A few weeks ago, Levar Burton, the actor best-known for his role as Geordi LaForge in Star Trek and the host of the long-running kids' show Reading Rainbow, appeared on a CNN roundtable and offered up a sobering how-to on driving while black:
Listen, I'm going to be honest with you. This is a practice that I engage in whenever I am stopped by law enforcement and I've taught this to my son, who is now 33, as part of my duty as a father to ensure that he knows the kind of world in which he's growing up. I take my hat off and my sunglasses off, I put them on the passenger's side. I roll down my window, I take my hands and stick them outside the window and on the door of the driver's side because i want that officer to be as relaxed as he can be when he approaches my vehicle. And I do that because I live in America.
It's a lesson that many of us got from out folks at some point, often before we got that other uncomfortable parent-child conversation about the birds and the bees. Don't move suddenly. Answer questions clearly, and with yes, sir and no, sir. Don't raise your voice. If you're handcuffed, don't say anything until we [your parents] get there.
The details differed depending on where you lived and your parents' particular concerns, but the point was for us to get through any encounter with the police without incident.
Like many parents, our folks wanted us, young black and brown not-quite men, to become experts at de-escalation. Because like many parents, they were motivated in part by worst-case scenarios. The worst-case scenario was always lurking in the conversation, unstated but strongly implied.
Then the Trayvon Martin shooting happened, and the The Talk became much more public — here was our parents' nightmare scenario. George Zimmerman wasn't a police officer, but for a lot of people, it only drove the point home more: at some point, you will be assumed to be a suspect or a threat.
After Martin was shot, a lot of folks wondered how it all could have been prevented, de-escalated. (And you watch a movie like Fruitvale Station about Oscar Grant — 22, black, unarmed, and shot in the back by a police officer as he lay face-down on a subway platform — and you can't help but wonder if The Talk itself is some kind of quaint fiction, like those old duck-and-cover instructional videos from the 1950s.)
In the wake of the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, we asked people on Twitter who watched the verdict with their kids about their reactions and the conversations that followed. We got an overwhelming response. Here's some of what they told us.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. The verdict this past weekend in the George Zimmerman trial provoked the expected debate on social media, with people expressing their views about his acquittal. But especially in the black community people are also discussing what the trial means for their own families. NPR's Gene Demby is here to talk to us about how, for some, the case has really hit home. Welcome back, Gene.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Renee.
MONTAGNE: How are you seeing on social media the discussion of this trial making its way into family life?
DEMBY: As it's been with so many big cultural events, Twitter and social media have been the space where people are going to look for a sense of virtual community. And one of the things we noticed shortly after the verdict came down was that people were reacting as parents. And so we decided to throw that out there and ask very specifically if people watched with their kids and if they did what they said to their kids about the verdict and what their kids asked them. So we got hundreds of responses.
MONTAGNE: And what precisely did you discover that the case does mean for parenting in the black community?
DEMBY: So there was a lot of talk about this thing everyone keeps referring to as The Talk, which is another fraught parent-child conversation that often precedes the birds and bees conversation, which is about how to comport oneself during an encounter with the police. A lot of kids of color, myself included, have had this talk growing up.
Now, George Zimmerman wasn't a police officer, but the incident seemed to be - it embodied a nightmare scenario for so many parents. You know, their kid could be out and deemed suspicious and put in serious danger because of it. So The Talk comes in a bunch of iterations. You know, don't make any sudden moves, make sure you address the officers politely, make sure your hands are visible. And the basic idea is that people need to be ready to de-escalate an encounter with the police or anyone who might see you as suspicious.
MONTAGNE: Well, now that they're thinking about The Talk, what are some of the things parents of color also said that they will be telling their children?
DEMBY: The responses are really, really intense. One father said he was just going to impose a much stricter curfew on his children, and many black parents said that they felt the verdict was a kind of referendum on their value in society. One woman tweeted at us: Sadly enough, I've always thought my son was born a suspect but this verdict is beyond ridiculous.
Some parents said they try to play it straight and they just explained what reasonable doubt meant and said that the justice system is complicated. Other parents said that they felt that justice had been done, that Zimmerman had acted in self-defense. And a few parents tweeted that, you know, they were just as unsure as their children were.
I mean, one woman said: My 17-year-old son was very surprised and I honestly had no idea what to say to him.
MONTAGNE: You just mentioned that some parents talked to their children about the trial itself and the criminal justice system, but the trial itself turned out to be so filled with, you know, two different versions of what happened that I'm wondering if parents finally settled on the idea that this just - it wasn't maybe the place to talk about these bigger issues.
DEMBY: Right. I mean, a lot of people looked at this trial as a referendum on these big social issues, but the trial was never going to resolve itself in a way that would necessarily move the needle on any of those things. Trials are really bad proxies for those big, big conversations. They don't build consensus and they don't often clarify big issues.
MONTAGNE: There was a lot of talk and some preparation, especially in Sanford, Florida for trouble - actual, physical violence - in response to the verdict. Nothing like that happened. Did you think social media played into that particular result?
DEMBY: That was actually one of the questions we were wondering; if Twitter had become the site, the new way that people kind of have catharsis around big moments. But the idea that there would be trouble is fraught with all kinds of racial connotations. And a lot of people felt that, you know, there was a lot of unfair and unjust speculation about how people will respond.
MONTAGNE: Gene, you've been following this all along and thank you very much for this conversation.
DEMBY: Thank you so much, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Gene Demby is the lead blogger for NPR's Code Switch, which covers race, ethnicity and culture. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.