After Arbery shooting, black parents are rethinking 'the talk' with sons to explain white vigilantes

"I told him, 'Son, don't run when you are confronted with a gun. I don't want to go to your funeral.'"
Image: Carlton Riddick, right, finds it frustrating that it is necessary to have talks with sons Justin, left, and Josiah about surviving targeted attacks.
Carlton Riddick, right, finds it frustrating that it is necessary to have talks with sons Justin, left, and Josiah about surviving targeted attacks.Courtesy of Carlton Riddick

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By Curtis Bunn

Before Carlton Riddick left New York for college in 1988, his mother had “the talk” with him, a customary conversation between parents and children about the guidelines of conduct as they embark on life on their own.

Today’s talk is radically different from years past. Black parents are having serious and cautionary exchanges with their children about law enforcement shootings of unarmed African American males and so-called vigilante white men exacting prosecution on their own volition.

These talks have intensified after Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot and killed Feb. 23 in Brunswick, Georgia, by two white men who followed and confronted him as he went for a routine jog.

“When my mother had the talk with me, she told me to avoid being considered a criminal by watching whom I would associate with, so I would not be arrested,” recalled Riddick, a graduate of Johnson C. Smith University who is an information technology specialist in Atlanta.

Contrast that with the talk Riddick had with his son Josiah before the latter left for college two years ago.

“I looked him in the eyes and said, ‘Son, the police are not your friends.’ That was the beginning of the talk,” said Riddick, whose younger son, Justin, is now 18..

“I wanted him to fully understand what it means to walk out of the safety of his home into a world that would see him as a suspect just because he was walking down the street. This admonishment also included being cautious and suspicious of those of other cultures, many of whom now seem emboldened to take matters into their own hands.”

The two men arrested in the Arbery shooting, Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis, 34, were charged with felony murder and aggravated assault, but only after a neighbor’s video of the shooting was released last week — more than two months after the incident.

The case has outraged many across the country and devastated the African American community, which has seen many similar acts by white men considering themselves avengers against unarmed black males for no apparent cause, according to many experts.

Sociologist Dr. Rodney Coates of the University of Miami Ohio said the history of vigilantes hunting down black males goes back to Reconstruction.Courtesy of Rodney Coates

“This is an insidious form of racial profiling,” said Rodney Coates, a sociologist and associate professor at Miami University in Ohio. “It’s part of a system that targets black males, not unlike the period of Reconstruction when gangs of whites would hunt down blacks with the mission of killing them.”

With Arbery’s shooting death, which is similar to the killing of Trayvon Martin, 17, by neighborhood watch guard George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012, black families have been traumatized and many suffer from anxieties because they believe a comparable catastrophe could happen to them, Coates said.

“I have a 21-year-old son who at one time did something he shouldn’t have: He used a fake ID to get into a bar,” Coates said. “I was upset about it. But when I was told that he tried to run, I was frightened. I had this new version of ‘the talk’ with him immediately. I grabbed him and hugged him with tears in my eyes because he was still here. I told him: ‘Son, don’t run when you are confronted with a gun. I don’t want to go to your funeral.’

“There is a sector of whites, police and otherwise, who feel they have a license to question (black males) and, if they feel like it, use deadly force.”

Jeri Byrom, a teacher in Nairobi, Kenya, said while she was excited about her son Adam starting college at Howard University a few years ago, there was concern he would fall victim to a targeted attack.

“I’m terrified that my son might go to prison or get killed just by being black,” Byrom said. “I live in this constant fear. Young freshman do stupid things, and young black men cannot afford to make one mistake. I happened to call him on Halloween during his freshman year. Good thing I did because he and his friend were about to go trick or treating in an affluent area of D.C.

“I freaked out and started yelling: ‘Are you out of your mind?’ I could imagine what could happen to a group of black boys, with or without costumes, going to a white neighborhood. Again, we had ‘the talk’: ‘You can't do things like that. You are a target. You don't have to do anything at all, and you can still be shot or arrested or attacked. Please don't go.’ Thankfully, they didn’t.

“This horrible case in Georgia raised so many emotions and has forced black parents to modify the talk with their sons.”

In Arbery’s case, he paused while jogging and entered a house that was under construction. The McMichaels told police they suspected him of burglarizing a nearby home, although there is no report of any crime in that neighborhood since Jan. 1. The father and son pulled ahead of Arbery in a pickup truck, blocked the street and the son jumped out brandishing a shotgun.

The video shows Arbery trying to wrest the weapon before being shot (off camera) three times and then collapsing to the ground. The FBI is considering charging the McMichaels with a hate crime.

“The attack on us is unceasing, prolific, pervasive, insidious and brutal,” Clifford Benton, a college English professor in New York, said, adding that his conversation with his son, Clifford Jr., 25, “about his ‘situation’ in the United States is born out of my clarity regarding our plight.”

“I have not minced words, and the proof of my truth is evidenced daily,” Benton said “As black men from two different eras, we face the same hostilities from virtually all fronts.”

Liketa Morris of Oakland, California, said her heart sank when she read about the shooting of Arbery. Her son, Tai, a student at DePaul University in Chicago, likes to jog, as well.

“I could not hold back my tears or my fears or my anger,” Morris said. “This young man was (like) my son. Tai runs every day in the streets of Chicago, and if that would have happened to him, there would have been no ends of the earth that could settle me as a parent.”

She said Arbery’s death sadly illuminated the points she regularly makes to her 20-year-old and reinforced after the shooting.

“He will always have a stigma over his head,” Morris said. “We’ve had the conversation about what that looks like for him plenty of times. I’ve had to tell him to be proud of who you are always. I’ve had to talk to him about the police in making sure you’re always showing two hands, so they won’t ‘accidentally’ kill you. I worry a lot for him being out there by himself. When I don’t hear from him for two days, I panic and I’m ready to take a ‘red-eye’ out there because I’m scared.”

Family therapist Dr. Porsha Jones stresses that black parents reinforce positive attributes to their boys when discussing the climate of racial profiling.Courtesy of Porsha Jones

Family therapist Porsha Jones in Atlanta said parents must be mindful of not diminishing their youths’ self-esteem when having this updated version of “the talk.”

“It’s personal for me because I have a black son,” Jones said. “And the one thing about the coronavirus is that I know where he is: home. It’s alleviated a lot of stress for me because he can’t go anywhere.

“Black parents have to implement a talk around new protective factors. But we have to balance the message so that he does not believe he is less than. You must communicate a sense of all love for your child and let him know that he is not broken, that he is equal. Reinforce his attributes and make sure he understands his heritage. This is necessary to reinforce because this is certainly not about him.”

Coates agrees. “We have to let our kids know there is a time to fight and a time not to fight,” he said. “When these (vigilante) cases occur, they must try to defuse, although it goes against their brain and instincts. But it’s not about being a coward. It’s not about backing down. It’s being strategic. It’s about living.”

For Riddick, it is disheartening to have to talk to his sons about potential mistreatment based solely on their race.

“What kind of world do we live in when a parent has to have these types of conversations with their children?” he said. “What pained me the most is here I am a father basically instilling a level of trepidation in my son. All he hears normally from me is that he can be anything he wants to be if he works for it. I had to add a caveat: even in a world that only sees you as a suspect.”