When I found out I was pregnant in February 2010, I prayed to have a girl because I was terrified of raising a Black boy in New York City. I thought about what life would be like, having to worry about all the things that parents worry about as their children walk out the door each day, and then add to that how you have to prepare and then worry when you are sending a boy of color out onto the streets of New York.
It is unwritten, but you have to raise Black boys differently. You have to prepare them differently, and yes, you worry about them differently.
I remember a story that an old friend of the family told me years ago about her son, who is Black and was attending an Upper West Side elite private school. It must have been some time in the early 1980s. She recounted how the dean of the school called her and asked why her son had not been in school for several days. She responded that there was a rapist on the loose. The dean, puzzled, asked what that had to do with her son. He continued by giving a description of the rapist. He was Black, had this or that complexion, was X number of feet tall and weighed X number of pounds. The dean continued to say that her son did not match the description. And she said, “Exactly. He will be back in school after the rapist has been caught.”
What she was saying was that the description mattered little. But the skin color mattered a lot. And she was not going to subject her son to the whims of the police because her son was a Black male.
This fear is real. It is a fear that parents of Black boys feel, from Harlem to the Upper East Side, from East New York to Park Slope, from Tremont to Riverdale. It does not matter how he dresses. It does not matter how he purports himself. The color of the skin he wears puts a target on his back every time he walks out the door.
In early December, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, and he said, “What parents have done for decades who have children of color, especially young men of color, is train them to be very careful when they have a connection with a police officer.”
He continued, “It’s different for a white child. That’s just the reality in this country. And with Dante, very early on with my son, we said, look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cellphone, because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color. I’m just saying what people are actually experiencing and have been for decades.”
He concluded, “I’ve talked to a lot of families of color, well before this time, because I’ve said things like this before. And they’ve said to me over and over and over again that they appreciate someone finally acknowledging that they have that conversation with their sons. It’s a painful conversation. You can sense there’s a contradiction in that conversation.”
What the mayor said was dead-on. It is different, and we need to acknowledge that difference and address it. We should not have to train our children differently because of the color of their skin. But we do, and that is the reality.
Several years ago, Carol Taylor, a local activist, wrote a primer on this matter called “The Little Black Book.” Yes, the book was little, but it contained big and powerful information about how our Black males should conduct themselves. Rule No. 7 is extremely instructive: “When you are approached by police, do not take this time to try to prove your manhood.” In this survival manual, she lists 30 rules of conduct, and many of them are just as vital today as they were when she first wrote the book.
So, Mr. Mayor, until our children can walk down the same streets, wear the same clothes, drive the same cars, pull out the same candy bar or cellphones from their pockets, you have nothing to apologize for in preparing and protecting your son. And don’t you dare apologize for trying to keep him alive.