Updated: Jul 8, 2020
Raising black boys in America involves “constant mental anguish,” Danielle Pattillo, a special education teacher in New York City and mother to two sons, ages 14 and 22, said.
Every day Pattillo told her sons they were unique, wanted, valued, and loved - “each step in their life, each plateau of their life.”
But she also prepared them.
“I let them know that the world does not love them,” Pattillo said. “And just because they don’t love you doesn’t mean you’re not great. And it doesn’t mean that you’re not important. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t exist.”
The death of George Floyd, a 46-year old black man who died in May after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, has triggered widespread protests in the United States and around the world against police brutality and racism.
It has also been a painful reminder to black mothers in the U.S. how vulnerable their children, and especially their sons, are to police brutality, at least five women Reuters interviewed said.
Police-involved fatalities in the United States average nearly three deaths per day, a 2018 study in the American Journal of Public Health showed and black men are more than twice as likely to be killed during them than white men.
One in every 1,000 black men in the United States will be killed by a police officer, vs. one in every 2,000 men overall, a 2019 study by the National Academy of Sciences found.
Floyd’s death follows a string of other high profile deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of police, including the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio in 2014, the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014, and the March shooting of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky during a “no-knock” arrest that targeted the wrong house.
On June 12, Rayshard Brooks, a black man, was fatally shot in the back by police in Atlanta, after being found asleep in a parking lot.
Dreading ‘the talk’ for years
Pattillo said she sobbed the first time she sat down her younger son, then 12 years old, to have what’s known in the black community as “The Talk” - about how to behave when you are inevitably stopped by police, so you don’t become another statistic.
Speak slowly, keep your school I.D. on you, but don’t put your hand in your pocket to reach for it without asking. Don’t give the officer anything that could be considered sass.
“These are not conversations that you should be having with your children who are 12,” she said.
The Talk is so ubiquitous that the National Black Police Association (NBPA) holds a dramatized version with police officers, judges and prosecutors in high schools, and distributes a written guide entitled "What to Do When Stopped by the Police."
“We show how quickly it can go bad,” explained Regina Holman, a retired police officer in Las Vegas, president of the NBPA in Nevada, and mother and grandmother. Officers teach students “they have a very good chance that their cars are going to be ransacked, and they’re not going to be treated right.” “When they become non-compliant, that’s when things go wrong,” Holman said. “We teach them you cannot fight your battles at that moment.”
Neakai Lewis, an event producer in Los Angeles, lives in upscale neighbourhood View Park nicknamed “The Black Beverly Hills,” that has been home to entertainers Ray Charles and Tina Turner. Lewis created “The Mom Group,” for black women in Los Angeles to address additional stresses they face as parents.
Even though her son is only 21 months old, she’s already planning The Talk.
“It’s years of just drilling it in that everybody is beautiful, everybody deserves respect but you have a certain tone to your skin that for some reason is going to make you a threat - so here are the things that you’re going to need to do to survive and this is real,” said Lewis.
“It’s my duty as his mom to prepare him.”
Chantal Bonitto, 38, is raising a five-year-old son and gave birth to a second baby boy with her white husband in New York earlier this month. The race has always been a part of family conversations, and she’s already guiding her son’s behaviour due to fear of racial biases.
“He can’t be the wild kid. He wants to be the class clown. You cannot be the class clown,” she said. “I fear the day when he turns 10, and that admiration for this cute little curly-haired boy turns into fear,” she said.
Bonitto said she’s trying to instil the same confidence in her son her parents instilled in her as a black girl growing up in Brooklyn. “Most of all, that if someone does discriminate against him or makes him feel like he is ‘lesser than,’ in his heart, he knows that’s not true.”
Bonitto’s father was a corrections officer, she said. “I know and respect that his job paid for my college tuition, it provided me with healthcare and benefits, but the compromise was that he saw a flawed criminal justice system that locked up men that looked like him.”
Bonitto said she wants her son to be “wary of all authority figures who wear a badge and a gun.”
“I don’t deny that there are good cops,” Lewis said. But, she added, “How can you respect or how can you look up to somebody that you constantly have to fear?”
Police grapple with their role
Floyd’s death has prompted an unprecedented national conversation about the role of police in America, and their treatment of African Americans. On June 15, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a police reform bill, flanked by mothers who have lost their black sons to police violence.
Some black mothers who made their careers in law enforcement find they’re struggling for answers. “My grandson is 17,” said Holman, who served on the Las Vegas police force for over 27 years. “He said to me, ‘You taught me to respect the police. You always told me to comply.
But look at George Floyd. He respected the police, and now he’s dead. What do I do now?’”
The fear that black boys and their parents are feeling "is hard to fight," said Zsakhiem James, a police captain in Camden, New Jersey, a city that has reformed law enforcement in recent years to focus on de-escalation and community policing.
“Especially in light of the George Floyd incident,” James said. “It’s not just a fear of the Camden County Police. It’s a fear of all police.”
‘We can’t do it alone’
Black women in the United States are under a unique set of stresses, said Lori Hoggard, associate professor of psychology and director of the Racism, Identity, Coping, and Health Lab at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The stress they experience contributes to the disproportionately high levels of depression and cardiovascular disease, among other health problems, Hoggard said.
Pattillo and other mothers say they feel pressure to fix the impacts of systemic racism on the men in her life, and especially their sons.
“Black women have been tasked with having to be trauma surgeons for situations that we are not trained for... This is not something that only the black community can do, because the black community didn’t put the black community in this predicament. So, we can’t do it alone.”