*The parenting bible, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” teaches mothers what to anticipate over the course of their children’s lives. However, for mothers of Black children, there is a missing chapter: preparing them for racism and injustice. The voice of 46-year-old George Floyd pleading for his “mama” as he took his last breath echoes in the hearts, minds, and souls of mothers everywhere. There are no words of wisdom that prepare a mother to hear or watch her son die under a policeman’s knee. Even the threat of death or severe harm at the hands of law enforcement is enough to cause maternal panic or paralysis.
Events of this year have brought national and international attention to the insurmountable challenges of parenting Black children in America because of the requisite need to teach survivalist safety measures. During the 2020 presidential debate, moderator Kristen Welker asked both Donald Trump and now President-elect Joe Biden a pointed question about “The Talk”— raising national visibility of the necessity felt by parents in rearing their Black children. Mr. Floyd complied with officers’ commands to get out of his car and lay handcuffed face down in the street. We teach compliance as a survivalist strategy. It is a part of the first lesson we mothers teach our Black children: respond respectfully to those with power and authority over you; move slowly, lower your eye gaze, and comply, no matter how unreasonable.
Compliance did not save Philando Castile. He was killed during a traffic stop although he followed the law enforcement officers’ commands. Our children drive; we worry. Should the second lesson be to walk or run away from unidentified White men? That did not work for Ahmaud Arbery who was on his regular neighborhood jog. Our children jog; we worry. Should the third lesson be to stay still if you are handcuffed because sudden moves will be used to justify your death? That did not work for George Floyd. He did everything Black mothers over the generations have taught would hopefully (prayerfully) protect our Black children: obey, do not resist, no sudden movements. Mr. Floyd did everything we teach from that missing chapter on parenting, and still he was killed. Do we add the Black survivalist parenting chapter, or write an entirely new parenting handbook? Somehow we have to tell our children that to avoid slaughter, they need to be silent as lambs and not attract attention. But how is that done when we have blatant examples of showing respect, making yourself “small,” and acquiescing is not enough? How do we teach them to subdue the instinct to fight back, knowing that they could be suffocated or shot to death, like Rayshard Brooks?
The first lady of a prominent church in an under-resourced community in Southern New Jersey where the police department was disbanded years ago spoke about how the frequent deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement affected the community: “…The assaults chip away at the core of my soul. It hurts because I am a mother and I know how mothers love their children. It’s overwhelming, it’s really debilitating.” The psychological effects she refers to are rampant. A study published in Lancet reported that killings of unarmed Black men at the hands of police were related to increased mental health issues like depression and emotional complications for those residing in the state where the killing occurred.
Discrimination and racism destroy hope and can make an individual feel helpless. Dr. Gail E. Wyatt, Professor of Medical Psychology at UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Science, describes her outlook on hope, “Today, I don’t know that there is hope…It’s a shame to say that, isn’t it? I see my granddaughters—one in particular—speak up, and I hear her tone and I see the outrage in her body language that she absolutely needs to survive in this society…and I just don’t see that things will change…Maybe she will have to be hyper vigilant less often than I was, but that’s about all that I think we can hope for.”
The incidents involving the murders of Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, Aiyana Jones, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray all personify the statistics reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that police violence is the leading cause of death for young Black men in the U.S., who are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than White men. Our Black sons know these statistics because they are part of that missing chapter that we are compelled to share. Lest we forget our daughters: Black women are at least 1.4 times as likely to be killed by law enforcement officers as white women. Black girls and women are victims of other forms of police violence too; they are habitually violated in ways that stop short of death.
“The Talk” about how to interact with authority figures and respond under stress must happen because the alternative is worse: leaving our Black children unprotected and without strategies to cope. What is uncertain is whether it can be done in a way that will not irreparably harm our children’s psyches. We are angry and saddened that it is still necessary to have this discussion. Generations later we have witnessed time and time again that this colloquy is insufficient and does not always save lives. Black people who make even routine traffic violations and know their rights, like Sandra Bland, are all too often met with excessive and even deadly force. More often than not, the killing of Black people is blamed on the victim’s actions rather than the actions of those whose power remains unchecked. Legal scholars contend that strategies intended to curb law enforcement violence negate critical factors, such as accountability, through the established use of force policies. That leaves the responsibility to mothers of Black children to teach them to defy their own bodies’ neurobiological “fight-flight-or-freeze” system, even when it is an instinctive response to a threat to their survival.
While the four officers involved in the murder of Mr. George Floyd have been arrested and await a single trial, this same scenario has been played out innumerable times with justice neither prevailing nor substantive changes in law practice to prevent their recurrence. The question is, will the public outcry against the ongoing backdrop of the global pandemic be enough to effect change? As optimism increases as the COVID-19 vaccine spreads, will America recognize that Black people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic further compounding systemic injustice that has adversely affected the Black community for all of American history? Those who want the answer to be yes will need to advocate within their inner circles, call their congressional representatives, donate to causes that will not tire until laws and policies correct the systems that support discriminatory practices, and take consistent actions to dismantle systemic racism.
With regard to the parenting bible’s “missing chapter,” Dr. Wyatt offers advice on what to include: “Raise your children to understand the limitations of the world, raise your children to know not only how special they are but who specifically loves them, and that it’s unconditional.” She further adds, “If you don’t have a strong sense of who you are as a parent, get some help to create a network of people who can help you to define for that child what they’re going to need to survive. It’s got to come out of strength and it’s got to come out of love.” Until the missing chapter becomes superfluous, we will not stop fighting for our Black children to be safe wherever they are. But for now we will remain close by, just in case.
Megan T. Ebor, Enricka Norwood-Scott, Alison B. Hamilton & Michele Cooley-Strickland are colleagues at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. All work as researchers within the Center for Culture, Trauma and Mental Health Disparities in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in The David Geffen School of Medicine.