'The Talk:' How Parents Of All Backgrounds Tell Kids About The Police African-American parents often discuss the importance of having the "The Talk" about how their children should interact with police. Michel Martin asks whether other ethnic groups do the same?

'The Talk:' How Parents Of All Backgrounds Tell Kids About The Police

'The Talk:' How Parents Of All Backgrounds Tell Kids About The Police

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African-American parents often discuss the importance of having the "The Talk" about how their children should interact with police. Michel Martin asks whether other ethnic groups do the same?


It's been almost one month since the shooting death of 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown. He was killed by a white police officer, setting off days of protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The Justice Department is now investigating that shooting, as well as the policing tactics that many protesters say led to it. Those protests also set off a wave of more personal conversations between parents and their children. It's known simply as the talk. NPR's Michel Martin is here with us in the studio to talk about the talk. Hey, Michel.


Hey, Melissa.

BLOCK: And the talk, of course - not a new thing. We've heard about this conversation, especially with high-profile cases or killings like this one.

MARTIN: I think people have become more open about the fact that they are having this private conversation. We're starting to talk about it in public more than I think we've heard about in recent years. In fact, you know, when you spoke with Pastor Willis Johnson of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, he talked to you about it.

WILLIS JOHNSON: When I get pulled over, even with my credential and degree - terminal degreed self, I revert back to that 18-year-old and the things that my father told me about what to do when the police stop you.

BLOCK: And, Michel, that moment was so powerful for a lot of us here - also, for a lot of listeners who wrote in and thought about that notion - that a 39-year-old man can remember clearly what that felt like to be 18.

MARTIN: And I'm glad you mentioned that, because it is a very emotional thing. It is a very emotional thing within families and to talk about. And I also feel have to point out the emotional impact of an event like the Michael Brown shooting because millions of people see this as the worst-case scenario of something they have to deal with every day. It's not just a news event. It is dinner table conversation. It brings up a lot of things.

BLOCK: And you went to Ferguson, Missouri, last week, Michel, to have conversations about all of this.

MARTIN: I did. But I started by going out and doing some reporting, you know, in the area, just hear what was on people's minds in advance of our conversation. And I tell you - I saw over and over again African Americans being stopped by the police. And at one point, I jumped out and talked to a group of young African-American men about this. They were out cutting lawns, and this is what they had to say.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They profile us. They think we somebody we really not. So they going to pull us over.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They basically look at us as criminals because of our skin color.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: But you can't judge people by our skin color.

MARTIN: When they speak to you, how do they speak to you?

MAURICE PHIPPS: The speech was rude. We call them - yes, sir. And they - we don't get the same way back from them.

MARTIN: You're hearing here from 22-year-old Maurice Phipps. We also heard from Martez, who's 24, and Marcus, who said he's 21. They only gave their first names, and we didn't press them on it given, you know, the circumstance of our conversation.

But I have to tell you, Melissa, as we were standing there, a long-time resident and older white woman named Margaret Warden came out of her home and essentially backed up what the young men had been saying. And she cited one particular incident that she had very fresh in her mind.


MARGARET WARDEN: They had them out here for hours - right out here in the front. And there was, like, four or five cops out here with them. You know, and they had the dogs out here searching their car and everything else, you know.

MARTIN: Could you tell why? Did you have any idea why?

WARDEN: No. I don't even think they had a probable cause to really stop them - you know what I'm saying? - 'cause they let them go. I'm sorry. I don't like this garbage. I do not at all - like it at all.

MARTIN: So, Melissa, when I came back from Ferguson, that got me thinking about how people from other parts of the country, people from other racial backgrounds think about or how they view their relationships with the police and how they talk about it.

BLOCK: And you reached out on Twitter and on Facebook, Michel, to collect some of those stories. What did you find?

MARTIN: Well, we got hundreds of responses. And I have to tell you that one thing that came up over and over again was the idea that being treated roughly or rudely by law enforcement, being presumed to be suspicious was just part of life for many people of color - not just African-Americans. And we're going to get to that, but we're going to hear first from a black teenager who attends a high-performing middle school in Washington, D.C. That's the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science.


CARLETTA HURT: SSAT - you ready?

MILES: I haven't taken it yet, but I believe I'm ready.

MARTIN: This is Miles Peterson. He's 13 years old, and we're also hearing his guidance counselor, Carletta Hurt. Miles Peterson is one of the school's many aspiring tech entrepreneurs. When we first met, he wanted to show me his pitch for a new app.

He told us that his mother had been coaching him for quite some time about how to behave if he were to be approached by police for any reason. But Miles told us, he didn't believe his respectful attitude, his conservative clothing, his school uniform of a polo shirt and pressed khakis - no sagging allowed - would necessarily protect him from being treated poorly. And he told us why.


MILES: It feels that you are singled out. You're isolated. You have to work twice as hard. You're a target for police officers and just regular people. You have to always be smart - one step ahead. That's how it feels to be a black male.

MARTIN: That's kind of a bummer, isn't it?

MILES: It's terrible that I have to be scared of the people who are supposed to serve and protect me. And it's something that needs to change.

MARTIN: But one thing that became clear was that this was not solely the concern of African-Americans. A number of parents of children with disabilities expressed serious concern that police might or, in many cases, have viewed their children as threatening or belligerent, when really they might just have difficulty communicating.

There were some fascinating responses from white parents of biracial children or white parents who had adopted children of other races who'd seen their children face very different treatment than they were accustomed to, especially if the children were darker skinned. In fact, skin color came up a lot with Latinos who spoke with us. Aracely Panameno, for example, talked about how authorities treated her family as she was raising her daughter in suburban Virginia.


ARACELY PANAMENO: The assumption is that if you are of immigrant descent, you must be undocumented. Your children are gang members and no good to society. They are uneducated, and they're only causing trouble.

MARTIN: And again, similar views were expressed by people of other backgrounds, like Deepa Iyer. She's the former director of a civil rights group for South Asian-Americans. In her case, she felt that 9/11 created a cloud of suspicion around people who are South Asian or who appear to be South Asian or Muslim or Sikh. And that, in turn, has created a wariness about law enforcement among many people from those backgrounds.


DEEPA IYER: I think that there are certain families who say that. Don't draw attention to yourself. Don't talk your native language. Don't necessarily talk about where you were born. Just kind of keep to yourself. But I've also seen South Asian kids who are actually more assertive about expressing their faith - expressing who they are, where they come from. So I think it runs the gamut. And it's not the same as the experiences that African-American families are facing. But I think the sources of this wariness and distrust are similar.

MARTIN: And we heard, as you might imagine, a very different perspective from a number of white Americans who wrote to us - a difference of opinion that has surfaced in a number of polls. Many people said, the real issue is how you present yourself.

Many echoed the sentiments of David Hiller. He's the chief of police and director of public safety for Grosse Pointe Park in Michigan. We reached out to him, and he told us that, quote, "if you did nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. Stop and speak to the police. Because he's talking to you doesn't mean you did something wrong. And if you did, then we have a problem," unquote.

But there were other white listeners who told us that they had, in fact, become convinced that race does play a role in how police treat people.


MARTIN: That's 10-month-old baby Simon, the youngest of Elizabeth Broadbent's three boys. We reached her at her home in Columbia, South Carolina.


ELIZABETH BROADBENT: It's something that I need my sons, as white children to be really aware of - that children who aren't white are treated differently than they are.

MARTIN: Broadbent wrote about this in a blog post that got a lot of attention. It was titled "A Mother's White Privilege." She said that she felt the Michael Brown shooting was a wake-up call for white people to acknowledge that they are likely to have very different relationships with law enforcement.


BROADBENT: My daddy was actually a constable. And it was always drummed into us - you know, if anything's wrong, always go to the police. The police will always help you. And that's what we tell our sons - you know, always look for a policeman if you're in trouble.

When we go to festivals or when we're out walking, and we see a policeman, we always make a point to say, hi, you know, and, look, oh, he's a policeman. He helps people. And that's a very different conversation than I would have if I were a black mother.

MARTIN: Finally, I would say that this is a reminder that what happened in Ferguson is not just something that is a subject for policy papers or press conferences. These kinds of incidents really hit people where they live.

BLOCK: Hit people where they live - Michel Martin, it's an interesting thought. And you want to keep that conversation going. You're reaching out for more thoughts on the talk from listeners.

MARTIN: Yes, we want to hear your thoughts on the talk. You can do that on Twitter and Facebook. Use the hashtag NPRTheTalk to join the conversation. And you can also follow me on Twitter. I'm at NPRMichel, and if you don't know, it's M-I-C-H-E-L - no E on the end.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Michel Martin, thanks so much.

MARTIN: Thanks, Melissa.

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