When I was growing up, my parents often gave me pep talks that were different from the ones my white male friends got from their parents.
My parents still worry about me. Maybe you can call it being overprotective, but it goes beyond saying such things as, “Make sure you put on your seat belt.” or “Don’t get in the car with someone who has been drinking.” These are the things most parents tell their kids.
However, my parents wanted me to know that every time I walked out the front door I was going to be judged as a “black male” first.
What does that mean? It means knowing how to deal with police and law enforcement when confronted or stopped.
They also told me how to handle situations in department stores when extra eyes were on me thinking I was going to steal.
I still remember how they would tell me that if I was ever stopped by a police officer to make sure I kept my hands in plain view so that I wouldn’t get shot because police might mistake my wallet for a gun.
They also told me to avoid getting into verbal confrontations with officers, even if the officers were dead wrong, because they feared these situations could escalate to me being shot. Call these rules of survival.
Although I have undergraduate and MBA degrees, I have been harassed by police and stopped for no reason other than being black while driving.
Steve Perry, principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., said black males have been criminalized from the time they enter school. They are the most suspended and disciplined of any group.
My parents gave me this advice because they know that society judges and looks at me as a threat because I am black male.
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I wish people could be judged based on their character instead of their skin color or dialect. I’m not sure that this will happen in my lifetime, but I can hope that it will happen in my daughter’s.
Several cases of unarmed black youths who were shot and killed have received national attention. Trayvon Martin was pursued by a neighborhood block watch volunteer, confronted and shot and killed during a subsequent altercation. On Aug. 9, Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed after a confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The teenager was unarmed. President Barack Obama said the shooting was “a tragedy” and called for peaceful protests, but the city still erupted in violence that’s continuing.
On Aug. 11, Ezell Ford, 25, was reportedly lying on the ground when he was fatally shot by a Los Angeles police officer. Ford, who was unarmed, was considered mentally challenged. Ford was confronted by police during an “investigative stop.” According to police, a struggle ensued and police “opened fire.”
In Milwaukee, a police officer shot Dontre Hamilton multiple times during a confrontation at a park in April. Hamilton, 31, was fatally shot during a struggle in which the officer said Hamilton became combative. Family members said Hamilton had a history of paranoia and schizophrenia but was not typically violent.
Staying safe was a constant conversation that I had with my parents, and it’s one that parents of black children must continue to have. CNN asked black parents this week what they tell their sons when they go out, and just as my parents did when I was growing up, parents today give their sons the same tips my parents gave me.
Sometimes staying safe means knowing how to act around police. Because not knowing can quickly rob you of your childhood innocence.
James E. Causey writes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.
©2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel