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A Mother's Rules for Being Young, Black, and Male

Laura W. Murphy,
Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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July 18, 2013

Like many mothers across the country, the Trayvon Martin tragedy still haunts me and makes me want to hold my son closer, knowing that his life as a young Black man in America is not getting any easier. As I wrote in a blog post last year, I’ve done my best to protect my son, a young man who is 23 and about to enter law school, by teaching him to anticipate prejudice and understand that for some, his skin color is an invitation to scorn and mistreatment. But one heartbreaking lesson to take from this tragedy is that there is essentially nothing that parents can tell their Black children—especially young men—about how to survive in this world that will protect them from violence, and that must change.

Right now we send our Black children disturbingly contradictory signals on how to conduct themselves so that they are free from discrimination and violence. Here are a few examples:

  1. Black boys and men should not walk too quickly or run because that suggests they’ve done something wrong. They also should not walk too slowly because that suggests they must be looking for trouble.
  2. Young black men should not put their hands in their pockets but should instead always keep their hands where others can see them. They should also avoid gesticulating, because others might misinterpret their gestures as aggressiveness.
  3. Black boys and men should wear business attire at all times because casual clothes—especially hoodies—suggest they’re up to no good.
  4. Black youth should never hang out with more than three friends at one time, because large groups are likely to be mistaken for a gang. They should also be careful about walking alone—young men hanging out by themselves, like Trayvon Martin, are suspicious.
  5. When shopping, whether at a grocery store or a department store, young Black men should check out quickly in order to avoid suspicion. But they should not check out too quickly, because that means they’ve pocketed merchandise on their way out.
  6. Young black men should never make eye contact with others because it is threatening; they should never avert their eyes because that looks furtive.
  7. Black men must be careful about walking, driving, or flying while black, especially in neighborhoods or in destinations where there are typically not a lot of black people. But they should avoid low income neighborhoods, because that is where the police are even more inclined to respond with brutality and arrest.
  8. And the most important lesson of all to be learned from this tragedy is that Black boys and men must be careful about defending themselves because, no matter what happens, they will be seen as the aggressor.

I simply don’t know what to tell my son about how to live his life under these circumstances. I have known for a long time that there is nothing I can do to protect my son from prejudice. But I simply refuse to accept that there is nothing I can do to protect him from violence. This is the current reality that my son and countless parents like me face, but we cannot stop here.

We must call on the Justice Department to update the guidance on the use of race in federal law enforcement, and we must get Congress to Pass the End Racial Profiling Act, for the sake of my son and Black children across the country.

For more on the widespread problem of racial profiling, see “The Value of Black Life in America.”

Want to do something about racial profiling? Ask Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act today.

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