Attorney General Eric Holder was warmly received at the 104th NAACP convention Tuesday. But I’m not so sure about the advice he told them he gave his son after Trayvon Martin was shot.
Holder told the crowd that the trial of the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, “provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly — honestly — and openly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised.”
We didn’t need another one of those, but okay, let’s hear it.
“Years ago,” he said, “some of these same issues drove my father to sit down with me to have a conversation — which is no doubt familiar to many of you — about how, as a young black man, I should interact with the police, what to say and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way that I thought was unwarranted. Now I’m sure my father felt certain at that time that my parents’ generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children.”
It wasn’t, of course. And unfortunately, Holder has had plenty of chances to put his father’s advice to use:
“The news of Trayvon Martin’s death last year, and the discussions that have taken place since then, reminded me of my father’s words so many years ago, and they brought me back to a number of experiences I had as a young man, when I was pulled over twice and my car searched on the New Jersey Turnpike when I’m sure I wasn’t speeding, or when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. I was, at the time of that last incident, a federal prosecutor.”
Obviously, you don’t have to be black to be stopped for no good reason; when I lived in Dallas years ago, I was regularly pulled over en route to my favorite movie house, the old Inwood Theatre, while driving through the upscale Park Cities. The Olds Cutlass I’d inherited from my Uncle Bob — my friends called it the Trashmobile — was apparently a troubling sight for Highland Park’s finest. If a car can be so efficiently profiled, so, too, can people, and I have no trouble believing that Holder was subjected to racial profiling even as a federal prosecutor. Nor do I doubt that it happens all too often still. Only, isn’t profiling by police one thing, and by armed nobodies another?
That’s where Holder loses me: “So Trayvon’s death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15-year-old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy. I am his father, and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world that he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways.”
George Zimmerman is not a cop, though he wanted to be. Holder’s father presumably told him to be all kinds of deferential with law enforcement officers. But does that advice also apply to a “creepy” guy running around armed and dangerous?
Is Holder saying that he advised his son to be respectful of any random guy who decides to follow him? Including — because they don’t wear labels — child molesters? Is he inferring that Martin could have survived if only he’d stopped, put his hands up and called, “Good evening, sir; how can I help you?”
And isn’t what he’s suggesting a lot like saying that women could avoid sexual assault by dressing more modestly, or otherwise behaving differently? (Yes, we can be aware and avoid putting ourselves in situations that have ‘trouble’ written all over them, but we also learn self-defense, not submission; sometimes fighting back is the right answer.)
Holder calls the talk he had with his son important, and one we should build on: “As important as it was, I am determined to do everything in my power to ensure that the kind of talk I had with my son isn’t the only conversation that we engage in as a result of these tragic events.”
But is he saying that black parents actually need to warn their sons to defer to one and all? And if so, would that be progress?
Melinda Henneberger is a Post politics writer and anchors She the People. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.