Big city mayors have to stay as neutral as possible when asked about disputes between their citizens and the police. But New York City mayor Bill de Blasio found his voice in a profoundly moving way when he responded not as a mayor, but as a parent.
His sentiments came out in a news conference and an ABC-TV interview after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in the video-recorded choking death of Eric Garner, a black suspect in Staten Island.
The mayor, who is married to an African-American woman, described his own warnings to his biracial son, Dante, about making any sudden or otherwise suspicious movements in an encounter with police.
“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 … an encounter with a police officer,” de Blasio said on ABC’s This Week.
Asked if he felt his son was at risk from his city’s own police department, de Blasio responded: “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.”
Although the mayor expressed “immense respect” for New York’s Finest, police union officials fired back. The cops felt “thrown under the bus,” said one.
But I appreciated de Blasio’s remarks. We have something in common. We are both fathers of handsome young African-American males with conspicuous hair.
Dante’s explosively huge Afro made headlines during his dad’s campaign last year as a major asset, especially with young voters. My son has long dreadlocks, today’s version of the big Afro and mutton-chop sideburns with which I upset my own parents. “Grandma’s revenge,” I call my kid’s hairstyle.
I appreciated de Blasio’s remarks because one does not often hear a prominent white official speak candidly about “The Talk,” which is what many black parents call the painfully necessary conversation they have with their kids about how to behave if stopped by police.
The Talk has slipped into more widespread conversations with the recent wave of controversial police killings of black men and boys, some of which — like Garner’s — were captured on video.
Besides Garner, who died this summer when a police officer put him in an alleged chokehold after stopping to arrest him for selling untaxed “loosie” cigarettes, there was 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, after a struggle.
More recently, a Cleveland cop fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a fake gun. Video of that shooting has run repeatedly on TV, along with the shooting of unarmed Levar Jones, 35, who reached into his car for his license too quickly in a Richland County, South Carolina, according to the officer, who has since been fired. Jones fortunately survived.
Is this why a narrow majority of Americans in a new Bloomberg Politics poll say they think racial interactions have gotten worse under President Obama? I think things only seem worse, especially to those who didn’t want to face the persistent canyon of our racial and cultural differences.
Racial discord in my view is a lot like sex: We may not be having more of it than we used to, but we’re talking about it more than ever.
In that way, we’re learning more — whether we intended to or not — about how race is experienced by different people and families in our very diverse society. Part of the thanks goes to modern media that, depending on how they are used, can shed light or more heat.
But those who expect to reach a “colorblind society” without a lot of effort and occasional setbacks are, as Frederick Douglass — one of the 19th century’s most important African Americans — said, are “people who want crops without plowing the ground.” We have many miles to go before we reap.
(Email Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.)