Why Many Black Parents Talk to Their Children About the Police Today

max and tamar manasseh
Tamar Manasseh and Max Manasseh hold up signs on 57th street in Hyde Park at a Mothers Against Senseless Killings event

By Misha Euceph

“Turn the radio down. Turn the radio down! They’re gonna take you to jail,” said 4-year-old, Max Manasseh.

“What? What do you mean turn the radio down?” asked Tamar Manasseh, his mother. They were on their way back from dropping off Max’s older sister, Avi, at school in Englewood, on the South Side of Chicago. Their car was stopped at a stoplight, right in front of a police car.

“The police. They’re gonna take you to jail,” said Max, again.

Tamar recalls that moment as the first time she knew her son was afraid of the police.

“They know how to deal with the police. They learn that very early on,” she whispered inside a FedEx in Hyde Park, where she made copies for an event for Mothers Against Senseless Killings, a non-profit organization she founded.

“He was 4. Already scared of the police,” Tamar continued. “Just being black; they learn it. Especially kids who are in neighborhoods like Englewood, Lawndale, Roseland. Certain neighborhoods, they don’t need to teach you anything. It’s understood. Just like the stove is hot; it’ll burn you. Don’t stick anything in electrical sockets, ‘cause it’ll electrocute you. The police will kill you.”

After the city released a dash cam video on Nov. 24 showing a white Chicago police officer shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald, protestors took to the streets and racialized violence by Chicago police became international news. But many black residents of Chicago say that they’ve long known to be wary of unjustified violence or scrutiny from the police. In fact  some black parents in Chicago begin to prepare their children for encounters with the police by sitting them down for a “the  talk,” almost like generations of parents have been known to teach their kids about “the birds and the bees.”

During the conversation, black parents confront their children with the racially-loaded nature of interactions with the police and tips for how to conduct themselves around police to prevent escalation.

While some parents wait to bring up the subject with their children, many start the discussion at as early as 9 to 12 years old. This is because, according to Erin Winkler, “African-American boys are getting evaluated as ‘adultified,’ while parents are seeing children as young.”

Winkler, chair of the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, studies the construction of race in relation to children. In her research, she notes that African-American boys suffer from overestimation of their age and, in many cases, dehumanization.

“With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four and a half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old,” said Matthew Jackson, PhD, of UCLA, in an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Winkler notes that “the talk” about police is usually directed at young black males rather than females.

But Tamar Manasseh says that that is changing after cases like that of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Texas, and Rekia Boyd, who was killed by an off-duty officer using an unlicensed firearm in Chicago. She says, “My daughter thinks it won’t happen to her, but things are just not like they used to be.”

Evidence from the Invisible Institute’s Citizen Police Database supports this. According to the database, in excessive use of force complaints in Englewood, although 90 percent of the complainants are black, approximately half are men and half are women.

“We have to take seriously the reality that we’re in,” says Jason Thompkins, Black Lives Matter Chicago co-founder. “We have to make sure that we’re recording with our cell phones when we have interactions with the police. We have to practice awareness and protection so that we can keep ourselves and each other safe.”

Thompkins brings attention to a new method of preparation in the form of cell phones and social media, something parents might be adding to the talk.

Ghian Foreman, a black male and current member of the Chicago Police Board, argues that the talk cannot be limited to black parents and their children. “It’s a community conversation. It’s the world we live in. We have to talk about the world we live in and be able to prepare,” he said. “It’s a conversation that takes place not just in low-income communities, but all over,” he said.

Max remembers the first time he encountered the police not as that time when he was 4 years old, sitting at a stoplight with his mom, but instead as a recent incident.

“I was going to my house. It was late, about 11:30 p.m., in Bronzeville,” he remembers. “I’m walking up the stairs, into my house and I had to use this key. But the key wasn’t working. And the cops shone their light on me a few times, asked what I was doing.

“‘What the [expletive] are you doing?’ they asked. I told them, ‘I’m trying to get into my house.’ I wasn’t trying to make the situation worse. I mean, if you show them that you’re not going to be aggressive with them, maybe they won’t be aggressive with you. That’s how I thought about it, so I wasn’t aggressive with them. So they drove away eventually, after I got into my house.”

Photo at top: Tamar Manasseh and Max Manasseh hold up signs on 57th street in Hyde Park at a Mothers Against Senseless Killings event. (Misha Euceph/MEDILL)