reynolds said parents also say their children “are asking questions earlier.”

“I think there have been more conversations,” she also said, “but I don’t want to minimize the facts that Black families have always had to do that.” 

Angela Samuels, a teacher in Orange, N.J., often has conversations with her 13-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son about race and policing

Prior to Floyd’s murder, Samuels said that she and her husband often watched the news with their children and discussed cases in which Black Americans were killed by police. She also makes sure they provide historical context when explaining the current climate to their children. 

She remembers having similar conversations with her mother, who is from Alabama, where voters just months ago approved a measure allowing the state to scrap racist language from its state constitution that enforced Jim Crow-era restrictions. Her mother was raised in Athens and would share stories about the racism Black Americans faced. 

The conversation itself will be a learning curve for some new parents, like Anthony Seriki, a guidance counselor and father of two who was raised in a Nigerian household in New York City. 

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Seriki, who has 5-year-old girl and a 1-year-old son, said his parents, who immigrated from Nigeria, “didn’t have that direct conversation” with him. 

But he did have similar conversations with his peers and teachers in the historic once majority-Black neighborhood of Harlem. He recalled teachers in particular telling him to “prepare” himself, informing him that “just because the color of your skin, people may interact with you differently.”  

Seriki was a child when in 1997 a group of New York City police officers horrifically assaulted Abner Louima, a Haitian man, sodomizing him with a broomstick and attempting to cover it up.

Up until then, Seriki recalled seeing films like “Boyz n the Hood” that depicted police brutality, which he said gave him an idea of “how Black males are dealt with.”  

“So, now you actually see something like that happens in your own city. It’s like, whoa,” he recounted.  

While he thinks his children are too young to have the conversation, Seriki and his wife plan to have it with their children in the years ahead and have frequently discussed when they should begin. 

Inez White, a nurse and mother to a 5-year-old son in Chicago, said her parents didn’t speak with her much about race growing up but that she has already started doing so with her child. 

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The nurse, who is also a member of Black Youth Project 100, began talking to her son about racism and police brutality when he began verbalizing his thoughts about police.

“I teach them about police and I teach him about them being dangerous,” White said. “I do not teach him that police are safe.” 

However, White said her conversation with her son about policing and race will be different from how other parents have “the talk” with their children.

White said she won’t teach her son “how to interact with police” because she doesn’t “teach him to fear police.”

“I don't teach him to respect police or talk in a certain tone to police … I don’t feel like my son should have to fear them and I don’t want him to bite his tongue or move a certain way,” she said.

The COVID-19 burden

Research shows the pandemic has magnified racial disparities. Data indicates Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at 1.4 times the rate of white people.

In the community her organization serves in Louisville, Reynolds said that most people have either lost a family member or someone close to them.

“We have so many underlying conditions in our communities because of a lack of opportunity, because we’re living in food deserts, because of our access to fresh fruits and vegetables and our access to health care that, of course, with that being said, you're going to experience more death,” she said.

“You're going to experience more of the long-haul effects. So, we've seen that,” she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, the death rates for Black Americans remain higher for conditions like heart diseases, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, and diabetes than their white counterparts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that young Black Americans are living with diseases found more commonly in older ages, including diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure. The agency also points out social factors that impact Black Americans at younger ages, such as living in poverty, unemployment and no homeownership. 

New research out of Washington University in St. Louis revealed that Black and Hispanic women are being disproportionately hit when it comes to job losses in the nation.

Sams told The Hill she is among the millions of Americans who lost their jobs last year due to the pandemic. Sams, who previously worked in marketing, said the loss was “largely” the reason she and her children moved when they did last year. 

“It was something that we had been talking about for a while, but it made more sense for me to expedite, because I wasn’t working,” she said. 

Black parents in interviews with The Hill described facing a number of pandemic-related difficulties, from having to adjust their work schedule while having children at home full time, to having to add “teacher” to their numerous hats as a parent. 

Though many have said they adapted to virtual learning, some faced a harder time.

White told The Hill she has a cousin who is a single mother with four kids ranging from 6 to 16 years old. The cousin must handle all the typical jobs of parenthood, but now is also “trying to teach them schoolwork."

“They all have different school material,” she said. “She doesn't have a high school diploma and she's trying to help them do four different grade levels.”

Mental health toll

Some say more focus is needed on the toll systemic trauma is putting on Black parents’ mental health. 

For many, the experience of seeing footage of Chauvin’s deadly restraint applied on Floyd during the arrest last year, as well as videos of police killings of other Black Americans that have happened since, was personal. 

Cyaira Merritt, a mother of three young sons in Cincinnati, said she broke down in tears when she first saw footage of Chauvin’s arrest once it began to go viral on social media.

“If I knew what I was going to see, I wouldn’t have watched it,” the mother said. 

“I can't watch another Black man get killed on camera,” said Merritt, who has three sons and a brother.  

She pointed to the case of Botham Jean, the 26-year-old Black man whom former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who is white, fatally shot in 2018. She did so after entering Jean’s apartment; she said she believed it was her own.

“It doesn’t matter what you do and I’m just terrified for them honestly when they grow up and I’m terrified for my brother, who's already grown,” she said. “It’s like, I know he wouldn’t do anything, but it's like you don't have to do anything. You're just a Black man.”

Sams said she bought her kids their own TV after her mother moved in with her last summer and would “watch the news all the time.”

“My kids are not watching this go on and on about George Floyd. We're not doing this,” Sams said. 

She said that she “might look” when catches “something on the TV” whenever she’s walking past, but, for the most part, she said she does not “look at the news.”

“Why am I going to continue to watch this news when there is not going to be a change?” she asked. “I don't want to participate in that. I have no desire to sit there and watch that over and over again … because it truly was taking a toll on my mental health. Like, I just living with my mom and her ... literally the TV was on CNN all day.”

Reynolds said she believes Black Americans are living with continuous traumatic stress due to racism.

“We never get a break. We don't get a break from the bank. We don't get a break from the fact that in Louisville, Ky., Black people make less in every sector than our white counterparts. You can't take a break from that kind of systemic racism, it's systematic,” Reynolds said.

“And what's happening now is it's the constant triggering because we're seeing so much across the country,” she said.