Parents welcome guidance on discussing police shootings, racial injustice

Parents welcome guidance on discussing police shootings, racial injustice
© Getty Images

As the authors of “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice,” we believe Robert L. Woodson missed the underlying purpose in our writing this book with his recent commentary in The Hill.

We are three child psychologists who were moved to write this book by the increased divisiveness in our country, including more public expressions of racist sentiments. Our goal was to help concerned black and white parents discuss racial injustice with their children and encourage prosocial advocacy. The book begins with Emma, who is white, and Josh, who is black, overhearing news that a police officer has shot an unarmed black man. As each child discusses the incident with his or her family, concepts of race, slavery and racial injustice are introduced. The next day in school, the children have an opportunity to stand up for a new classmate who is excluded on the playground.


There are many data points suggesting that racism is still a problem in America, and one indicator is racial disparities in police shootings of African Americans. For example, a recent article in Newsweek reviews Mapping Police Violence data, which show that of 1,147 people killed by police in the United States in 2017, 25 percent were black, despite the fact that African Americans make up only 13 percent of the population.


The research collaborative also found that 30 percent of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, compared to 21 percent of white victims. A 2018 study by researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health demonstrated that states with higher levels of structural racism had greater black-white racial disparities in police shootings. Police officers represent institutional power in the United States and have been involved in brutal enforcement of racially discriminatory laws in our past.

That historic backdrop may explain why disproportionate police shootings of African Americans have become a potent symbol of continued racial injustice in modern-day society. And that’s why we chose a police shooting as the starting point for our fictional families’ discussions.

Police shootings of unarmed African Americans have contributed to anxiety, anger and distrust of police officers. We try to reflect these feelings realistically in Josh’s family discussion. On the other hand, we recognize that police officers have the difficult and important job of upholding the law and protecting the public, and it is appropriate for children to view police officers as generally helpful.  

Mr. Woodson ignores book content that was designed to provide balance. In the Note to Parents that accompanies the story, we state, “Most police officers never fire their guns during their whole careers because they try to solve problems without violence.” Within the story, the African American family discusses a relative and a friend who are police officers. The father says, “There are many cops, black and white, who make good choices,” but adds, “We can’t always count on them to do what’s right.” We think that most African Americans would have similar sentiments.

Mr. Woodson expresses concern that the book will increase prejudice toward police officers. The children with whom we have read the book have not responded in that manner. The book discusses multiple examples of racial bias and injustice, and children typically focus on the book’s overall message that it is important to treat people of all races fairly.    

We have experienced positive reactions from black families, who echo the importance of beginning such conversations when children are young. Black parents view this book as a resource to help them balance realism with hope as they socialize their children. But, as authors, we feel strongly that it is equally as important for us to reach white families, who may be less likely to talk to their children about racial issues.  

Instead of a color-blind approach, we advocate a color-conscious approach, which acknowledges racial injustice while promoting empowerment to work for positive change. Our Note for Parents and Caretakers includes a rationale for discussing race, child-friendly vocabulary definitions, sample dialogues and additional online resources.  

All parents want to be in charge of shaping the morals and values of their children. We believe that our book provides a way to begin these conversations. We expect that families will tailor their discussions to their own perspectives and appropriately manage children’s concerns and questions, as we work together for a future in which diversity is valued and celebrated.  

Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard are the co-authors of “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice,” published by Magination Press, the children’s book imprint of The American Psychological Association. The authors are clinical psychologists who have served children and families in Atlanta and have worked together for over two decades as faculty members at Emory University School of Medicine. Currently, Dr. Collins is on the faculty at Morehouse School of Medicine.