Learning Fear

In the past two weeks, television news and cable interviews have featured the upright, honest, straight-talking figure of a young black man, about forty years of age, we’d guess, who has published a long, apparently excoriatingly honest letter to his fourteen year old son about what to expect from life. The piece’s main thesis is that for more than two hundred years America has been after breaking the bodies of black men. Once broken, forever in pieces.

The writer, a columnist for the Atlantic, has been instantly compared to James Baldwin – as honest, as fiery, as important. His work has been dubbed a must-read by all.

Yet there is another book waiting to emerge, waiting in fact to be written, from a white father to his fourteen year old son, about how to respond to approaches made by the forces of “law and order.”

For as we watch and listen to the interviews of the black man, we are increasingly aware that there is a missing companion piece that needs to see the light of day.

This comes not as an apology for the senseless and often mysterious deaths of singular black people in all parts of America this summer, but rather as an antidote and warning, one and the same, for white kids.

This situation is increasingly vivid when we listen to the details from Waller County, Texas, and the confusing details of the death there of a young black woman who was asked to put out her cigarette by a policeman after a roadside stop for not signaling the changing of lanes in traffic as she pulled right on seeing, in her rearview mirror, the police black-and-white coming up behind her. Wanting to get out of the way, she edged towards the curb and slowed. The police car stopped then. The policeman emerged and asked to see her identification. And he asked her to stop smoking in her own car.

Strictly speaking, according to local law enforcement, she needn’t have done so. She in theory knew this as well. But she made a mountain by refusing. Therewith began the walk towards the empty dark door at the end of the road.

The young woman in this case could have been white. Her offense was minor. But she, like millions of other millennials, had reached a point of neither respect nor honor for her local police, first responders, teachers, or in fact any figure of authority. She was ready to fight instantly, ready for combat, ready to stand up for her rights. As she should have, but not AS she should have.

For America has raised a generation of young people who believe everything they do is perfection, all their needs are to be met, their demands complied with instantly, and that other people – the rest of us – owe them, large and small, any favor requested. This applies both to black and white kids across the board.

There are certain customs and procedures that America depends upon to maintain its democracy. One of these is courtesy. Another is realizing that people work hard to maintain order and safety. A third is that yes, sometimes mistakes are made, but that (4) you as a young person do not want to be part of that mistake. Or dead.

Kids, it seems, have mouths. Kids have guns. Kids lack common sense.

Riding high in their own minds, kids (black, white, latino, Asian) have support systems: schools, parents, their peers. They are in the main fearless. And stupid.

What should parents do to protect their children from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, from being caught in circumstances that can and should have been avoided in any case?

And that’s where the second book comes from, the one that should accompany the letter to a fourteen year old black kid from his father. We now understand the value and importance of parental advice to kids of all ethnic backgrounds, explaining that while what authority sometimes asks may make no sense at all, to fight it is futile and often deadly. That authority, rightly or wrongly, has been invested with powers to control public behavior, regardless of what the public thinks. Whether or not a patrolman is an Einstein makes no difference. For he or she has studied, been trained, practiced, and granted powers just slightly above those of the man of the street. Many of these powers were invented to keep down the growth and increasing power of youth itself. Other than that, there is no good reason for thousands of local statutes and customs. But they are there, on the books, and to argue and shout and scream and slight them shows disrespect, disdain, and under-appreciation for the time and effort put in to these disciplinary black holes.

The greatest tragedy of all this is that any parent should have to teach his son or daughter to fear in order to live.


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