As We See It

Ferguson, race and ‘the talk,’ America’s most difficult conversation

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No end in sight? Protests—and arrests—continue in the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Tom Gannam/AP
Damon Hodge

The recent spate of high-profile cases of cops killing African-American men and boys has got me thinking about having “the talk” with my son. Most black families know about the talk­—the conversation where parents school their children on how to survive interactions with law enforcement. Thing is, I never received the talk. My parents gave me basic advice: Remain calm, be respectful and, above all, never get in the kind of trouble that involves cops.

My son believes in the cops, that they’re inherently benevolent, here to serve and protect. He’s drawn to men and women in uniform. They can do no wrong. He’s glimpsed snippets of the protests and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked by a grand jury acquittal of Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on August 9. He wants to know why everyone is so mad at the cops.

How do you explain the facets of this case to a 6-year-old? In his mind, cops nab bad people—they aren’t the bad people. The combustible relationship between the black community and law enforcement is too often viewed through a binary prism: Each side thinks the other is at the root of the problem.

To unpack all that contributed to Wilson firing the shots that took Brown’s life—or to the deaths of scores of other young men of color by police—is to examine the history of race in America. Slavery. Institutional racism. Disenfranchisement. Poverty. Political marginalization. Criminalization. Geographic isolation. Voter suppression. Prison industrial complex. Heady stuff even for a top-flight academic, much less a 6-year-old boy who’d rather watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As long as black parents believe it will increase the odds of their children surviving police encounters, they will have the talk.

Their fears are well-founded. A ProPublica analysis of 20 years of data on officer-involved fatalities revealed that black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by cops than whites. Scarier still: Officers are rarely charged with crimes. So Wilson’s acquittal came as no surprise to many blacks.

How can I possibly package it all into one talk, or even a series of talks? There are hundreds of sides to this issue and a million opinions on how to change the paradigm. Community policing. Jobs. Active fathers. Jobs. Reducing black-on-black crime. Jobs. More police officers, prosecutors and judges of color and fewer prisons. Jobs. Not allowing the DA’s office to investigate officer-involved fatalities. Jobs. Revitalizing neighborhoods. Jobs. Prayer.

That some of that hard, necessary work is going on here (Safe Village and other initiatives have reduced crime in Las Vegas’ worst areas) and across the country is an important part of the conversation. Thankfully, my son is young, so I have some time to get my thoughts together and, more importantly, I have time to help work on a solution. After all, talk is cheap.

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