Skip to content

Florida Case Spurs Painful Talks Between Black Parents and Their Children

New York Times, July 17, 2013

By John Eligon

University City, Mo. — Tracey Wolff never had a problem with her 19-year-old son’s individualism: his “crazy” hair and unshaven face. But this week, his look suddenly seemed more worrying.

When she thinks of Trayvon Martin and his cropped hair and smooth face, Ms. Wolff says, she wonders, “If that can happen to the clean-cut kid who looks like a good student, then what’s going to happen to my son, who dresses sloppy?” She is considering talking to him about reconsidering his look.

“I don’t want to tell him how to dress,” she added. “He’s a grown man; do what you want to do, but keep in mind these are the things going on.”

On cable news programs and in protests around the country, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Mr. Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in Sanford, Fla., has been fodder for an intellectual discussion on race and justice. But for many black residents, the verdict has spawned conversations far more personal and raw: discussions of sad pragmatism between parents and their children.

The intimacy of the Martin case for black Americans was drawn into the spotlight this week when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said during an N.A.A.C.P. convention that he had had a conversation with his 15-year-old son about the case, much the way his father once counseled him about how to interact with the police.

Similar conversations are being held across the country, including here in this racially mixed St. Louis suburb.

On Wednesday afternoon, people of various races sat side by side in the cafes, restaurants and boutiques that line the town’s main road, blocks from Washington University. Longtime residents said racial tensions were not historically a problem in University City, where just over 50 percent of the residents are white and 41 percent are black. But some said the Martin case had rattled their sense of security.

Missouri, like many states, allows residents to carry concealed weapons with a permit. It also allows people to use deadly force in defense of their homes or vehicles without a duty to retreat. On Wednesday, fliers depicting a hoodie, the type of sweatshirt Mr. Martin wore on the night of his death, were taped to poles along the main road. They read, “No more dead youth no matter who’s holding the gun. One love.”

“They’re still showing racism is powerful and still alive,” Ashley Gaither, 22, said, referring to the acquittal of Mr. Zimmerman, who had said he was acting in self-defense. Speaking of her 3-year-old son, Isaiah, Ms. Gaither added: “It’s just sad. It’s already going to be hard for him being a young black male growing up.”

Her fiancé, Eddie Kirkwood, 24, said of their son, “I don’t want to let him walk to the store by himself, especially after that.”

The whole situation, added Ms. Gaither, a nurse’s assistant, “would just make me skeptical about what crowd of white people I put him around.”

Lesley Grice, 35, who was visiting a friend here but lives in Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb that has a history of rocky race relations, said she had asked her 18-year-old son to stop wearing hoodies, a request that did not go over so well. “He’s like, ‘That’s what I like to wear,’ ” she said.

Ms. Grice, a housekeeper, said she had also told her son that when he was talking to adults, to keep his hands in place so it was clear that he was not reaching for anything.

Christian Hayes, 24, said he did not know what he would tell his 7-month-old twin sons about the Martin case when they were older. For now, he described a sense of being trapped in his own neighborhood. If someone were following him, he said, “I’m not going to run; I’m going to ask him what he’s following me for.” But, he added, “It just makes me feel like you can’t do nothing or go nowhere.”

As he walked down the street in rubber sandals on Wednesday afternoon, Rashaun Cohen, 17, said he carried himself differently since the shooting. His gray sweat shorts hung well past his knees, but he said he tended not to let his pants sag anymore. His mother also offered some advice, he said.

“Just, like, don’t walk into any neighborhood like I’m hard,” he said. “Just always be respectful and humble.”

Mr. Cohen, a high school junior, said Mr. Zimmerman’s acquittal was troubling because he believed that “it’s giving people the O.K. to do that.”

Shannon Merritt, 35, said the Martin case provided a larger teachable moment for her 19-year-old brother and 18-year-old son. One of the first things she did after the verdict, she said, was to tell her brother: “Please stay in school; just work, try not to be a statistic.”

Her daughter cried, Ms. Merritt said. Her daughter also became curious about the historic struggles blacks have faced in this country. They researched that topic and the uphill battle women have waged for rights like the freedom to vote.

“I’m going to help with the movement,” Ms. Merritt said her daughter told her.

© 2013 The New York Times

Related News