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‘The rules are different for you’: Black lawmakers on when they got ‘the talk’

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Keep your hands visible. Don’t be disrespectful. Say “yes sir, no sir.” No sudden movements. These are the instructions inherited by Black children for generations. The directions are given, to sons in particular, with the hope they will get home alive should they come in contact with the police.

Passed down like grandma’s recipe for banana pudding, the fear cuts across class and income. Whether you live in public housing, commute daily from a tony suburban neighborhood or walk the halls of power as a U.S. congressman, you remember “the talk.”

When I asked Black lawmakers in Congress what they heard growing up, they told me it still echoes in their heads. They learned that their margins for error were slimmer than those of white kids their age, and that a greater burden falls on Black boys to make others feel comfortable in their presence.

The white public has largely been ignorant of this fear, but that is starting to change. Fifty-seven percent of Americans agree the police are more likely to use excessive force with a Black person than a white person in similar situations, according to a recent Monmouth poll. But only one-third felt the same way four years ago.

It looked like a weapon. I feared for my safety. He was resisting. Why did he run? These are the accepted reasons police officers have given in various shooting deaths of unarmed Black men.

As long as that’s the case, “the talk” is quite literally a matter of life and death. In separate conversations, Reps. Cedric L. Richmond, Will Hurd and André Carson all told me the same thing: They hope to see a future where it’s not. These are their words.

Cedric Richmond
When Louisiana Rep. Cedric L. Richmond was a kid, his parents told him, “Your job is to make sure you come home.”

Cedric L. Richmond, D-La.

When I entered my first high school, which was predominantly Black, it was instilled that being good is not good enough. You have to be excellent, because of the stigma associated with being Black. As I finished my last high school, which was one of the top high schools in the country and predominantly white, it was very clear there were two sets of rules.

My mother and stepfather told me the same thing I would tell my son. Turn your dome lights on so the cop can see in the car, so he won’t be afraid. Be respectful, do what they say. No matter how demeaning it is, no matter how bad he treats you, no matter what names they call you, eat it. Just take it. Your job is to make sure you come home. And then our job will be to deal with anything that happened that wasn’t supposed to happen. 

It was basically, “Eat the shit that we know you’re going to get from police officers. Just come home.”

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had some bad incidents with police and some good incidents. I remember clearly being stopped by an African American cop. I was in New Orleans on St. Charles Avenue in a white neighborhood, very upscale, where all the multimillion-dollar homes are. He pulled me over. I was polite. He asked me for my license, and I couldn’t find it. It was my freshman year in college, and I was home for a break, out in my mother’s car. He ran my name and said, “Look, I see the Morehouse sticker on the back of your car. Do you go to Morehouse?” I said, “I do.” He said, “Well, Dr. King once said that the man can’t ride your back if your back’s not bent. Do [you] realize right now that I could ride your back if I wanted to because you don’t have your license? But I’d rather make this a teachable moment.” And he told me to go home instead. That was something I’ve never forgotten.

But then I’ve had exchanges where an officer used excessive force on me at a party while I was in high school, or maybe home from my first year in college. There was an altercation. I happened to know people on both sides. So I jumped in and successfully stopped the altercation, and the cop ran up on me. When I threw my hands up to say, “Whoa, wait,” he hit me, and it took other police officers to pull him off me. So I’ve seen both sides.

I have a 6-year-old son. He’s still in what you would call the “cute stage.” We’ve had conversations about when he goes to camp. I’ve told him, “If someone calls you a name, I want to know what they called you.” Kids will be kids, but some names require parental intervention. 

I anticipate a time when I will have to sit him down and tell him. Somewhere probably around age 10 or 11. 

I would assume we’re always gonna give that talk out of abundance of caution, but hopefully it won’t be needed. That’s what this movement is about, finally trying to address things we’ve been complaining about for a very long time. No one actually believed it happened as much as it does, and now people understand it.

Those who want to understand it, understand it. You’ll get people in the Judiciary Committee who would rather talk about Michael Flynn than the real policing problem that African Americans face in this country.

But I’m optimistic that this conversation in a couple of generations may not be needed, because there’s so many people in the street, so many people raising their voices, and it’s such a diverse crowd. In politics, either government will fix a problem because they think it’s a good idea to fix it, or they will fix the problem because they’re forced to.

“Put your hands on the dash,” Texas Rep. Will Hurd once advised a staffer as the pair got pulled over. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Will Hurd, R-Texas

I remember when I was probably 14. In Texas, we’re allowed to get our learner’s permit at 15. And my dad always said if you got pulled over by police, number one: turn the light on in your car. Two: roll down your window, put your hands on the window seal and don’t make any moves, unless you tell the police what you are going to do and they assent. He made that very clear. 

After seeing the video of George Floyd being murdered in police custody, some people have responded to me by saying, “You know, I gave that talk to my daughter” or “I gave that talk to my son.” And I said, “Sure, fine, that’s good, but you’re probably giving it to them because they’re gonna be nervous about getting in trouble. My dad was telling me that because he was afraid I could potentially get killed.”

When my dad was a traveling salesman in Texas in 1971, he couldn’t stop in every restaurant or stop in any hotel to spend the night. Now they have a Black Republican representing them in those districts. We’ve come a long way, but still that impacts us all the time.

Have I been pulled over in my youth? Yes. Have I been pulled over since I’ve been in Congress? Yes. Now, it’s a little different. I have almost 98 percent name identification in my district, and so usually folks recognize me, and it totally changes the tenor of the interaction.

But I can say since I’ve been running for office, my organization’s probably knocked on over a quarter of a million doors in South and West Texas, and the only time the police get called is if we have a young person of color that’s out knocking on some of these doors. It’s never happened to any of the other folks. 

My older sister is a successful partner at an architectural firm, and she’s done well for herself. She drives a Corvette, and often, when she’s driving, the police will pull out and follow her, probably running her plates to see if the car is stolen. There’s an esprit de corps among Corvette owners, and she’s asked them, “Does that happen to you?” And they tell her no.

When I was in the CIA, I was an undercover officer. Since being in Congress, I’ve done all kinds of work with local law enforcement. I’ve had many folks in law enforcement talk about how they’re worried and concerned when they have an interaction with folks in the African American community, and some have admitted that it’s more tense than others. I didn’t press on the reasons why or get a further explanation. But it’s something that exists, and we have to get through that. 

We know what the best practices are to deal with this. We know what de-escalation training looks like. We know that community policing is important. I know police officers who, on career days, go into schools in Black communities to talk about what it’s like to be a police officer. They invite folks and show them what a traffic stop is, how that works, and how that is one of the most dangerous things a police officer does. So hopefully at some point, Black dads won’t have to tell their Black sons something because they think it may be information that would save their lives.

I was in Houston with 60,000 Texans peacefully marching in solidarity with George Floyd’s family, and I was struck by the different cultures that were participating in the march, and that’s what’s made this different. Friends are asking more questions. People are opening up.

I was with a staffer in far West Texas late at night. We’re driving, and we get pulled over. And I told them, “Hey, stop moving. Put your hands on the dash.” The staffer was confused. They just acted like it was not a big deal. I had to talk through it with them and explain it. I think people are waking up and recognizing there’s a problem.

Andre Carson
Indiana Rep. André Carson remembers getting the talk from his parents, uncle and grandfather. “The rules are different for you as a Black male,” they told him.

André Carson, D-Ind.

When I was young, I saw pictures and heard stories about Emmett Till. I talked with my grandmother about how as a Black man, you’re looked at suspiciously. You could be falsely accused of anything, any crime. Till’s accuser, decades later, admitted that she lied.

At age 17, I was at a mosque and another gentleman was with me, a couple years older than me. We had an exchange with law enforcement, which wasn’t unusual. The exchange escalated, and the officer said, “Get over here you N-[word].” This was the same year as Rodney King. To be called out of my name like that? It was a mixture of fear and not allowing myself to be disrespected anymore. 

Then I was handcuffed, and I was facing the charges of battery on a police officer, resisting arrest and fleeing. But those charges were dropped. In the police report, the arresting officer made note of my manners, how I was courteous. Even considering my pleasantries, I was still arrested and called out of my name. As a young Black male, I couldn’t allow myself to be dehumanized, even when an officer approached me.

I was given the talk at a very early age by the men in my life, my parents, uncles and grandfather. My grandmother really had a sensitivity to it. And I can remember, having to make that phone call, letting her know that I had been arrested. That was a call that she feared getting from me. Of course, I was released and the charges were dropped, but there are other Black men who didn’t have that opportunity, and so I was inspired to fight for them.

I just had this conversation with a friend of mine, and he was telling me how he tells his son to “be respectful and make sure you’re in the right, because if you’re in the wrong, you take away my ability to negotiate on your behalf and to deal with law enforcement and defend you properly.”

All too often — if you throw in race-based assumptions, the traditions of law enforcement and its root in white supremacist activity — the assumptions of suspicion are interwoven into a traditional terry stop or traffic stop.

Even before my arrest at the mosque, I had been placed on police cars many times and called out of my name. There were a lot of inferences about who I was and what I was doing because I was tall. 

I was told, “Be smart about your interactions. The rules are different for you as a Black male. You’re expected to be smarter. You’re expected to work harder. You’re expected to go beyond the call of duty, and even with that, you’re not beyond the realm of being falsely accused of being a criminal.”

Having that ingrained in your head as a young person, it subconsciously and very overtly tells you that you are different. Yes, you’re a human being, but you’re different. It’s based on great toxic mythologies that unfortunately have been solidified and codified by governments and even, unfortunately, religions.

It didn’t make me feel less than, simply because I know about my history, about who I am, about perhaps why people are fearful, why there’s this narrative against being Black. But when you have a correct knowledge of self, society’s reactions toward you contradict what you’ve been taught about yourself. While it is an additional stressor, it can give you a greater sense of purpose to educate others.

When the Central Park Five situation happened, I can remember watching those young men unjustly sentenced. [Ed. note — In 1989, Donald Trump took out ads in four major New York newspapers calling for the death penalty for the Black and Latino suspects. They were later exonerated, but Trump hasn’t apologized.] It wasn’t uncommon to see men of stature make blanket statements and hurtful accusations against Black men. I was more disappointed that Trump wasn’t outright condemned nationally. You had great leaders in New York condemning him, but I wanted to see more nationally. “How is this wealthy man able to do this?” I’m still processing it.

[After I became a law enforcement officer myself], I sat in the car with officers who listened to Rush Limbaugh. We were able to have honest discussions about race. Some of these people who were very conservative — they went prairie dog hunting — a lot of their perceptions about Black people were based on what they saw on television. In the police academy, I saw recruits from across the state and different agencies who had never had an interaction with an African American or Latino. But it allowed me to approach it from the lens of empathy, having been in handcuffs myself.

I have a 13-year-old daughter who I had a talk with the other day. She’s gone to rallies with me, and because she’s a young girl, my talk was still very honest, but probably a lot different than what I would have said if I had a son.

She’s a different generation, so she has the internet, and she’s sending me videos of Black people being discriminated against and being yelled at in grocery stores. I’m having to provide commentary along with the videos, while asking her what she thinks. My commentary hopefully will help to shape her perceptions about race, because she has friends who are white, Jewish, Latino, who are Middle Eastern or South Asian, and I’m having to have a very honest conversation about who she is as a Black woman. Whenever I can, I call her smart, intelligent, beautiful and clean. I say it so much, it probably gets on her nerves. My hope is that me saying those things to her repeatedly, encouraging her intelligence and encouraging her beauty as a young Black woman, will help against societal pressures that may suggest otherwise.

But if someday she has children and doesn’t give them the same talk, I certainly will.

These interviews have been condensed and lightly edited.

[‘Just come home’ — Black lawmakers reflect on their interactions with the police]

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