Tuesday, August 12, 2014



“Sometimes, the police break the law.”  -- Me, to The Girl, this week.

The Girl is ten, and The Boy is thirteen.  TB seems in a sort of hurry to grow up; TG is enjoying being ten.  But they’re both old enough to notice some of the things going on in the world around them.  And they notice when a parent reacts emotionally to a news story.

Robin Williams’ death generated parental reactions, but it was easier to explain.  The kids know about death, and we explained that he was a very funny actor we grew up watching.  It was sad, but it didn’t shake a worldview.  

The police shooting an unarmed young black man in Missouri was a harder case.  How to explain that to a sane, happy, blisteringly intelligent ten year old whose world still mostly makes sense?  

The Boy was born just a few months before 9/11.  I remember TW being glued to the set as she nursed him.  At the time, I was grateful that he was too young to understand what was happening.  To protect my own mental health, I actually tuned out the news entirely for a few weeks.  TB was tuned out by virtue of age.  TG hadn’t been born yet.

My first “political” memory in childhood was Watergate.  I had no idea what it was or why it was always on the tv -- sometimes preempting cartoons! -- but I knew Dad was glued to it, and I was miffed that it bumped Batman.  (As it happens, IFC is running old Batman shows this week.  TG enjoys the campy humor and the theme song.)  One night I asked Mom what it was all about.  She explained that the president’s friends had done something wrong, and he knew about it, but he didn’t tell anyone, and that was wrong, even for the president.  She even mentioned that the president isn’t above the law, which is why he isn’t a king.

That was pretty heady stuff for a five-year-old, but I remember it.  I liked the idea that even the president had to obey the law.  It seemed fair.  Forty years and a Ph.D. in political philosophy later, it still does.

Now I find myself explaining to my kids that even the police have to obey the law, and that sometimes, they don’t.  

I don’t want to terrify them.  Our next-door neighbor is a cop.  Placing risks in perspective can be tough as a kid.  And I want them to have enough room to reach their own conclusions over the years, even if they don’t align with mine; I don’t want to be the Dad who shoves his politics down his kids’ throats.  So I focus on the stuff I consider foundational, like the idea that police are subject to the law.  I told them that if someone random attacks you, you call the police.  If the police attack you, who do you call?  That’s why it’s extra important that the police follow the law.

It’s a tough balance.  At ten and thirteen, they’re still looking for good guys and bad guys, and for all the right reasons.  They want to be on the side of right.  That’s a good instinct.  Nuance can be a tall order for a fifth grader.  

So I see my job as allowing bits of truth to get through as they seem capable of making sense of them, and providing context after the fact when unwelcome things get around the filter.  Plant the seed now that authority figures are only human, and just let it grow.  I didn’t hide that I was upset about what happened to Michael Brown in Missouri.  Start with a basic respect for common decency, and go from there.  

In the meantime, I want them to have enough of a visceral sense of safety that when they get older and that sense isn’t present, they notice.  And enough of a visceral sense of fairness that when it’s violated, they notice that, too.  

I followed Robin Williams’ career for thirty-five years.  I’ll miss him.  I never met Michael Brown, but his loss bothers me more.  As they get older, I hope the kids will come to understand why.

You were lucky. I grew up on video of the Birmingham police, culminating in the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It took decades to change my view of cops as a group even though I knew perfectly good ones where I lived. Who knew what the next one would be like?

I don't think police forces as a whole realize just how difficult they make their own jobs when one of their own pushes the envelope of the law.
That's what you chose to tell your daughter? That sometimes the police break the law. I'm sorry, I thought you lived in the NE, not St. Louis. My bad. I know, based on your posts, that I have a different philosophical and political perspective that you do. That's fine. But I expected that the best response, since none of the general public knows what happens, would be that "no one knows for sure what happens and it's very sad that young man is dead." Full stop.
I . . . guess. I mean, it's trivially true that police sometimes break the law. The big thing that's very difficult to explain to a sane white child who's not from the South is the existence of institutional racism. I think DD's approach of keeping it general (who watches the watchmen?) and letting the kids generate their own questions is probably by far the best.

Even if by some miracle, it turns out that it was totally ok for the cops in Ferguson to gun down an unarmed black man and leave him to rot in the street for four hours without medical care, the fact remains that there are regular incidents of this type. You gotta make a choice as a parent -- either participate fully in the racism or start explaining to your kids that people do things which they'll find incomprehensible.

"A sane white child who's not from the South?"
Because there is only racism in the South? Or only institutional racism in the South?

There is an unfortunate tendency in the US to blame racism on the South, in an attempt, I suspect, to deflect homegrown racism by painting the South as the other.

It's ridiculous, offensive, and even counter-factual. If you look back 25 years or so, there's only been one riot that took place in the South (St. Petersburg FL in '96, after the shooting of Tyrone Lewis). The Rodney King riots ('92); Cincinnati riots ('01); Benton Harbor MI, riots ('03), Toledo riots ('05), Fontana (CA) riots ('06); Locke (CA) HS riots ('08); Oakland riots ('09); all took place either in the North or in Calif.

So while it may be difficult to explain institutional racism to a white girl generally, I don't think there's any geographical restriction on this.
One should probably reserve judgment on the Saint Louis police shooting until all of the facts are in. After all, no one yet knows what really happened. But I can see the reasons for the tension between the African-American community (especially black males) and the police. Too often, the police treat just about every African-American male as a potential criminal, subjecting them to random searches and to arrests for even the most trivial offenses. Police can appear to the residents of neighborhoods of color to be a nothing less than a hostile occupying army. Recently, police have become too similar to soldiers, armed with assault rifles, even armored vehicles.

I am a white male, and I have never felt that the police were hostile forces. They are there to serve and protect. So far, my contacts with policemen have been cordial and respectful, and have been limited to getting a traffic ticket or two. I have never felt that I had to be afraid of policemen.

But an African-American male might view things quite differently. Every African-American boy has to be told by his parents at an early age that the police will probably assume that he is potentially some sort of criminal, and that there are certain things that he should never do. Never run in public, especially with something in your hands. Don’t dress with baggy pants with the belt down at your hips, lest people think that you are some sort of street thug. Be careful when you are around white women. If you are driving and are stopped by the cops, make sure you keep your hands in plain sight on the wheel, and always say “Yes sir, no sir” when confronted. When you go into a store, people will think you are a potential shoplifter and store security will follow you around. Make sure you never leave your home without proper identification—you may be stopped by a cop simply because you somehow look suspicious to them. All too often, you will be hassled by the cops simply for walking down the street, minding your own business, or simply for sitting on the stoops of your own apartment building. If you are hanging out on the street corner with your friends, the cops will probably assume that something illegal just has to be going on—perhaps a drug deal is going down or gang recruitment is taking place, and the cops will order you to move along or be arrested. In school, you could be busted by the cops for the most trivial of offenses. Just walking or driving while black can get you into trouble.

I think you can explain that people who become cops often (although not always) do so because they want things to be safe. And it's fairly easy to explain to a 10 year old that all of us have biases about what is and is not safe (e.g. someone who has been bit by one type of dog might be more scared of that type than somebody who didn't have that experience). The key is to explain explicitly that race does impact who someone identifies as a threat- it already happens with kids TG's age (http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/03/black-boys-older.aspx). Best case scenario, a cop saw a threat that wasn't there. You can explain that.

Worst case scenario, the cop intentionally gunned him down because he was black and they figure the world is better off without him because of that. That is a real possibility, and you should mention it. Because the world doesn't always make sense.
I heard somewhere that both cops and criminals share an interest in controlling other people, but have no idea of its validity. Might have actually been about prisoners and prison guards.

I have to go 50/50 on what ArtMathProf said. I appear to be from a similar era, and there were places where long haired white college students were assumed to be dangerous subversives. The big difference is that they didn't consider it normal to aim automatic weapons at protesters back in my day.

On the other hand, the risk of being black in suburbia is real. I know of at least one instance where a 30-something guy was out jogging in his upper-middle neighborhood and had quite a problem with the cops because he had no ID on him. He was guilty of jogging while black. The police force has, reportedly, wised up a bit in the 15 years since that happened, but there are reasons to be careful no matter what your socio-economic status is if you are black.

Then again, I also know of an instance where a police officer involved in shooting an armed young black man was the target of protests even though he was, himself, black. The community seemed to think that he was no different than the white or hispanic cops.
Another good thing to discuss with TG and TB is contempt prior to investigation.
The white kids in the South have it explained earlier and differently. Having lived inside and outside the Confederacy, the racism has a different flavor; the nice white folks in the North outsource it, while it's more of a community project in the South. Similar results, wildly different process.
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