Last week was filled with protests — peaceful and otherwise — throughout the United States and, amazingly, around the world. There were numerous real-time examples of both police support of and solidarity with protesters and, sadly, of the use of excessive violence against them at the hands of police. According to the administration, tear gas is not ‘tear gas’, but rubber bullets were most certainly rubber bullets and were used on peaceful protesters to clear Lafayette Square. An awkward and surreal photo op took place with a Bible in front of the fire-damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church. Three former Minneapolis police officers were charged with aiding and abetting in the murder of George Floyd and the first former officer’s charge was elevated to second-degree murder. There was a heart-rending memorial service. The NFL announced that it was ‘wrong’ for not listening to players who spoke out and who knelt in protest against police brutality against people of color during the National Anthem — without a mention of Colin Kaepernick. The White House replied with a quick and sharp statement about kneeling being ‘un-American and a disgrace to our flag.’ Hundreds of thousands of people marched peacefully, with more participating each day, pleading for specific actions to curb police brutality against people of color. There was a space launch of two U.S. astronauts and a successful docking with the International Space Station. Fox News produced a graph illustrating stock market gains following the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Brown, George Floyd, and after the acquittal of four white officers involved in the near-fatal beating of Rodney King. (The network later apologized, calling it ‘insensitive.’)¹ A CNN-Sesame Street ‘town hall’ was held to attempt to answer insightful and heartbreaking questions from children about safety, security, and fear. (“What do you do if it’s the police hurting you? Who can help you?”) A two-block section of Washington, D.C.’s 16th Street in front of the White House was renamed and boldly painted ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza.’ Tropic storm Cristobal made landfall in Alabama. The topic of defunding police departments gained momentum. The Minneapolis City Council appears poised to consider defunding and dismantling its police department² while New York City plans to divert money from its police department budget to fund youth and social services.³
All the while, our COVID-19 totals — yes, let’s not forget the pandemic — continued to rise mercilessly, with over 1.9 million confirmed casesand more than 110,000 American deaths since February.⁴ Both figures lead the world.
That was the week that was. Apologies for overlooking any other events you found compelling.
As intense as the week’s events were, I was taken by a radio interview of an African American man, a father of two young children, that I had heard early last week. The man was asked how he plans to prepare his children for life in the United States. His response: “I will have The Talk with them.” “The Talk?,” the interviewer asked. “Yes, The Talk. They have to know what they will be up against and why.”
His reply took me back to my childhood. My parents had The Talk with my sister, brothers and me. More accurately a number of talks, interspersed during our early years, about being Jewish in this country. And how to deal with anti-Semitism, which they expected to rear its ugly head often during our lifetimes.
I wondered, after ruminating on the interview and the memories of The Talk my parents had with me, how I might handle such a conversation today if I were Black and had school-aged children. What would I tell my African American kids about our history, our plight in this country, the hatred that many feel for us, that our family members were owned, that the suppression of our people is ongoing, and that the murders of Black people at the hands of the police continue, that inequality exists between us and all others in this country? That if you work hard, do your homework, get good grades, be polite and respectful of others, that you, too, can grow up to become anything you want? Teacher, artist, musician, lawyer, doctor, even president of the United States? That the history of oppression we have experienced is behind us and that your future and the future of your eventual children are bright? That our country is the land of opportunity? That anything is possible?
Would I lie to my children?
The topics outlined above were covered by my parents, but they did not compare to The Talk that African American parents likely have with their children, largely because as anti-Semitic as this country has been and can be, murders of Jews at the hands of the police have been few and far between. I doubt my parents were worried about me being hung or shot because of my heritage, especially by a cop. (Getting killed in temple is a new thing in this country.) Being white in this country, even if Jewish, has always had definite advantages.
But if I was Black and was to have The Talk with my children, my singular focus would be on keeping them safe. Knowing me, while teaching them the difficult history of our ancestors in this country and how our connection to and experience with slavery continues to this day, I would tell my children the critical importance of being careful, of avoiding places and situations that might turn bad, to always have an exit strategy, to observe the law at all times, to be overly polite to police. To never carry a gun, toy or otherwise, or be around anyone who does. To be home before dark. To stay away from white neighborhoods. To never wear a black hoodie. To never walk alone or stray from the sidewalk. To be, essentially, invisible. Later when my children could drive, I’d be certain that the headlights, brake and tail lights work, that the registration and insurance documents are easily accessible (not in the glove box and not under the seat), that the speed limit is never exceeded, that the turn signal is always used, and that, in the event that she or he is stopped by the police, the driver is to keep both hands on the top of the steering wheel, in plain sight, and that all passengers immediately put both of their hands on their head, keep them there, and not move.
I’d tell them this so that they might have a better chance of reaching adulthood and, later, old age. For me, the goal of The Talk would be to keep my children alive.
I am not Black. I can only imagine the fear that African American parents live with daily. How each murder of a Black man or woman at the hands of the police — a modern-day lynching — validates and strengthens that fear. How that fear would become panic as the scheduled time my children were to return home at night — especially teenagers, especially teenage boys — came and went. As the hour got later, how I might begin to scan the Internet for police activity in my town, how I would call them, how I might try to locate their phone, how I might begin calling their friends, how I would strain my hearing for the telltale sounds of the car, how I might begin to assume the worst, how I might begin to lose my mind, how I might turn to prayer. All parents live with fear, but the fear African American parents undoubtedly experience must be nearly unbearable. I can feel myself becoming afraid simply imaging this.
This nation is at a crossroads. What we do in the next few weeks and months will speak volumes about the future of this country. Be sure your voice is among those helping to shape it. Because Black lives matter. The lives of Black children, teenagers, and young adults matter. The lives of Black women and men matter. Every single one of them. Let’s help lessen the fear of Black parents. Let’s eliminate ‘police lynching’ as a cause of death of African Americans. Let’s help change The Talk Black parents give their kids to one in which all good things really are possible. Especially long life.
⁴ As of 9:00 p.m., ET, June 7; https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2020/health/coronavirus-us-maps-and-cases/