Years before the killing of Trayvon Martin grabbed the nation’s attention, the teen’s father warned him that his race could make him a target of violence.
The advice Tracy Martin gave his black son, that people veiled by racism and prejudices might see him as suspicious or violent, is a common and continuous warning in many black families, parents and experts say. In the aftermath of Trayvon’s death, more families are having “the talk,” teaching sons to be aware of their race, avoid confrontations with authority figures, and to remain calm in situations even if their rights are violated.
“I’ve always let him know we as African Americans get stereotyped,” Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father told USA TODAY three weeks after his son’s death. “I told him that society is cruel.”
Trayvon, 17, was shot and killed on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., as he was returning to a gated community after buying candy at a nearby store. The gunman, George Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, now faces a charge of second-degree murder.
Trayvon was “profiled” by Zimmerman, who “falsely assumed (Trayvon) was going to commit a crime” as the teen was trying to get back to the home of his father’s girlfriend, according to public filings by Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey. The documents portray Zimmerman as the aggressor throughout the incident, remarking to police at one point that people like Trayvon were “punks” causing trouble in his neighborhood.
After spotting Trayvon, Zimmerman called 911, got out of his vehicle, and followed the teen. Zimmerman then “disregarded the police dispatcher” and chased Trayvon as he was trying to return home, the records say.
Trayvon’s family and their supporters maintain that Zimmerman deemed Trayvon “suspicious” because the teen was black and wearing a hoodie.
Zimmerman could face life in prison if convicted. He maintains he shot the youth in self-defense after he was attacked.
The killing sparked dozens of rallies across the country, largely fueled by the belief of many that the case is the tip of the iceberg of a glaring problem of racial injustice in the USA.
Reggie Bridges, a father of two young black boys, sees the Trayvon Martin case as an example of the type of racial profiling he has warned his sons about for years.
“You stand out from the norm,” Bridges, of Silver Spring, Md., said he often tells his children. “I try to heighten their awareness of what’s going on in the world.”
Bridges, 44, an insurance agent, often stresses dressing nicely and speaking articulately to dissuade potential perceptions that his boys are thugs or gangsters, he said.
Similar lessons have been passed down since just after the Civil War to ward off danger in an America that has for centuries perceived black men as threats, said Mark Anthony Neal, an African and African-American studies professor at Duke University.
“This kind of parenting goes back to the black codes,” he said. “It’s no different to the talk black parents had with black children, particularly black boys, prior to the civil rights movement, where the threat of real racial violence and lynching was always present. … Ultimately, what you are trying to do is keep them alive.”
Discussing racism with a child while not instilling fear or paranoia can be a delicate task. Those delivering the message — parents, extended family members, mentors or other older figures in communities — must be careful to also affirm blackness, experts say.
“Watch out should be accompanied with you’re beautiful and here’s why,” said Howard Stevenson, a psychology and education professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
It’s not enough to tell stories about Emmett Till or Rodney King to youngsters, said Stevenson, who has studied the racial awareness of children of color for several years. Kids must deal with their racial stress by understanding their feelings and practicing positive responses to potential racist situations, he said.
Dionne Bensonsmith, 40, of Claremont, Calif., started talking to her first son, Jonah, now 8, about race when he was 5 and 6. The youngster had already started saying “all police aren’t your friends” and pointing out that officers stopped a lot of black people in their small Iowa city, she said.
“I had the talk of how police target people around race,” said Bensonsmith, a professor at Scripps College. “I said if that ever happens to you, you have to remain respectful, you have to remain very calm.”
She and many parents see “the talk” as evolving lessons on racial consciousness that will cover more topics as children grow. But there are challenges to teaching kids to live within racial injustices.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” said Bensonsmith, who also has another son, Akim Shklyaro, 2. “Sometimes I get really pissed off. Sometimes I don’t want to do it. I feel like I’m crushing some sort of potential in him.”
“The talk” is one of several tips parents of all races hope will prepare and protect their children from danger, according to Gerald Koocher, a psychology professor at Simmons College.
“The talk is probably going to be surprising to white Americans,” he said. “The one that most closely aligns is don’t take candy from a stranger or don’t go anywhere with a stranger.”
When Steve Baker, who is white, decided to talk to his two half-black sons, now 25 and 20, he admits he struggled to understand their place in society. He relied on his black wife, Pamela, and friends he made through an interracial family group to learn about what his sons may encounter.
“There are certainly instances where they were identified by simply what they look like and perceived as a threat and ran into negative behavior based on that,” said Baker, a university administrator who lives in Minneapolis. “There’s real danger for young men of color in our society. … As a white person, I didn’t grow up having to think about that.”
Others also struggled. Trayvon’s case led Melinda Anderson to talk to her son Colin, 11. Both are black.
Anderson had focused on making sure her son was successful in school and exposed to various cultures. Race wasn’t at the forefront of her mind until Trayvon’s case made her see her son as a potential victim. She took Colin to a Trayvon rally in Washington, D.C., and explained how she believes race played a part in Trayvon being deemed “suspicious.”
But, she’s not teaching him to fear the police or expect racism at every step in his life, said Anderson, 48, a writer who lives in Silver Spring, Md.
“I don’t want to raise him to feel like he has to get out his 20 item checklist on how to be a black teenager,” she said. “That’s not the way I want him to live.”
Still, she said, there is a sense of hopelessness as she learns more about Trayvon’s death.
“I don’t think I could prevent him from being another Trayvon Martin,” she said.
Tracy Martin, who maintains that his son was targeted because of his race, said he told the teen prejudices could lead to danger.
“He knew that this type of thing did happen,” Martin said of his son. “He knew to be aware of this type of atmosphere and that this atmosphere did exist.”