Some Different Advice to Those Raising African-American Boys in the Wake of the Martin Shooting and Zimmerman Trial

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If you use social media–or any media really–it’s impossible to escape the reactions to the recent Zimmerman acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Understandably there are a lot of questions and a lot of emotions prompted by a “not guilty” verdict in an undisputed shooting of an unarmed youth.

One observer tweeted a link to a column called “How to Talk to Young Black Boys about Trayvon Martin,” authored by journalist Toure nearly a year ago. I missed this piece when first published. The person leaving the tweet thought the piece prescient and pertinent in light of the verdict. I found it deeply problematic. I find it so troubling that I’d like to post the opening lines of the eight talking points Toure proposed (for the full text follow the link above), interact with them, and then suggest an alternative message.

Toure’s Talking Points for Young Black Boys

1. It’s unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition. …

2. If you encounter such a situation, you need to play it cool. Keep your wits about you. Don’t worry about winning the situation. Your mission is to survive.

3. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re amazing. I love you. When I look at you, I see a complex human being with awesome potential, but some others will look at you and see a thug — even if their only evidence is your skin. Their racism relates to larger anxieties and problems in America that you didn’t create. When someone is racist toward you — either because they’ve profiled you or spit some slur or whatever — they are saying they have a problem. They are not speaking about you. They’re speaking about themselves and their deficiencies.

4. You will have to make allowances for other people’s racism. That’s part of the burden of being black. We can be defiant and dead or smart and alive. … The best way to counter them involves not your fists but your mind. … The best revenge is surviving and living well.

5. Be aware of your surroundings. Especially when it’s dark. Or bright. Some people are on the lookout for muggers or rapists. You need to be on the lookout for profilers who are judging you. Don’t give them an opportunity to make a mistake.

6. If you feel you are being profiled and followed or, worse, chased by someone with a vigilante streak — if you are hunted in the way it seems Trayvon was, by someone bigger than you who may be armed and hopped up on stereotypes about you — then you need to act. By calling the police. That is the exact time to snitch. I know there are times the cops will be your enemies, but sometimes calling 911 and letting the threatening person know that you’re doing so could save your life.

7. What if it’s the cops who are making you feel threatened? Well, then you need to retreat. I don’t mean run away. I mean don’t resist. Now is not the time to fight the power. Make sure they can see your hands, follow all instructions, don’t say anything, keep your cool. Your goal is to defuse things, no matter how insulted you are. We’ll get revenge later. In the moment, play possum. Say sir. They may be behaving unjustly, but their lives aren’t in danger. Yours is. If you survive, you will be able to tell your lawyer what happened. If you don’t….

8. Never forget: As far as we can tell, Trayvon did nothing wrong and still lost his life. You could be a Trayvon. Any of us could.

Some Reactions to Toure’s Counsel and Point-of-View

At places, Toure’s counsel is spot on. We must teach our boys–all boys–to play it cool and keep their head (#2). We must teach African-American boys and all little boys that “there’s nothing wrong with you” (#3). As my mama would say, “God didn’t make no junk.” And we must teach our boys the ability to be calculating, to observe the odds and to respond appropriately, to use their minds to the full  (#4-7). In one sense, all Toure advocates here is wisdom, the kind of savvy with people and in situations that could de-escalate very volatile circumstances. We want our boys to be peace-loving and to survive to fight on their own terms. I commend all of this.

But at other places Toure reveals a view of life that simply cannot and should not be tolerated, much less taught to our children as though it’s a norm they should accept.

First, it is most likely that our children will not be killed today. That’s a fact. Praise God! Even in some of the most crime- and violence-ridden neighborhoods, today, most children will walk into the front door of their homes and live. Eeking by in morbid fear is neither living or surviving. It’s simply another kind of death, self-imposed, darkened by the dousing of hope. Toure offers children nihilism and despair. He says “it’s unlikely but possible,” but that’s putting a smiley face on a death threat. He may have felt such hopelessness or anguish in the immediate aftermath of Martin’s death. But the first rule of responsible adulthood must be to pass on life to our children, not death and nihilism. We pass on life and the hope of the “good life,” and we encourage our boys to use each day to both enjoy life and better it. If, then, their lives should be tragically cut short they would have been caught in the process of enjoying it. If an officer appears at my door bearing the news that my son has been killed, I do pray he can also say, “It seems he was doing and enjoying the very best things possible at the moment.”

Second, Black maleness is a beautiful condition. Toure writes, “Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition.” But there’s nothing about being “Black” (leaving aside any definition of the notion for a moment) or “maleness” that is “potentially fatal.” People don’t die from melanin count or Y-chromosomes. Toure goes on to explain: “There are people who will look at you and see a villain or a criminal or something fearsome. It’s possible they may act on their prejudice and insecurity.” He’s right about that. People will sometimes look at Black boys this way and “they are speaking about themselves and their deficiencies.” But the fatal condition is not “black maleness” but their prejudice and insecurity. The fatal flaw that ruins the American mind is not “Blackness” but “race” and “racism.” That reflexive color-coded living, multiplying attributes and stereotypes at the speed of sight–that, is the fatal flaw. And it kills America, not just Black youngsters. It kills the soul, not just the body. The toll is much higher and the disease more widespread than the number of actual killings or beatings. To be “Black” (again, leaving aside definitions for a moment) is to be beautiful. It is to be as God designed us. It is to possess a certain nobility forged by God’s hands and polished by suffering and struggle. Historically our suffering has lead to our glory. We ought not diminish or change that for one moment–much less when we’re teaching our boys how to navigate the world. “Black” is still beautiful. That must be passed on and re-articulated in light of God’s sovereign design and Jesus’ trans-ethnic reign.

3. Racism must not be allowed. Ever. “The Black man’s burden” must be redefined not as “allowing other people’s racism” but as ending both racism and “race” in pursuit of a world where culture, clan and character matter. We’re not stuck with “race.” Just as it was invented it can also be deconstructed. The “burden” then becomes choosing something else at the potential cost of both the familiar and the opportunism of the racially-invested. The “burden,” should we choose to accept it, is to now reject the category of “race” altogether–even when racists lurk and look to hurt. We’ve stared down racism for centuries. And by God’s grace we’ve won. It’s time now to stare down the very root of “racism,” the idea of “race.” We’re sending our boys out into the world to do more than merely survive. We’re sending them out to forge a future, a new reality, a world of both possibilities and achievements. We’re sending our boys out to defy the sociological standards that divide and oppress. We’re sending our boys out to fight against the world’s pathology in order to fight for the world’s sanity. In that fight there can be no easy cease-fire with racism or racists. We seek to capture the very ideological and sociological ground such men and women stand on–the ground of “race” and associated “superiority.” I’m praying for an army of such Black men and women, boys and girls. I’m praying for an army of such people from every ethnicity.

4. The “beloved community” is still our goal. Toure’s goals amount to little more than survival, lawsuits, and “revenge” by “living well.” But especially as Jesus followers, we live for something more. We live for redemption. We live for reconciliation. We live for forgiveness. We live for justice–yes–but the kind of justice that takes account of the cross of Calvary. Toure’s proposal leaves our boys all the more disenfranchised, endangered and homeless. Where will they find peace or love in such a world? Who will create it for them and call them to it if not us? We need to take the risk of faith that fights for both the civil justice that courts can grant but also the reconciliation that only Jesus can provide. Toure’s teaching strikes me as utterly antithetical to the long Black Christian tradition that has “brought us this far by faith.” And it is only that tradition–speaking the language of the gospel and dressed in the work clothes of social action–that has delivered us. Our Great Lord calls us to the creation of something more than mob justice and balkanized communities teetering on the brink of racial explosion and violence. We’re not admirably stewarding our spiritual and social legacy if we can imagine with this hard-earned freedom little more than a vigilante society. Our children deserve more from us.

The world view that seeps through Toure’s writing provides no hope or redemption or empowerment for our children and communities. It’s not a vision of the future worth our life’s energies. We need another way.

Old Paths for Our Feet

Toure does see something clearly, though. He sees that all of our angst and grief and protests and fears come down to one seemingly mundane but extraordinary privilege. Parenting. The rubber meets the road at our dinner tables, in our living rooms, on the drive to school and work, and during our bedtime routines. What will we tell our children? Here’s my take.

1. You are made in God’s image. That can be difficult to explain and understand. But you need to try to grasp this fact. Nothing else in all of creation bears the stamp of God but you and all other human beings. You are no mistake–nothing about you. You’re unique. Your dignity comes from your likeness to God. You’re not God. You’re not even close to being God. But you’re unique among His creation and He loves you.

2. Part of how God made you is “Black.” People try to define that in all kinds of ways. But it can’t be easily defined. To be “Black” is to be a lot of things all at once. But “Black” or African American is simply another way of saying “made in God’s image.” God determined where you should live and when. He tells us that in Acts 17:26. He determined that mommy and I would have the parents we have. He determined that out of the sea-graves of the Atlantic and the cotton fields of the South and the tough cities of the North a brand new people would come into existence. We’re part African, descended from that great continent. And we’re part American, sons of this soil. Both heritages are ours and yet we’re something more than just the adding of the two. And here’s what you need to know: You get to define what it means to be African American or Black. You get to give it dignity and purpose, beauty and joy. You get to interpret its sorrows and failings. It’s yours. Don’t let anyone rob you of it. God means for you to wear it and enjoy it.

3. Now, everybody doesn’t like Black people. Shoot… there are even Black people who don’t like Black people! Once it seemed like no one liked Black people. But now those folks are the minority. You know, there’s a much smaller minority in the world than African Americans. Oh, yes. The real minority are those people so blinded with sin that all they can think of is how much they want to be better than everybody else and how much they want to hurt people that don’t look like them. These people are blind. They’re small-minded. They worship idols–they worship themselves and their skin color and their culture. If they die in their sins God will judge them something fierce. They’re so blind they can’t see the blessing that people unlike them can be to them. They can’t even see that we’re all part of one human family descended from the same parents–Adam and Eve. That’s in Acts 17:26 again. Don’t be like them. Don’t let them hurt you. “A man can’t ride your back unless you’re bent over.” Their not liking you cannot limit you unless you let. Don’t let it. Be who God has called you to be. Do what God has called you to do. God himself will see you through even their idolatry and hatred. Don’t return hate for hate; it will kill you. Return love for their hate and two things will happen–you’ll heap hot coals on their heads and you’ll change this world we live in. Love cannot be crushed. It keeps rising like the sun. Everybody doesn’t like Black people. But you love everybody with the love God gives through His Son.

4. Realize that this life includes suffering, but this isn’t the only life there is. You know, you may lose some battles with the world. There are strong enemies out there and sometimes you’ll find yourself in difficult situations. If you have to suffer in this life, be sure you suffer for doing what is right and not what is wrong. Be sure to suffer like a Christian. Christians suffer like Jesus. Jesus was mocked and ridiculed, spat upon and beaten. They nailed him to a cross and danced over his grave. He was sinless but he suffered. In this sinful world we’re bound to suffer. Don’t be surprised by it. Don’t let it knock you off your game. Remember: Those who hope in Jesus have another life that does not end and where suffering can’t reach. Live this life in anticipation of that life. Lay hold to Jesus by faith. Follow Him. Trust Him. Give yourself to Him. Hope in Him never disappoints. Even if some fool takes your life in this world, you’ll go immediately to that world Jesus prepared for us. If you suffer in this world for doing Jesus’ will, you’ll earn a reward in the next world for that same suffering. Your suffering is your slave. It works for you a great reward with Jesus. Don’t be thrown off by suffering. This life will never be perfect. But the next one will. Hope in Jesus.

5. Son, be smart. Be wise. Choose your friends carefully. Think. Especially think before you act in scary situations. Don’t just react. Obey the authorities so long as they don’t try to force you to disobey Jesus. Respect everyone, son, and you’ll find most people respecting you back. A good name is to be desired above wealth.

6. Avoid trouble when you can. Sometimes it comes looking for you. When it does, play the man. You stand your ground–not angrily or out of control, but bravely, confident in the presence and power of God  who will never leave you nor forsake you. Care as much or more about the welfare of others as you do yourself. Look out for the weak and vulnerable. When you serve them you actually serve Jesus. He will receive you with joy when you do. This is our Father’s world, and He is making something beautiful of our lives. He began a good work in you and sometimes trouble is the way He inches it on toward completion.

7. Finally, know that I am here for you and will walk with you as long as I have life. You’re my son and I love you. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you–especially when you’re pursuing righteousness or facing enemies. Every day I want you to know that you are not alone. God promised He would not forsake me. Now, with His help, I’m promising that I won’t forsake you. Come hell or high water I’m going to be right there for you. So you do your best and never settle. Momma and I will catch you if you slip and we’ll cheer you as you strive.

Have I ever told you my favorite poem? It’s called Mother To Son.

Conclusion

Of course, none of our parenting conversations can be scripted. And rarely do we have the perfect answer to our kids’ questions. Perhaps the most debilitating feeling as a parent comes from the look on our children’s faces when we can’t find a satisfactory answer for the toughest problems. Even so, we can give hope and we can be there. Besides pointing our children to Jesus, giving hope and being there lie at the heart of parenting. I pray the Lord gives us better wisdom each day as we parent for His glory.

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