What every Black man in America must learn

March 29, 2012

The murder of Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Florida has dramatized the depths of racism in U.S. society. Trayvon was young, Black and male--that was enough for neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman to decide he was "suspicious," to stalk him and eventually to pull the trigger.

African American families understand that Trayvon's fate could happen to their own children. That's why so many young Black men remember the time they had "the talk"--when family or friends tried to prepare them for dealing with racism in general and the police in particular.

Here, SocialistWorker.org contributors Derron Thweatt, Khury Petersen-Smith and Brian Jones remember their own experiences with "the talk"--and how the experience of racism shaped their lives.

Derron Thweatt

I, LIKE most Black males in the U.S. had "the other talk," the one that wasn't related to sex.

I remember my mom having "the talk" with me when I was a preteen. She explained why she would never let me grow my hair longer than less than half an inch, and why I wasn't allowed to hang out with anyone on the street or stoop. She told me all the things that she thought I needed to know to avoid racism as much as I could.

At the time, I thought she was being a little paranoid. I thought I was a good kid, and I would be the exception to the rule. However, a few years later, as a teenager growing up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Hyattsville, Md., I understood our talk within a matter of moments.

I was late to my part-time job, so I started running, and within a minute, I was being followed. The cop followed me for a few blocks, and I slowed down and kept going slower and slower, until the cop stopped me. He accused me of robbing a liquor store and gave me the description of a suspect who weighed approximately 150 pounds more than I did, was about 5-foot-6-inches, and had dreadlocks. At the time, I was 5-foot-10-inches and still growing, and I barely weighed 130 pounds.

Police in Tampa, Fla., arrest an African American man on marijuana charges
Police in Tampa, Fla., arrest an African American man on marijuana charges

I did the one thing I was told a Black man should never do: I made a snarly comment to the effect of "Well, Slim-Fast doesn't work that quick."

At that point, the officer threw me on the hood of his car, frisked me and then proceeded to touch me very inappropriately. Once he felt that he was finished, he told me to leave. I pretended to continue to walk to work, but the second the cop car was out of sight, I turned around and walked home, sobbing.

After I recounted the story to my mother, she was upset at first because I shouldn't have been running. But after I kept screaming that I did nothing wrong and just wanted to get to work, she stopped, consoled me and talked more about racism.

Prior to being stopped by that cop, I thought I could be the exception to the rule, and people would see from my clothes or my low-cut hair that I was a good person. I decided shortly thereafter that for the rest of my life, I would do whatever I could to fight back against racism. At that time, I became involved in fighting back against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which radicalized me, and I soon became a socialist.

"The talk" occurs because Black men aren't seen as human beings under capitalism. Barack Obama rarely mentions anything about racism and mainly mentions Black men when he's admonishing them for not being in their children's lives. However, he does not comment on the number of Black men incarcerated in the U.S., which is highly disproportionate compared to other racial groups.

These discussions continue to take place in households around the country because civil rights for people of color have been scaled back by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Not another parent should have to turn to their Black male preteen and have "the talk." We have to fight so there isn't another case like Trayvon Martin. The only way we can make sure these things don't continue is to fight over the long haul for another world where people of all races are treated as equals, rather than some as animals.

Khury Petersen-Smith

ONE OF the most powerful lessons that I learned about being Black came from a conversation with a white person.

I was talking with a white co-worker about the latest time that I'd been stopped by the cops while driving. I had a tally sheet on my dashboard at the time to keep track of the number of times I'd been pulled over, and I had stopped counting after 30.

My co-worker, who was older than me, asked me, "You know how many times I've been pulled over?" I thought for a second. "Five," I guessed. "Ten?" He shook his head, looked down, and then looked at me. "I've never been pulled over by the police."

News reports, conversations with other Black people and my daily experience teach me about the depths of racism in the U.S. But conversations like that one remind me that there is something unique about the realities of oppression that Black people face, and because this society is so segregated, many other people have no realization of them.

This dynamic has been present in conversations about the murder of Trayvon Martin. While Fox News, the Sanford police and conservatives in general describe the killing of Trayvon as a tragic incident that has nothing to do with racism, many people understand that racism had everything to do with it. And it is a shock to many of them that such a thing could happen--and go unpunished, at least so far--in the 21st century.

In President Barack Obama's statement regarding the murder of Trayvon, he suggested that we all need to do some soul-searching to figure out how such a thing could have happened. Unfortunately, horrified as I was about the murder of Trayvon, there was nothing surprising about it to me. The killing of Trayvon Martin is a tragic confirmation of the realities of racism that Black people face every day.

For this reason, many Black families engage in the strange ritual of holding a serious conversation about how to behave when dealing with police. The so-called "talk," which has been a topic of discussion on National Public Radio and elsewhere, involves teaching Black children to avoid the police, and defer to them when confronted.

My mother's solemn warning to "be careful with police, because they'll hurt you" came when I was in elementary school, but it has been painfully relevant throughout the dozens of times when cops stopped me, whether I was in my car or on foot.

I know activists who have asked me why there isn't more resistance among African Americans, given how bad racism is and the reality of Black America today. The level of policing that we are subjected to--constant surveillance of Black communities, harassment, arrest and violence--goes a long way to explaining why there isn't open opposition to unemployment, poverty, discrimination and other aspects of life at the bottom of society.

There are 1 million of us in prison or jail today. And the fact that the police--or as George Zimmerman shows, any racist--can end our lives at any moment leads us to keep ourselves in check.

The flip side of this is that Black people have the potential to rise up in an explosion of anger at the conditions we face. That has happened again and again during U.S. history, in slave revolts, struggles against poverty and racism in the 1930s--and, of course, the Black struggle of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. When Black people do rebel, the struggles tend to inspire others, too, and shake up the whole of society. That's exactly why the 1 percent invests so much into repressing Blacks in particular.

So what do we do? In response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, it's clear. We need to continue the rallies, marches, school walkouts and other protests in cities across the country to demand justice.

Justice for Trayvon means much more than the prosecution of George Zimmerman. It means abolition of the racist "Stand Your Ground" law in Florida that Zimmerman has used in his defense. Justice means dismantling the "war on drugs," which is the pretext for passing laws that target Black people, flooding our neighborhoods with police and incarcerating a large segment of the Black population. Justice means confronting a culture in which Blacks are viewed first and foremost as criminals.

We shouldn't accept that the racism and police state conditions Black people have to endure are examples of a "white privilege" that Blacks and other people of color do not have access to. It's true that Black people may as well live on a different planet than the rest of the population when it comes to how we are treated by the police, mortgage lenders and employers. But the idea of white privilege resigns us to that inequality, rather than questioning and destroying it.

It's a good thing that many people who aren't Black are now learning about the realities that Black people face every day. It is a bitter tragedy that it took the murder of a 17-year-old for that to happen.

I can think of no greater way to honor the life of Trayvon Martin and avenge his death than by building the deepest, strongest and most relentless multiracial struggle against racism. Trayvon is the latest casualty in a war on Black America. It's time that we declare war on institutional racism.

Brian Jones

IN HIS classic book Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement, Jack Bloom quotes an African American mother speaking about how, as a matter of survival, she taught her children to internalize the rules of Jim Crow segregation:

It's like with cars and knives, you have to teach your children to know what's dangerous and how to stay away from it, or else they sure won't live long. White people are a real danger to us until we learn how to live with them.

So if you want your kids to live long, they have to grow up scared of whites, and the way they get scared is through us; and that's why I don't let my kids get fresh about the white man even in their own house. If I do, there's liable to be trouble to pay. They'll forget, and they'll say something outside, and that'll be it for them, and us, too. So I make them store it in the bones, way inside, and then no one sees it.

The specific rules of survival have changed in the 60 years since that mother said those words, but the strategy is essentially the same.

In 2012, in the era of mass incarceration--"the new Jim Crow" as author Michelle Alexander has called it--Black parents must not only make their children aware of the way they will be perceived by white society in general, but by the police in particular. Why? Because, as Alexander argues, criminality has become the very essence of blackness in our new racial order.

The very same rights and opportunities denied to African Americans because of their color in the old Jim Crow--voting rights, employment, housing, etc.--can now be denied to us again, once the label of "criminal" (or more specifically, "felon") has been applied. Thus, for the last 40 years, America has spent untold sums of money to wage a so-called "war on drugs." As a result, drug use has not declined in the least, but Black people have been successfully equated with crime.

And so, when George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin, he was certain he was looking at a criminal.

After Trayvon was murdered, the poet and former NBA player Etan Thomas wrote, "Very soon, I have to ruin my son's rose-colored glasses view of the world we live in. I have to teach him that...[i]f the police stop you, make sure you stop in a well-lit area and don't make any sudden moves. Keep your hands visible. Avoid putting them in your pockets."

Thomas wrote that he'll have to tell his son how to preempt criminal accusations in all sorts of little ways: "Always get the receipt after making a purchase, no matter how small, so no one can falsely accuse you of theft, later."

At a certain point, the cup of endurance runneth over. In the 1950s, younger African Americans began to shed their fear of whites and openly defy Jim Crow laws. This defiance was extremely dangerous, and many activists were injured for doing things such as simply sitting where they weren't supposed to sit. Some even lost their lives.

These were courageous individuals, but their actions weren't just a product of individual courage. The movement against the old Jim Crow grew as a movement of collective, mass action.

And so it will be with the new Jim Crow. I heard Trayvon Martin's father speak at a rally in New York City last week. He said he was determined to make sure his son did not die in vain.

His wish is already coming true. A new, mass movement is emerging in the streets nationwide to demand justice. This mass movement must find ways to challenge the new Jim Crow. Ultimately, that's the only way we won't have to raise our children to be afraid.

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