Why you should care
Because living on your feet is better than dying on them.
In 2018, according to journalist D. Brian Burghart’s Fatal Encounters website, 301 Americans were killed by police in the first three months of the year. The Washington Post has a Fatal Force database that counters that claim with 230 Americans, and beyond that, that 38 of those killed were Black. And here grow the statistical weeds: While the aggregate numbers in past years have total numbers of white people killed by cops being higher, the numbers of white people in America are much higher, making that not quite a useful measure.
The useful measure? What percentage of each population is killed by cops and what your likelihood is of getting killed by the cops if, for example, you’re Black. And here the numbers are fairly consistent: You’re 2.7 times more likely to get killed by cops if you’re Black than if you’re white.
Which is why parents of children of color are steeling themselves to sit down with their children and have what’s being described as “The Talk.” Maybe more parents of Black male children, but if you have children whose skin is some variation of brown, you’re having The Talk or you’re considering it. The Talk might cover a lot of ground. It might include historical reference points of America’s dark past with darkness. It might segue into America’s dark present with darkness. And finally, it might include very specific instructions on how to best behave so you can come away from an interaction with peace officers without a head wound.
I am Black and have three children and one grandchild … and I’m not especially mollified that their middle-classness will protect them from the long arm of the jittery law.
When 9-year-olds with toy guns are getting shot in playgrounds by adult male cops, maybe it’s time for The Talk. When fathers are killed in backyards with cellphones, when Black men are killed reaching for their wallets or helping autistic teens out of traffic and getting shot for their troubles, maybe it’s time to say something to the imperiled population.
“You’re missing the point,” says Martin Michaels, an active-duty police officer. “These accidental shootings are less about racism and much more about poverty and high-crime neighborhoods.”
I am Black and have three children and one grandchild. Beyond that? A niece and a nephew. All with skin that’s some variation of brown. And I’m not especially mollified that their middle-classness will protect them from the long arm of the jittery law.
But The Talk?
Well, let’s start with this: I never got The Talk. And not because my middle-classness was a perceived shield against police overstep. Growing up in New York of the 1960s and 1970s, there were plenty of middle-class kids getting maced and night-sticked by cops. There were riots, blackouts — and the crime in New York of the ’70s? Higher than it is now. If I was late from a night out, my mother would still call central booking, expecting the worst. But still, no Talk.
Police for me were on even par with firemen, paramedics, utility workers and the folks in sanitation: municipal functionaries. I worked out with cops. I had cops in the family. Cops lived on my block. On the rare occasion when, in a burst of teenage brio, I did something to bring me into contact with the cops, like slipping through a subway turnstile and not paying because I had left my wallet at home, the cops looked over, laughed and said in only the way a New York cop could, “Are you fucking kidding me? Pay NEXT time, Slick.”
Then came the broken windows theory, Rudy Giuliani and the idea that policing was less about protecting and serving everyone and more about a bifurcated view of the city. There were suspects and politicians busting your balls for not finding those suspects. But by then I had left the city and was dealing with California cops. Who stopped me for standing and waiting for a friend on the sidewalk in Menlo Park, which they called loitering. Who stopped me in Palo Alto, because though I had a full-on Mohawk, I fit some general “description.” Who stopped me once in Mountain View because they thought I was “lost.”
As the clouds parted, I realized something significant: Not only did I not want to have The Talk, but I hated the entire premise of The Talk.
Annoying but not murderous. And I’m 6′1″ and, at my most muscular, 265 pounds.
But two of my three children drive, and the third has a learner’s permit. Their mother suggested some variation of The Talk — something along the lines of, “If you’re stopped by the cops, understand you’ll be treated differently. So behave.”
And as the clouds parted, I realized something significant: Not only did I not want to have The Talk, but I hated the entire premise of The Talk. For one simple reason: It’s predicated on fear. A parent’s fear for their child, which is natural, suborned under the weight of a fear of the state and state actors. Mix in race and the historical underpinnings of America’s fraught history with it, and it suddenly seemed the wrong way to go for the right reason.
Codifying fear in a general sense is good. Wild mushrooms, faulty toaster wires, stray dogs are all correctly approached cautiously. Humans, in general, apex predators that we are, are also to be carefully watched. But feared? No. I’ve raised all my daughters to deal with the fears that can be dealt with. If you’re worried about being physically attacked, you take martial arts to mitigate the prospect of being physically attacked.
But if you’re worried about being shot by the police? Well, to paraphrase Chuck D, I think it’s OK to get past the days of yes-y’all’ing. Or to go even deeper down that Dennis Miller rabbit hole and paraphrasing Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, “Come on over, Officer. I got nothing to fear!” Or maybe we close out with Martin Luther King Jr., when he said that civil rights weren’t so much about swimming with white folks but about being full and equal participants in this great experiment we call America.
When asked if he was afraid of being assassinated before he had ever run, Barack Obama said something to the effect of not being able to have that kind of thinking affect his behavior. In essence, voting down “No” as a basis for nonperformance. Which is fundamentally where I am on this: Fear will not mark my interactions with other Americans, even if those Americans have guns and a propensity to shoot people who look like me.
Doesn’t mean I want them to keep shooting people who look like me. Does mean I know that Talk or no, to get beyond getting killed starts with getting past the fear of getting killed, even if most sane people are afraid of being killed. Not a way many of us want to die, but definitely not the way we should be living.