James E. Causey: What black parents have to tell their sons

08/16/2014 7:03 PM

08/17/2014 12:03 AM

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 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.

My parents gave me this advice because they know that society judges and looks at me as a threat because I am a black male.

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. Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed after a confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The teenager was unarmed. President Obama said the shooting was “a tragedy” and called for peaceful protests, but the city erupted in violence.

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.

James E. Causey writes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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