Cautious Parents Impart Lessons of How to Behave Around Authority Figures

The arrest of Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his front porch has been the catalyst for discussions about race and the police.
The arrest of Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his front porch has been the catalyst for discussions about race and the police. (By Charles Krupa -- Associated Press)
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By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009

These are not new lessons taught to black children sitting at the dinner table.

They are old lessons, repeated in an oral tradition for survival. Told by grandmothers with wrinkled hands, grandfathers who saw something way back when, worried mothers talking in hypotheticals.

They are lessons you don't want to teach a child because it could make him feel vulnerable, crack her innocence, pop this generation's colorblind bubble.

So you wait until it's absolutely necessary and relevant, and explain it like this:

If you are ever stopped by the police, be polite. Say: "Yes, sir. No, sir." Make no sudden movements. Do not try to run.

Why? they ask.

And that's when you tell them: You are a black child in America. There is a history here. So, baby, just be careful.

"I tell them if a police officer comes up to you, all you have to say is, 'Okay, officer. Yes, sir. Thank you.' Then move on. Don't say nothing smart," says James Thompson, whose son is 15 and tall for his age. He goes to school in Bethesda, has white friends, spends his time skateboarding through the streets. He's a baby, really, living in a "post-racial" world.

"That is one thing I'm scared of," says Thompson, a proud man who does not like to feel scared. "They don't know the danger that is out there. They don't know this happens all the time, but it just happened to happen to a prominent man."

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. served as a lesson update for Dana Green, 40, whose sons are 13 and 18. "If they could take a prominent, highly respected black man out in cuffs, then surely, my recent high school graduate, who has yet to master an articulate vocabulary and sometimes fails to wear a belt, he would certainly be carried out in a body bag," says Green, an educator who lives in Bowie. "I am telling them to comply first, appeal later. That's my motto in our house."

For a lot of people -- black and white -- the incident in which Gates was arrested on his front porch after talking back to police prompted a "teachable moment" to examine the intersection of race and justice, or perhaps misunderstandings between two men from different backgrounds in Cambridge, Mass. President Obama has invited both Gates and Sgt. James Crowley to the White House for a beer Thursday evening. Because talking things over just might be the best way to resolve incidents like these. Once a heated situation is defused and titles are pulled back, we find two individuals with stories to tell.

Outside the White House, away from the peace beer, people are carrying on their own conversations.

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